More black men in this country are in jail than in higher education, signifying a critical problem, a panelist at a Saturday discussion at Augusta State University said.
"That is a crisis that's taking place, and we're doing very little in terms of our public discussion about it," said Talmadge Guy, a professor of education at the University of Georgia.
The discussion, which focused on black men's absence from higher education, was held as part of Black History Month.
According to a recent report by the American Council on Education, only a quarter of all black men between the ages of 18 and 24 attended college in 2000. Of those enrolled , only 35 percent graduated within six years.
Mr. Guy said the problem often begins as young as 9, when black boys are more likely to be placed in classes for mentally retarded children, even when they are of average intelligence.
Even if they do excel, black boys tend to be placed in vocational or general education courses in high school, instead of college preparatory classes, he said.
Panelist Joseph Randall, co-coordinator of minority advising at Bainbridge College and co-founder of the Georgia Fatherhood Program, said he was diagnosed with retardation at an early age because he was deaf in one ear.
"Once you're labeled that way, it's very hard to come back from that," he said.
Another factor Mr. Randall mentioned is that black males devalue education, believing that if they study, they will be considered nerds.
Panelist Samuel Sullivan, the vice president of academic affairs at ASU, said black women do not have this problem because they tend to be more goal-oriented and have more positive role models.
"A lot of young males have just given up on the idea that education will get you somewhere. They mentally check out after eighth or ninth grade and become involved in activities in the street," Mr. Guy said.
The panelists also said the change in the nature of black families has been a major factor. Now about 70 percent of black families are headed by single women who live in poverty, which has proved to be detrimental to the children's success.
"These children are facing a crisis at home and in school," Mr. Guy said. "It's like a cycle feeding into itself."
He suggested making teachers more culturally competent and expanding services in the community for children so schools, families and communities become involved in the solution.
Reach Dena Levitz at (706) 823-3339