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Responding to the Challenges
Confronting Black and Latino Males:

The Role of Public Policy in Countering
the “Crisis” and Promoting Success

by Pedro Noguera
New York University, New York

The Trayvon Martin killing may have accomplished something that numerous policy reports and research studies have failed to achieve: drawing the public’s attention in a sustained manner to the precarious plight of African American males. There is of course tremendous irony here. After all, the admitted killer of Trayvon Martin has not yet been arrested or charged for any crime, and it remains to be seen what will happen when the case is investigated by state and federal authorities. (Editor: This paper was written before the trial of George Zimmerman.) But, like Emmitt Till before him, the Black teenager murdered by a mob for the crime of looking at a White woman, Trayvon Martin has become a symbol, not because of the hoodie he wore, but because he is representative of a class of people whose status in American society is noticeable for its vulnerability.

The vulnerability of Black males is particularly evident in education. On all of the indicators of academic achievement, educational attainment and school success, African American males are distinguished from other segments of the American population by their consistent clustering in categories associated with failure (Schott 2010). In most schools and districts throughout the United States, African American, and in many cases Latino males, are overrepresented in educational categories typically associated with failure and sub-par academic performance. Similarly, on those indicators that are associated with success – enrollment in honors or gifted classes, advanced placement courses, matriculation to college and degree attainment, etc. – African American and Latino males are vastly under-represented. With few exceptions, these dismal patterns are evident in urban, suburban and rural school districts throughout the United States, even in communities with relatively small minority populations (Majors and Billson 1992). Nationally, African American and Latino males are more likely than any other group to be suspended and expelled from school (It is worth noting that Trayvon Martin was suspended at the time of his shooting. See Noguera and Fergus 2010 and Gregory, Skiba and Noguera 2010 for a discussion of racial disparities and school suspensions), and more likely to rank at the bottom on most indicators of academic performance in most subjects.

Over twelve years after the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), dropout rates for African American and Latino males remain well above 50% in most American cities. Sadly, this includes the cities such as New York, Austin and Miami where graduation rates have been rising (Schott 2010; Noguera and Fergus 2010). In urban, suburban and rural school districts throughout the country, African American males are also more likely to be classified as mentally retarded or to be identified as suffering from a learning disability and placed in special education than any other sub group (Losen and Orfield 2002). They are also more likely than other students to be placed in highly restrictive learning environments (Losen and Orfield 2002). Even class and gender privilege that clearly seem to provide White males with advantages do not seem to buffer Black males from middle class families from educational hardships. Middle class Black males consistently lag behind their peers on standardized tests (Jencks and Phillips 1998). Moreover, unlike their White male peers, African American males lag behind Black females in science and math, both with respect to grade point average and on standardized tests (Noguera 2008; Pollard 1993).

Recent results from a survey by the US Department of Education Civil Rights show that one in five Black boys and more than one in 10 Black girls received an out-of-school suspension compared to nine percent of Hispanic boys and four percent of Hispanic girls and seven percent of White boys and three percent of White girls. Additionally, Black and Hispanic students represented more than 70 percent of those involved in school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement (Ed.GovNews 2012). Similarly, a 2011 study on suspension patterns among ninth graders in the state of Texas called Breaking School Rules revealed that 83% of African American males and 74% of Latino males in the study were suspended at least once, and one in seven students in the study was suspended at least eleven times.

Though education is the primary focus of this policy series by the Council of Great City Schools, it is important to recognize that the problems confronting Black males in the United States are not limited to education. As the Trayvon Martin case reminds us, Black males face a wide array of hardships in American society that add to their vulnerability. For many years, Black males have led the nation in homicides and violent assaults, both as victims and perpetrators. In what many observers regard as an alarming trend, they are now experiencing the fastest decline in life expectancy (Walsh 2012) and the highest growth rate for suicides. For the last several years, Black males have been contracting HIV and AIDS at a faster rate than any other segment of the population and their incarceration, conviction and arrest rates have been at the top of the charts in most states for some time. Even as babies, Black males have the highest probability of dying in the first year of life. In the labor market, Black males generally have the highest unemployment rates. This is true during periods of prosperity and recession (Bureau of Labor Statics 2012 - Typically, they are the least likely to be hired, and the most likely to experience long-term unemployment.

