Black Experience

Congressional Hearing Scrutinizes Black Male Mentorship

U.S. lawmakers and leaders of some of the nation’s leading mentorship organizations addressed ways to provide better male role models for Black men and boys during a hearing Tuesday afternoon on Capitol Hill.

Statistics show that many Black men and boys who’ve grown up in the era of the first Black president haven’t and more than likely won’t be able to enjoy a similar level of success in the career field of their choice without positive male role models.

For years, Black male mentorship had been a way of helping those unexposed to love and opportunities that lead to a fulfilling life. The Congressional Caucus on Black Men & Boys’ first hearing of the 116th Congress allowed for further discussion between the lawmakers and mentoring organizations about areas of improvement.

“The odds were set against me to fail,” said Derrell Frazier, an east Baltimore resident and alumnus of the US Dream Academy Program in Columbia, Maryland. “I was raised by a single grandmother, my father was incarcerated and my mother [was] battling opioid disease.”

Frazier recounted facets of his childhood to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), and Reps. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.), co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Black Men & Boys. He later explained the significance of the mentorship program that would place him under the guidance of adult men.

“My grandmother couldn’t do it alone,” Frazier said. “The Dream Academy invested in my interests and goals. Mentoring is important.

“Society shows us the challenges that hinder and degrade us,” he said. “It’s discouraging to be reminded that we’re not enough or capable of doing better. Mentoring makes sure that we’re supported no matter what.”

The hearing in the Sam Houston Room of the Rayburn Congressional Office Building attracted more than 50 Black men and boys representing nearly a dozen mentorship organizations across the country.

Throughout much of the afternoon, male and female elected officials listened as panelists spoke about their trials and triumphs as mentors and recipients of mentorship, before engaging in conversation about hurdles they’ve encountered in running mentorship programs.

Norton and Davis had been slated to sit alongside their colleagues and fellow caucus members, including Reps. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas). Each elected official had panelists from their respective districts speak during the hearing.

“The realities are that no matter how you cut it, lots of groups in this country are having difficulty experiencing the goodness and greatness of what America has the potential of being, but no group has more difficulty than African-American males,” Davis said.

Davis, who lost his grandson to gun violence in Chicago shortly after his re-election in 2016, later told reporters that he would tackle that issue head-on.

“We could spend a lifetime trying to get into those factors that contribute to this situation, but we want to work our way out of it to the best of our ability,” Davis said. “Some of it requires legislation enactment, changes in laws, conditions and opportunities. Some of it requires changes in one’s self.”

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the participation of African-American boys and men between the ages of 16 and 64 in the labor force is 13 percentage points lower than their male racial counterparts.

The significant absence of Black men in the labor force has ties to mass incarceration: 40 percent of U.S. Black men have been in state or federal prison or count among ex-offenders.

The District’s Black unemployment rate hovers over that of other major cities, with Black men constituting the majority of the unemployed. Local programs such as 100 Black Men of Greater Washington have attempted to close the Black male education and employment gap through mentorship.

For more than an hour Tuesday, several panelists, including James Thompson, president of 100 Black Men of Greater Washington, delved into programmatic milestones and suggested areas of improvement they said would close the education and employment gap for Black men and boys.

Diane Wallace Booker of the US Dream Academy said all sectors of the U.S. government should have direct involvement in bolstering Black male participation. Black male speakers later pointed to the need for Black male mentors and teachers.

A heated exchange between a panelist and Norton about the child support brought to light how some men thought the legal system crippled Black fathers.

For Norton, however, balancing parenting responsibilities between men and women, and preparing Black boys for that part of their life, has become a matter of life or death.

“If Black boys aren’t getting out of high school — it starts that early — where is it going to end? And can we sit here and act like it’s the way it’s always been,” she said earlier in the hearing.

“We have to deal with what we got before us now,” Norton said. “You have more Black women than Black men and you have ingredients to the threat to the African-American community. That’s the shortage of marriageable Black men. What sociologists [were] talking about [regarding marriageable] are people who have graduated and could get a job. That huge gap must be addressed.”

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