You Knelt, You Locked Arms: What Now?

Much has been covered and discussed in the media these days about standing, kneeling, or sitting during our national anthem, in support of the battle against inequality and racism. Symbolic gestures have value in civic discourse. But I want to press the issue of what the work of dismantling structural racism - inclusive of, but not limited to, police encounters - looks like. In other words, after the kneeling and locking arms are done, what now? What can professional athletes (or celebrities) with profile and voice actually do?

As the President of a private foundation - and an African-American - whose work focuses on the health and well-being of young people of color, I am impressed with how San Francisco 49ers' quarterback Colin Kaepernick catalyzed attention - as well as much of the ire of the public -for taking a stand by kneeling down for social justice. It is certainly inspiring and heart-warming for high-profile athletes and entertainers to provide lift for issues of social justice, however discomforting for public sentiments and civic discourse.

So, I have a list of seven such practices to suggest, but prior to listing those, some context. Police shootings and brutality represent flashpoints in the landscape of racism and structural inequality in America. While reforms and trainings in police departments are needed, have value, and are timely - no one who cares about racial problem-solving in America would submit that our nation's key goal should be to have law enforcement more professionally and politely handcuff young black men while in custody. Reducing or eliminating shootings and brutality of African-American men in police encounters is a laudable objective. But I would submit that the real prize is a positive and hopeful future for young people of color in our nation, and those key indicators include academic success, high school graduation rates, college attendance and graduation, a job and a rewarding career.

In other words, you could eliminate police shootings across our nation and still have atrocious high school graduation outcomes, horrific rates of incarceration and justice system involvement, and persistently sordid and embarrassing levels of unemployment - especially amongst African-American young men.

So, my list of top seven things you can do comes with this frame in mind. It suggests that, perhaps in addition to focused attention on the flashpoint of the unfortunate and ire-producing police encounter, we shift more of our attention "upstream": preventing and intervening in the sequence of systematic events (events where the data and research predict poor life outcomes) that often lead a young man of color into an unfortunate law enforcement situation in the first place. The list of seven focuses primarily on how systemic and structural racism show up in ways that affect the lives of millions of young black men - and boys.

With this framework in mind, here they are:

  1. Early grade reading and literacy: The research tells us that poor third-grade reading proficiency is an early predictor of subsequent academic failure. Moreover, roughly 70 percent or more of public school African-American boys in third grade are not reading at grade-level proficiency. This is an outrageous but fixable problem through strengthened parental engagement, early childhood investments, and focused attention by school districts on the problem. You can volunteer your services to a child, donate to the National Campaign for Grade Level Reading, or speak out in favor of public policies that support early childhood investments.

  • Focus on Truancy & Absenteeism: The research tells us that any episode of unexcused school absence for a child (regardless of race or gender), at any grade - and even as early as kindergarten - is associated with an increased risk of academic difficulty later in. Similarly, children with chronic school absenteeism, a problem with greater frequency in African-American boys, is indicative of school failure as well. If a child misses more than 10-15 days of school per year, the risks of school failure and dropout climb significantly. You can make your voice heard with public education officials and school boards to bring focused attention to the issue.
  • Help Reduce School Suspensions: In addition to early grade reading and absenteeism problems, the next critical early-warning-light indicator for young men of color in schools is the issue of suspensions and expulsions. The research tells us that black and brown young men and women in schools are suspended for disciplinary and behavior infractions at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts. Moreover, research suggests that each single episode of school suspension is associated with a higher risk of school dropout, juvenile justice involvement, and prison. You can speak out and advocate for schools to replace harsh school suspension practices with common sense strategies to keep kids in school - such as restorative justice practices -- hold them accountable for inappropriate behavior, and provide mental health and counseling supports.
  • Donate To Great Programs: Common sense and good research indicate that mentoring programs and after-school activities can bring substantial benefit to young people residing in at risk neighborhoods. Some are well known, such as the YMCA-YWCA and the the Boys and Girls Clubs - but every urban community has terrific, grassroots organizations responding to the support needs of these young people. You can not only donate to these programs, but any of these organizations would cherish the opportunity to have a high-profile local athlete or celebrity as a visible supporter or fundraiser.
  • Contribute to Black Lives Matter, or other racial justice efforts: Organizations such as Black Lives Matter, the Equal Justice Initiative, and Youth First confront and address needed structural and policy reforms to address racism, and are in need of additional funding support. Youth First is involved in an ambitious campaign to end the incarceration of juveniles across our nation. Donate to these social justice efforts, and use your voice to call for our nation to end the wholesale incarceration of juveniles.
  • Support The My Brother's Keeper Initiative. President Obama issued a call for public-private partnerships to improve life outcomes in young men of color. Nearly 200 communities around the nation are answering the call. Contact the My Brother's Keeper Alliance in New York City to learn how this effort can benefit from your financial or moral support.
  • Mentor A Young Person: Donate an hour or two of your time each week to mentor a young man or woman of color - at a school, a community center, in a foster home, a gang intervention program, or in juvenile probation.
  • Lastly, feel free to use your voice and influence to encourage young people of color to vote.

    Whether it is through the use of your time, your talent, your treasure, or your voice, professional athletes and celebrity influencers can play a significant role in the emerging national movement to address structural inequality and racism in America. Whether you choose to stand, kneel, or sit, it is most important that we each do.

    Robert K. Ross, MD
    President & CEO
    The California Endowment