The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have raised important questions about the fate of young Black men and more broadly speaking, young men of color in this country. Earlier this year, President Obama launched My Brother's Keeper, an initiative which aims to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color across the nation and to ensure that all Black, Latino, Native American, and Asian American Pacific Islander males reach their full potential.
The timing for this initiative could not be more critical. Although many young people face various challenges across the racial and gender spectrum, it is vital that we understand why we should care about boys and men of color. My Brother's Keeper is not simply an effort to improve the condition for racial and ethnic minority communities, it is an endeavor of considerable national consequence with a capacity to improve all communities, for all of us.
The disenfranchisement of boys and men of color is an urgent and chronic problem in the U.S. A report earlier this year by the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education revealed that Black and Latino boys are three times more likely than their white peers to be suspended or expelled from schools and more likely to not finish high school. The unemployment rate for Black and Latino young men in some cities is often double the rate of white males, and failure to complete school places countless numbers of young men on a pathway to incarceration. The Prison Policy Initiative reports that although Black and Latino males make up only 15 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise close to 80 percent of the prison population.
My Brother's Keeper strives to bring together public and private entities to work collaboratively to improve the life outcomes of boys and men of color. Predictably, perhaps, the initiative has so far been caught in a political undertow: Some object to the role of government in a private-public partnership to improve conditions for boys and men of color. Some question a focus on boys of color, when poor white males face similar challenges. Others don't want to focus on males, when young girls of color face many of the same challenges of chronic poverty, poor education, and a lack of community resources.
My Brother's Keeper's intent is not to position males against females, Asian, Black and Latino against White. Yet, data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics reveal that boys and men of color suffer at a disproportionate rate to any other group of individuals in the nation, and failure to intervene may likely have disastrous consequences.
If boys and men of color are not participants in the 21st Century's global competition, our nation will continue to witness steep declines in various indicators of academic, economic, technical advancement and career preparedness, and we will lose our ability to produce the next generation of teachers, scientists, physicians, social workers, and engineers.
Yet today, boys and men of color are arguably the most economically and politically disenfranchised groups in the U.S. Twenty years ago, almost 90 percent of high school dropouts found regular work. Right now, however, only one-third to one-half of dropouts will find full-time employment and only 11 percent of those jobs will offer more than poverty wages, while a lack of education is more strongly correlated not only with unemployment, but with welfare dependency, as well. And the criminal activity that tends to accompany the desperation of poverty removes men from households and subsequently increases the economic burden on women. High school dropouts make up half of the heads of households on welfare and three-fourths of the prison population. Black, Latino and Native Americans males have the highest dropout rates of any subgroup in the nation, with fewer than half graduating four years after starting high school.
Decreased high school graduations also contribute to disengagement in political participation. College graduates are more likely to volunteer, vote regularly, be involved in the political process, and hold an increased sense of democracy. Despite Latinos being one of the fastest growing segments of our population, they have some of the lowest voting rates in the nation. One challenge for increasing political involvement for men of color is the wide range of voting rights that are limited post-incarceration. Throughout America, 2.2 million black citizens -- or nearly one in 13 African-American adults -- are banned from voting because of these laws.
Finally, there is a moral reason for intervening that cannot be ignored: Many households of color have valiantly been led and supported by women. Far too many young males of color are more likely to be reared in single, female-headed households than their white male peers. We applaud the valiant role that women have played in these households; however, they need and deserve assistance in rearing families. We have a moral imperative to help those who are often most vulnerable in our society: Boys and men of color lead the nation in being homicide victims, targets of violence, mental health challenges, and homelessness.
There are a number of ways we can intervene to change the course for boys and young men of color. Working to ensure an increase in high school and college completion rates is essential. Allowing the most skilled, talented and experienced teachers to teach the students who are most at risk will make a big difference. Implementing intense literacy intervention before third grade to help boys acquire stronger readings skills will give them basic skills they desperately need. Eliminating punitive policies such as Zero Tolerance, which has led to a grossly disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions of boys of color, is yet another intervention among many to employ. Examples of what is working are aplenty. The California Endowment's My Son's and Brothers plan is effectively addressing suspensions, truancy, and justice system involvement of male youth of color in California. The UCLA Black Male Institute has worked with the Children's Defense Fund and its Freedom Schools, which has shown marked improvement in literacy proficiency for young boys of color, and the Graduate Schools of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, and The University of Texas have created higher education pipelines for young men of color that are thriving. So examples of what works exists.
Working to improve the challenges facing boys and young men of color does not diminish any others who are disenfranchised. To the contrary, it lifts everyone up. With My Brother's Keeper, President Obama is asking us to acknowledge something that is urgent for us to see: That boys and young men of color are worth caring about because they are an essential part of America, their lives affect all of us, and their future is at the heart of our own.
Tyrone C. Howard is a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is also faculty director of Center X, UCLA's Teacher Education Program, as well as director of the Black Male Institute at UCLA.
Adrian Huerta is a fourth-year Ph.D. Student in Education and Research Assistant for the Choices Project: Access, Equity and Diversity in Higher Education at UCLA, where he studies college access and success for young men of color.