The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 7, 2015

A perfect Mother's Day gift

May 7, 2015

Over the past year, the public image we have of the mother of a young man of color has too often been a grieving or angry woman who has just lost a child to violence, perpetrated by either the police or a fellow citizen. This culminated in the video of a Baltimore mother, fearful that her son would become a victim of violence, rushing into the middle of a protest to get her son out of danger by physical intervention.

These images will be with us as long as society fails to take vigorous and sustained action to change the life circumstances of these children. One such action was taken on Monday when President Obama announced the launch of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a new component of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative that the White House started just over a year ago. This new organization pledges to use corporation funds to promote good hiring and retention practices on the part of employers, fund proven or promising initiatives in communities, and identify policies that will improve educational and employment opportunities for young men of color.

As a core technical assistance partner, the Urban Institute was invited to attend the Alliance’s launch event in New York, which was held at Lehman College in the Bronx. It was a very uplifting and rewarding event, bringing together public officials, foundation and corporate officers engaged in the work, and young people fortunate enough to have been helped by positive programs in their communities. But the optimism in the room was tempered by the reality on the streets, where nearly half the men of color in New York City were jobless in 2013 and those who had jobs were often employed only part time or part of the year. The chances for a secure and economically rewarding career are low for many young men of color. Clearly more needs to be done to provide them with greater opportunities in the surrounding community and in communities across the country.

The MBK Alliance is not a program that can be undertaken and completed in a few years. As the president said in his remarks, this effort will require a long-term commitment that must last long after he leaves office. But private-sector action, even if sustained, will not be sufficient to lift up significant portions of the target population without parallel action on the part of the public sector. While it is clear from the recent television coverage that poor men and boys of color are in danger of unfavorable treatment by the criminal justice system, evidence suggests that they are more likely than their white counterparts to suffer these encounters regardless of their socioeconomic status. These encounters have negative repercussions, not only by putting men and boys of color in physical danger, but also by making it harder for them to get work if they get a criminal record as a result.

On both the economic and the criminal justice fronts, programs exist to reduce barriers and increase opportunities for young people to succeed in life. The Alliance, along with the actions of the federal, state, and local governments, offers the possibility that our knowledge of what works can be applied so that many boys and young men of color will be able to avoid encounters with the criminal justice system and achieve economic success. If that comes true, it would be the best gift a mother could wish and want for her sons, future daughter-in-laws, and grandchildren.

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