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:
- 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.
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
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