A recently released report on young men of color by a national commission chaired by the incoming Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums may provide a roadmap to priorities and policies in the city for the next four years.
With murders in Oakland projected to reach 150 for the year, most of them young men of color, and the city’s public school system in a downward spiral after three years of state receivership, such a roadmap could come none too soon.
One of the report’s major recommendations, for universal health care, was a key part of Dellums’ platform in his successful run for Oakland mayor earlier this year.
In a report released earlier this month in Washington, D.C., the Dellums Commission of the national Joint Center For Political And Economic Studies Health Policy Institute concluded that national policies of the past 35 years, including “punitive and ineffective drug laws, educational inequities, anti-union government interventions, regressive tax policies, stagnation of the minimum wage, disinvestment in social and legal services, and discriminatory housing policies, including the abandonment of public housing” have “devastated communities of color,” striking American youth of color particularly hard.
Saying that youth has become “a minefield of trip wires for males of color,” the report noted that “misguided” national policies addressing troubled youth of color “compound the problem … [forcing] schools, police, courts, and juvenile authorities to adopt practices that result in marginalization, exclusion, confinement, and punishment instead of constructive solutions.”
The report called such conditions “unacceptable in a democracy with the resources and capabilities of the United States.”
Giving examples of positive programs addressing the problem already in place across the country, the report lists specific local, state, and national solutions in the areas of health, education, workforce and economic development, family support and child welfare, juvenile and criminal justice, and the portrayal of youth of color in the media.
Noting that “the diminished life options and outcomes that young men of color confront in today’s America is not a natural phenomenon,” Health Policy Institute Director Dr. Gail Christopher said in a prepared release that during its 18 month long study, the Dellums Commission “uncovered a series of policy decisions over the past three decades that have had a harmful impact on the way minority youth develop in our society. We have a duty to stop them now and reverse course. We cannot give up on our youth, and we must ask that they not give up on us.”
Joint Center chairman Elliott Hall called it “the first time in our nation’s history that an esteemed group of scholars, public officials, community activists and legal experts have investigated the problems faced by youths from every large minority group in the U.S.”
The full report and 12 accompanying background papers by national experts are available on the Joint Center’s website at www.jointcenter.org.
Dellums called the 27-page report and background papers “a guidebook for legislators, community wellness advocates, concerned citizens, and the private sector” for “a large and growing body of knowledge and expertise about what works to combat this growing blight on America.”
The report did not specify, however, exactly how the projected solutions and policies would be advocated or carried out.
Founded in 1970 by black intellectuals and professionals at a time when African-Americans were just beginning to win positions in large numbers in cities, state legislatures, and in the national House of Representatives, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies is a national, nonprofit research and public policy institution organized initially to provide training and technical assistance to those newly elected black officials. It has since grown into a Washington D.C.-based think tank investigating public policy areas of particular concern to African-Americans and other communities of color in the country.
The Dellums Commission was funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
The report put a good deal of blame of poor perception of youth of color on the media, which it said often perpetuates “pervasive negative stereotypes that engender popular fear, anger, and misunderstanding of minority youth. Mainstream news organizations help to cultivate these attitudes mostly by what they omit: context.”
The report called on state, county, and city governments to help facilitate discussions of negative news coverage between media outlets and community groups, as well as calling for media reform activists, foundations, and other nonprofits to “create outlets for young men of color to tell their own stories in alternative media.”
On the federal level, the report called for the Federal Communications Commission and Congress to repeal the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which the report said “paved the way for more consolidation in media ownership,” and to restore the Fairness Doctrine that “required broadcast station coverage of controversial issues to be balanced and fair.” The report also asked media outlets to “provide more air time to the subjective voices and perspectives of young men of color.”
Among the commission’s other policy recommendations:
• In the area of education, the report recommended that local school districts “aggressively and creatively” stem the high dropout rate among young men of color, and called for the elimination of “the policy of zero tolerance for behavioral offenses in schools.” The report also called for equity in school funding, “ending the common practice of shortchanging urban centers or rural communities where students of color live,” and blasted President George Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, which it said “makes it virtually impossible for low-performing schools to improve.”
• In the area of economic development, the report called for the raising of the minimum wage on both the federal, state, and local levels and for state and local government to “encourage banks and other lending institutions to expand operations—at fair, non-predatory terms—in underserved areas.” In addition, the report called on local governments to “promote … economic development opportunities in distressed communities by providing access to capital to establish viable business initiatives”
If instituted by Dellums in Oakland, that policy alone would be a marked departure from that of his predecessor, Jerry Brown, who concentrated economic development into the creation of new neighborhoods in Oakland—the Jack London Square loft district, the Forest City Uptown project, and the Oak to Ninth development—rather than rehabilitating existing ones.
• In juvenile and criminal justice, the report called on the “expan[sion of the] use of youth courts, drug courts, and community-based counseling as alternatives to incarceration for youth, the majority of whom are low-risk, nonviolent offenders.” The report also said that states should “mandate standards for legal counsel for young men of color, who are often poorly represented by counsel or provided no counsel in the juvenile justice system.”
• In the area of health, universal health care should be instituted, the medical care industry should be encouraged to develop “culturally competent medical professionals,” and state and local governments should develop early intervention into potential health problems. The report also recommended that “local governments should fund school-based health care and/or provide incentives for insurers, health care providers, and other business sponsors to participate in these programs at the K-12 level.”
The report noted that San Francisco’s youth-initiated Wellness Centers, which it said were located in seven high schools in the city, “demonstrate that public schools can be innovative, practical sites for health care services.” While the City of Berkeley was not mentioned specifically in the report, Berkeley’s city-run health department runs a successful student health clinic at Berkeley High School.
The report noted that in 2005, the state of Illinois ”extended health care coverage to all uninsured children through the age of 18.” California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently set universal health care for the state’s youth as a “goal” for his administration in his next four-year term.