Merlene Davis: Minority educational crisis is a problem for us all

In recent weeks, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Newt Gingrich, both of whom are vying to be the next Republican presidential candidate, blamed President Barack Obama for the high unemployment rate in the African-American and Hispanic communities.

That gave me pause.

While there is extremely high unemployment in minority communities and especially for black, Latino and Native American men, blaming it on the Johnny-come-lately is disingenuous.

True enough, having more black men unemployed during this recession dramatically increases the gap between employment of black men and white men. But the difference has been significant for years.

A report released this week by the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center spreads the blame around a bit more. "The Educational Experience of Young Men of Color: A Review of Research, Pathways and Progress" concludes, "There is an educational crisis for young men of color in the United States."

The report looked at issues young men of color face, then examined which of six paths some of those young men, all students, took after high school.

What the authors found is that the country, and not just Obama, as Bachmann and Gingrich would have us believe, has failed these young men.

The failure lies with all of us for not correctly addressing a problem that can very well lead to this country's inability to compete globally.

That scenario is borne out in another recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau that said a majority of the babies born in this country are now minorities. If we as a nation don't address the problems of young minority men today, they will grow up to become adult minority men who by then will be a significant portion of our citizenry.

"The goal of ensuring the future global competitiveness of the United States cannot be met without the participation of all its citizens," the Census report authors wrote.

As of 2008, the latest data cited in the report, 41.6 percent of all 25- to 34-year-olds had earned an associate degree or higher. But the number was 30.3 percent for African-Americans and 19.8 percent for Hispanics. That's compared to 49 percent of white Americans and 70.7 percent of Asian-Americans. As bad as it sounds, it's even worse, as these numbers include men and women, and women are the majority of the graduates.

The College Board noted that for us to keep our competitive edge, 55 percent of our young people need to have associate's degrees at least.

To do that, the number of degree-holding minority men needs to increase.

"We must begin to matriculate and graduate populations of American students who traditionally have been underrepresented at the postsecondary level," the report said.

To do that, we need to focus more attention on the problems minorities face and offer more opportunities for them to defeat those issues. The results then will be far better than the ones we've seen in recent years.

The report suggested six ways for that to happen, and we in Kentucky already know that focusing on people — no matter their color — will work.

That's what happened with former University of Kentucky basketball player Josh Harrellson. Because he was needed, UK's coaches gave him more encouragement, which boosted his belief in his own abilities and gave him reason to try harder. The results were a successful season for fans and a viable professional career for Harrellson.

The lessons we learned with Harrellson apply to everyone who is not performing at their best.

This country needs its young males of color. What we do about that will affect us all.