The hypothetical 3 a.m. phone call, used by Hillary Clinton in a campaign commercial, strongly suggests a foreign policy crisis in "a dangerous world." Lord knows there could be such a thing. But just last week, the Pew Center on the States issued a report on incarceration rates -- high for the nation as a whole, but astoundingly high for young black males -- which was its own sort of wake-up call. Yet, virtually predictably, as a news story it had the briefest of shelf lives. On to Prince Harry and his merry adventures in Afghanistan.
But those incarceration figures represent an enormous challenge to the next president. It is a challenge Barack Obama, for obvious reasons, is uniquely qualified to meet. This is not just because he can be a role model for young black males, who as a group are in a perilous state. It is because he sees himself playing exactly that role.
"I can say certain truths that might be more difficult for other candidates to say," he said in 2007. "I've talked about the need for more responsibility among black fathers. I've talked about the need for parents to do more to instill a sense of educational achievement in black kids."
Too many young black men are in trouble. But that's just part of the problem. More than half of the nation's annual homicides -- about 15,000 -- are committed by black men. Not only is a black man much more likely to commit a homicide, but he is much more likely to die in one. And the murderer is likely -- almost certainly, in fact -- to be another black man.
If you stipulate, as I am willing to do, that some black men have been jailed unfairly and some because of the disproportionate penalties regarding crack cocaine (as opposed to powdered cocaine), that still leaves a lot of criminals. And where there are criminals, there are victims -- and blighted neighborhoods, and unruly schools and sections of town you, dear reader, will avoid regardless of your race, religion or national origin. The costs of this phenomenon -- social, human and economic -- are beyond calculation.
It is a subtle but pernicious form of racism to turn one's back on this problem and not face what is happening to young black men -- and even to young black women. It is a subtle but pernicious form of racism not to recognize that a kind of cultural malignancy has taken root in parts of the black underclass -- not, by any means, in black America in general. It takes a cold indifference not to notice that lives are being wasted and that, really, the only difference between the perp and his victim is timing. Soon the former will be the latter. Count on it.
Of course, electing a black president is not going to be a panacea. Among other things, something has to be done to reform the nation's schools as well. It's just plain ridiculous that teachers get paid the same for teaching in "good" schools as in "bad" ones. It's just as ridiculous that the nation has about 15,000 independent school boards, 50 state systems, and in some cases standards so low that the winner of the Westminster Kennel Club show could graduate.
These, though, are political facts of life. Democrats won't buck the teachers unions, and Republicans believe in local control of the schools -- and everyone, of course, says nothing is more important than the kids.
Hillary Clinton has a point. This is a dangerous world. But all sorts of creeping crises are coming at our backs. High -- very high -- on that list has to be what has happened to poor and underclass black males. As a segment of society, they have proved impervious to progress -- whether it is the abatement of racism (Obama's success so far cannot be ignored) or the enlargement of opportunity through affirmative action and other programs that have made college available to everyone.
Clearly, something new has to be tried. When that White House phone rings, for this most urgent among other reasons, it is Obama who should say "hello."
RICHARD COHEN is a Washington Post columnist