Confronting the plight of young black and brown males

Black men today are more likely to receive a GED in prison than graduate from college. One in three black men, and one in six Latino men, are projected to go to prison in their lifetimes.  And African American and Latino young men experience homicide rates that are 16- and 5-fold that of their white counterparts.  

There’s new hope that Sacramento is responding to this crisis.  One year ago California Assemblymember Sandré Swanson created a special committee of legislators whose sole charge is to improve the life chances of these young men. The Select Committee on Boys and Men of Color spent the past year traveling the state hearing from black and brown men—adolescents, men who have “made it,” and others who’ve turned their lives around. On Wednesday the Committee will present their findings and practical solutions.   

For us, this issue is personal.  We each grew up in proud, hardworking families, but surrounded by poverty and desperation in our respective communities. Despite the many gains realized in advancement and civil rights for people of color in our nation, it is clear that a sizable swath of black and brown young men are seriously in danger of remaining dislocated from the promise of opportunity in America.

We understand now that successful, thriving young people aren’t born.  They’re nurtured. The check-list to grow up includes caring adults, safe places to play, good schools and real job opportunities.

Yet many young people in California live in communities with concentrated poverty, under-resourced schools and unsafe streets. They are more likely to experience poor health, suffer from unemployment and lead shorter lives. This is especially true of young men of color–African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans.

If you’re lucky enough to move to a neighborhood with a grocery store, safe parks and good schools, your health will improve.  In fact, tell us your zip code and we’ll tell you how long you’ll live. For example, residents in Marin County have among the highest life expectancy in the nation while residents of Imperial County have close to the lowest. Not every family can pack up and move. Nor should they. Instead, we must create opportunities for young people where they live – where health and success happens.

Why focus on young men? Teenage boys, regardless of race and ethnicity, are more likely than girls to take risks as they shape their masculinity and exert independence. However, the research shows that youthful mistakes made by young men of color are often judged more severely and result in harsher punishment – both in schools and courtrooms.

This year, we were surprised to learn that California suspends more than 400,000 students annually. The majority of infractions are not related to weapons or drugs.  The U.S. Department of Education found that young black men are suspended at disproportionately higher rates. Harsh school discipline is often the first step that pushes young men out of school and into the juvenile justice system, and eventually prison. Our state spends nearly five times more of its budget on inmates than K-12 students. We’ve got it backwards.

The good news is that efforts are taking shape to tackle the problem. School districts large and small, urban and rural, have recognized we need a new direction.  They’re showing teachers how to prevent problems before they start.  And when there is misbehavior, they’re holding students accountable and helping them learn from their mistakes—all while keeping them in school.   Students then stay on track for graduation, and a healthy  productive life.

And public private partnerships are launching to help boys and young men of color thrive. Last year, George Soros and Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a $127 million effort in New York to support young men of color. The California Community Foundation and The California  Endowment have joined a new statewide coalition—the  Alliance for Boys and Young Men of Color. The Alliance includes young people, community organizations, and officials in education, public health and law enforcement.

State legislators are already advancing policies that serve our young people. Bills promoting a return to common sense school discipline will see a final vote in the Senate in August.

We cannot stop here. We must scale up our investments in boys and young men of color, expanding innovative approaches and identifying new ones. If we don’t, we risk losing a generation of young people who can contribute greatly to our society. We’ll all pay a steep price for that. 

Policymakers have made smart choices before, helping California become a global leader in the 20th century. The time has come again to make tough decisions that will create a better future for all Californians.  The Committee’s recommendations should be the start.

Ed’s Note: Antonia Hernández is the President and CEO of the California Community Foundation and Dr. Robert Ross is President and CEO of The California Endowment.

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