Jim "Doc" Nichols is a teacher in a GED rogram at Goodwill Industries, but he also serves as a surrogate grandfather to many of his students. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

Jim “Doc” Nichols is a tall, pencil-thin man who wears a checkered red, green and black hat. He paces as he teaches his GED class. This late fall afternoon, he is preparing his class for a grammar test. He walks his students through each question. One of his habits is to hold worksheets in front of his mouth as he talks.

From behind the papers comes a booming voice. “The beautiful monarch butterfly flew across the pond. Which one is the adjective?” he asks.

The six students have their legs stretched in front of them. The Goodwill Industries’ youth employment program is one of a few in the city targeted at young black men, the group least likely to get jobs. None of Nichols’ students have completed high school. Many are fathers and have criminal backgrounds.

Most of them still have their thin, youthful physiques and faces. They wear large clothes that swallow them but aren’t flashy—hooded sweatshirts and white t-shirts with jeans. Most wear one or two square diamond earrings.

On this afternoon, one of their parole officers, with a bulletproof vest over his shirt, observes part of the class. His presence makes the young men noticeably uneasy.

The conference room where they meet has some homey touches—something the program directors say is important. In the corner, there’s a colorful children’s kitchen set and a pile of toys. On the wall, a poster shows about 20 African slaves with a statement about how strength is found in the people who must struggle the most against adversity.

Most of the students eat chips and drink Hawaiian Punch out of cans. Yet they pay attention to Nichols.

“Which one is the adjective?” he asks again.

“‘Pond,'” one student offers.

“No. An adjective—what is an adjective? Which one is an adjective?”

“‘Butterfly’?” another asks, more tentatively.

“No,” Nichols says.

“The adjective is ‘beautiful,’ dog,” says Tyrone Canada, a thin 21-year-old with narrow eyes and long hair in a single braid.

“Yes!” Nichols responds as if he has won the lottery. He tells the men that one of his hobbies is taking pictures of butterflies, and that he has a membership to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park where a 28-foot-tall greenhouse is kept full of them. “I am going to take you there one day,” he says. A few of the young men offer a half smile. Later, they say they like Nichols because he is patient and caring, spending time to take them places and asks them how their days are going.

One of the key components of the Goodwill program is helping the participants get their GEDs. But Nichols and Malcolm Jackson, the program coordinator, stress that much of what they do is fortify these young men as they go out into what will be, for them, a harsh labor market. They try to create a warm environment by always having food on the table, offering a lot of praise and sticking with the guys even when they make mistakes. They also have long group-style discussions where they talk about everything from being black men in America, to raising children, to avoiding getting in trouble with the law.

Before getting jobs, and even once they have them, Nichols says, the young men will have to cope with ingrained biases that see them as lazy and violent.

“These are marginalized people,” says Nichols, a 68-year-old African American.

The program’s leaders are not alone in realizing that young black men have particular problems, some societal and some internal, in trying to get and keep jobs. Jobs for Youth/Chicago, Chicago’s largest job placement program for young people, has started a support group for young men.

During the last three years, nine agencies received federal dollars earmarked for young ex-offenders looking for work, and 67 percent of their clients were men. But that funding ended in late 2004. Agencies that don’t have specialized services for young men often have trouble attracting them; women make up 60 percent of teens in youth employment programs.

Nationally, over the past 25 years, black men between the ages of 18 and 24 have seen big drops in employment; they now lag 30 percentage points behind men of other races. At the same time, low-income black women, some pushed into the labor market by welfare reform, have seen their prospects rise.

This trend is apparent in Chicago, especially for those out of school with no more than high school diplomas. Thirty-one percent of the young black men who fit this profile were employed, according to the 2000 census. The rest were either unemployed, serving in the military or out of the labor force altogether—which includes people who have stopped looking for jobs. That same year, 33 percent of black women with the same educational background were employed, as were 74 percent of white men.

Experts have offered a variety of reasons why young black men have been left behind.

For one, they have high dropout rates. About 22 percent of the city’s black men between the ages of 16 and 24 are not in school and do not have high school diplomas, according to a study by Boston’s Northeastern University. But, while Latino men have higher dropout rates, they are more likely to have jobs, the data show.

Thirty years ago, young men could get industrial and manufacturing jobs and make enough to raise a family. The few such jobs that still exist mostly go to Latinos, says Bill Leavy, director of the Greater West Town Project, which offers a training program in manufacturing, shipping and receiving. Leavy has been running employment programs in Chicago for more than 25 years.

