Mark Sherman is part of a growing bipartisan effort toward the establishment of a White House Council on Boys and Men.
In a recent op-ed piece titled “When Liberals Blew It,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof—himself an outspoken progressive, especially on women’s and girls’ issues worldwide—wrote of the anger among liberals generated by a report written for the Department of Labor by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965. In this report (which became famous), Moynihan stated that a major impediment to black advancement in America was the breakdown of the family. Kristof wrote, “He argued presciently and powerfully that the rise of single-parent households would make poverty more intractable.”
It’s that word “presciently” that stands out to me. If you are ahead of your time and you go against the prevailing view—which for liberals was that institutional racism alone was responsible for poverty in the black community—you are going to get hammered for it, as Moynihan was. But while no intelligent person could then or now deny the continuing effects of institutional racism, it’s hard to argue that widespread father absence is good for any subculture.
I write of this as an analogy to another situation—though a closely related one—the importance of which may finally be on the cusp of mainstream acceptance: It’s the fact that on most measures American boys and young men today are not doing as well as girls and young women. Actually, this is not just true in our country, but throughout the developed world.
This is not a problem that just started, nor is it one that no one noticed until this year. In 2000 Christina Hoff Sommers’ book, The War Against Boys, presented data showing undeniably that on many key measures of success boys were struggling much more than girls.
Sommers’ conservative politics probably stood in the way of greater acceptance of what she was saying. She had already alienated many feminists with her previous book (Who Stole Feminism: How Women Betray Women), and the subtitle of Boys (“How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men”) didn’t help. But the message is more important than the messenger, and the last 15 years have shown Sommers to be right about how boys were and are doing (even if her explanations were controversial and politically polarizing). And in those years, there have been flurries of media attention to the needs of boys and young men. Cover stories in magazines and books (including Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax and Why Boys Fail by Richard Whitmire) published in the ’00s, along with some national television stories, all talked about the problems boys were having.
But even today, with women still feeling quite justifiably that they have not reached anything near equity in workplace, boardroom, and government, the needs of males, of any age, have yet to fully penetrate popular consciousness.
One day last year at my local bakery, a great meeting spot in my very interesting and progressive college town, I was reading Hanna Rosin’s book The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. A feminist friend saw me reading it, and I said, “As the grandfather of (then) three boys, this book makes me concerned.”
She replied, “Well, when Congress is half women, then I’ll be concerned about boys.” A statement like this about children, any children, but especially those who need our help and encouragement, distresses me. Also, parents of daughters—and my friend has one daughter in her 20s—should be concerned about young males not keeping pace. Women typically prefer partners who are at least at their level of education and achievement, and with approximately 130 women enrolled in college for every 100 men, this creates a problem.
Five years ago I wrote that I couldn’t “see myself joining people with whom I disagree sharply on almost all other social issues, so I can’t see somehow becoming a conservative to help my sons, my grandsons, and young males across the country. But I can’t stand feeling so alone either; so all I can do is urge my fellow liberals to make this part of their agenda too. Maybe boys haven’t been the victims of laws and obvious -isms, but, as a group, they have been the victims of, at very least, neglect, and they need help from across the political spectrum.”
I am happy to say that this is finally happening. For several years now a bipartisan group, which includes experts in the area of boys’ issues and fatherhood—and many of these are women, some of whom strongly identify as feminists—has been pushing for a White House Council on Boys and Men, which would parallel the one that President Obama established for women and girls shortly after he took office in 2009. Lately, there is more in the media about the boys’ issue. And along with this, there are members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who are aware of the proposal to create a White House Council on Boys and Men and are ready to be supportive.
Some people feel that the problems of boys and young men are only significant in the minority community—and indeed the President has established My Brother’s Keeper, whose focus is these young males. There is no question that young males of color fare worse than any other group in our country, and thus I am a big supporter of the President’s action. But I have long believed that one of the reasons boys and young men of color have so mightily struggled is because the attention given to all girls and young women over the last 25 years has ignored them along with all the other boys.
Certainly this is not to say that girls and young women of color have had it easy. But whether you look at issues like homicides, incarceration rates, or less dramatic ones like school performance, young black women are doing better than young black males. For example, the ratio of enrollments in college for African-American women vs. men is two-to-one.
The fact is that the situation for young males transcends race and ethnicity. For the moment, at least, it is not politically popular to push for the needs of males of any age in our country. But there was nothing politically popular about what Pat Moynihan was saying in 1965 either.
Is institutional racism a problem? Absolutely. But quite possibly there is also a certain amount of institutional sexism—at least in schools and government—that favors girls over boys. And when race meets gender, then we have the situation of the young black American male, who on nearly every measure you can find, is at the lowest rung in America.
A rising tide lifts all boats. Women of color benefited from a women’s movement which did not exclude them, perhaps not as much as white women did, but more than black men did. A cover story in Newsweek way back in March 2003, was titled “From Schools to Jobs: Black Women Are Rising Much Faster Than Black Men. What It Means for Work, Family and Race Relations.” There is still a large gap today. A movement toward helping American boys and young men will help boys of color, especially if, as should be the case, they do get extra attention from such a movement.
Is there anything in this for today’s young women? Absolutely. A plethora of undereducated and underachieving young men will not make for a happy future for any of us. As Nicholas Kristof himself wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece in 2010, titled “The Boys Have Fallen Behind,” “At a time when men are still hugely overrepresented in Congress, on executive boards, and in the corridors of power, does it matter that boys are struggling in schools? Of course it does: our future depends on making the best use of human capital we can, whether it belongs to girls or boys.”
Originally published on Mark Sherman’s column: Real Men Don’t Write Blogs on Psychology Today blogs
Photo courtesy of author