Imagine that you walk into the newborn nursery ward at an American hospital and you see 100 babies in their bassinets. You are then informed that 33 of these babies will spend time in jail or prison.
This is the reality today for African American males born in our country. As a black husband, father and physician, I am sick of it.
So I asked the board of the private health foundation I lead for a three-month leave to investigate why opportunity and wellness elude so many of our black, Latino and Asian Pacific Islander sons. Their shades of brown may be different, but many of them face the same challenges: growing up fatherless, dropping out of school, going to jail or getting killed.
I interviewed 60 mostly black and brown leaders around our nation. I met with people from Marian Wright Edelman, president of Children’s Defense Fund, to Cornel West, noted theologian and activist, to Jerry Tello, co-founder of the National Compadres Network. I listened to civil rights leaders, community organizers, elected officials and many young black and brown men.
I simply wanted to know what could and must be done.
I found substantial contention among fellow black men about the origins of this crisis. A faith leader commented that we are now “coping with the 16th generation of America’s racism,” and he identified that legacy as the culprit. However, a Brooklyn nonprofit leader said “the victimization mentality is killing us…. This is all about the parents.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Seventy percent of Californians under the age of 25 are people of color. Our state’s future is inextricably bound to theirs. We won’t succeed without them. Yet too many of our sons and brothers are in crisis. They suffer from violence in their homes or communities. They drop out of school or are pushed out as schools overemphasize suspensions or expulsions as punishments.
After conducting the interviews and reflecting on them, I thought back to my early training as a pediatrician. I was taught to watch for signs of child abuse or neglect, for suspicious injuries, bruises and cigarette burns. These things sound an alarm. Investigations begin. Protections are put in place.
We need a similar early warning system to sound the alarm on the less visible wounds afflicting boys of color. We know the signs. Any child is raising his hand for help if he is off track in these things:
• Third-grade reading levels. Students who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma. Yet more than 80% of our third-grade black boys cannot read at grade level.
• Suspensions and early truancy. Every suspension doubles the chance a student will drop out, and triples the chance he will be involved with the justice system. A new report found that 1 million elementary school students were truant — defined as having three or more unexcused absences or tardies — in California last year.
• Justice system involvement. The system is expensive, harms kids and doesn’t keep us safe.
A young man struggling with any of these problems might as well be wearing a sign around his neck that says, “Please help me. I may be heading toward prison.” It’s in everyone’s interest to listen, to get him the help he needs and to help him stay on track. This is what pediatricians do for the child with the cigarette burn. After we evaluate the child and discover the burn, we interview his parents and assess the home for safety. Protection for the child and support for the family is implemented.
The California Endowment will dedicate $50 million toward supporting this early warning system. In seven years, we promise to fund partner organizations and programs with three goals. First, we will improve attendance by 30% in targeted schools, and cut in half the number of kids suspended and instead use proven positive discipline strategies that keep kids on track. We will implement “restorative” justice and other justice system diversionary programs in 10 communities, so kids and communities come together to resolve conflicts, and keep kids out of juvenile hall. And we’ll enroll every eligible child in our target communities in Obamacare and connect them with a high-quality health provider to coordinate their care.
I want to state these goals publicly for two reasons. First, so you can hold us accountable. And second, so I can invite you to join us. It’s going to take all of us — in business, government, nonprofits — to invest in these young men and believe in them. They are a source of strength, creativity and economic dynamism. Our state’s diversity is our greatest strength and competitive advantage. We are in this together.
Dr. Robert Ross is the chief executive officer of the California Endowment.