Black males hold the keys to success for Mississippi

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Kierre Rimmer

Kierre Rimmer, center, with kids from his program F.L.Y. Zone in Cleveland.

 

Mississippi’s black boys are more likely to live in poverty than children in all other racial and ethnic groups.

Black boys in Mississippi consistently perform worse on national reading and math standardized tests than other groups.

Black males are twice as likely to be unemployed in Mississippi.

These are a few of the findings of two new reports from the Hope Policy Institute that examine education and economic security gaps of black males in Mississippi. The recently published reports conclude that “creating opportunities for young men and boys of color to reach their full potential helps to advance individual opportunity, family sustainability, community prosperity, and Mississippi’s overall economic competitiveness.”

In other words, given the immense challenges that African American males face, policies that help them could also help Mississippi start climbing off the bottom of any number of lists where the state ranks low for citizens’ quality of life, according to people who work with black boys and teens.

For example, Mississippi has a 5.3 percent unemployment rate — the nation’s sixth highest — but one in 10 African American males is unemployed, according to the Hope report “Closing the Economic Security Gap for Mississippi’s Black Males.”

The Jackson metropolitan area has the highest concentration of out-of-work black men in the state; Carroll County is where black male unemployment is highest, about 30 percent at the time of the report by Hope, a Jackson-based nonprofit that analyzes data about poverty, health, housing and other issues and advocates for policies that help low-income families.

Kierre Rimmer founded the Cleveland-based group called F.L.Y. (Forever Lifting Youth) Zone for boys and girls ages 10 to 18. A focus of the organization is connecting kids to business owners, professionals and other community leaders as well as teaching basic life skills like how to change a flat tire. It’s important to introduce young people to the concept of entrepreneurship because there aren’t a lot of places to get jobs in the Mississippi Delta, especially for kids, according to the group.

“The pressure to have money at 13 or 14, shouldn’t be a focus. That should be the parents’ responsibility. You should be enjoying being 13 or 14. White kids don’t have that problem. You ask 14- or 15-year-old black (kid), they don’t know what an allowance is,” Rimmer said.

Jackson State University

Natalie Collier is founder and director of the Lighthouse project in Jackson.

Natalie Collier, director of The Lighthouse | Black Girl Projects in Jackson, which works with young women of color in the South, agrees that there’s an expectation that black kids grow into adulthood quickly, which she believes can be harmful to black families.

“We do this disturbing thing, like say (to boys) ‘You’re the man of the house.’ No, you’re still a child. We don’t let girls be girls and boys be boys. We don’t let them be children,” she said.

The Hope report illuminates those pressures. It shows that while Mississippi has the highest-in-the-nation poverty rate, 22.5 percent, more than 30 percent of Mississippi’s black males are poor compared to about 10 percent of white men in Mississippi. Of all black males in poverty, black boys represent largest age group: In Mississippi, more than 15 percent of black males under 18 are poor compared to 3 percent of white boys.

“Poverty shapes the health, education and long-term outcomes of Mississippi’s black men and youth. The stress of poverty can also affect the psychological health of individuals and families. Mississippi’s black men are much more likely to encounter the negative effects of poverty and live in communities that are similarly affected by entrenched generational poverty,”  write the report’s authors, Molly Bashay and Corey Wiggins.

Men living in poverty in Mississippi. Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2011-2015 American Community Survey 5-year Estimates; Hope Institute

Cassio Batteast runs a leadership institute for black boys in Jackson, including at the youth detention center where he says the cycle of generational poverty comes into sharp focus. The boys he works with come from single-mom-headed households and feel pressure to contribute to the household’s finances even if legitimate work is hard to come by when you’re a teenager.

“A lot of them get in trouble because they’re trying to help their moms. They’re breaking in people’s houses and doing some stuff just to help their moms out not because they’re trying to ball,” Batteast said.

Of course, when kids are locked up in juvy they can fall behind in school making them more likely to drop out, or if they’re not old enough to drop out, just hang around until they can, added Batteast.

From standardized test scores to high-school completion to college remediation, Mississippi’s black boys are lagging behind, according to another Hope report titled “Closing the Education Equity Gap For Mississippi’s Black Males.” It shows that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores for Mississippi black males are consistently lower than state and national averages.

Advocates say we need to rethink policies that have disproportionate negative effects on black males.

Cassio Batteast directs runs a leadership institute in Jackson

“With our young men, if we want to have safe productive communities and society why not focus on the group that’s having the most challenges? If we say these are the students that are having the most challenges, if we make sure they’re successful it automatically increases the district’s and the state’s success,” said Batteast.

Jeremiah Smith, a former teacher who runs the Rosedale Freedom Project in Bolivar County, said schools should adopt what are known as restorative practices over zero-tolerance school discipline policies. For example, if two kids get into fight at school, restorative practices would involve mediation with peers and support staff instead of calling the police and automatic suspension, he said. Smith believes such a policy change would help the students as well as overburdened and under-resourced schools.

“The idea that people will do this out of noble motives is not the case and what we have to do is tap into people’s perceived self interest. How do I convince them that it’s taxing their test scores to criminalize their young men of color?,” Smith asks. “Stressed out administrators and teachers would have an easier jobs if they would do the hard work now to reconfigure discipline systems so that later we’re not putting out the same fires.”