The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 4, 2015

Breaking down barriers to help boys and young men of color succeed

February 4, 2015

Boys and young men of color constitute 46 percent of all males under the age of 25 in the United States. As such, they should be considered a precious resource since they are or will be a significant part of our labor force and the fathers of the next generation of children.

However, in many ways we have failed or will fail a significant number of them in the absence of changes in the way society views them, the way our institutions treat them, and the resources that we provide to ensure that they achieve their potential.

President Obama has tried to call attention to the need to focus on these young people through his My Brother’s Keeper initiative and the MBK Challenge that he has issued for local communities around the country. To date, 135 communities have accepted the challenge and are gathering in Washington later this month to receive guidance and support from the federal government, communities who have already begun initiatives for this population, and from practitioners around the country who have been working on promising programs. 

Achieving success will not be easy because of the overlay of societal, institutional, and community factors that keep these young people from advancing. They face negative social images and dangerous media imagery that affect the way individual members of the group are perceived, regardless of their own behavior. Problems that they may encounter or negative behaviors they exhibit are often attributed to individual failings as opposed to being a result of the way they are perceived or the constraints placed on them by their immediate environments.

A disproportionate number of boys and young men of color grow up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty that expose them and their parents to environmental hazards and high levels of stress and trauma. These communities may have schools that are not prepared to give them the support and resources they need to achieve high levels of educational achievement.

Addressing these problems will require an increase in resources to these communities so that parents can provide positive developmental settings for their children within their communities and greater opportunities for residential mobility.

At a relatively early age, boys of color are often singled out by the criminal justice system because of where they live or how they are perceived by law enforcement officials. In the case of juveniles in these communities, the criminal justice system is sometimes used to address problems best handled elsewhere, such as school discipline. Once entrapped in the system, they are less likely to complete school.

Reform of policies and practices, ranging from greater use of alternatives to detention to review of arrest and law enforcement policies, are necessary to change this dynamic. Building community trust of law enforcement and instituting school-based programs for improving school climate and behavior management efforts are also strategies that should be under consideration.

Once these young men reach the age where they enter the workforce, they are frequently unprepared to make enough money to support a family. Due to a lack of educational credentials or the presence of a criminal record, they are likely to be disadvantaged in seeking employment.

But even if they manage to arrive at the job application stage with a decent education and no serious encounter with the law, they may not be given a fair chance to compete for job openings. Evidence from several studies has shown that African American and Hispanic men seeking entry-level jobs are viewed less favorably than non-Hispanic white men who are similarly—or in some cases less—qualified.

Changing these outcomes will certainly be a challenge, but it is not impossible. There are programs and policies that are either proven or promising for addressing each of the obstacles that have been identified here. What is needed is the will and the resources to bring these initiatives to scale so that boys and young men of color can make the contributions to family, community, and society that they aspire to make and that are needed for this country to keep moving ahead.

Photo: Nolte Lourens/ Shutterstock

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