Published for The Washington Post, December 13, 2012

A president’s first term is a fresh track in the snow. His second term moves on a set of rutted paths. The shiny cause has become a vast machine, its wheels spinning on internal impulses unrelated to presidential priorities or pressing needs.

As President Obama moves toward his fourth State of the Union address, he will be looking for policies that appeal to the country, but he will also try to rekindle the purpose of his administration. Inertia and intellectual exhaustion are fought with presidential initiatives.

One issue in particular cries out for attention while receiving almost none. Our politics moves from budget showdown to cultural conflict to trivial controversy while carefully avoiding the greatest single threat to the unity of America: the vast, increasing segregation of young, African American men and boys from the promise of their country.

America is in the process of managing, accommodating and containing a crisis that should be intolerable. More than 50 percent of young black men in inner cities are now dropping out of school — making high school graduation the exception to this dismal new rule. They consequently lag behind other groups in college attendance and graduation. Their rates of incarceration are disproportionately high and rates of workforce participation disproportionately low. “For virtually each outcome considered,” Harry Holzer of Georgetown University has written, “young black men now lag behind every other race and gender group” in the United States.

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