Dropping Out, Imprisoned or Killed: Disparities in Outcomes Faced by Young African American Men


Aug 26, 2011

A father hugging his son on graduation day, photo by digitalskillet/Getty Images

Photo by digitalskillet/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on Tavis Smiley on PBS on August 26, 2011.

In the United States, racial and ethnic disparities exist across an array of domains. That such disparities exist should surprise no one. Nor should the fact that such disparities diminish the life chances of those affected. A vast body of literature documents such disparities and shows that they have developed and persisted over time in the context of historical and structural racism in ways that may influence policies, practices and programs.

Boys and men of color—in particular, young African American men—are particularly vulnerable to such disparities. For example, they tend to have lower high school graduation rates, a greater likelihood of going to prison and higher mortality rates from homicide.

What often gets lost in the numbers—but what the numbers clearly show—is that there is an interconnection between disparities across domains. For example, research has shown positive associations between maternal education and a range of child outcomes. So improving outcomes in one area may also have spillover benefits in other outcome areas. Ultimately, a variety of strategies at the macro or policy level, at the community level and at the individual level will be needed to improve the chances of young African American men.

Numbers Paint a Sobering Picture

Because of this important interconnection, it is critical to pull all the data together. This is what we did in a study for The California Endowment where we examined disparities faced by boys and men of color across four areas—socioeconomic, health, public safety and education. Here, I briefly summarize some of the key findings from the report entitled Reparable Harm: Assessing and Addressing Disparities Faced by Boys and Men of Color in California.

On the socioeconomic front, the data show that California has experienced higher child poverty rates than the country as a whole since the early 1980s—about 19 percent between 2002 and 2005. But African American children in California have the highest child poverty rates (around 27 percent) and are 3.4 times more likely than white children to live in poverty.

Poverty is associated with such factors as the number of parents in the household, their level of education, and whether they work. African American children are about 2½ times more likely than white children to be living in single-parent households and to be living with unemployed parents. Families with a single mother have the highest poverty rates—42 percent. And about half the poor children in California live in families where neither parent finished high school, with the poverty rate in these families at 44 percent.

From a health standpoint, the data tell a similar story. For example, nationally, African American male adults and adolescents have a nearly seven times higher risk of contracting HIV or AIDS than their white peers do. In California, HIV-related mortality is the eighth-leading cause of death for African American men, and they have a mortality rate from HIV infection nearly four times higher than that of white men.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) disproportionately affects boys and young men of color. Nationally, African American adolescents are 2½ times more likely than white adolescents to develop PTSD. When we look at data from the Developmental Victimization Survey on children's exposure to violence, African American youth are more likely to witness different forms of violence than white children. Children who witness violence are at increased risk for becoming victims themselves, for PTSD and for other negative consequences.

And, African American infants also begin their development at a disadvantage relative to white infants. In California, over 12 percent of African American infants are born with low birth weights compared to 6.5 percent of white infants. When a child is born with low birth weight, he is at greater risk for neurological, cognitive, behavioral and academic problems and, ultimately, for poorer health and increased risk of mortality than infants born at a normal birth weight.

Education and Public Safety Disparities Also Exist

The numbers for educational and public safety disparities are also well known. Nationally, African American male students in grades K-12 were nearly 2½ times as likely to be suspended from school in 2000 as white students. School suspension has been shown to be predictive of dropping out of school. African American Californians over age 25 are nearly twice as likely to be without a high school diploma as whites. High school graduation rates lead to earnings differences by race/ethnicity; high school graduation status is also associated with other outcomes, such as health and the welfare of one's children.

In terms of public safety disparities, relative to their proportion in California's youth population, African American adolescents have juvenile arrest rates 2½ times that of white adolescents. African Americans are also disproportionately represented in California's prison population. Although they make up only about 7 percent of the state population, they represent 29 percent of the state prison population. And nationally, African American men are 5½ times more likely than white men to go to prison in their lifetime. Based on current rates of first incarceration, almost 7 percent of African American men in the United States will enter state or federal prison by age 20, compared with less than 1 percent of white men.

Such large disparities are, unfortunately, only amplified by the intersection between the domains. Research has identified school failure and low levels of education as heightening the risk of involvement with the criminal justice system. And those caught up in that system are twice as likely as the general population to become high school dropouts.

As part of the Second Chance Act, correctional education has been identified as a high priority area for research. Also, as part of the Act, the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance recently awarded us a grant to examine educational methods for incarcerated adults and juveniles and to determine best and promising practices. This project should help provide answers to questions about what is known about the impact of correctional education on such outcomes as employment or educational attainment and where additional investment in research may be needed to better understand the effectiveness of correctional education.

Helping young men who are in the juvenile justice system or in prison to earn their high school or GED degree may be one way to begin to address some of these problems. Vocational education and training may also potentially help young men find employment when they return to the community.

Such answers are even more crucial given recent changes in both the criminal justice system and the broader economy. Less than one-third of inmates reported receiving correctional education before the recent economic downturn. But, given budget cuts and crowding, many correctional education and reentry/life skills programs are being cut at the state level, with even fewer inmates receiving these services.

Lois M. Davis is a senior health policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. She is leading a national study examining educational methods for incarcerated adults and juveniles and completing a study on the public health implications of prisoner reentry in California.

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