The 'Black Male Crisis': Why We Mean So Well but Do So Badly

Karen Pittman
November 17, 2010

“Black males are in crisis.” So begins a new study from the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS), which finds that black males have fewer opportunities and perform lower than their peers on nearly every indicator, from infant mortality through to career prospects.

The data are appalling. I am not sure, however, that there is anything CGCS or any other advocacy group can do to make the country believe that this is a crisis.  As the authors note, the story has been told before.  We know the gaps.  America can do and should do better. 

But it won’t. 

Why not?  Because America, writ large, is not embarrassed by these data.  Parsing and packaging the data won’t change minds.  The data will make those sympathetic more depressed.  Even more dangerous, they will make those who are unsympathetic more strident and might make those who were undecided more concerned that nothing can be done.

The first data group is labeled “readiness to learn,” followed by information on poverty, family status and lack of access to health insurance. Most Americans know these factors are correlated with “readiness to learn.”  What most don’t know, however, is that these factors can be overcome with programs that more than pay for themselves.  Restating the problem without offering clear evidence of cost-effective solutions is not an effective way to generate momentum.

There’s a better way to use this kind of data: the Ready by 21 strategies provide such findings to stir both optimism and outrage among people who work with youth in specific communities, then galvanize them to act.  For example, when we give these community leaders the Gambone findings that only 4 in 10 young adults are ready for college, work and life, and suggest that the percentage of prepared youth in their community could even be lower, we don’t parse this by race.  We show them the research that suggests they could change the number to 7 in 10 by doing things well within their reach. 

Only after we’re sure they understand that they could change the number do we ask them why they aren’t angry and get them talking about what they could do.  Only in that context do we ask them to tell us which students are farthest behind – after they are outraged in general, optimistic in general and publicly onboard to make changes for all children and youth. 

I cut my teeth on the black teenage pregnancy problem which, in the 80s, was really the black teen out-of-wedlock birth problem.  For years, the same case was made about why black teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births rates were so high.  Not much was done. 

Then two things happened:  the white rates got into the danger range, and data analyses showed that birth rates to black, white, and Hispanic teens were virtually identical once you controlled for family poverty and basic skills.

Combining these two pieces of information allowed me and other advocates to recast the problem.  Teen pregnancy was no longer a black problem.  It was a national problem, and the solution—beyond sex education and contraceptives—was to ensure that young people had good life options in their present (for example, addressing the effects of poverty) and their futures (such as preparing them for college and work). This Life Options movement always had low-income and minority teens as its target, but it never had them in its title.

I have mixed feelings about calling for a White House Council on Young Black Males as the CGCS does, because the problems articulated in its report reflect a cascade of system, family and community failures that start at birth and march through to young adulthood.  In the 90s, many thought that the solution was not to create population-specific interventions (such as special programs for black males), but to increase our capacity to screen all children for risk factors at every stage of their development and increase our commitment to do something to address the risks that those screenings found. 

That was naïve.  It didn’t take long to realize that in schools where 90 percent of the students required Individual Education Plans (IEPs), it made no sense to do IEPs—we needed school improvement plans. 

The call for more consistent disaggregation of data to expose the gaps in services makes sense, but let’s go further: we need not just school data, but data on students that reflects not just their academic status but their broader well-being and competencies and data on the quality and quantity of supports they are receiving from family, community and school. 

In order to get to right solutions, we need data that allow us to compare outcomes (like student progress) to outputs (like school, family and community supports).

There are other worthwhile recommendations, but my main objection is this: take out the word Black. 

I desperately want this country to be committed to closing the gaps between white and black males’ access to good schools, counselors, mentors, neighborhoods, job opportunities.  But it’s one thing to explicitly create these assets for black males and another to redouble efforts to create these assets in the schools and communities that need them the most, then make sure that they reach black males. 

I’m not sure that the country has the public will needed to achieve the second goal.  I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have the commitment to achieve the first. 

During my short stint running the President’s Crime Prevention Council, I learned very quickly that the emotion that propels most Americans to think about black males is fear and that the solution that calms fear is not education but prison. The fact that prison costs more than education was not compelling to those driven by fear because they were convinced that the young people who would avail themselves of the opportunities were not the dropouts who would mug them.



Karen Pittman is President and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment , SparkAction's managing partner.

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Thanks for the article. I am a foster mother raising a little black man, and I need all the help I can get. Any suggestions for helping a little child being raised in a transracial home aim for success?
Specifically, reading material, or info on speech therapy (for unclear speech) would be helpful.

January 19 at 09:58pm

The definition of "recast" is to cast again, therefore it doesn't ignore 20 years of action by Catholic Charities previous to Pittman's birth. It in fact implies directly that the issue was CAST and then Pittman AND OTHER ADVOCATES REcast the issue in the 80s. And if you don't believe that is the case, that there was a clear focus by NGOs on teen pregnancy throughout the 80s into the early 90s, then you don't know what you're talking about.

Whether or not you agree with her assertions, the conversation about data and how to use it effectively is an important one. THAT is why provocatively blunt posts like these are necessary on youth advocacy blogs everywhere. Dialogues like these are an important part of getting to an outcome, but only when both parties are open to having the conversation--not mud-slinging because they want to make a half-assed comment. There are countless reasons to possibly disagree with Pittman's standpoint, but instead of attempting to make your case, you just go with low-blows--a sign of intellectual weakness.

It's sad that after reading that entire blog post, all you were able to glean from it was that it was "self important nonsense".

But some, ignorance is bliss.

November 30 at 05:42pm

Interesting piece! It made me think about communications research commissioned by Child Advocacy 360 and conducted by Douglas Gould & Company and The Topos Partnership. (Congrats by the way to the Topos Partnership's Meg Bostrom for her great piece in Sunday's Washington Post on a different topic.) This research found that problem-focused stories "increase cynicism about the ability of government and citizens to solve these problems. These stories undermine the solution even while raising the need for the solution and make tough problems seem even more intractable." This backs up Karen's point that focusing on the appalling stats will reinforce the notion that nothing can be done, and will depress instead of inspire.

OK, so if we can't focus on the problem, we need to focus on the solution. But what is the solution to the challenges facing young black males?

Research by the Search Institute, found that if you provide young people with the same number of developmental assets, you get the same results, regardless of their race or socio-economic status.

Great, so we just need to make sure all young people get the requisite number of developmental assets: problem solved, right?

Unfortunately no. Because the implication is that (as Karen, Merita and I wrote in 2002), "the desired goals of overall youth development are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve within the bounds of a single intervention unless that intervention is, in reality, not a single program (even a comprehensive one) but a reasonably complex strategy to change young people’s environments and opportunity structures."

This is all well and good, but moving a solution that is a "reasonably complex strategy" is hugely difficult. It is difficult to communicate to the public what the reasonably complex strategy is and why it is important. And it is difficult to get policymakers and foundations to support things which are not a clear program, but instead are a complex approach.

This is why the Forum for Youth Investment created Ready by 21. Will it work? Join us and we'll find out together.

November 18 at 01:43pm

What self-important nonsense.

Karen Pitman recast the teen pregnancy problem as universal in the in 1980's?

This ignores 20 years of action by Catholic Charities previous to her birth, and well past the 1980's.

November 17 at 08:26pm


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