The way it goes is that “blacks aren’t hired, and Latinos aren’t paid,” he says. This is the result of stereotypes that paint Latino men as hardworking—but easily exploited—immigrants, and black men as lackadaisical, he says.

Andrew Sum, director at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Boston’s Northeastern, agrees, adding that immigrants are the only group that has seen gains in employment during the recession. And those willing to hire black men often pick older ones who seem less threatening and more stable, he says.

Retail and service sector jobs are all that are left in many neighborhoods. Sheryl Holmes, chief executive officer for Community Assistance Programs, which runs a youth employment program in the South Side’s Englewood neighborhood, says stores and restaurants are more open to hiring women than men. “I find that employers are afraid of the young men,” she says. “They don’t have much experience with them and they just listen to what they hear on the television and they become afraid. There is stiff competition out there for jobs, and the employers figure, ‘Why bother?'”

Paris Craig, who attends a GED class at Jobs for Youth/Chicago, believes he has experienced discrimination in his job search. He filled out 18 applications and has gotten no calls back. And, recently, he says, a “young lady” friend of his went into a sandwich restaurant and asked if they were hiring. The manager told her yes and gave her an application.

A few hours later, he says, he went into the same restaurant and asked for an application, but was told they weren’t hiring. Craig says he doesn’t know why he was turned away, but guesses it had something to do with the fact that he is a black man. He also wonders if his hairstyle is to blame. Craig has dark chocolate-colored skin and about a dozen thin braids in rows against his scalp.

Not hiring him because of that, he says, is ridiculous. “I have never been locked up. I don’t deal drugs or gangbang,” he says. “If you get to know me, I am not the stereotypical black male. In fact, I am scared of the drug dealers and gang bangers—same as you.”

In studies, employers admit that they believe black men fit a negative profile, says Kirk E. Harris, senior vice president of the Chicago-based Family Support America, a national information clearinghouse. In addition to this enduring racism, young black men often have to deal with employers who say that “soft skills,” such as how an applicant presents himself, are more important than ever, says Harris. One of his specialties is fatherhood programs. “What they are saying is that how you look and how you talk really matter in whether you get the job,” he says. “For young black men, this means that they must be multicultural. They have to know the latest rap artist in order to get along with their friends and they need to know how to operate in this other world of work.”

Harris adds that braids are so off-putting to employers that, in order to land a job, Craig and other young men must cut them. It shouldn’t be that way, he says. “The only thing an employer should be looking at is the young man’s skills. But we just live in this society. We don’t make the rules of engagement.”

The prejudice against young black men is compounded by the fact that many have criminal backgrounds. In 2000, a third of those released from Illinois prisons were between the ages of 17 and 24, and they were more likely than other parolees to return to prison within three years, according to a Chicago Reporter analysis of Illinois Department of Corrections data. About 60 percent of those in state prisons are black. Many studies have documented that it is harder for ex-offenders to get jobs than those without criminal records.

Canada, of the Goodwill program, spent a year in prison for firing a gun while he belonged to a gang. Since he was released in June, he has been applying for jobs and says he will take whatever he can get. His girlfriend gave birth to a daughter while he was in prison and is pregnant with his second child. Canada says he feels pressure to support his family, but his conviction seems to be the excuse employers need to turn him away. “I don’t feel like I get a fair shake,” he says.

An additional stumbling block for some young men, experts say, is that they worry that child support will eat up all their money once they start work.

The 1996 Welfare Reform Act mandated that states more aggressively identify fathers to recover some of the benefits given to mothers and children.

Some experts say this increased enforcement could play a role in the lack of vigor some men bring to their job searches.

But a small number of young men in Illinois actually have child support orders against them. In Cook County, 2,789 residents between 16 and 24 have such orders, according to the Illinois Department of Public Aid. About 30 percent are connected to welfare cases.

Thomas Cauley was sent to the Goodwill program by the child support court. A thick man with wrinkles across his forehead that make him look like he could be in his 40s, he is 23 and has three children. He says he has some concern about child support taking all his earnings, but he still wants a job. He already owes more than $1,000 and doesn’t want his bill to get any bigger. Being completely dependent on his family for money wears on his self-esteem.

One day after class, Nichols starts talking about the emotional toll joblessness takes on the young men. They often talk tough and are full of bravado.

But Nichols says the young men aren’t as confident as they seem. His job is to build them up—a difficult task considering all that is trying to tear them down. He also tries to get them to believe in their dreams again. “They do have aspirations—we all do,” he says. “But so many things stand in their way. My job is to diminish that, to show them they can do anything. I have to love them unconditionally.”

is an associate editor for our sister publication, Catalyst Chicago.