“How do we lift our young men out of the cracks?”
Fifty-two year old mother and grandmother Valencia Morgan asked that question last week as she stood among other black residents of Milwaukee’s Sherman Park. Just days earlier her community was the scene of violent protests that saw businesses burnt down and police in riot gear clashing with crowds following the shooting death by police of 23-year old Sylville K. Smith.
Police and news accounts state that Smith was armed when he was shot by a Milwaukee police officer following a traffic stop in this predominantly black community.
Inherent in Valencia Morgan’s words were the anguish, pain and hopelessness felt by many African Americans across the nation at the ever-rising toll of young black men to street violence, internecine gang wars and, too frequently, at the hands of police.
Looking at Milwaukee, which has a reputation for overly aggressive policing in its poorest neighborhoods, harsh drug laws and the highest incarceration rate in the country among black men in their 30s, it would certainly seem that black men there are already targets of biased law enforcement based on a perception of dangerousness and criminality. A perception no doubt fostered by public policies and systemic forces that act to keep poor blacks at the bottom, marginalized and economically isolated.
High unemployment, poverty and racial tensions
When we look at the root causes of crime and violence we can draw direct correlations with mass unemployment and the outsourcing of labor. Historically, strong industrial and manufacturing sectors provided stable jobs for American workers and the foundation for a burgeoning black middle class.
But the collapse of Milwaukee’s manufacturing center in 1960s stifled black upward mobility and economic growth before it could take root. Jobs moved out of the city into the suburbs where de facto housing discrimination policies kept blacks out, and for the most part, trapped in areas with limited economic opportunities. Those conditions, plus disinvestment in black communities and simmering racial hostilities, presaged Milwaukee’s status today as the one of the most segregated cities in America. Poverty is at 29 percent, unemployment among blacks is three times the rate for whites, and the city ranks 8th in violent crime.
The point here is not to excuse lawless behavior. Nor is it to attack police officers when they react in a manner in which they have been trained. But when structural inequities make people vulnerable in their own communities, and permanently excluded from viable employment opportunities because of the stigma of mass incarceration, it breeds isolation and desperation.
Richard Green is the leader of the Crown Heights Youth Collective which provides outreach programs targeted at disadvantaged young people ages 3-25. In addition to drug prevention, crisis counseling, and education and vocational guidance programs, Green’s organization also has forged a relationship with New York’s Police Department. Indeed, Green often addresses new police officers as part of an informal orientation to the community they will patrol and the cultures of the people they will interact with.
Green says many young black men in poor communities today simply feel that society does not value them.
“We have to start to reinvent the value system for these young people. But it is not going to be easy because you are competing against images and technology that reinforces these perceptions.”
Specifically, Green was referring to images created in various media depicting young black men acting with bravado and general disregard for others. “Police react accordingly to these perceptions, often with dangerous consequences borne out of fear,” said Green.
Preventing more from “falling through the cracks”
The Obama administration’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, launched in 2014, is aimed at preventing more young black men from “falling through the cracks.” It encourages public and private sector entities to leverage their resources, networks and programs to address persistent gaps in opportunities for young men of color. The concept is simple: by opening up more opportunities for young men of color in disadvantaged communities to access jobs and education, we put them on a pathway toward fulfilling their potential while hopefully minimizing the chances of their becoming causalities of a biased criminal punishment system. Programs like the Crown Heights Youth Collective offer an example of how this concept can work.
Yet Green thinks the White House needs to do more. In a letter to the President, Green urged him to address the nation’s young black men directly before he leaves office. “His message needs to be, `don’t pick up a gun.’ Renounce violence in your communities. You’re important to this country,” said Green.
Poverty, joblessness and aggressive policing practices that focus on young urban citizens of color contributed to the conditions that led to Sylville K. Smith’s fatal confrontation with a Milwaukee police officer. If we hope to avoid future outcomes like this, places like Milwaukee must balance augmenting their police departments with equal or greater investments in restoring distressed communities, treatment programs over punitive measures, and job creation for at risk populations.
Otherwise, we can expect more of the same.