The situation confronting Black males is particularly critical in the criminal justice system. As legal scholar Michele Alexander has noted, for the last thirty years the United States has embarked on a policy of “mass incarceration”. This is occurring on a scale that is almost unparalleled in human history (Alexander 2010). As prison populations throughout the United States have increased dramatically over the last thirty years, overwhelmingly, Black men have born the brunt of the drive to incarcerate. There are now more Black men ensnared by the criminal-justice system -- in prison, on probation, in county jails, or on parole -- than any other racial or ethnic group, and more than all others combined. Of the more than six million persons across the United States held in prison, more than fifty percent are Black men, and in several states, the Black male incarceration rate is substantially higher .

(Alexander 2010)Equally troubling is that prisons have literally become a growth industry, and with many prisons now managed by private firms, there are now clear financial incentives to sustain mass incarceration. In 1980 there were approximately 220 people incarcerated for every 100,000 Americans. The incarceration rate has more than tripled over the last thirty years (Gopnik 2012). Today there are over 700 prisoners for every 100,000 Americans. In almost all states, public funding for prisons has come at the expense of funding for health, transportation and most significantly, education. On average, state governments now spend six-times as much money on prisons as they do on higher education. In New York City, the hub of the prison system is on Rikers Island, located adjacent to La Guardia Airport. With ten separate jails, a budget of $860 million a year, an inmate population of 14,000, and a staff of 8,500, Rikers Island is one of the largest penal institutions in the world. The overwhelming majority of those held on Rikers Island are Black and Latino males, the vast majority of whom are between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. An estimated 90 percent of the youth held at Rikers Island today will be re-arrested by the time they're twenty-eight years old.

Given the dire situation confronting African American (and in many cases Latino) males in health, the criminal justice system, and the labor market, it would be a mistake to focus intervention efforts on education alone. Education is clearly an important arena for interventions because there is ample evidence that individuals with higher levels of educational attainment are more likely to be employed, to earn higher salaries, to live longer, healthier lives and to stay out of prison
(Carnoy 1997). However, even as we focus on addressing the educational needs of African American males we must also recognize that factors that are external to schools namely, parental support, peer influences, housing, crime and public health, also have an impact on the development and academic success of African American males. Hence, what is needed is an integrated and holistic policy approach that aims at erecting a safety net through a system of buffers and supports; a system of support that would make success for Black males more likely.

Elsewhere, I have written that although the problems confronting Black and Latino males are stunning in their magnitude and in their dire consequences, it would be a mistake to characterize them as a “crisis” (Noguera 2008). If in fact these problems were recognized as a policy crisis by now we would have witnessed an urgent and concerted response. Despite several policy reports issued by private foundations, governmental agencies and community groups, there has in fact been no urgent response to these problems. Rather, throughout American society these patterns have become so common, widespread and entrenched that a recitation of the dismal statistics no longer generates surprise or even alarm. The Black and Latino male problem has been normalized, and like other unpleasant social conditions -- drug trafficking and addition, homelessness, child abuse, etc. -- there is a widespread sense that it will always be with us.

However, the killing of Trayvon Martin and the massive amount of media attention it has generated may have created an opportunity and an opening for a more constructive approach to addressing the larger set of social and economic problems facing Black males. Hopefully, his death will have brought us to a point where policymakers will recognize that new policies must be formulated to respond to the challenges confronting vulnerable populations. The present approach which could be characterized as reactive, narrow in scope and too focused on symptoms than on the underlying systemic causes, is far too costly and ineffective to be sustained. For that reason I offer the following recommendations on the types of short-term modifications to public policy and a set of core policy principles that need to be embraced in order for our society and its institutions to begin to respond more effectively to the needs of the needs of Black and Latino males.

