By Kirsten A. Conover, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
GLANCING out the window of his office here at Duke University, C. Eric Lincoln leans back in his chair and takes a deep breath before responding to a hovering question: Why are black youths at risk?
"The reasons are many," says the professor of religion and culture, one of the premier scholars of the black experience in America. "We can begin by noting the high risk that black youth run of unemployment," 50 to 60 percent nationwide, he says: "This, in turn, has its own accompanying fallout of problems."
In the course of an hour, he takes this reporter on a mind journey through a weave of economic, social, political, and historical threads of the African-American experience, a subject he knows through and through. To describe his lengthy resume as impressive would be an understatement - honorary degrees, awards, articles, lectures, speeches. Dr. Lincoln has authored numerous books, including a collection of his poems and a novel. He has written on civil rights, religion, the arts. His most recent work, "The Black Church in the African American Experience" (Duke University Press), co-authored by Lawrence H. Mamiya, is an in-depth statistical survey and analysis of the black church in America.
"You don't often hear of C. Eric, the man; you hear about C. Eric, the myth," says Dr. Alton Pollard, assistant professor of religion at Wake Forest University. He studied under Lincoln. "It's when you come in contact with the man that you know he's really human, fully human, and his human-ness spills into the lives of others."
THE plight of black youth, primarily black males, has become a high-concentration concern for Lincoln, a United Methodist minister. It is a subject that weighs heavily on his work and outlook of the present and the future of the black community in the United States.
Black youth are an "endangered species," he says, noting that although that phrase has become trite, the statistics support it. Those statistics are accelerating in a very negative way, he says. "Black youth are not only an endangered species but, statistically speaking, the whole successor generation is at risk."
Sorting out some hows and whys from a whirlwind of causes and effects, Lincoln speaks in a commanding, speechlike manner:
"We live in a society where success, self-fulfillment are largely measured in terms of levels of consumption, where the successful person - which may be read as the 'valued' person - is the one who has been able to amass all those little indices of success ... clothes, cars, houses, jewelry, liquor, whatever."
But when a whole community is, in Lincoln's view, "locked out of the socially approved process" for acquiring status and appreciation in society, members of that community develop alternative means toward the same end.
The problem begins early with alienation, Lincoln says, and because of this alienation, the black youth finds himself as a member of a counter culture.
"Because of the fact that blacks are so often excluded from ... the race for success, self-validation, self-fulfillment, they find themselves developing alternative routes and this, in turn, leads to criminalization," Lincoln says.
He continues: "So then we come up with some horror statistics, one being that at least a quarter of all black male youth will be criminalized before they reach 30. This means, in effect, that we may as well wipe out a quarter of the black male population for all intents and purposes, because once you are criminalized by the system it is very, very, very difficult to be forgiven or to be rehabilitated and to be readmitted. I shouldn't have said 'readmitted, he corrects himself, "because they were never admitted in the first place. …