America's Problem With Black Men and Boys

Employers must see themselves as part of the educational system and hire, train, and develop men of color.

President Barack Obama recently announced his administration's response to America's engagement problem with young men of color. Partnering foundations have pledged to raise $200 million for the "My Brother's Keeper" initiative. The funds will be used over the next five years to seek and seed programs and practices that improve outcomes for boys and young men of color. I, like many advocates, welcome this commitment.

But let's remember, there are too many nefarious ways to demonstrate "improvement." In addition, improvement must be had at institutional and policy levels to have widespread impact. Moreover, America must eventually face black men and as a consequence our deepest fears.

Black males aren't 22 million individual problems to be solved. Obama properly framed the problem as an American or institutional one. All communities must succeed "so America can reach its full potential." All Americans and future citizens are inextricably linked. Consequently, a spotlight must be placed on institutional transformation to reach multiple communities simultaneously. America needs sea change among those institutions that can strongly influence individual outcomes.

But the dominant way governmental and non-governmental agencies determine what is promising is by evaluating achievement among individuals who are served by a particular program or school. Every city can claim programmatic success, but direct services seldom go upstream and address deeper causes. My Brother's Keeper is admission that our prior programmatic efforts aren't wide or deep enough.

Obama evoked Trayvon Martin's name at the My Brother's Keeper announcement at the White House. Martin died by the actions of a man. However, he also died because of reckless and inherently biased policy. Stand your ground, stop-n-frisk, shop-n-frisk, driving while black, three strikes, and other policies must change if we are to see black males succeed as individuals.

It's almost insulting to remind ourselves that ethnicity and race don't predict employment, incarceration, or educational levels; one's life chances are relative to particular social milieus. People don't come into a world broken; institutions are in need of repair.

But the discourse on America's problem constantly misplaces the responsibility of improvement on black males themselves. The numbers reek of systemic oppression. Although they make up approximately one quarter of the U.S. population, together, in 2008, African American and Hispanics comprised 58 percent of all prisoners. The black unemployment rate is historically twice that of whites. From higher education, to healthcare, to manufacturing, racial gaps can't all be explained through individual character traits.

The passive assumption that institutions aren't impetuses of community members' quality of life is as insidious as it is illogical. For instance, schools don't improve communities. Communities improve schools through policy. Communities also harm schools and their students with policy. Black and Latino male educational outcomes largely reflect our deeper social and economic investments and expectations of these particular groups.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration was right in spotlighting the inimical practice of suspension and expulsion. Many districts and schools that receive effusive praise for "closing the gap' do so by placing kids in those street classrooms that are even more efficient at disposing black life. My Brother's Keepers must evaluate institutions' ability to recruit, retain, and transform black males. Academic achievement tells such a small part of schools' treatment of black men and boys.

In addition, America is not going to "non-profit" its way towards black male progress. In every major city, one can find non-profits, mentoring programs, teachers, and juvenile justice advocates who are doing their share. However, ask the local hospital, bank, and municipal entity about their minority hiring practices. Then you can clearly see where the lack of engagement, innovation, and heart truly is. America's engagement problem is systemic and personal. Change will occur because the nation got institutional as much as it got personal.

Their are reasons why our institutions (with the exception of the criminal justice system) don't get close enough to embrace black and brown men and boys. To a man, we're scared. The state of black men and boys contribute to a historic fear. Our fears, both real and immaterial, facilitate a hands-free ethic of care. Even the best of us essentially drop in from our collective ivory towers only to helicopter out with deliberate speed. We never become a part of black males' social milieus. Those who want to help have become what I often refer to as arms-length advocates. In the Twitter world, we call these folks slacktivists.

Arms-length advocacy can't replace the strong hugs our children and men actually need. We can't let fear or disengagement deny ourselves opportunities to prevent growth among the institutions we belong to. Middle class institutions must engage in ways to drive out those fears. Family members, neighbors, and friends must display the courage and love to take the gun away, report the crime and redirect the anger. Employers must see themselves as part of the educational system and hire, train, and develop men of color. If those who are not expected to save a son took every opportunity to act, the ongoing professional work could gain traction.

I have no doubt black males can reach our potentials. I do question my neighbors' commitment and ability to see that we are in this together. "No excuses" language should be applied to the country's bedrock institutions and to everyone's efforts to engage with men and boys of color.

Andre Perry (@andreperryedu), founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.

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