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Coming Together to Help Black Boys and Men

A recent roundtable meeting shows the steps many are taking to improve the lives of black youth and men.

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Improving the lives of black boys and men is not an impossible task. (iStockphoto)
Improving the lives of black boys and men is not an impossible task. (iStockphoto)

When groups of concerned people gather to discuss black boys and men, the conversation all too often degrades into a hopeless discussion of problems and pathologies.


There’s nothing new to add to that tired trope, especially for anyone with a passing awareness of the enduring history and the contemporary plight of black males in our country. But what is being done about the stacks of studies and statistics that point to a disproportionate number of black boys and men trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline?

Frankly, far more than most of us know. I was reminded of this at a roundtable meeting convened earlier this week by the Center for Law and Social Policy, or CLASP, a Washington-based group that advocates for the interests of low-income Americans. About two dozen academics, grassroots activists, community-based organizers, and policy experts gathered in the CLASP conference room to talk about their work, offering success strategies that are improving the lives of and outcomes for black boys and men.

Describing the gathering as a “partnership circle meeting,” Linda Harris, who directs youth policy for CLASP, set the tone for the conversation by noting that everyone in attendance did valuable and important work. But not everyone in the room knew about each other’s work. Because people work in isolated silos, alone in their laboratories, or one-off in think-tank cubicles, the potential for synergy between their successful discoveries is often lost in the soulless proliferation of book chapters and white papers.

Harris suggested each of us in the group imagine ourselves as motorists on a vast and broad superhighway leading to an agreed-upon destination. We all want to make it easier for black boys and men to maintain good jobs, wages, and careers. But along this road, the various groups and organizations assembled at the meeting—“partners in the black men and boys’ journey,” to use Harris’s language—have different on-ramps or entry points. Each of us moves along the route at varying speeds with our heads down and our eyes trained on our specific tasks. We are often clueless of what others are doing at different places on our shared pathway.

As a result, when we do talk about what’s happening with black boys and men, the common and default mode tends toward the recitation of dismal statistics. Sure, the challenges are there in the numbers: 6.7 million—approximately one in six, or 16 percent—of all young people (ages 16 to 24, both male and female) are disconnected from school and work. But for young black males, the numbers are worse—almost double at 32 percent.

Supported by the Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement, CLASP sought to give us something else to talk about, to provide us an opportunity and space to share strategies about how to make a positive impact on black boys and young men. It was a refreshing conversation. I learned, for example, that:

  • Sharon Davies, executive director of the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University, drafted and filed an amicus brief on behalf of her institute in the Fisher v. University of Texas case—an upcoming, affirmative action case before the Supreme Court to determine whether race may be used in college admission policies. Oral arguments in the case are planned next month. Davies said it’s critical that colleges be allowed to use race-specific criteria in college admissions to increase opportunities for black youth and especially for black males, who are disproportionately absent on college campuses.
  • Michael Lindsey, a professor and researcher in the University of Maryland School of Social Work, is assessing the mental health and social development needs for school-aged black boys. He explained how recognizing and addressing their unique health needs, which tend to go untreated in communities where these boys face high stress from racism, poverty, and joblessness, can result in better educational outcomes for black boys.
  • Al Young Jr., a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, is demonstrating how social forces such as racism, poverty, and joblessness shape the attitudes of black boys and men toward education and work. He noted how his research contradicts the common view that black males don’t study hard because they doubt it will lead to improved life outcomes. Rather, his research shows that when black males viewed work in a productive fashion, their willingness to stay in school increased.
  • Ron Walker, executive director of the Boston-based Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color—a network of public, private, and charter single-sex schools that focus exclusively on improving educational outcomes for young black males—is refocusing the narrative about black males to “talk about solutions, not problems.” Walker said that “black boys learn more from success than from failure.”

As these conversations bounced around the room, ideas flowed and new alliances were formed. What once seemed an impossible task—improving the lives of black boys and men—seemed less daunting. No doubt that’s because those of us who traffic the less-traveled road of looking for solutions to the problems facing black boys and men took a moment to pause in our drive toward success and recognize a fellow traveler. Knowing someone is on the road with you makes the journey a lot less lonely.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050. 

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)