An awkward silence intruded an otherwise lively and informative panel discussion on the implications of today’s critical challenges for African Americans. The uneasy silence followed a question from the moderator concerning the prominence of race in America. (Panelists were racially mixed left of center advocates —two former Black politicians, a Latino housing development expert and a Latino journalist. The program was part of the California African American Museum series, “Conversations at CAAM.”). The question: “What is the reason (s) for Blacks’ continuing disparity in public education, sub-standard housing, jobs, etc.?” Of course, the reasons are varied and complex, but panelists were totally stymied which was both surprising and telling. (Apart from obvious, institutional racism and white privilege, the list includes poor schools, high unemployment poor housing, and among Blacks, ineffective leadership and the Black community’s failure to hold its leaders accountable. Not one of these things was suggested by the panel.
In a momentous demonstration of ethnic pride a few years ago, thousands of Jews celebrated a Star of David flag-raising at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, nothing wrong with that. The point is, similar expressions of racial pride by Blacks are still widely frowned on as being politically incorrect, unpatriotic, or, even unlawful. An historic corollary was the angst among Europeans over former colonized subjects’ unbridled racial pride after their independence. But like most white “emancipated” people, Black Americans have not shed conditioned inferiority. Suffice it to say, Willie Lynch, Jim Crow, de jure segregation and “integration” all served to scar Blacks’ identity and, perforce, dampen racial pride.
Los Angeles offers a prime example of the issue. With the exception of the Black Congress (1968), which itself was short lived, virtually all subsequent attempts to forge sustainable unity in Los Angeles have failed. Hopefully, A Twenty First Century Foundation (21CF) initiative would prove to be different. The foundation’s mission is to build and leverage Black philanthropy. Its Men and Boys initiative followed nationwide research on the challenges and problems facing Black men and boys. Initially grants were given to New York, Chicago, Oakland and Los Angeles. The Foundation was encouraged by research that found Black men and boys reaching out to each other, Black families forming in non-traditional ways and Blacks who “made it” returning to the “hood,” sharing their experiences and strengthened by those who never left.
Underscoring the need for the initiative was sobering and predictable. Findings (2010): Blacks made up 12% of the country’s population, yet comprised 50% of those incarcerated; 42% of Black boys failed an entire school year at least once. As the nation shifted to lower-paying jobs, Black men and boys were severely impacted; over three-fourths of these jobs were held by Blacks and Latinos; for Black males, the suicide rate (15-59) increased 140% and for the ages 10-14, 233%; 60% of non-custodial fathers who failed to pay child support were uneducated and unskilled.
According to 21CF, the Men and Boys initiative was created after identifying, publicizing and supporting programs that transform the lives of individual Black men and boys and pursuing strategies that challenge the devaluation of those lives and attack the roots of the crisis. The foundation made grants to organizations that positively impact men and boys’ lives “on a daily basis”—raising high school graduation rates, lowering recidivism and bringing non-custodial fathers back into their children’s lives.
First, in 2008, 21CF convened a series of forums in the first four focus cities that identified the following urgent needs: Education—in many urban areas, more than half of Black students drop out of high school. At the other end of the spectrum, Black men earn advanced degrees at only half the ratio of white men. Employment and Economic Sustainability: In every age group, Black male unemployment was double that of white males; one of four Blacks lived below the poverty line and the median worth of all Black Americans was one-tenth that of whites.
Criminal Justice: One out of three Black males would be incarcerated at some point in their lives, compared to 4 out of 100 white males; Black men were arrested much more frequently and serve longer average sentences than white men for every crime. Engaged Fatherhood: Black men faced barriers to engaged fatherhood disparately, including poverty (3.4 million non-custodial fathers lived at 200% below the poverty line); unemployment, imprisonment and lack of strong male models. Health: At birth, Black men have 5 years less life expectancy and are twice as likely to die during middle age. The prevalence of HIV-AIDS among Black men and boys was 8 times greater than for their white counterparts. Nonetheless, the Foundation contended a strategic approach built on coordination, sharing of best practices and innovative grant-making would yield promising results.
The 21CF Men and Boys Initiative’s chief value was its potential to actually focus on the specific needs of Black men and Boys throughout the project. Otherwise, it will simply be another in-vogue “diversity” model that failed to give Blacks proper attention and/or respect. This will only happen when initiatives like 21CF’s, or any other research on Blacks, sees the necessity for an unapologetic Afro centric focus and acknowledges consideration of race and racial pride as foundational for success. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on the sustainability of 21st Century Foundation’s or any other Black research initiative to date.