Below we propose some possible policy and programmatic recommendations for restructuring social institutions and re-designing public policy. These are necessarily framed in fairly general terms because in order to be effective, they would have to be modified to meet the needs of particular communities and regions. Despite their obvious limitations, we offer these recommendations in recognition that actions can be taken now to address the needs of Latino men.

Educational interventions should be implemented early based on data that shows when warning signs are present. The longer that the educational hardships experienced by Black and Latino boys are ignored, the more difficult it is to address them. In several states and school districts, policymakers have adopted policies to end “social promotion”, however in most cases this amounts to little more than a requirement that students who do not meet grade level expectations be required to repeat the grade. Rarely do such policies include a plan to diagnose the learning needs of students who have fallen behind or to provide access to high quality interventions like (e.g. reading recovery and other Response to Intervention (RTI) programs) that have been shown to be effective (Slavin, Karweit and Wasik 1989). A substantial body of research has shown that overage students are at substantial risk of dropping out of school (Gates Foundation 2006). Moreover, in states and school districts where grade retention policies have been implemented there are still large numbers of students enrolling in high school who lack basic literacy (Mims, 2001).

Instead of merely requiring students to repeat a grade in school, school districts would be better off increasing access to quality early childhood programs, providing expanded access to extended learning opportunities after school and during the summer, and utilizing targeted interventions to cultivate literacy and bilingualism during the elementary years to insure that students have the literacy skills required to succeed in secondary school (Shonkoff 2000). A vast body of research has shown that these types of initiatives and interventions can be very effective in improving academic outcomes for students (Fashola and Slavin 1997, Rothstein 2004, Kirp 2011). There is no reason that such interventions would not also work for Black and Latino boys.

Policy interventions should be holistic and integrated.

Policy interventions must be designed in a comprehensive manner in order to respond to the broad range of individual needs -- economic, social, psychological, emotional, etc. that impact child development and social welfare. For example, research has shown that efforts to reduce recidivism among recently incarcerated youth must include a focus on their educational and employment needs so that as young men make the transition to life outside they have access to genuine opportunities that can set them on a new trajectory (Earls 1991). Likewise, discipline policies in school should not only focus on applying appropriate consequences for inappropriate behavior, they must also address the underlying factors that cause it (Noguera 1995). Students who are behind academically, who are experiencing abuse or neglect at home, or who have unmet mental health needs, are unlikely to improve their behavior through discipline alone. A study conducted by the Applied Research Center in Oakland, California shows that a comprehensive approach to school discipline must include strategies to address the causes of behavior problems and a plan to re-connect offending students to the goals and purpose of school (2000).

Additionally, interventions aimed at changing individual behavior should also involve efforts to transform the institutions that serve young men so that they become more responsive to their needs. For example, research has shown that serious efforts to increase college enrollment must focus both on the changes that individual students need to make (i.e. improved study habits, more proactive help-seeking, etc.) as well as changes that are needed in the structure and climate of educational institutions (i.e. greater access to counselors and mentors, access to campus jobs, etc.). Several studies have shown that schools and community based programs that are successful in positively influencing academic and social outcomes for young men of color employ adults who are well trained and highly skilled, culturally competent in that they have the ability to build strong relationships with the young men they serve and if necessary transcend differences in race and class differences, and a high degree of moral authority
(McLaughlin, M. 2000). Recruiting adults (particularly men) from diverse backgrounds as teachers, social workers and directors of after school programs, and providing them with training, is essential to the success of schools and programs that serve young men of color (Girabaldi 1992).

