How ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ Initiative Just Might Save Black Boys

By linking education and criminal justice, the initiative could finally address the key problems that are holding back young men.

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On Thursday, President Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper, a joint initiative of government, philanthropy and business leaders to improve life outcomes for men and boys of color. This is a politically significant move, marking the first time that President Obama has unabashedly launched a racially targeted program. But more important, the initiative holds the promise of intersectional thinking about two of its stated priorities that have too long been treated as separate concerns: education and criminal justice.

The statistical outcomes for boys and men of color in the U.S. have, of course, howled for attention for many years. Eighty-six percent of black boys and 82 percent of Latino boys are reading below proficiency by the fourth grade. One in every three black men will be imprisoned during his lifetime—a rate that hasn’t budged in nearly 15 years (pdf). The unemployment rate of black men in New York City has persisted at 50 percent since the Great Recession, even as the job outlook has brightened for other demographic groups.

Spurred by a growing body of research, the U.S. departments of Education and Justice several years ago began to address what civil rights advocates have dubbed the “school-to-prison” pipeline: the overuse of zero-tolerance discipline that hastens the slide to jail and prison for youths of color. A landmark study (pdf) conducted in Texas by the Council of State Governments found that a whopping 83 percent of black boys in the state were suspended from school at least once between middle and high school, mainly for minor offenses. Controlling for dozens of variables, the study found that black males were three times as likely to be suspended from school for identical behavior by white students.

A subsequent study (pdf) published last year finds that a single suspension in the ninth grade doubles the chance of dropping out and triples the chance of juvenile-justice involvement. And what we all know by intuition and research is that failure to graduate from high school is a leading predictor of future unemployment and incarceration.

On these questions, educators and police have generally assumed that tough responses—frequent stops and searches of young men in high-crime neighborhoods, more cops in schools and zero-tolerance discipline—reduce offending. However, what we’re learning in the school context suggests that punitive, “no questions asked” discipline is a counterproductive strategy. Schools that have implemented positive disciplinary measures—building relationships, resolving conflicts and holding students accountable for their actions without denying them instruction—are found to be safer and calmer, and academic achievement increases as a result.

The debate on the criminal-justice side, however, is still largely focused on whether aggressive policing reduces crime or harms police legitimacy. Even after a federal court last year declared the no-holds-barred use of stop and frisk by the New York City Police Department an unconstitutional infringement of civil liberties, entire research conferences are still devoted to what might happen to the crime rate when Mayor Bill de Blasio implements promised reforms.

But in addition to inquiring into whether aggressive policing reduces crime, we should also be asking whether it actually contributes to crime. The likelihood is that hypersurveillance in poor neighborhoods is not only inefficient (requiring 500 to 800 stops to catch a single offender) but also provides negative reinforcement for young people, making it difficult for them to envision a productive future. A study by the University of Missouri found that the more police stops a young person encountered, the less likely he was to report that he would feel guilty if he were to commit future offenses.

When police officers issue curfew tickets to Latino junior high students who are a block from school when the morning bell rings, or routinely search the backpacks of black children on their way home, we are communicating something profoundly discouraging and hypocritical about their future. At the same moment that education elites are exhorting teachers to believe in the potential of every child to succeed, criminal-justice policies of surveillance and social control are telling young people of color that “we know you’re up to no good.”

This psychic damage is relevant to an emerging body of research on the role that student optimism and perseverance play in academic achievement. Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania and her colleagues have found that student “grit” (pdf)—the ability to envision goals and persevere toward them—may be just as important as innate ability or socioeconomic factors to graduating on time and succeeding in college.

Which leads one to ask: If the antithesis of optimism is a lack of expectations, what do we say to young men like Kalif, a student I recently met from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y.? In a forthcoming documentary called Am I a Racist? Kalif described his arrest on the way home from school for possession of a Sharpie marker. (That would be unlawful possession of graffiti materials, a class B misdemeanor under NYS Penal Law 145.60, in case you’re wondering.)

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