The poignant outburst from Baltimore single mother Toya Graham illustrate and resonate for many community leaders who understand the struggles facing young black men growing up in America’s inner cities. Graham was hailed by the press as “mom of the year” for hauling her son away from participating in the Baltimore riots (though the physical intensity of her response was questioned by some) following the tragic death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American man.
“That’s my only son and at the end of the day I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray,” Graham told CBS News.
Though scheduled well before Baltimore’s events, a discussion hosted on Wednesday by the American Enterprise Institute was particularly relevant to families like the Grahams.
Titled “Improving opportunity for black men: The role of economics, culture, and policy,” the important discussion was moderated by Robert Doar, former welfare administration for New York City under Rudy Giuliani. Overall the experts called for better collaboration between business and government to address these issues, along with policies to strengthen the family.
Orlando Patterson, professor at Harvard University and author of the new book The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth, disaggregated the various subcultures within inner cities, pointing out that there are many strong working-class residents within these areas and that African-Americans generally are religious, which instills community values for children as they grow. He estimated that perhaps 20 percent of residents introduce the extreme violence and pathologies that afflict many urban core areas.
While considerable focus has been on out of wedlock parenting, Patterson pointed out that Iceland and Sweden have higher unwed births than the United States, though they don’t suffer from what he called “out-of-bedrock childbearing,” Patterson reported that 72 percent of African-American children are born to unwed parents. In this environment, sadly, a lack of adult supervision leads to siblings often caring for their younger siblings, which Patterson said then easily translates into gang membership since young men are accustomed to having a youth as an authority figure.
“Children require adult supervision,” Patterson said. “Unresourced single parenting, that’s a disaster…. one of the main reasons when kids, youth, are asked ‘Why do you join a gain or go around shooting people?
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The answer, in every study done, is ‘Family, family, family.’ The gang becomes a substitute family.”
Scholar Kathryn Edin, a sociologist with Johns Hopkins University, praised the Earned Income Tax Credit (a bi-partisan measure first signed by President Gerald Ford and expanded by Ronald Reagan and other leaders) for its program design, which she said empowers recipients who are in the workforce.
“We keep artificially sustaining these organizations that have no real impact”
Economist Robert Cherry with the Brooklyn College–City University of New York said unemployment among African-American fathers is associated with behavioral and educational problems among their children, which leads to student suspensions and expulsions.
“I think that we have to look much more closely at trying to ameliorate what goes on in these very chaotic, and too often, abusive families, and that’s figuring out how to get some counseling services to these families and just not use suspension or something that leaves out what’s going on in the family,” Cherry said.
He urged better measures to expose teenagers and young adults of color to the workforce, both through expanded education and direct employment. Defending for-profit colleges, These schools disproportionately enroll minority students, and Cherry said they offer better hands-on training, connection with the workforce and financial counseling services for these students than many traditional community colleges.
“It’s about time to bring them in from out of the cold,” he said of for-profit schools.
Michael D. Smith, who runs the My Brother’s Keeper White House initiative, created in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, highlights six milestones on the pathway to adulthood for boys and young men of color, including better maternal and prenatal health care, grade school reading at level, high school graduation, entering the workforce, etc. The program works with community leaders and business executives to empower these young men. Smith described how the program relies heavily on quantitative analysis and rigorous measurement of outcomes.
“We are laser-focused on evidenced-based interventions,” Smith said. “For those of us that are in business, been in business, and now win philanthropy, there’s something that happens where we go completely to heart and lose our head. We keep artificially sustaining these organizations that have no real impact.”
Smith urged society to treat black men as assets rather than liabilities to be managed.
“I think it’s important that we don’t forget the asset-based framing of boys and young men of color,” he said. “We all know that phrase ‘you are what you eat, and if you’re told over and over again that you are not going anywhere, that you have challenges facing you, then you start to believe that.”
Smith ticked through statistics showing that one in four black men are serving our country in the armed services, that 400,000 black men are active veterans. He said there are 59 percent more black men in college than there are in jail, that 9 in 10 have not had substance abuse problems, that 7 out of 10 black fathers, when they are in the homes, are intensive dads, “more so than any other any other race group, changing diapers, cooking dinner, shuttling kids back and forth to school… I think it’s important as we look at shaping this challenge and also thinking about the solutions, is to realize that we have a generation of young people that have unique talents and assets and are resources. And so we should think not only about the challenges that we have to face, but the opportunity that we have to engage with the population that’s really finding itself struggling.”
Carrie Sheffield is Senior Writer at Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield and on Facebook.