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Properly Addressing the Crisis Facing Black and Latino Men

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Finally, real attention -- in the form of $130 million -- is being paid to the crisis faced by black and Latino men, who are on the bottom in terms of education and health, and on the top in terms of unemployment and the likelihood of incarceration. This new initiative, spearheaded by Mayor Bloomberg in New York City, will focus on job training, mentoring, fatherhood classes and academic test scores. But will this money be well spent? Not unless it also addresses the primary reasons why there is a crisis in the first place.

For more than four decades, research, including my own, has revealed that a concrete set of factors prevents young black and Latino men from thriving in and out of school, and ultimately as adults. Addressing these factors should be at the core of any initiative that aims to help them succeed. What does the research say?

1) Early-childhood education and schools from kindergarten through high school that foster the cognitive, social and emotional development of children are essential for children to thrive.

Programs such as Head Start that provide quality early-childhood education have been demonstrated to help children learn the skills they need to succeed, especially if they also attend quality primary and secondary schools -- schools that attend to the needs of the whole child. Young black and Latino men, particularly those in low-income communities, are not commonly given access to such programs and schools.

2) Teacher expectations are key.

When teachers or other adults (parents, counselors, mentors and employers) expect little, they get little in return. When they expect good things from their students and provide resources and support, children succeed in meeting expectations. In a classic experiment conducted by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in the 1960s and replicated dozens of times since, pairs of children in classrooms were randomly given the label of exceptionally smart at the start of the school year. The teachers were told about the labels, but the children were not. By the end of the school year, the intelligence scores of those children who were randomly given such labels dramatically improved. This effect of expectations is called the Pygmalion effect and has been shown to significantly influence performance in school and work settings. The impact of teacher (or employer, parent, etc.) expectations and support -- and the consequences of a lack thereof -- should not be underestimated for black and Latino men.

3) Racial and gender stereotypes prevent children from thriving.

More than three decades of research, including my own, have shown the detrimental effects of negative stereotypes on the academic, social and emotional adjustment of black and Latino boys and men. Social psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson have shown in laboratory experiments that black students score just as well as white students on achievement tests when they do not think that their race will be considered in the assessment. Yet they score significantly lower than white students when they think that they will. This "stereotype threat," according to Steele and Aronson and many others who have replicated their findings, is at the root of the achievement gap. Helping educators, parents, mentors and employers understand the detrimental impact of negative stereotypes is essential to improving outcomes for black and Latino boys and men.

4) Black and Latino boys and men have the same social and emotional needs and capacities as all other boys and girls, and men and women.

My research over the past 20 years on the development of boys, including hundreds of black and Latino boys, reveals that they are not getting the emotional and social support that they need in and out of school. For example, boys want mutually supportive and close friendships with other boys and feel depressed and lonely when they don't have them. Such friendships are also linked to better psychological and physical health and academic achievement. When schools and families do not support the emotional and social needs of children -- both boys and girls -- they struggle to achieve their goals.

While these findings are not exhaustive, they suggest that we need to reframe the meaning of being a good teacher, parent, mentor and employer, and provide more access to early-childcare programs and schooling that enhances the cognitive, social and emotional development of children from kindergarten through high school. We also need to stop repeating harmful gender and racial stereotypes that foster low teacher expectations and prevent black and Latino boys from accomplishing their goals. Without these changes, the proposed solution offered by the New York City initiative may help some Latino and black men graduate, get a job and be better fathers, but it will not be enough to create a new generation of Latino and black men who thrive.

Niobe Way, author of "Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection" (Harvard University Press, 2011), is a professor of Applied Psychology at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. She is also the director of the Ph.D. program in developmental psychology at NYU and the president of the Society for Research on Adolescence.