Policy interventions must be evaluated regularly and modified based on new evidence to insure effectiveness. Too often, local communities and school districts adopt programs aimed at addressing a social issue or problem (gang involvement, dropout prevention, youth unemployment, etc.) but fail to carry out effective evaluations of these efforts. Similarly, foundations frequently launch funding initiatives in response to a pressing problem and then shift to focus on a different set of issues and problems long before prior initiatives showed even a measure of success. Public and private initiatives are frequently launched without adequate consideration of how the initiatives they support can be sustained. In recent years, several major foundations and local governments have announced initiatives to address the “crisis” confronting young men of color, however with few exceptions, most of these efforts have ceased or simply dissipated. Sporadic efforts that are not evaluated or assessed for their effectiveness and that are not accompanied by a plan to sustain programs that prove to be successful will have little impact upon the complex challenges confronting Black and Latino males. Good intentions are not good enough, and without a commitment to sustain and adjust intervention efforts as necessary, there is no reason to expect that they will have a lasting impact.

Policy interventions should be sensitive to ethnic, racial and socio-economic differences among different groups of Black and Latino men and boys.

The challenges confronting Black and Latino men must be differentiated by national origin, class, geographical location, educational level and age. The most effective interventions will be based upon an intersectional approach that acknowledges the complex interaction between ethnicity, gender, social class and sexuality. Rather than a “one size fits all” approach, special attention needs to be paid to social context and the ways in which social identities are shaped by the unique conditions in a particular milieu. The needs of the most at-risk youth (e.g. homeless youth, young people in foster care, and those who have already been incarcerated) are very different than those who are college bound. Yet, both groups require attention and support. Similarly, while many of the hardships they face are similar, programs to support African American and Latino youth must be sensitive to cultural and linguistic differences. Especially in communities where there are tensions between Blacks and Latinos, it is important not to assume that a single initiative focused on the needs of young men will work for all in need.

Policy interventions should be designed to avoid stigmatizing while providing support.

Rather than designing interventions that are exclusively targeted at Black and Latino males, in many cases it will be beneficial to focus policies based on need rather than race or gender identity. In addition to making reverse discrimination lawsuits less likely, such an approach will make it less likely that policy interventions will inadvertently contribute to the stigmatization and marginalization of those they were designed to help. For example, if a diverse high school is concerned about the academic performance of its African American males, it would be wise to develop support programs for all students who need help rather than exclusively for Black males. Schools in particular have a long history of devising programs to help students that have the opposite effect (e.g. many remedial and special education programs). In addition to avoiding labels that may create stigma it is important to insure that support programs are staffed by highly competent, caring adults.

Policy interventions should consider both individual and institutional/ system levels of change.

A growing body of research has shown that the most successful interventions for supporting students focus on both school change strategies and provide additional support for individual students (Steinberg 1996). Similarly, interventions that are designed to address social problems like unemployment and under-employment, domestic violence, gang violence and HIV, must focus on both individual behaviors and the need for system change. For example, programs aimed at reducing the number of students who dropout of school are unlikely to succeed if they only target at-risk students while ignoring the conditions in school (e.g. shortage of counselors, lack of academic support, etc.) that contribute to high dropout rates.

Policy interventions must develop systems of social support in order to create a context for improved interpersonal relationships.

Several studies of successful intervention programs have shown that changes in the attitudes and behavior of Black and Latino men and boys are most likely to occur if they are carried out within a collective, community-based approach rather than one that focuses exclusively on the individual
(de Jesus Acosta, 2007). Developing communities of support (Smithers and Robinson 2006), peer study groups (James, 2011), after school programs (Steinberg 1996) and community-based “safe havens” , have all shown to be effective in reinforcing pro-social behavior and deterring delinquency and other social problems. Research has also shown that a collaborative approach that occurs within a supportive community is more likely to result in the internalization of a new set of attitudes and behaviors (Boykin and Noguera 2011). This is true for health and education-based interventions and it may also be true for other social issues.
(James, 2011)

This is only a partial compilation of the types of policy initiatives and principles that should be used in the development of policy interventions. It is important for others to expand upon these recommendations, to critique them, and to offer new ones based upon further experience and ongoing research. While it is important to recognize that more fundamental changes in law, policy and the structure of economic opportunities are needed to make lasting, far-reaching changes, it is also important to advocate for more limited changes so that we can alleviate some of the hardships facing Black and Latino men and boys.

