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"Life Options for Young African-American Males,"

by Michael R. Wenger July/August 2005 issue of Poverty & Race

When former Congressman Ron Dellums (D-CA) agreed to chair the Commission on Life Options for Young African-American Males, he vowed that the Commission, now known as the Dellums Commission, would “not put out another report that will gather dust.” The former Capitol Hill veteran, who has made a career of being a strong voice for the voiceless, declared that “the Commission will put together a document and a set of recommendations that will make a tangible difference.”

This effort is unique in that it focuses on needed policy changes, especially at the state level, in addressing
the needs of young African-American males, and it frames the issues of over-representation in the criminal justice system and the school-to-prison pipeline as health issues. The decision to proceed in this direction was made by Dr. Gail Christopher, Director of the Health Policy Institute (HPI) of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the Center’s Vice President for Women, Health and Families. With the advice and guidance of Univ. of Maryland Political Science Professor Ron Walters and Senior Policy Adviser Pat Babcock, Christopher convened the Dellums Commission as a key element in HPI’s agenda, since public policies at the local, state and federal levels have had the combined and cumulative effect of limiting the life options for young men of color.

This is a community health issue, because:
  • High incarceration rates among minority youth are symptoms of unaddressed family, school and community challenges.
  • Disproportionately high rates of drug offense prosecution are being substituted for adequate drug treatment options.
  • High incarceration rates mask unmet mental health needs and the lack of appropriate mental health services.
  • Resource allocations within local communities (education, public health, mental health, economic development, housing, public safety) are policy decisions or have policy implications.

It is worth emphasizing some of the more sobering numbers reviewed by the Commission:
  • About one-third of male youth of color (primarily African-American and Latino) fall into what the Department of Labor describes as the “disconnected youth” category: young people who are isolated and have limited to no participation in the labor force.
  • Almost two-thirds of the US prison population are persons of color, predominantly African-American and Latino, and predominantly male.
  • Ten percent of black males between the ages of 25 and 29 were in prison in 2001, compared to 2.9% of Latino males and 1.2% of white males in the same age group.
  • The Sentencing Project estimates that in some jurisdictions one in three African-American men between the ages of 20 and 29 are under correctional supervision.
  • In the 100 largest US cities, 58% or more of the ninth-grade students in high-minority schools do not graduate four years later, and African-American drop-outs are eight times more likely to be in state or federal prison than are white drop-outs.
  • Nationwide, African-American students are three times as likely as white students to be labeled mentally retarded and twice as likely to be labeled as having emotional disturbances.

To look more closely at these and other data, their economic impact and innovative practices that illustrate how policy changes can make a difference, seven research papers have been commissioned by the Dellums group:
  • Correctional Policy-Incarceration (by Adolphus G. Belk, Jr., Winthrop Univ.) looks at the impact of the large increase in the proportion of state and local public funds dedicated to correctional programs and the extent to which the private corrections industry has influenced and driven national, state and local policy regarding criminal justice programs.
  • Correctional Policy-Alternative Sentencing and Waivers to the Adult System (by consultant Michael L. Lindsey) studies the use and impact of alternative sentencing, including alternatives to incarceration, and the use of waivers as it affects young men of color.
  • Correctional Policy-Reentry and Recidivism (by Sandra Edmonds Crewe, Howard Univ.) explores what actually happens to our young men of color when they are held in juvenile detention, jails and prisons. How are they managed? Are they managed in ways that will minimize recidivism? How do they access education and health services?
  • Educational Policy and Literacy (by consultant Kay Randolph-Back) examines the implications of national, state and local educational policy changes over the last 20 years in supporting the preparation of young men of color for successes in K-12 education and transition into post-secondary education, technical preparation, and other career and personal choices.
  • Health Policy (by consultant Jorielle Brown) assesses the ways in which the application of community health strategies can improve the life options of young men of color and strengthen community life.
  • Family Support and Child Welfare (by consultant James Hyman) analyzes how the federal and state policies of the last three decades have affected the stability and strength of families of color.
  • Media and the Negative Portrayal of Men of Color (by Robert Entman, North Carolina State Univ.) addresses the bias toward portraying negative images of men of color in the media and evaluates the impact of this bias on white individuals, white-run institutions, men of color and the society as a whole.

As of this writing, the papers are in preliminary draft form. But it is nonetheless clear that public policies enacted incrementally over the past 3-4 decades, such as “zero tolerance,” mandatory sentencing requirements and an emphasis on punishment over rehabilitation, even for non-violent drug offenders, have contributed to the disproportionate school drop-out rates among young men of color and to their rates of incarceration. This has led to sizeable increases in expenditures for criminal justice systems, at the expense of public monetary support for education and community health programs that could help to ameliorate this problem. It is equally clear that public policies related to education, community health and criminal justice are intertwined and must be addressed in a holistic manner.

These sobering realities were discussed in some detail during the public debut of the Commission at Howard University on July 25. At an all-day session, authors of the papers, Commission members, invited respondents and community leaders shared ideas and insights based on both research and actual experiences. The day’s proceedings are available on the Joint Center’s website, www. The following day, the Commission held a press briefing at the National Press Club, where Chairman Dellums issued a “call to action,” asking all who “care about the future of our country” to “join us in rescuing our young men of color, and by so doing, living up to our commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all our citizens.” Subsequent public hearings will lead to a final report in July 2006, with a detailed plan of action that speaks to Chairman Dellums’ commitment to “make a tangible difference.” This plan of action can help to make real the Health Policy Institute’s mission: “To ignite a ‘Fair Health’ movement that gives people of color the inalienable right to equal opportunity for healthy lives.”

Michael R. Wenger is Senior Fellow and Acting Vice-President for Civic Engagement and Governance at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and an adjunct faculty member in the Sociology Dept. of The George Washington Univ. He formerly was Deputy Director for Outreach and Program Development for Pres. Clinton’s Initiative on Race. This article is drawn from his personal and professional memoir, “My Black Family, My White Privilege: A White Man’s Journey Through the Nation’s Racial Minefield” (iUniverse Incorporated, 2012), available in hb, pb and e format.

See in the Resources Sec.,the closely related short item by Sam Fulwood III, “Race and Beyond: Witness to Whiteness.”

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