Written by John Oliver Santiago
On February 29, an official “Teach-In” was held at Centro Cha. The teach-in was an open platform where men, both young and old, were given the chance to speak about their experiences growing up as men of color. The current Director of Khmer Girls in Action, Lian Cheun, was present and said, “It’s important to address the issues faced by young men of color. Statistics show that young men of color have the highest unemployment and dropout rates while having the lowest life expectancy rate.”
A study done by the RAND Corporation, Drexel University, PolicyLink, and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School arrived at a conclusion that, “When it comes to health and other outcomes, the odds for boys and men of color are more than two times worse than they are for white boys and men in California.” There is an increased risk directly correlated to where they live. A current Centro Cha board member, Danny Flores spoke about his experiences growing up, detailing how these outcomes are the results of institutional faults and self-perpetuation.
“Growing up, I had no dad and was surrounded by drugs, alcohol, and violence. Everyday, my mom would tell me to go around the block and buy tortillas. Everyday, she’d tell me that. And I got pissed, because to walk down the block was to get murdered. Kids join a gang, not because of race or nothing, but because they feel welcome and safe there. It’s not even a race thing, Latinos are killing Latinos and Blacks are killing Blacks. And instead of protecting me, the cops stick their hands up my butt searching me for a weapon. Growing up with all of that, you grow up hating the world. These kids, they’re going through that ugliness.”
In that one anecdote, Flores acknowledges the multiple factors that create these outcomes for boys and men of color. According to a RAND Corporation study from 2006, African American and Latino children are both 3.4 times more likely than Caucasian children to live in poverty. African American children, in particular, are 2.5 times more likely than Caucasian children to have single-parent households and are also 2.4 times more likely to grow up with unemployed parents. Latino children are 10.2 times more likely to have a maternal education that only goes up to high school. According to the PEW Hispanic Center, there’s been a 436% growth in the population of first-generation Hispanic Americans from 1970 to 2000. African American children face pressures of unemployment and the absence of a nuclear family, while Latino children are heavily burdened by a presence of first-generation parents and the socioeconomic presumptions that come with such.
To complement these factors, the presence of the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” further aggravates the scenario. The pipeline refers to a series of zero-tolerance policies that further pushes high-risk students away from the school system and eventually towards incarceration. The ACLU claims that, “Zero-tolerance policies impose severe discipline on students without regard to individual circumstances.” These policies have become the go-to panacea for a cash-strapped education system that can’t afford to handle each student on an individual basis. With forthcoming cuts going across the entire educational system, the only thing many lawmakers can do is work to soften the blow on several institutions—such as California Governor Jerry Brown.
Aforementioned external factors have a direct effect on the performance of African American and Latino children, and as such they find themselves in this high-risk category. In an educational system where it’s incentivized to have the highest standardized test scores, schools have a tendency to pool in resources for students tracked to do better—if it means a lower student-to-teacher ratio. Meanwhile, high risk students are tracked into a course through the educational system that finds them at push-outs: certain policies that logjam their development and further pushes them to dropping out. The school system has a tendency to look over as to why a student has been truant repeatedly to class and labels them so as oppose to working with the student if they happen to be the ones to drop off their younger siblings or if they’re working late nights to make ends meet, for example. Just as Danny Flores had said, these students are growing up with mistrust and are disinterested in a school system that seems poised to easily sign them off as a drop-out.
It doesn’t help either that these schools are now being staffed with on-site police officers. For these youth, police officers are a threat as opposed to a safety net. In Long Beach, there’s a system of gang injunctions in place. Essentially, these are restraining orders that can be placed on any potential gang member that prohibits them from participating in certain activities. According to the Long Beach Police Department Gang Injunctions FAQ Sheet, these activities range from “[the suspect] can’t drive, stand, sit, walk, gather or appear, anywhere in public view or anyplace accessible to the public, with any known member of the gang in the Safety Area.” Albeit it’s a system that seems effective on paper, but for young men such as Alfredo Gomez, these gang injunctions are an ineffectual, cost-effective bandage to a much deeper problem. Gomez is a 25 year-old Hispanic who currently attends an adult school. From first impressions, he is a very well-spoken and mild-mannered young man. However, due to a gang injunction that was placed on him without his knowledge, he can’t be seen talking with his own brother—a man who himself is on the gang injunction list. Alfredo claims that both he and his brother are not at all gang-affiliated, but due to a faulty system they can’t associate with each other nor with many of their peers because actions as simple as “hanging out” are against their injunction.
According to Danny Flores, gangs don’t form out of racial tension but more along the lines of providing these troubled young men with the group dynamic that they so lack in their lives. And instead of finding solidarity in their cultures, gang-on-gang violence doesn’t discriminate and color is meaningless to a bullet. By joining a gang, these young men serve only to validate the preconceptions of those stereotyping them to be low-achievers at life. Even without direct participation in the gang life, these young men grow up to have their own families that start in this self-perpetuating cycle once more.
The aforementioned study done by the RAND Corporation, Drexel University, PolicyLink, and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School also arrived at another key finding, “If trauma is the problem, then healing and preventing trauma must be the underlying focus of any solution” and that “policies that support community-based solutions are needed to address the health issues faced by boys and young men of color.” The past teach-in at Centro Cha is one of the many grassroots organizational attempts at working to change these statistics. A 20 year-old African American man, Marquis Liggins, came down from South LA representing the Boys and Men of Color Initiative to show support for the teach-in. This initiative brings groups of minority men from South LA, Boyle Heights, and Long Beach and advocates changing the status quo. In remarking the event Liggins said, “It’s a great opportunity for people to hear stories. You never know how similar the stories are to each other. And from this, we can somehow get the movement in one direction. There are a lot of improvements to be made.” And these movements truly do need solidarity. According to a calculation by the Alliance for Excellent Education, if the number of dropouts in the Los Angeles-Long Beach School Districts were cut in half, collectively, this single class of new graduates would likely earn as much as $592 million more in an average year, compared to their likely earnings without a high school diploma.
As Danny Flores put it, these young men are “going through [this] ugliness”. Although it seems like a tall order, this change has to happen. And although it’ll be a lot of work, these young men need to see the beauty past all this ugliness.