I was disappointed to read Kiersten Marek’s recent column in The Chronicle of Social Change. In it, she complains that the “movement and infrastructure for funding of initiatives for men and boys of color far outpace the support for women and girls of color.”
She laments this apparent gap in funding, and asks why there is not equal emphasis on helping girls and women of color. But Marek ignores the critical state of men and boys of color and the increasing gender gap in outcomes among African-Americans.
As researchers have pointed out, the last four decades have witnessed a swift and substantial reversal of the gender gap in educational attainment in the U.S. and much of the developed world. Between 1970 and 2010, the high school graduation rate for American women increased by eight percentage points while the male high school graduation rate remained the same. At the same time, women overtook and then surpassed males in college attainment.
This trend has been more pronounced among African-Americans. National data show that women of all races in the United States graduate from high school at higher rates than men, but this gap is larger, and has increased by more, among black students and those of lower socioeconomic status (SES) than among white students and those of higher SES.
Black men are also more likely to be out of the labor force, in prison, or dead, than their sisters. In a staggering article last April, the New York Times reported that one out of six black men who should be between 25 and 54 are either dead or in prison.
As a result, for every 100 black women not in jail, there are only 83 black men. The total number of “missing black men” nationwide is 1.5 million.
Poor and black girls begin pulling away from their brothers early in their lives. In a recently released study, researchers from Northwestern University found that black boys start school less ready for kindergarten, have a higher incidence of truancy and behavioral problems in elementary and middle school, exhibit higher rates of behavioral and cognitive disability, and perform worse on standardized tests than girls from the same background.
The Northwestern researchers hypothesize that boys are more sensitive to economic and social disadvantage than girls. One way this might operate, as one of the researchers told the New York Times, is through the prevalence of single-parent families in poor and minority communities.
Since it is usually the father who is absent, more boys lack a same-sex role model. Mothers tend to spend more time with daughters than sons. But boys, by their nature, may require more attention and supervision.
Other research indicates that schools may be set up in a way that is more suited to girls than to boys. The emphasis on self-regulation and organizational skills puts boys at a disadvantage starting in kindergarten. I can imagine that this disadvantage may be worse for poor black boys due to factors such as racism among school staff, less experienced teachers and fewer school resources in poor neighborhoods, and the exacerbating effects of trauma on behavior.
These dismal findings are at the root of President Obama’s decision to launch the My Brothers Keeper initiative, and why so many foundations have launched similar initiatives to help black boys. Rather than being criticized, these funders should be lauded for appreciating the crisis that faces these most vulnerable youth.