For young men of color: Finally some hope for change

For young men of color: Finally some hope for change

March 1st, 2014 in Opinion Times

Businessman and former NBA basketball player Earvin "Magic" Johnson, left, blows a kiss to a member in the audience as he arrives with television sportscaster Ahmad Rashad, right, for the "My Brother's Keeper initiative announcement.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

By the time black boys hit fourth grade, 86 percent of them, along with 82 percent of Hispanic boys, are reading below grade level. Comparatively, 54 percent of young white boys in the fourth grade read below proficiency.

Here's where that disparity leads:

• Black male students are four times more likely, and Hispanic students twice as likely, to be suspended from school than their white peers.

• Black and Hispanic young men are more than six times as likely to be victims of murder than their white peers. In fact, young black and Hispanic men account for almost half of the nation's murder victims each year.

• And together, blacks and Hispanics comprise about 58 percent of all prisoners, even though blacks and Hispanics make up only about one-quarter of the U.S. population.

"By almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century, in this country, are boys and young men of color," said President Barack Obama on Thursday as he introduced his "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, aimed at funding and implementing the best practices in and outside government to address the challenges faced by young minority men.

To read most news reports and listen to pundits in the aftermath of the president's announcement, you might think that America's first black president had just discovered this problem. Time.com called it "a headfirst dive into racial economic disparities for a president who has often avoided the issue."

What a typical, conservative, myopic view, and that view has this translation: Let's talk about the messenger but not the message or the issue prompting the message. Let's not talk about the root causes of our racial divide -- let's talk instead about the political wind.

Well, not here. Not on this page. Not today.

Already in this country, national groups have invested $150 million in private initiatives aimed at turning around the early education and social problems that so often derail young men -- especially young men of color. On Thursday, Obama announced that those groups have pledged to invest another $200 million over the next five years.

Obama also signed an order Thursday to establish the My Brother's Keeper Task Force, which will determine what works when it comes to addressing the challenges faced by young minority men. Foundations and research groups involved include the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Ford Foundation and The Kapor Center for Social Impact.

The "My Brother's Keeper" initiative began in the wake of the shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Obama tasked his staff with creating "a holistic, research-based approach to helping young minority boys succeed and avoid violence."

This effort, combined with recently announced looks by departments of Justice and Education into ways of stemming disparities in drug sentencing and school discipline all make up concrete beginnings toward action.

Closer to home, Chattanooga also has the beginning of real action -- rather than just more decades of hot air and police "saturation" arrest roundups.

The city, some months ago, made reading a priority in 17 youth and family development centers (formerly recreation centers) and has begun a 48-week mentorship initiative called the Chattanooga Ambassador Program for 25 young men and 25 young women. In coming weeks, the Chattanooga violence reduction initiative is also set to crank up, offering services and support to young people willing to turn away from crime.

There's much to do, nationally and locally. Our schools, jails, churches, moms and dads aren't getting it done.

It takes a village, and it's a bonus that our village now includes a president and a mayor.

It also should include each and all of us.

We don't have time to blow into the wind.