Prelude: Silence intruded on an otherwise spirited panel several years ago on the implications of today’s critical challenges for Africa Americans. A deafening silence followed questions about the prominence of race. (Panelists were racially mixed, left-of-center proponents- two former Black politicians, a Black housing development expert and a Latino journalist.) The program was part of the California African American Museum series, “Conversations at CAAM.”
The initial silence followed a question on how to account for the continuing disparity of Blacks in education, housing, politics, etc. There are no easy answers, but apart from institutional racism, high on the list is a lack of racial pride among African Americans, its ineffective leadership and the Black community’s failure to hold its leaders accountable. None of these things were mentioned by the panelists.
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, but similar expressions of racial pride by Blacks are still considered suspect, politically incorrect, or even unpatriotic. A corollary is the angst among Europeans over former colonized subjects’ unbridled racial pride after their independence. Unlike others emancipated, Black Americans have not totally shed conditioned inferiority. Since this column regularly addresses antecedents to Blacks’ political and economic impotence, suffice it to say that Willie Lynch, Jim Crow, de jure segregation and “integration,” all served to maim Black’s pride, a basic ingredient in any group’s attempt to unify.
Los Angeles is a prime example of this malady. With the possible exception of the Black Congress (1968), which itself was short-lived, virtually all subsequent attempts to forge sustainable unity have failed. In recent years, even the highly touted, well-funded Knowledge Transfer Summit (KTS) was not successful.
The Twenty-First Century Foundation (21CF) might have been an exception. It’s mission is building and leveraging Black philanthropy; its Men and Boys Initiative emerged from cross-country research on the challenges/problems facing Black men and boys. Initially, it gave grants in New York, Chicago, Oakland and Los Angeles. 21CF research focused on 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 were sobering, if predictable, findings; Blacks made up 12% of the country’s population, yet comprised nearly 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 are held by Blacks and Latinos; for Black males, the suicide rate, ages 15-59 increased 146%, and for the ages 10-14, 233%; 60% of non-custodial fathers who failed to pay child support were uneducated and unskilled.
The Men and Boys Initiative was created after identifying, publicizing and supporting programs that transformed 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. It has 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.
In 2008, 21CF convened a series of forums in the four initial focus cities mentioned earlier, that identified the following urgent needs: Education- In many urban areas, more than half of Black students drop out of high school. In New York City, only 245 graduated from a very large high school. At the other end of the spectrum, Black men earn advanced degrees at only half the rate of white men. Employment and Economic Sustainability: In every age group Black male unemployment was double that of white males, one out of four Blacks lived below the poverty line and the median net worth of all Black Americans was one-tenth that of whites.
Criminal Justice: One out of three Black males will be incarcerated in some point in their lives compared to 4 out of 100 white males; Black men are arrested more frequently and serve longer average sentences than white men for every crime. Engaged Fatherhood: Black men face barriers to engaged fatherhood that include poverty (3.4 million non-custodial fathers living 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 than white men and are twice as likely to die in middle-age. The prevalence of AIDS among Black men and boys was eight times greater than their white counterparts. Nonetheless, the 21st Century Foundation contended a strategic approach, built on coordination, sharing of best practices and innovative grant-making yields promising results.
Even though it was a long shot, given the track record of current Black leadership, there was hope the Black Men and Boys Initiative would be unapologetically Afro-centric and acknowledge racial pride as foundational for forging the unity Blacks need for group victories. However, in Los Angeles, that did not happen. The Twenty-First Century Foundation did not keep its pledge to honor the importance of on-going communication and transparency crucial for expanding core participants and supporters.
Black unity will only happen when greater numbers of us become sufficiently dissatisfied to behave differently. The real challenge is to make this happen because our future hangs in the balance.
Larry Aubry, [email protected]