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June 9, 2005

Black Mass. Conference calls for more role models for boys

Jeremy Schwab

Hundreds of black clergy, elected officials, activists, educators and others from all walks of life converged on the Hynes Convention Center Friday and Saturday for the fourth annual State of Black Massachusetts Conference.

Convened by state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, the gathering brings together interested people to discuss topics of concern to the black community and to propose action steps.

This year’s theme was “The Pampers to Prison Pipeline: The Ms. Education of Black Boys,” a play on words emphasizing the shortage of male role models in the lives of many black children and the negative affects this shortage is believed to have.

Panelists at the opening night Town Hall Meeting, which drew over 600 people, urged blacks, particularly middle class men, to volunteer their time, become more involved in the lives of vulnerable boys and try to understand their disenchantment.

“Why are our young black boys angry?” asked Nation of Islam Minister Don Muhammad. “Most of us interpret that anger as being at white people. But they are angry at us — the mothers who leave them in front of the tv.

“They are angry at themselves,” he continued. “These young hip hop listening dudes, I know some of the things they talk about are vulgar and ignorant, but they are angry at their environment, an environment not created by themselves.”

The panel of six included three members of the clergy, highlighting the importance Wilkerson placed on religious leaders’ role in the discussion.

Panelists cited environmental factors that often gives black boys the message that they cannot succeed: high dropout rates, a disproportionately high incarceration rate for black men, the lack of a father in many households and the shortage of male teachers, particularly black males, in inner city public schools.

Statewide, 52 percent of black males graduate high school, compared to 74 percent of white males, according to Schott Foundation data from 2000. Black girls tend to graduate from high school at a higher rate than black boys.

Black males do not just drop out of high school and even junior high at alarming rates; they are often siphoned out of mainstream classes or suspended from school for bad behavior.

Boys are much more likely than girls to be termed “mentally retarded,” “emotionally disturbed” or “learning disabled.” In Boston, 22 percent of black males, compared to 17 percent of white males, were put into one of these categories in 2000-2001, according to Schott Foundation data.

“This number of our sons is not mentally retarded,” argued Schott Foundation President Rosa Smith. “That we allow the special education bureaucracy to do these things to our sons is criminal.”

Black students are disproportionately given out-of-school suspensions. Furthermore, black children are much more likely than whites, Latinos and especially Asians to be expelled from pre-school, according to Smith.

Like other speakers, Smith put the onus on black parents to counter systemic prejudice.

“Some of these problems are about The Man, but most of them are about us,” she told the crowd. “Does racism exist? It most definitely does. But we as adults must not let it break the spirits of our children.”

Workshops on Saturday focused on the problems faced by black boys in three areas — health care, education and the criminal justice system.

Suggested action steps included the creation of a charter school for black boys, churches partnering with individual public schools to provide support, better monitoring of how public dollars directed toward black boys are spent, better medical screening in schools and the recruitment of more black male teachers through incentives.

Wilkerson successfully pushed for a statewide Commission on Health Disparities following workshop discussions on the need for such a commission at the first State of Black Massachusetts Conference in 2002.

Wilkerson said she expects action to be taken on suggestions made at the conference, and noted that the conference was simply an extension of an ongoing conversation among clergy and other community members about how to support black boys.

“Across the state, I expect to see and have [further meetings],” she said. “Some I’ll attend and some I won’t. But I had a very good sense there was a level of energy at a pitch I haven’t seen in a long time.”

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