As an African American and Latino philanthropic executive – and as a parent – I am thrilled to see more momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement. Until we address injustice and inequality for African Americans, we will never move beyond the racial conflict that has plagued our nation for its entire history.
Much of the focus of the Black Lives Matter movement appears to be centered on interactions between African Americans and law enforcement, such as the Mario Woods shooting in San Francisco and the Nicholas Robertson shooting in Los Angeles.
There is no question that avoidable shootings and brutality of blacks in encounters with police merit activism and action by lawmakers. However, black lives matter before encounters with police. While police shootings of black men consume our media – and deservedly so – a preventive approach should follow the data and research, not just headlines.
The epidemiology of life events for young black males directs us to intervention points as early as the third grade, and even sooner.
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Four school-age-related warning points are worth mentioning:
▪ Reading proficiency. Nationally, 82 percent of African American male fourth-graders are not reading at grade-level proficiency. This reality dictates increased early childhood investments and support for young parents.
▪ Chronic absenteeism. Children of any race or gender who miss 18 or more days of school per year dramatically increase their risk of dropping out of school. While there may be some truth in the adage that success in life is about “just showing up,” science tells us that “not showing up” to school can lead to academic failure.
▪ Truancy. Truancy has rightfully been identified by California Attorney General Kamala Harris as an early marker in the school-to-prison pipeline for many black and brown young men and women. Kindergarten truancy rates are almost 30 percent in California, which has dramatic repercussions for a child’s lifetime success or failure in school.
▪ School suspensions. The research shows that African American elementary school students are four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers, which increases the likelihood of involvement with the justice system. As a pediatrician, I am concerned that defiant behavior leading to suspensions actually signals a need for mental health or counseling intervention.
Certainly an argument could be made about other markers of early trouble for black boys. But these four demonstrate that African Americans are signaling trouble years before their first encounter with police. Young black men are telling us “I can’t breathe” as early as the third grade.
Simply put, the data tell us that if you are black and male and drop out of high school, you have a 70 percent chance of going to prison by your mid-30s.
While we welcome more professional and humane treatment of African Americans who encounter police and our justice system, we can’t exclusively define success as more polite questioning and handcuffing.
Real success must include improved hope and opportunity in our young people so that encounters with law enforcement are minimized in the first place. That means reforming overly harsh discipline policies in schools. It also means recognition by public education officials that suspensions and truancy represent warning signs for early intervention.
Schools in Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles have demonstrated reductions in suspensions, absenteeism and truancy while improving school test scores at the same time – so a track record of leadership and effective practices is already established.
Failure to prevent a young man of color from dropping out of school does not generate headlines and policy attention in the way a controversial police encounter undoubtedly will. But the data and research tell us that it is a preventable tragedy nonetheless.
Dr. Robert Ross is CEO of California Endowment.