We Must Educate All Our Young Men

America can't reclaim its standing as a global leader unless young men of color also get a shot at academic success.

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Since this nation was founded more than two centuries ago, there has been nearly constant tension between tradition and evolution. Yet over the years, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement, the forces of progress have haltingly advanced, and continue to do so today. After all, just 50 years ago businesses still hung signs that screamed, "For Whites Only," universities openly discriminated and the government struggled mightily to suppress the memory of "separate but equal."

There's no doubt that our country has come a long way. But few would argue that our progress is complete, and it continues to mask a deeper dysfunction of the status quo.

There is an education crisis facing young men of color. It's not on the front page of the newspaper. People aren't organizing on Facebook or Twitter. But it's out there, and if we fail to address this crisis together, the education level of the entire American work force will decline for the first time in our history.

President Obama has challenged our nation to reclaim its position as the world leader in college degrees, and young men of color are the key to achieving this goal. In the past, when a president called on us to act for the sake of our shared future, we responded. We built warplanes and rocket ships. We invested in science and the arts. We achieved prosperity unparalleled in human history.

Today, young men of color face a challenge that lends itself much more toward apathy than activism. Many young men of color are not pushed to their limits by rigorous coursework in high school. Many find themselves adrift at large universities without organized support systems. And some are forced to choose between personal obligations and academic responsibilities.

Unfortunately, too many young men of color never get their shot at success. Just 26 percent of African Americans, 18 percent of Hispanic Americans and 24 percent of Native Americans and Pacific Islanders have at least an associate degree. In fact, a recent report commissioned by the College Board found that one out of every two young men of color ages 15-24 who graduate from high school will end up unemployed, incarcerated or dead.

These aren't just sobering statistics. These are the stories of our friends and our neighbors, real people with devastating problems -- problems that cannot be solved through rugged individualism or unyielding hope alone.

W.E.B. Du Bois, the great scholar and thinker, said, "We cannot base the education of future citizens on the present inexcusable inequality of wealth nor on physical differences of race. We must seek not to make men carpenters but to make carpenters men." Booker T. Washington, another great champion of education, differed with Du Bois on many things, but on this crucial issue they were in agreement. He said, "You can't hold a man down without staying down with him."

Du Bois and Washington understood an essential truth about America: that as long as educational opportunities are limited for some of us, we all suffer. We rise as one nation and we fall as one nation. But if we keep working hard -- if we keep listening to one another and to our students -- we can soften our landings and reach historic new heights.

Gaston Caperton is the president of the College Board and a former two-term governor of West Virginia. Henry Louis Gates Jr., editor-in-chief of The Root, is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.