For those reading these reports it would be wise to maintain a healthy degree of skepticism toward any policy or program that is held up as a panacea. While action is essential, it is also important not to move forward with alarmist announcements that Black males are an “endangered species”
(Taylor-Giibs 1988) that do little to provide guidance for policy, or to make major investments into programs that have not been carefully studied and assessed. We don’t have the resources to waste on half-baked ideas or untested gimmicks.

For example, in response to the educational challenges confronting Black and Latino males many communities have created single sex schools in the hope that these will “save” boys of color
(Watson and Smitherman 1996). However, a four-year study conducted by the Metropolitan Center of Urban Education at New York University found that while some of the single sex schools that have been created over the last few years are quite successful, others are not. Many of these schools have been created without a clear sense of the kinds of instructional supports that the male students they serve will need. They also have not created a learning climate that is conducive to academic success and positive youth development. Not surprisingly, some of these schools are foundering and the students they serve are not thriving. Clearly, separating boys of color into schools that serve them exclusively is no panacea.

However, there are several schools across the country that are succeeding at educating African American and Latino males. Schools like Urban Prep in Chicago, Im Hotep Academy in Philadelphia, and Excellence School for Boys in Brooklyn, NY, show us that the problem is not who is served within a school but how they are served. Policymakers and educators who have lapsed into blaming the Black male students or by extension their parents, must learn from the examples of success.

At the same time, we should not be so naïve as to lose sight of the fact that children living in communities with high concentrations of poverty are more likely to be affected by asthma and an assortment of health challenges, drugs, gangs and other social problems, and that these hardships pose formidable challenges to learning and development that schools alone cannot solve by themselves. The pull of the streets and all of the dangers associated with it is drawing too many young males of color onto the path of delinquency at an early age
(Anderson 1990; Majors and Billson 1992). The few successful schools that exist show us that these obstacles can be countered. However, consider how much more might be accomplished if educators working closely with parents and community agents were to be supported by policymakers? Together, they might be able to design support systems that work in alignment with schools to meet the needs of disadvantaged children.

Of course, creating support systems for males of color and schools that are successful at addressing their academic and social needs is not easy. If it were, the problems facing Black and Latino males would not be as severe as they are now. We need to address the issues confronting Black and Latino males with a sense of urgency and treat it as an American problem, rather than as a problem that only those who directly experience it should be concerned about. This means drawing on the resources of our entire society in the public and private sectors to respond in a concerted and coordinated manner.

The continued failure of so many young men is costly to the entire society. Every dollar spent to incarcerate a Black or Latino man or boy, to support them during periods of unemployment, to house them when they are homeless and destitute, to police them when there is a lack of safety in the neighborhoods where they reside, to pay for the cost of medical care when they show up at emergency rooms in hospitals with chronic health conditions, or to support their children because they are unable to provide as fathers, could easily be re-directed to address other needs. We need a pro-active, preventative strategy and education must be at the center of it.

Of course, given the current state of American politics it will be difficult to generate the will to embark upon a new direction. Racial bias, xenophobia, and plain old indifference toward the plight of the poor, are not insignificant constraints. Still, those who seek to bring about changes in policy that would benefit Black Latino men and boys, must find ways to implement policy interventions at any level – school, community, state, etc. that is possible.

We can’t afford to wait. To the degree that we allow boys and men of color to remain vulnerable all of us are endangered. It need not be that way and armed with a different vision of how to address the challenges they face we can and must begin to construct a new reality now.

Published in In Motion Magazine January 9, 2014.

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