Editor’s note: In this column, the author notes that the gender gap among African-American college students is growing at a dangerous rate. He traces the problem to boys being socialized to be tough, regarding education with contempt and suspicion.

WASHINGTON — Back in college, my friend Sidney and I used to liken lunchtime to visiting one of those popular ice cream parlors that boasted an expansive menu.

As black men on our predominantly white Midwestern campus who weren’t there on athletic scholarships, we recognized that we were part of a fairly exceptional group. We didn’t consult the statistics that would have confirmed this — we got confirmation every time we entered the cafeteria on the ground floor of our dorm.

We’d pause at the door and survey the several tables crammed with young black women. In our popular and vaguely disrespectful parlance, we marveled at the variety of “flavors” available for dining companionship. Short, tall, plump, skinny, dark, light — you name it and there they were, an endless array of pulchritude occasionally interrupted by a black man or two.

With the numbers so much to our advantage, our general lack of maturity seldom hindered our chances of finding willing partners. I was even lucky enough to marry one of those women. As obsessed as we were with the bountiful beauty before us, my male friends and I seldom, if ever, paused to consider such weighty issues as gender gaps and educational imbalances between the sexes. That was 20 years ago, but I understand that, in some respects, the cafeteria in my old dorm probably looks similar today.

I get that impression from a new report issued last week by the American Council on Education (ACE). According to the report, the apparent gender imbalance among African-Americans at my college was simply a hint of things to come. It found that, while significant gender gaps favoring women did not develop within each racial/ethnic group until the mid- to late-1990s, it is now an established fact of academic life.

Among traditional-age students (age 24 or younger), males have dropped from 48% of total enrollment in 1995-96 to 45% in 2003-04. A clear female majority has emerged among whites, Hispanics and blacks. Only Asian women have parity with Asian men.

“Women are making gains in college participation and degree attainment, but their gains have not come at the expense of men,” Jacqueline E. King, author of the study, said. That much is clear regarding black men, whose share of enrollment actually rose from 37% in 1995-96 to 40% in 2003-04.

Still, the gap is largest between black men and women. Black men and other male racial minorities earned 9% of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2003-04, up from 5% in 1976-77. That’s still a paltry percentage, however, and lags way behind that of women of color, who tripled the number of bachelor’s degrees they earned during the same period, from 5% to 15%.

I don’t mean to disparage the black men who are attending college and doing their best to make their way in the world. Progress is progress, however slowly it is achieved. Yet it is painful to look at the numbers and wonder where the disparity will end.

Its beginnings are often obvious enough. Try the primary grades, when boys in communities like mine are socialized to be tough, and interest in school is regarded with contempt and suspicion. That viewpoint is deeply entrenched by fifth grade. At the all-black school in which my daughter was enrolled last fall, most of the boys came to school with anything but learning on their minds. They were violent, lazy and disrespectful and clearly regarded girls as playthings to be harassed and terrorized, the way a cat toys with a mouse. We’re talking about 10-year-olds, mind you.

The boys in my daughter’s class eventually became so disruptive that they were banished to an all-male class with a male teacher. But it was too little too late: We had already withdrawn our daughter and committed to a year of home schooling.

A lot can happen over the course of decades, but it’s hard to recall those boys and envision a future college student among them. My wife, in her customary fashion, has already expressed sympathy for the women who may someday encounter them as potential mates.

A lot already has happened where marriage and relationships are concerned. Interracial relationships are on the rise, and educated black women are increasingly exploring the other side of the cafeteria. It makes sense, as we’re all the same under the skin. The difference often comes down to a matter of degrees.

Jabari Asim’s e-mail address is asimj(at symbol)washpost.com.

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