By Robert K. Ross, M.D., President and CEO of The California Endowment, and Tonya Allen, President and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, who are co-chairs of the Executives' Alliance to Expand Opportunities for Boys and Men of Color -- a growing network of nearly 40 national, regional and community foundations working together to invest in pathways to opportunity to enable America's young men of color to reach their full potential in school, work and life.
Since last week, the nation has focused its attention on Ferguson, Missouri, where a white police officer brutally shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager. Mr. Brown's killing and its aftermath have sparked a deep sadness and anger in the community and around the nation.
Unfortunately, shootings of unarmed and defenseless African-American males by law enforcement occur all too frequently in our nation. Michael Brown is neither the first such victim, nor likely the last. This latest tragedy represents a deeper and far more disturbing trend: the targeting of our young men of color.
Young black men in particular are much more likely to be suspected of wrong-doing or targeted as a threat by the police when they have done nothing wrong. For example, at the height of the "stop and frisk" program in New York City, which was eventually declared unconstitutional by a federal court, young black males made up only 1.9 percent of the city's population, and yet accounted for more than a quarter of all NYPD stops; exceedingly few of these stops resulted in any finding of wrongdoing. At nearly every level of law enforcement interaction across the nation, males of color, in particular African-Americans, face higher stakes: they are more likely to be stopped and questioned by police; more likely to be arrested; more likely to be the subject of an escalating confrontation resulting in the use of physical or lethal force by police; and they are more likely to be killed.
Sadly, the targeting extends to our education system as well, and it starts as early as preschool, where African-American boys are often met with harsh discipline rather than caring support. According to the U.S. Department of Education, black children make up 18 percent of preschool enrollment. Yet, nearly half (48 percent) of all preschool children suspended more than once are African-American, and boys receive more than three out of four out-of-school preschool suspensions.
What accounts for the way in which these young men are systematically singled out by the systems that are supposed to educate and protect them from harm? The answer may be as simple as it is maddening: fear.
With each passing decade, the level of overt racism and discrimination in the country tends to decrease, but a different form of bias, sometimes referred to as "implicit bias," persists. Fueled by racial stereotypes and false assumptions, it is what leads people to rush to judgment and make mistakes that end in tragedy. This is the root of the unfounded fear of these young people. Though our nation was founded on the ideal of equality, the reality is that if you are young, black, and male, your life experiences tend to be shaped much more by subjective and often irrational notions of fear rather than any notion of fairness.
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