Opinion and Forefront

ODLE: Black males see American Dream fade

August 4, 2012

Samuel L. OdleThe political season is nearing full swing and inevitably taxes will take center stage. But no one is addressing the hidden tax we all pay—the growing number of prisoners, many of whom are African-American and male.

In the last 10 years, Indiana’s prison population has increased 47 percent, while New York’s declined 20 percent. Too much of Indiana’s increase is African-American males.

When you leave people out of the system, it leads to a sense of hopelessness. And hopelessness creates social problems, and people start behaving in ways that aren’t acceptable.

A major reason for the growing prison population is joblessness. Among African-American males ages 20-54, the unemployment rate is 24 percent, an all-time high.

Those of us who are relatively comfortable may not realize that for 40 years the American Dream has become increasingly out of reach, especially for African-American males.

The divide between rich and poor is becoming pronounced and, while it’s not hard to hide the disparities, many certainly find it easy enough to ignore. Childhood poverty is on the increase, real wages are declining, bankruptcies are increasing, and the home foreclosure rate—while lessening—is still too high.

I have not heard the subject addressed by any of the candidates running for governor or for the Senate. The most important thing we can do is challenge politicians and ask how they will reinvigorate the American Dream for everyone.

If politicians can’t develop and implement ideas and policies that help rich and poor, black and white alike, then we need to look further. We need politicians that can work with business leaders and the local community to orchestrate change. When we work collectively, we make the greatest strides.

In the 1980s, I was a member of the Indianapolis Private Industry Council board, and we made aggressive efforts to reach out to African-Americans through community centers, the Urban League, NAACP and public schools. Local, state and federal government, along with private businesses, worked to link African-American males to jobs. Some programs targeted summer employment for teens, teaching them the connection between education and work, as well as long-term career success.

Other programs targeted African-American men at risk for long-term unemployment if there was no overt action to break the cycle.

In the 1980s, politicians and business leaders operated from a philosophy of abundance. America had plenty to go around, financially and emotionally; we just needed to apportion the resources to the right place so all could have a shot at the Dream.

Fast forward to 2012. The voices of abundance and confidence that speak to the American Dream are silent. Where’s the lemonade, the picket fence, the meaningful job? Where is the safe home, good health and life surrounded by family, friends and faith?

We hear only the echoes of scarcity.

What happened to that generosity of the 1980s? As the country has found itself shifting toward more conservative politics, we have de-emphasized the role the government plays in solving real problems. We have prevented ourselves from having the resources to reach out and lift one another. We hoard our resources under the mantra of No New Taxes.

Maldistribution of wealth and a hoarding of support creates social problems including unemployment and incarceration.

I want to hear a politician talk about creative ideas to allocate our resources and get African-American males back to work—then I will know who has earned my vote. If they have ideas to solve this problem, then we can use the same creativity to solve it for the rest of America’s work force.

If we don’t solve this dilemma, we will watch America the Great slowly slip away, as we all continue to pay the hidden tax. If the American Dream is dying for African-American males, it is slowly dying for all of us.•

• Odle is the former chief operating officer of Indiana University Health and CEO of Methodist and University hospitals. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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