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.
This fear results in boys and young men of color being perceived as threats instead of treasures. They are treated as if their issues are less important and their lives -- too often cut short -- are less meaningful.
Historically, the response to these tragic deaths follows a predictable pattern: local community outrage and protest marches. Community vigils are organized to pay homage to the victim. Investigations and reviews are commissioned. A full-throttle media response, with editorials voicing concern and talking heads providing crisp journalistic analysis on Sunday morning talk shows. Then, as the weeks go by, the news quickly fades and the devastated families of these young men are left to grieve alone. The mainstream media loops back for the courtroom drama, then fades again after the verdict. Then it's business-as-usual, at least until the next incident.
Let us not make the same mistake this time. As a nation, we must not be afraid to take a different course.
We write as the co-chairs of an alliance of presidents and CEOs representing over three dozen philanthropic institutions from across the country -- all of whom have committed to work in partnership to help young men of color have the opportunity to achieve their greatest hopes and dreams, and to gain the tools to lead healthy and successful lives.
We have worked with President Obama's My Brother's Keeper Initiative, which has been especially important for uniting federal agencies to help young men of color overcome barriers to health and success. Many of our foundations fund programs that create new job and career paths for young men of color; others fund important programs on fatherhood and mentoring.
While it is important to provide opportunity at the individual level, we know that the critical work goes beyond these programs. Entire systems and policies that profoundly shape the lives of young men of color must be reformed and healed to provide lasting change that will keep all children and young adults safe and help them thrive -- regardless of race, ethnicity or gender.
We must not be afraid to face the bias inherent in those systems -- our schools, courts and police departments -- that are meant to help all of our young people to grow up healthy and productive. We must directly confront the issues that cause police officers and others to respond in such lethal ways, and that cause schools to treat students of color more harshly, even when engaging in the same conduct as their white peers.
We applaud the actions already taken by Attorney General Eric Holder, and further call upon federal officials to investigate the disturbing pattern of deaths of unarmed people of color at the hands of police officers and the increased "militarization" of local law enforcement agencies. It's time for more caring, and less Kevlar. Rather than spending dollars on drones and other questionable, expensive military equipment, it is time that local law enforcement officials shift those resources toward training on how to more effectively engage their local communities, especially young people of color. Police departments in the cities of Los Angeles and New Haven have been at the forefront of implementing progressive community-policing approaches that have led to true partnership and trust with residents. No such effort is perfect, but it is a start. We call upon federal officials to reward those police departments who respond to change, and to use their authority to require reforms of those that act irresponsibly and recklessly.
None of these efforts alone will fix the problem that boys and men of color face in our society. But together, as a part of a sustained, long-term effort on multiple fronts, they can help us to take steps toward undoing the unconscious mindset that leads to tragedy.
Only by replacing fear with common sense, courage and caring can we truly help all of our young people to reach their potential. As a nation, it's the only way we can reach ours.