Recent events in Baltimore, South Carolina, Staten Island, and Ferguson shine a bright light on a fundamental condition of our social system: too often, black men die at the hands of police. These violent confrontations are one example in a legacy of disparities that limit the life chances of boys and men of color.
In a passionate discussion Wednesday, Urban Institute President Sarah Rosen Wartell facilitated a conversation between Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski about the policy, politics, and history surrounding communities of color, and especially boys and young men of color. Wartell asked what can be done to reduce racial opportunity gaps for boys and men of color and to create trust between communities of concentrated poverty and the police force. The following are excerpts from that discussion.
Booker on the need to act and the difference it could make:
I worry that the life chances of a boy born in 1936 are better than a kid born in 2004.
And what frustrates me…is that there is something we can do that we all know works but we just aren’t doing it. The worst poverty in America is a poverty of compassion, a poverty of conviction to do something about this latest crisis that is destroying our country, not just black people...We’re losing out on the families of the coming generation: the children most likely to go to prison are children of incarcerated adults. We’re losing out as a country on this productivity, this power, of this moral character by this reality.
Hrabowski on the value of focusing supports to boys and men of color:
Anyone who does research understands the importance of disaggregating data. It’s not enough to talk about just big groups, you need to look at populations to see what’s going on.
When you go into schools…boys and men of color more than any other group proportionately, they’re in trouble… When you go into prisons, you see a disproportionately large number of males of color.
Because we focus on those groups should by no means suggest to anyone that we shouldn’t look at other challenges that other populations face. It is simply a matter of fact though that the group doing least well in our society will be males of color.
Booker on how the disparate enforcement of drug laws affects communities of color:
Look, I grew up in Harrington Park, New Jersey, an affluent all-white community and it might shock you to know that lots of my friends did drugs. And I went to Stanford University and… I may or may not have seen a lot of pot smokers. But we know for a fact that kids at Harrington Park and kids at Stanford were not getting routinely stopped and frisked and searched constantly. And there is no statistical difference—in fact white boys and young men may smoke pot a little bit more than black men according to some studies—but there’s no statistical difference in drug use and, guess what, in drug dealing too.
If you are black in America, you are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than if you’re white… So now you have a mandatory minimum of five years and you have a 17-year-old kid doing nothing different than 17 year old kids of other races… Now you’re out of school and now you have a felony conviction and what does that mean for your life? It means you can’t get a Pell grant, it means you can’t get a job…it means you can’t get a business license…And now you wonder why that kid has had all his economic viability taken away from him.
You think the system is unfair. You know it is if you know anything about what’s happening in other communities. You stay in that drug war and you say in that gang war and you get another arrest and another arrest and another arrest. And you go through environments that make you harder and more traumatized.
This violent situation, please understand, we have a criminal justice system, or a legal system, that’s not a justice system, that lacks so much legitimacy in these communities.
Hrabowski on The Choice Program at UMBC, one strategy for fostering relationships between police and at-risk youth and their families:
We supervise about 500 inner-city children, many boys of color who are first-time offenders. And it is a kind of program that we believe can not only build trust but help these children to stay alive and give them dreams and hopes.
The child lives at home, but we get the child up in the morning. The child goes to school during the day, the child comes to our campus in the evening. We tutor [them] and we give them recreation and we get them home and make sure they’re safe at night. But here’s the point: we also have the children working with the police in very difficult parts of the city. And they work on projects together, they work on art together, they have conversations together.
We need many more programs like this so that before the difficulty arises, these people know each other. These police know these mothers, these grandmothers, and they trust each other. There’s a role for places like universities to play in building these intervention strategies that can build trust.
Booker on the importance of mentoring as an easy solution that could have an outsized impact:
I know one thing that would dramatically undercut juvenile crime… Right now in America there are tens of thousands of single mothers desperate for their boys to have a mentor in their lives. There are tens of thousands of kids on the waiting list right now who can’t find an American to give four hours of a month to mentor a kid. The data on quality mentoring says it drives down juvenile incarceration, drives up communication of values, but it necessitates us to do something.
Wartell on Urban’s commitment to finding solutions:
Urban was founded 50 years ago when racial injustices led to protests, both peaceful and violent, in cities across the county. And that moment prompted the Johnson administration to call for an independent, nonpartisan organization outside of government to help bring rigorous research, insights into the problems in our cities, and an understanding of which solutions worked.
Sadly, the situation…that erupted in Baltimore in recent weeks and in many of our other cities—the challenges that we have seen time and time again of the deaths of, particularly, black men at the hands of police—have reminded us of the sad echoes of the time when Urban was founded. The stubborn persistence of inequalities and barriers to mobility placing people of color and, particularly, young men and boys of color is the subject…of a growing body of work at Urban where we are committed to trying to help understand and find solutions.
My favorite quote of the senator’s is: “In God we trust, I am a man of faith; everyone else, please bring the data.” And at the Urban Institute, that’s kind of our calling.
Over the next two weeks, Urban Institute authors will continue the discussion with an Urban Wire series focused on creative and promising ideas to begin dismantling the barriers to success that generations of policy have built around communities of color.
We hope these ideas will fill one part of the much broader discussion growing in this country.