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GO KIDS Articles

Let's move on ideas for helping young black males

By Dwight Lewis, Staff Writer
The Tennessean
Web Posted: Thursday, October 25, 2007

It was a message that grabbed my attention — and, truthfully speaking, is still holding it. If you're a caring and concerned individual, the message should grab your attention, too.

"Imagine coming into this world with a prison cell already reserved in your name,'' the message read. "That is the tragedy that awaits at least one in three black boys. Millions of poor American children are condemned to prison by the time they reach their teens because they are failed at every turn in their lives — failed by their family, the child welfare system and the juvenile justice system.''

The message from the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund went on to say, consider this:

  • Today, 580,000 black males are serving time in state or federal prison, while fewer than 40,000 black males earn bachelor's degrees each year.
  • A child is born into poverty every 36 seconds and born to a teen mother every 60 seconds.
  • Between 2000 and 2006, the number of children living in poverty rose by 1.2 million to reach 12.8 million children. One in six children is poor.

A good amount of space has been used in this column recently talking about the crisis currently facing young black males here and elsewhere. And, indeed, it is a crisis that merits the nation's attention.

The following statistics from Bill Cosby's and Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint's new book, Come On People: On The Path From Victims To Victors, helps bring the crisis home:

  • Homicide is the No. 1 cause of death for black men ages 15-29 and has been for decades.
  • Of the roughly 16,000 homicides in this country each year, more than half are committed by black men. A black man is seven times more likely to commit a murder (excluding military actions) than a white man, and six times more likely to be murdered.
  • In the past several decades, the suicide rate among young black men has increased more than 100 percent.
  • In some cities, black males have high school dropout rates of more than 50 percent.
  • Young black men are twice as likely to be unemployed as white, Hispanic and Asian men.

So, what's the fix? That question has been raised in this space recently and a number of readers have responded with their thoughts, most of which are great ideas. And some of them have been shared with other readers.

"We are witnessing before our eyes a form of cultural genocide that is killing off families and threatening the very existence of certain segments of urban black America,'' Lowell Perry, chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee, said in an e-mail. "We are losing a generation of young African-American men to the criminal justice system in an insidious intergenerational cycle of incarceration where we are witnessing grandfathers, fathers and sons spending the wrong kind of mentoring time together in a jail cell.

"This is unacceptable!''

He added: "Without intervention, over 30,000 Tennessee children with an incarcerated parent face a 70 percent likelihood of suffering the same fate. At least 7 percent of all black children have an incarcerated mother or father compared to just 0.8 percent of white children. Seven out of every 10 of these 'invisible children' would enter the prison system just like their parents.''

Seeing more of us become mentors would help turn the crisis around, Lowell Perry believes. I agree, and if you're interested in becoming a mentor, give Big Brothers Big Sisters a call at 615-329-9191, or go to www.mentorakid.org.

Charles Story, president of ECS Group, has done exactly that. Story, who mentors a 16-year-old through Big Brothers Big Sisters, said in an e-mail: "Everyone is talking about the responsibility of different institutions, but, I repeat, it's about parenting and the environment. In order to save our boys, we have to put them in nurturing, reinforcing, discipline developing, positive environments while teaching parents how to parent.''

Story thinks we need residential life-learning academies throughout the country where teens who have their first brush with the law would be required to live, go to school, work and receive conflict-resolution training. And their parents would be required to attend parenting classes.

That's not a bad idea, either. But somehow we've got to get a group of interested people together and discuss how we implement some of these ideas. We've got to do it, because, as the late baseball great Jackie Robinson would say, none of us should think we have it made as long as so many others of our brothers and sisters — of all races and ethnic backgrounds — are being left behind.