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Advocacy group much needed, long overdue

Published February 25, 2007


The white retiree on the phone wanted to know why I hadn't mentioned the race of three black men involved in a fatal road rage incident on I-4 last Sunday. I didn't think race was factor in the tragic incident that led to the death of a father of three.

He wasn't being critical, and he agreed with my explanation. But in the reports of the shooting, the police mugshots of the three black men stared off newspapers and TV screens in what has become so disturbingly familiar.

He's tired of that, he said.

He's in good company.

On Tuesday, the state Council on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys will conduct its first meeting. The council was formed to look at the problems plaguing Florida's black men and boys - high murder arrest and incarceration rates, violence, poverty, drug abuse, school performance - and come up with solutions.

"This is an advocacy group for black men and boys," said Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, who will help outline the council's mission and vision when she and fellow members meet.

We often hear of local efforts to improve the lot of black youths, but this is the first concerted statewide effort to look into the plight of black men and boys. It's long overdue.

Consider: The unemployment rate for black men is typically twice as high as the state figure.

One in three of the state's black men are either in prison, going to prison or getting out of prison. In June 2006, more than 42,000, or almost half of the 88,000 men in Florida prisons, were black. The criminal statistics and academic performance for black boys are also depressing.

Still, you can hear the criticism already. Black men and boys don't need to be coddled. Why do we need a council to address the issues of black men and boys? FYI, there is a state council on the status of women.

Some will view this council as another patronizing, feel-good, liberal idea to appease black activists. This council couldn't have been adopted without conservatives' support.

They seem to understand the need to do more than invest in more prison cells.

But to be useful, this council must first resolve the chicken-and-egg puzzle.

How much does the role of history play in the plight of black men in Florida, and when do the sins of the past become a crutch?

Are black men not working because they are lazy or uneducated? Do black boys fall behind because they can't learn or because they're not motivated to learn?

Black children are less likely to live with their fathers. Does it mean that black men are more afraid to commit? If this is learned behavior, can we change it?

These are complex questions. But Wilson believes that if talk can be transformed into action, things can change. Through her 5,000 Role Models of Excellence Program in Miami-Dade, scores of black boys have gone on to college and successful lives.

"You've got to teach boys how to be men," Wilson said. "The boys who are taught to be men become successful men."

Clearly, not enough black boys are learning to be men. Not enough black men are taking responsibility for themselves and for their families. This is a recipe for persistent failure. It will take more than a council with a fancy name to change that, but it's a start.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602.

[Last modified February 25, 2007, 06:15:09]

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