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What Will It Take To Close The Opportunity Gap?

President Obama launched My Brother's Keeper to address the opportunity gap faced by young men of color. Do its proposals go far enough? Pictured: President Barack Obama at an event to promote his "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, on Feb. 27, 2014, in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
President Obama launched My Brother's Keeper to address the opportunity gap faced by young men of color. Do its proposals go far enough? Pictured: President Barack Obama at an event to promote his "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, on Feb. 27, 2014, in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

On July 21, President Obama announced new commitments from private sector organizations in support of My Brother's Keeper, which is designed to address the persistent opportunity gap faced by boys and young men of color.

The initiative's first progress report and an initial set of recommendations, issued in late May, suggested that this chronic gap is a recently discovered phenomenon. It’s not. What is new is the public focus on it. That’s critically important, but the report missed the opportunity to underscore the chronic nature and persistence of this gap and cumulative and exponential toll of it.

This failure to acknowledge the gap’s decades-long persistence and ravages on poor communities is tantamount to underreporting the problem.

During the last 40 years, economic conditions have worsened in high-poverty communities. The loss of blue-collar jobs to deindustrialization, the disproportional growth of low-paying service industry jobs, the barriers to getting into college and paying for it, and an outsourced workforce have made it harder for the poor to find good jobs. The result is a cycle of under-education that leads to successive waves of undereducated young people who lack the knowledge and life skills to educate their own children.

This failure to acknowledge the gap’s decades-long persistence and ravages on poor communities is tantamount to underreporting the problem. And underreporting has the unintended consequence of narrowing the potential solutions. While the report’s recommendations are necessary, broad and inclusive, they are, as a result, insufficient given the overwhelming nature of the problem. To reverse the trends and produce change at scale will require an overhaul of systems that have been in place for decades and a major investment of money and effort to a degree that far exceeds the report’s recommendations.

For example, the report’s recommendation to shore up early childhood education is sound. What it fails to address is the dearth of facilities in which to house, teach and transport our youngest students. The infrastructure in communities of color and high poverty has been devastated by decades of economic, social and cultural decline. In order to improve access to and the quality of early childhood education, we must, then, invest not only in schools, and family supports, but in housing, transportation, child welfare and the juvenile justice systems, as well. The costs, commitments and time required to do this are mammoth, and the report doesn’t take them into account.

Reversing the cumulative and consequential outcomes of poverty and inequality requires a sustained investment over many years. Geoffrey Canada’s work in the Harlem Children Zone is widely admired. It took 30 years to show significant, positive outcomes, however, and Canada still struggles to demonstrate them.

The infrastructure in communities of color and high poverty has been devastated by decades of economic, social and cultural decline.

Another hurdle to effective action exists: ideology. If one fundamentally believes that people of color deserve their fate, that they haven’t worked hard enough, that they failed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, the report’s achievement gap data will only reinforce beliefs that people create their own poverty.

Another imperative, then, is to create counter movements that challenge and change prevailing ideologies. Because it isn’t just an achievement gap; it is an ideological divide.

Ultimately, the opportunity gap faced by boys and young men of color will not be closed by a set of programs and initiatives that benefit some individuals but do not have a larger scale, collective impact. We must first acknowledge the historical nature of the problem and its damaging, cumulative impact. Then, we must reinvest in communities and urge the people who live there to define what that reinvestment looks like. The solution is not technical. It’s not about data. It is about fundamental change at the social, political and cultural levels.


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Warren Simmons Cognoscenti contributor
Warren Simmons is the executive director of Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2013.

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