Latino Males Need to be More Relevant in the National Conversation on 'Men of Color'

I met Tony at a local tire shop a few years back. He was a young Mexican-American shuttle driver tasked with bringing me back to work while my truck was in the shop. We settled into the morning traffic on the local interstate, and we struck up a conversation on the 30-minute commute. He asked where he was dropping me off and I casually mentioned UT-Austin. He asked what I did there and I told him I was a professor. Tony -- a 22-year-old high school dropout who was raised in the barrios of East Austin -- told me he had never met a professor before, and certainly not one that looked like him. He also said he had grown up about four miles from the University and had not once set foot on campus. He said he didn't think he belonged there. Our conversation turned even more personal as he shared his legal struggles and how he's trying to encourage his younger brother to stay in school and not repeat the mistakes he's made. As he dropped me off that morning he asked me a seemingly innocuous question: "Is it hard to get into UT-Austin?"

I think about Tony's question quite often, pondering its innocence and its profound meaning. I wonder if he had ever had the courage to ask anyone such a question before, and I think about what could have been had he been encouraged to ask such a question much earlier in his life. The reality is that for too many young Latino men like Tony, such questions are difficult to ask, often dismissed and rarely encouraged.

Two years ago President Obama launched My Brother's Keeper (MBK), a national initiative aimed at improving educational and life outcomes for boys and young men of color, including Latino males like Tony. For too long we have acknowledged the sobering data trends that point to a persistent gender gap in educational attainment for males of color. President Obama's MBK initiative is a welcomed step forward for this national conversation, and it seeks to proactively change the tenor of discussion from one of bemoaning to one of collective action. But I submit that this conversation must go further in disaggregating the term "males of color" to fully embrace the relevancy and uniqueness of the Latino male experience in America.

The economic and demographic realities of our nation demand a more urgent and thorough examination of the challenges facing Latino males. Let's consider the relationship between demographic trends and economic health. Because the Latina/o community is so young and is growing so rapidly in states like Texas and California, there's a demographic reality that is winding its way through our schooling systems. That said, if half of the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in the country is stubbornly lagging behind everyone else on key education metrics, the persistent gender gap could have dire consequences on the long-term viability of our economy and our communities. According to a new study released by the MBK Alliance, if both young men and prime-age men of color (those ages 16-54) participated in the workforce at the same rates as non-Hispanic white men their age, America's GDP (gross domestic product) would rise two percent -- or by roughly $350 billion.

The gender gap in educational attainment for Latino males is evident in metrics like high school completion and degree attainment. For example in 2010, Latino males had the lowest high school graduation rates across all male ethnic groups. Among 18 to 24-year-old Latino males, the proportion who had not completed high school or its equivalent was 34.2 percent, compared to 27.1 percent for Latina females and 21.7 percent of all other males. For degree attainment, more than three out of five of all associate's or bachelor's degrees earned by Hispanics are earned by female students (Source: National Center for Education Statistics). These trends suggest that Latino males are facing challenges in achieving critical education milestones, unique challenges that often go unexamined by researchers and policymakers.

So why are Latino males lagging behind, and how are their experiences different than for other males of color? A new book on the topic (published by Stylus Publishing) examines the factors that inhibit and support academic success of Latino males across the educational pipeline. The research highlighted in this book summarizes an array of factors that promote and hinder Latino male success in higher education. Increasing the educational achievement of Latino male students requires policy and programmatic interventions that attend to the needs of students both long before they even consider college and immediately after they arrive on our campuses.

One barrier hindering Latino males from completing college is the financial pressures they face to contribute financially to their families. Like Tony, Latino males tend to come from working-class backgrounds, and the urgency he and others feel to join the labor force may outweigh the long-term gains that can flow from a higher education credential. We also know that Latino males in the workforce are concentrated in low-skilled, low-wage jobs, and they have more instability in their employment status. This translates into limited economic opportunities for Latino males. When coupled with demographic trends this could portend a dire economic outlook for our country.

I am not suggesting this is a zero-sum context or that Latino males have it worse than other groups, but I am suggesting that research and programmatic work should be better focused on disentangling the unique schooling experiences of Latino males independent of the work on African American males and other male groups. In light of the demographic and economic realities facing our nation, Latino males need to be more relevant in the broader conversation of "men of color".

President Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative is coming at a critical time in the burgeoning national movement focused on boys and young men of color, and it has elevated the issue to a national policy imperative. But we need greater awareness and dialogue about the Latino male experience informed by research that showcases new perspectives and emerging voices. The new book represents an earnest effort to do just that, and its contributors hope to parallel the broader and vibrant research agenda on male students of color.

Returning back to Tony's question -- about how "hard it is to get into UT-Austin" -- the reality is it is very hard, especially for applicants with Tony's academic profile. I answered his question as best I could that day, but I can't help but think about the countless other questions he had or that other Latino male students like Tony may have but are afraid or unwilling to ask. We need to find better ways to answer his question, better ways to positively engage Latino males throughout their schooling experiences, and we certainly need to keep encouraging Latino males to ask such questions lest they will never know. Tony's future certainly depends on it, as does our nation's future.