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It's Time to Make the American Dream Available to All

May 27, 2014

Headshot_geoff_canadaThe barriers to success that black men face have been in plain sight for decades, so it is particularly heartening to see a movement taking shape that is specifically crafted to address these challenges and change the odds for one of the most disenfranchised populations in America.

I was on the board of trustees of the Open Society Foundations when the idea of a black male achievement campaign first came up. While it was obvious that something needed to be done, we immediately found ourselves facing a philosophical dilemma: Was it right to target just one group when other groups also need help?

In a country where cultural and racial relations are as complicated as they are in the United States, people are understandably hesitant to publicly announce they are going to help one group while seemingly ignoring all others. Eventually, we concluded that tailoring our efforts to a group that has a common history and a resulting set of common challenges is absolutely the right approach. Black men in America — while individuals in their own right — are heirs to a unique historical experience. After slavery was ended by the Civil War, black men faced decades of institutional racism, Jim Crow and segregation, public lynchings, and disenfranchisement. More recently, they have been abused and demeaned by a toxic street culture and media stereotypes that glorify self-destructive behavior.

If we are going to close the achievement gap and end what the Children's Defense Fund calls the "cradle to prison pipeline" for black boys and men, we need to take into consideration the insidious context of their situation. Indeed, as the Campaign for Black Male Achievement has taken shape, gaining traction even as parallel efforts have emerged, we've seen how necessary and overdue such an effort is. While there is certainly a lot of day-to-day work still to be done, the narrative and national dialogue have begun to change. Ignorance and fear are giving way to empathy and intelligent action.

We have, in Barack Obama, a president who has given the imprimatur of the White House to the idea that racism will not be sanctioned or ignored by society.  In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting, the president's empathetic response created space for an honest, open, and clear-eyed public discussion of race relations and the stubbornness of racism in America.

What's more, as the campaign has gained traction, it has been joined by promising national and local initiatives. At the federal level, President Obama announced the My Brother's Keeper initiativeCities United, the violence-prevention initiative launched by Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter and New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, also is national in scope. And individual cities such as New York City and Baltimore have created robust programs of their own to boost black and Latino male achievement.

As we move forward, I hope these successes can serve as examples and inspire us collectively to take additional action. Here are a few things we can do:

First, black boys need to be surrounded by older black role models. Boys need to see law-abiding, college-educated men making a good life for themselves through hard, honest work. That's been a critical missing element in many black communities and has created an opening for gangs, acting as surrogate families and offering false promises, to fill the void.

Second, young black men need jobs and legal ways to earn money. A black teenager who looks around and sees no hope of earning honest money is going to be tempted by the lucrative illegal activity that he sees every day on the street in many devastated communities. Instead of simply condemning these kids to the dead end that is the criminal justice system, we need to proactively provide them with real and positive alternatives.

The great challenge for all of us is taking what we know works and bringing it to scale. Saving a dozen boys, while deserving of applause, will not reverse the crisis we are facing. To get the most bang for our buck, we need to identify places where terrific things are happening on the ground and bring additional resources to bear so that organizations can go deeper and expand their efforts.

The destructive forces at work within the black community have been festering for decades; it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that the way out will take time. We are moving in the right direction, but we need to keep in mind that our collective commitment must be for the long haul. We need to scale our successes and view any failure as a wake-up call to try Plan B, C or Z.

The United States has an unparalleled history of creating economic opportunity for those who are willing to work hard to make a better life for themselves and their loved ones: that's the American dream.  Black males, on the other hand, have systematically and singularly been denied the means of achieving this dream. Today, we have an opportunity to tackle these obstacles and truly make the American dream available to all. Let's get to work.

Geoffrey Canada is president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone. This essay first appeared in the afterword of the report Building a Beloved Community: Strengthening the Field of Black Male Achievement, which was produced by the Foundation Center and funded by the Open Society Foundations' Campaign for Black Male Achievement. The report and other resources related to black male achievement are available for download at BMAfunders.org. Join @BMAfunders for a Twitter chat to discuss findings and strategies from the report on Thursday, May 29, from 2:00 -3:00 pm EDT using the hashtag #BelovedBMA. 


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