Watching television with my two young sons recently, I realized how different their impressions of black men might be from my own experience some 30 years earlier. Yes, we were still far-too-often portrayed as criminals, and athletes and other entertainers remained the predominant image of success. But as the news coverage showed our current president and later another African-American man who has exceeded expectations in his own bid to lead our nation, it provided a powerful visual counterpoint to these stereotyped perceptions.
For this, I was grateful.
Lost in all of the political commentary on the legacy of President Barack Obama’s tenure or the legitimacy of Dr. Ben Carson’s run to replace him is an unmistakable similarity: Advanced education laid the foundation for both men to ascend into national prominence. As such, Obama and Carson are famous black men who occupy a rare space in American life.
For most of the past century, athletes have been the most visible image of achievement among African-American men. Today, three-quarters of NBA players and two-thirds of NFL players are black. Our images as professional athletes have become so pervasive that most people of all races are surprised to know there are about the same number of black men in medical school as there are in the NFL and NBA combined. In 2014, there were 2,289 black players in the NBA and NFL and 2,147 black men enrolled in medical school.
But those numbers are actually troubling. In contrast to our dominance in sports, African-American men make up less than 5 percent of all males enrolled in medical school. A recent report from the Association of American Medical Colleges highlights that there actually was a slight decline in the number of black men applying to and enrolling in medical school from 1978 to 2014, a finding unique among all demographic groups. The numbers of black men in law, business, academia and engineering are also disproportionately low.
The AAMC report describes some of the persistent barriers: underperforming K-12 education, lack of positive role models, negative or limiting public perceptions of African-American men. For decades, any listing of prominent African-American men would almost exclusively contain athletes and other entertainers.
These perceptions all too often become reality. I grew up in the 1980s in a working-class black neighborhood near Washington where sports and entertainment framed our dreams. I can’t remember anyone aspiring to become an astronaut or engineer or a senator or governor. Many of us did play competitive sports in high school, and a handful made it to the college level (me included). But only one went to the pros; the rest had to face the reality of finding regular jobs. Some had serious struggles with this transition. While we encouraged one another to practice our jump shots and perfect the art of throwing and catching a football, spending more time on the education road would have surely been a better strategy.
Let’s be honest, though. Becoming Barack Obama or Ben Carson is just as unlikely as becoming Michael Jordan or LeBron James. The difference is the process and where you’ll land if you fall short of their status. While going to law school (like Obama) or medical school (like Carson) isn’t likely to land you anywhere near the White House, it can lead to a very comfortable life. The average annual salary for a physician, which can be earned for 30 or 40 years, is over $200,000.
Putting all of one’s efforts into sports has enabled the exceptional few to become rich while leaving the majority with resumés ill-suited to economic success. The best sports-related options for those who don’t become professional athletes (sports agent, front office executive, sportswriter or coach) usually require a college degree. Unlike our dominance on the field or court, African-American men – unless they are well-known former players – are far less likely to wind up in these ancillary positions.
It’s unfortunate that Obama and Carson are so polarizing – politics has a way of glamorizing and denigrating people all at once. The shortcomings in how they are perceived underscore the need for more black men to reach the highest levels of achievement in other fields – whether it is in science, communications or business/technology. In the meantime, let’s take a step back to acknowledge the important example that Obama and Carson offer to young black men.
And while recent racial tensions at Duke, UNC and other colleges across America illuminate some of the challenges that black students can face in academic settings, education remains our best path toward long-term success. That’s a message that my sons, and every other young black male, can’t hear too much.
Damon Tweedy, M.D., is and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University and author of “Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine.”