Obstacles to Opportunity
The American dream can remain elusive for individuals residing anywhere within the nation’s population tapestry. Still, there is one demographic subset that faces a particularly steep climb to the summit—African American males.
The statistic is nothing new. Statistics and studies have long triggered alarm bells.
“It’s something people know has always been an issue,” said Brian Wyer, president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Minority Chamber of Commerce.
Community organization Achieve Escambia is currently attempting to figure out the dynamics of this equation at the local level. Statistically speaking, what are the disproportionate hurdles encountered by black males in the region? And why? And what can be done to improve this scenario?
“Where does this problem live? What are the indicators around it?” said Kimberly Krupa, the Achieve Escambia executive director.
The organization has engaged a data analysis firm to provide a useful picture of the region to better identify problems and solutions. Krupa said, “So we can see where some of the inequities are.”
Detailed data will undoubtedly be necessary, but some of the challenges facing an African American male in Escambia and elsewhere in America are well-known, recognized and multi-layered. Chief among these obstacles impeding opportunities are a tilted educational landscape in critical early-learning years, a justice system that effectively blacklists youth who run afoul of the law and an employment market increasingly out of sync with levels of education, training
“The first part is just having that discussion,” said Wyer. “You have to figure out what the problems are and then figure a way out to make it equitable for people.”
Traditionally, suicide rates are considerably lower for blacks than for whites. This is still the case, although there is an alarming rate increase for African Americans. According to a recent study in the Journal of Community Health, suicide rates among black teenage girls doubled, while black males saw a 60% increase between the years 2001 and 2017.
Jerry McIntosh, president of local organization Movement For Change, thinks this uptick is due to the sometimes bleak landscape facing African Americans, particularly when it comes to young men.
“That’s why we’re talking about suicide now,” McIntosh said. “It’s all tied to access to jobs, access to things they want to accomplish in life.”
But what are the roadblocks? What is blocking access to education, to jobs, to a better life?
Rodney Jones, the local NAACP chapter president, thinks the challenges start early. While some kids show up to school well-fed, studied up and with plenty of support at home, others do not. They instead come to school behind in various ways, perhaps hailing from less than ideal home environments and expected to learn the same as their classmates with the solid night sleep and nutritious breakfast.
“They walk out of these environments into your environment,” Jones said, pointing out that some families might not be stressing the importance and value of school or obtaining a good education. “In many households, it’s not even promoted to go to college or get some professional job.”
Krupa said that one key area of focus needs to be ensuring that children receive all available resources before entering the public school system. She points to Pre-K, or 4-year-old kindergarten—a free, but voluntary, program as a point of concern—explaining that facilities offering the service need to make sure they are adequately preparing their students.
“They’re not babysitters anymore; they’re teachers,” Krupa said.
Farther down the road, considerable challenges dimming the prospects of black males are criminal records. With that population receiving a disproportionate amount of attention from law enforcement, it’s understandable that a higher percentage would have a criminal record—frequently for low-level crimes. And that type of thing can knock a life off track.
“There is no upward mobility because many of them, before the age of 17 or 18, may have a felony on their record,” Jones said of young black men’s professional prospects with a record.
“They can’t go into the military; they can’t be a policeman; they can’t be a fireman. You can’t even work sometimes in the construction business,” McIntosh said. “It’s unfair and unjust as far as I’m concerned. The only thing left for them is selling drugs or getting into trouble on the streets.”
Jones is familiar with these circumstances. He faced challenges.
“I was one of those kids,” he said. “I needed a little more.”
That history is likely what led to his present, where he operates a juvenile justice diversionary program. He not only works with cognitive therapy and rehabilitation issues, but he also helps get people educational and employment resources. Last summer, he saw 42 of his participants get jobs.
“They’ll send them to me for redirection if you will,” Jones said.
Krupa hopes another type of redirection will help inspire young African American students to dream beyond their daily horizons. She said that introducing students to career paths that they would not otherwise be familiar with could result in broadening the scope of what an individual considers within their grasp.
For example, Krupa points to the foodservice industry. Students might feel comfortable going into such an industry because they see examples of it everywhere, but it also happens to be an industry ripe for automation. In contrast, aviation-oriented industries are seeking specially trained technicians for better-paying work.
“How do we get students that are in middle school to look at these jobs? Like, culinary is not the future,” Krupa said. “It’s exposure. People in their lives are working in food service, not aviation.”
Playing Catch-up in a Rigged Game
It’s not difficult to imagine the many reasons that black Americans encounter more challenges than their white counterparts in this country. It is a population that has been disadvantaged from the onset.
African Americans did, after all, begin their journey in this country as captives forced into slavery. And it hasn’t exactly been all roses since the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Segregation was only, like, 55 years ago,” Wyer pointed out.
That means that only since the middle of the last century did African Americans receive the theoretical fair shake on a level playing field. But, of course, the shake wasn’t always fair, and the playing field was hardly level.
“We’re still, as a group, generations behind,” Wyer explained. “Generationally-wise, we haven’t had the opportunities.”
But let’s back up and take a moment to pause at the national heartbreak that is slavery. It is within this nightmare that Wyer traces the seeds of the current challenges facing African Americans and specifically black males.
Aside from the physical abuse involved in the slave trade, Wyer points out that male slaves were typically conditioned to be more submissive—“taking away their pride, kind of taking away the strong father figure, even in slave days”—which he thinks has had a cultural impact.
“Children grow up thinking they have to be more submissive,” he said.
With such a historical skew, Wyer said, it’s going to take a concerted effort to create navigable avenues to success for a population who has not had the advantages of their fellow travelers.
“The only way we’re going to be able to catch up is by putting things in place that help African Americans,” Wyer said. “If you don’t intentionally do it, it’s not going to happen. You can’t just hope and wish for it.”