The 97-year-old black empowerment organization, in its annual "State of Black America" report, called for universal early-childhood education, more second-chance programs for school dropouts and ex-offenders, and expanded use of all-male schools emphasizing mentoring and longer class hours.
"Empowering black men to reach their full potential is the most serious economic and civil rights challenge we face today," said Urban League President Marc H. Morial. "Ensuring their future is critical, not just for the African-American community, but for the prosperity, health and well-being of the entire American family."
According to the report, African-American men are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as white males while earning 74 percent as much per year. They are nearly seven times more likely to be incarcerated, with average jail sentences about 10 months longer than those of white men, the report said.
In addition, it said, black males between 15 and 34 are nine times more likely to be killed by firearms and nearly eight times as likely to suffer from AIDS.
"I could rattle off the names of African-American men who have overcome the odds and have risen to national prominence," Morial said. "But for all the Barack Obamas, Tony Dungys and Colin Powells out there ... there are many more black men who face very limited opportunities and diminished expectations."
"It's not enough to have role models to give them hope," he added. "We need a public commitment in the form of concrete policy strategies to help lift them out of their state of underachievement and put them on equal footing with white men in this nation."
Obama, the Illinois senator who is a top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, wrote the report's foreword.
"The crisis of the black male is our crisis," he wrote. "It is in our shared interest and in the interest of every American to stop ignoring these challenges and start finding the solutions that will work."
On several key measurements, the report found greater disparities between black and white men than between black and white women.
For example, it said unemployment for black men was 9.5 percent, compared to 4 percent for white men, while the jobless rate for black women was 8.5 percent, compared to 4.1 percent for white women.
In terms of annual median income, black men earned less than 75 percent of what white men did, $34,443 vs. $46,807. Black women made 87 percent of what white women made even though they earned $5,000 less than black men — $29,588 a year.
The report did highlight a few bright spots for blacks of both genders, for example in the improved readiness level of children entering elementary school.
However, the report cited a widening gap after elementary school as blacks begin to fall behind on standardized tests. In fourth grade, the report said, blacks perform at a level of 87 percent of whites; by the time they reach 12th grade, their scores are at 74 percent of whites.
By high school, blacks are more likely to drop out — 15 percent compared to 12 percent for whites. For black males, the percentage rises to 18 percent compared to 14 percent of white males, the report said.
In an essay accompanying the report, University of California, Berkeley, lecturer Christopher Knaus said the rising emphasis on standardized testing would not yield major improvements as long as heavily minority schools had the least experienced teachers and highest faculty turnover.
"The curricula in most public schools also fails to adequately engage black students," Knaus wrote. "Disinterested students who are labeled as problems or disruptive often become the victims of 'zero tolerance' policies. ... contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline, especially among black males."
The report suggested that all-male schools with a strong emphasis on mentoring could help keep black boys "focused on their education and away from distractions that could lead them down the wrong paths."
The Urban League also recommended increased federal support for a summer jobs program in cities nationwide, and stressed that any overall progress will need a boost from parents.
"They must continually talk to their children about how much better off they will be by graduating from high school and college," it said.
For more information visit the National Urban League Web site at www.nul.org.