Leroy Keith, president of Morehouse College, last night urged positive action to improve the "tragic situation" of the Black male in American society.
Keith, a former professor and dean at Dartmouth College, contrasted the achievement level of students at Morehouse, which is the nation's only Black male college, to the "backdrop of near desperation" of most Black American youth.
"I don't want to say the situation is becoming insurmountable, but it may be coming close," said Keith, citing a recent study indicating that one in four Black males commits a criminal act. He also pointed to high homicide rates for Black males in American cities and the disproportionately high number of Black males in the correctional system.
Keith said that the American correctional system, which often places whites in supervisory positions over predominantly Black prison populations, is "almost like South Africa."
"You cannot separate what is happening to Black males from what is happening to Black females, to Black family life, to what will happen to the country," Keith said.
Keith said that among the main factors affecting Black males today are "a welfare system that perpetuates poverty" and a lack of male role models, as the number of households headed by Black women alone increases. Keith also lamented the lure of easy money that drug dealing holds out to many inner-city youths.
"The value structure has broken down," Keith said, "It's not a Black problem, it's a problem that faces society, and that's not going to go away."
Keith said he perceives corporate America as becoming increasingly aware of the existence of "a burgeoning underclass" and of the possibility of the American economy suffering as a result of an undertrained, uneducated workforce.
"For so long our government has been sweeping [the issue] under the rug and corporate America has been sweeping it under the rug," Keith said. "Now they're looking under the rug to see how bad it is."
One move by corporate America towards investigating the problem has been made by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, which have funded the Morehouse Research Institute. The Institute, which Keith hailed as a definite step in the right direction, will have its first national conference in March.
Keith also talked about the declining number of Black men going on to college, saying that "access and choice" should be the hallmarks of American higher education. "There should be a diversity of institutions," he said. "If we didn't have the Black institutions today we would have to invent them."
Keith said he believes that America needs to institute social programs like Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society" programs, only "better stuctured and with wider authority."
"We need to marshal our resources," he said. "There are no quick fixes."
Keith's speech, which was attended by approximately 40 people, marked the end of a series of speeches and cultural events for Black History Month at Harvard. Officers of Harvard's Black Students' Association say they planned a particularly extensive celebration this year to fill a gap left by what they call the University's failure to meet the needs of the Black community.
Morehouse, located in Atlanta, Ga., has 2600 students.