Saving and Enriching Lives—The Urgency of Action in 2013

Sharon L. Davies

Director’s Message, January 2013

In the opening month of 2013 we have marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, witnessed the second inauguration of the nation’s first African American President, and heard news that Lincoln—a film celebrating the successful 1865 battle to adopt the 13th Amendment guaranteeing Black freedom—is a frontrunner for numerous Academy awards. Milestones like these are rightly celebrated, for they are testament to the human capacity to acknowledge our errors and wrongs and to rectify our mistakes.

Members of every generation are tested to do this. And if history is any teacher, we must be alert to the danger of responding too slowly when dispatch is required.

Last year, bursts of violence tore through a mall in Portland, a movie theater in Aurora, a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, and an elementary school in Newtown, adding to the long and growing list of American communities victimized by gun violence. The horrific taking of the lives of twenty children in Newtown alone (most age 6, none older than 7) and the seven adults who attempted to protect them, may finally move the nation to enact sensible gun regulation, and then wonder in hindsight why it took us so long.

If so, the beneficiaries will include countless youth of color. For Black families, the chance of a male child dying from a gunshot wound has been estimated to be 62 percent higher than the chance of him dying in an automobile accident. For years, mayors of major cities have been calling for gun violence prevention laws to stem this senseless loss of young lives. Perhaps this will be the year the nation will see the pathway ahead that will make it possible to respond to those pleas.

The killing of a Black teenager in a gated community in Florida by a volunteer neighborhood watchman consumed the nation’s attention in 2012, and much needs to be done to deepen our society’s understanding of the reality of implicit bias and the ways in which unconscious racial associations can shape not only attitudes, but also behavior. Implicit bias can cause a person to see danger where none exists. The Kirwan Institute will release shortly its first annual State of the Science Implicit Bias Review to help bring this issue and the emerging body of scientific research about it into closer public focus.

Research from the fields of medicine, psychology and neurology support the conclusion that severe adversity experienced during childhood (and the elevated levels of stress associated with that adversity) strongly correlate with unwanted outcomes in adulthood. Black and Hispanic youth are disproportionately affected not only by exposure to physical and gun violence, but by economic inequality, educational disparity, health disparity, and crisis levels of mass incarceration. Plainly, there is much work to do, and many reasons to do it. And a sense of urgency must inform our efforts.

Despite highly publicized reports about the nation’s rapidly shifting demographics, the country has yet truly to grapple with the immensity of numbers involved, and the pressing need for action. In the education domain alone, the needs of minority schoolchildren must become an immediate national imperative. Population projections released just this month show the rapid diversification of the nation’s public schools. To begin to see the magnitude of this, we need only focus on a single ten-year period: four years ago, 38% of public high school graduates nationwide were nonwhite. Six years from now, that figure is projected to jump to 45%.

While the pace of this change will vary from state to state, the public high school graduating classes of some states have already achieved so-called “majority-minority” status—namely, California, Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas and the District of Columbia. Demographic projections show that five more states—Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maryland and Nevada—will do likewise within the next six years.

The nation’s future prosperity is intimately linked to what steps it takes today to provide positive educational experiences for these children. We have all heard these numbers, now it is time for us to genuinely grapple with the enormity of the impending change. The persistently deep educational attainment gaps between White, Hispanic and Black youth in the United States reflect more than a lack of moral leadership, they raise questions about the country’s economic wellbeing and national security.

This makes the pending decision of the United States Supreme Court in the high profile college admissions case, Fisher v. University of Texas, more critical than most realize. Diversity is our nation’s strength. While we attend to the many deficits in our K-12 schools that continue to contribute to opportunity gaps for American children, existing pathways into college for underrepresented minority youth must be preserved.

In close collaboration with our partners nationwide, the Kirwan Institute is committed to providing the thought leadership required to “connect the dots” between the nation’s rapid demographic shifts and the policy interventions critically needed in each of the four domains of our “Opportunity Communities” work.

With careful and caring attention to these domains—Education, Equity & Sustainable Communities, Public & Community Health and Criminal Justice—we strive to create a just and inclusive society where all people and communities have the opportunity to succeed.