Between 1986 and 2004, the black male incarceration rate has jumped 500 percent. A report published in Frontiers in Psychology in mid-November analyzed decades of data on the African-American population rates of incarceration and subsequent health issues. Though crime rates have declined over the past 20 years, over 38 percent of the prison population is comprised of black men. Subjected to a system designed to fail them, black men funneled into the prison system are deprived of access to education, health care, and a means to re-enter civil society, thoroughly rehabilitated, with a chance at survival.

The study, headed by Dr. William D. Richie, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Meharry Medical College, drew conclusions that pointed to effective treatment of substance abuse disorders and the transfer of funds away from prisons into education. By investing in education and effect systems of academic support and mental health care, the costs of incarceration to the U.S would decrease and the lives of African-American males, their families and the country would improve.

Author Becky Petit, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, further examined the role of racial inequality in the incarceration of black males in her book Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress released earlier this year.

Further investigation and research has brought about discovery and pin-point solutions for addressing action against the deprivation of black male progress. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund called fowl and pointed the finger of this issue in their publication Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline calling attention to academic policies that feed the pipeline:

“In the last decade, the punitive and overzealous tools and approaches of the modern criminal justice system have seeped into our schools, serving to remove children from mainstream educational environments and funnel them onto a one-way path toward prison. These various policies, collectively referred to as the School-to-Prison Pipeline, push children out of school and hasten their entry into the juvenile, and eventually the criminal, justice system, where prison is the end of the road. Historical inequities, such as segregated education, concentrated poverty, and racial disparities in law enforcement, all feed the pipeline. The School-to-Prison Pipeline is one of the most urgent challenges in education today.”

The academic system and racial inequality, however, are not the only variables destroying the progression of black men in America. The reflection of our values of a society has significantly shifted in a generation fueled by both economic depression and celebrity adoration. When young black boys would rather be the next Waka Flaka and not the next President Barack Obama, we have a critical problem on our hands that exists beyond a few bad teachers and discriminatory drug laws.

Rapper Kanye West, who’s first album The College Drop Out topped the charts as a middle finger to the education system, West was both revolutionary and destructive in shaping the new platform of success for the black male thus sparking the trend of dollars over books and fame over transcripts. West proved to his professors and to the world that with hard, work and dedication, success was imminent. However, he remains the exception to the rule, possessing an advantage in life not granted to many of the black males sitting behind bars today — a mother who was an educator and active participant in her son’s life. This fact separates West from many aspiring hoop and rap dream hopefuls often reared in low-income African-American households where parents often disassociate their involvement in their child’s education and depend solely on the school system for the responsibility of their child’s academic success.

Rapper Rockie Fresh eloquently explained the newly adopted mentality of his peers that dismisses the notion of education as the only means to success in his song “You a Lie”: “Ball while they in the bleachers, so high they can’t reach/ I dropped out of college and made more dough than my teachers/ Definition of swagging, all off of my passion/ One time for real niggas that’s out there making it happen.”

Big Sean, another young, black twenty-something millionaire rapper whose lyrics often glorify a fast lifestyle achieved without the need of stepping into a college campus, adds further clarification:

“Bitch I’m 23-years-old and I ain’t riding in a Prius/My cousin finished school/Can’t believe he graduated/ I threw him 20 thousand dollars/Told his ass congratulations/ Cause me, I wasn’t made for that shit/But I could prolly hire him and who all paid for his shit.” – Big Sean, from the song, “I Burn.”

Dreams of stardom, fancy cars, cribs, and access are easier to imagine compared to the uncertainty of an academic career in a struggling economy. When black students have the option to trade in a degree (mounted on top of 30 years of student loan repayments) for a record deal or a sports league contract, the latter makes much more sense.

The scientific answer to the black male incarceration issue may be addressed in funding academia and health care instead of the increasing prison system. With the influence of rappers and other influentials visible as “success stories” — bragging about living fast lives, drug dealer lifestyles, or leaving college to “get rich or die trying” — if this mentality becomes the norm, our black males will continue to suffer figuratively inside a system playing against them from every angle.

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