It has been nearly three years since President Barack Obama, in an address that many remember as one of his most deeply personal, spoke to the nation in the wake of the verdict in the case of Trayvon Martin, an African-American teen from Florida who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch commander.
Rather than arguing over the facts of a case that stirred anger across the nation, the president sought to focus on the root causes of that anger, particularly among boys and young men of color. “There has to be more we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them, and is willing to invest in them.” Six months later, the president launched My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative aimed at helping young men of color reach their full potential. “After all,” he said, “these boys are a growing segment of our population. They are our future workforce.”
Yes they are. And here are three things we can do to demonstrate that our nation is indeed “willing to invest in them.”
1) Recognize that parolees and probationers are a big part of the population in need of workforce training.
At any given moment, our nation holds nearly 750,000 black men in state and federal jails and prisons — a number that Los Angeles attorney Antonio Moore calls “socially catastrophic.”
Yet only 3 percent of these individuals are serving life-without-parole sentences, according to the nonprofit Sentencing Project — meaning the vast majority will eventually be released, most sooner than later. What is the best way to make sure that when they get out they stay out? Gainful employment — procured as soon as humanly possible, according to a recent report from The Manhattan Institute.
We already know, of course, that job training and education are social investments that pay incredible dividends. And we know that anything we can do to reduce our prison and jail populations without increasing criminality is also a societal boon. It stands to reason, then, that these efforts can and should work hand-in-hand, and should be a part of every state’s plan for improving workforce opportunity for everyone, and particularly for groups that are over-represented in the prison population.
2) Realize that the vast majority of young black men won’t ever step foot in a prison.
One of the most frequently quoted statistics about black men in the United States is also wrong. Very wrong. Despite what you’ve likely heard to the contrary, there are not more black men in prison than in college. In fact, the population of African American in college men is twice that of those in prison.
Of course, the difference should be greater. So much greater. But the idea that young black men have a better chance of ending up behind bars than in a college classroom should not be allowed to permeate, as it impacts the way we think about these individuals, and thus the programs we offer to support these individuals.
One very important thing to remember: The vast majority of black males in America end up somewhere other than college or prison, and these individuals and their families can benefit greatly from programs aimed at acknowledging this simple truth. Certainly, our states need programs that help keep young black men out of prison, but we also need programs that address the needs of those who have never been there and will never go there. These individuals still face unemployment that is significantly higher than almost any other demographic group — and thus can benefit greatly from programs aimed at helping them complete high school, get to college, or enroll in job training and placement programs.
3) Engage businesses in helping fill the high-skill job gap with boys and men of color.
More than 120 million high-skill / high-wage jobs will be available at the end of this decade — and only about 50 million workers will be qualified to fill them. The network of schools and nonprofit organizations that is striving to address this workforce shortage is simply not enough — job providers must be active participants, too.
They can do so not only by implementing recruitment strategies that value diversity, but also by offering mentorship, tutoring, job shadowing opportunities and workshops aimed at boys and men of color, according to a “playbook” aimed at businesses from the My Brother’s Keeper organization.