As the country marks the one-year anniversary of the killing of George Floyd by former police officer Derek Chauvin, questions about where the movement for social justice will go from here continue to abound. Legislative progress in directly addressing the plight of Black men like Floyd, has been an uphill battle. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives but has not yet been voted on in the Senate.
The primary piece of national legislation that was passed as a direct response to Floyd’s killing was a bill that established the Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys. The legislation was introduced in the House by Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson and in the Senate by Republican Senator Marco Rubio. It was passed by both Houses of Congress in July of 2020 and was signed into law by former President Donald Trump in August of 2020.
According to a press release from Congresswoman Wilson’s office, the bill “establishes a permanent, bipartisan commission within the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Its 19 members will include congressional lawmakers, executive branch appointees, issue experts, activists, and other stakeholders who will examine social disparities affecting black men and boys in America. Based on its findings, the commission will issue policy recommendations to Congress, the White House, and federal agencies.”
This Commission will elevate issues like disparities in “education, criminal justice, health, employment, fatherhood, mentorship, and violence” and create an infrastructure to press toward the goal of better understanding and eventually eliminating the conditions that have made it extraordinarily difficult for an unacceptably high number of black males to become upwardly mobile.
The implications of the Commission for higher education may be manifold. One potential way that it could be utilized is as a “railroad” to carry best practices for access, retention, and completion for Black males in higher education to institutions across the country. The Commission presents a new opportunity to examine what is working and fortify those practices, programs, and procedures with resources to incentive the expansion of these infrastructures of opportunity.
There may not be one template that works everywhere, but there are sets of common practices and principles that have shown patterns of sustained success and scalability that can be molded to fit the needs of different localities and institutions. The Commission can complement and help to expand existing efforts and build the capacity of those who are already engaging in the space. A coordinated and concentrated effort like this with the backing of multiple federal departments and stakeholders can push through barriers that typically prevent needed expansions of successful systems.
Higher education institutions can be the linchpin of these efforts because of their ability to provide multiple connection points for both Black men and boys. Higher education is still the most accessible ladder out of poverty. Colleges, universities, and trade schools should be partners with the work of the Commission. They are a direct feeder for boys that are exiting high school, a hub for the upskilling of men to become or remain economically relevant, and a potential partner for K-12 schools and community organizations that serve every age group of boys and men.
The “railroads” that can be created by the Commission can carry the nation’s best practices to post-secondary educational institutions to help deploy them for the usage of the broader community. They can serve as distribution centers to pump opportunity into underserved communities. There is a higher education point of connectivity to every aspect of the Commission’s aim and charge including addressing joblessness, health disparities, academic achievement gaps, and disparate treatment in the criminal justice system.
Legislative proposals that are generated from the Commission can incentive with significant funding those practices that can directly address the systematic targeting of Black men and boys for destruction. They are being hit with a duplicitous combination of an overhand right jab of mass incarceration and a lethal left hook of economic marginalization. This combination has served in many cases to lock out and lock up a disproportionate number of Black men. The Commission is one of the only federal forms of recourse that this population has and can be a mighty weapon against systems that have caused great harm to the quality of life of the Black community at large.
The formation of this embedded federal effort can fight back against these challenges with education, mentorship, access to capital, and policies and practices that will provide solutions and redress for an accrued disadvantage that has resulted from slavery, Jim Crowe, redlining, discrimination in employment and contacts, harsher penalties for the same infractions, mass incarceration and the list goes on and on.
The bottom line is that there are systems and institutions that have consistently produced racial disparate outcomes regardless of the intentions of the people who work within them. The lack of overt or deliberate racism sometimes masks an unintentional bias that is embedded in many policies. Systemic racism neither begins nor ends with police brutality. The opportunity chasms for Black men and boys that are glaringly apparent in the data are often the cumulative effect of subtle and silent moves that are made behind closed doors that lock them out of pivotal opportunities. A series of systematic attacks requires a series of systematic responses.
As the country moves back towards “normalcy” after the COVID-19 pandemic has gripped the country for more than a year, we should be reminded that the status quo did not work well for the masses of Black men and boys. We should be reminded that normalcy has meant exclusion and looking at disparity and shrugging. Higher education institutions can seize this moment and help the Commission leverage their power in a strategic and courageous way to transform and reorganize the nation’s institutions to advance the plight of Black males and the country at large.
This unprecedented federal apparatus with a direct focus on Black men and boys can be a railroad that carries prosperity and progress to a population that has faced enormous barriers and challenges. Change is not always about the creation of new legislation, but it can also be about maximizing the potential of the current policies that are already on the books. The Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys can help the nation surge ahead with what is already there while still striving for new legislative advancements.
Dr. Marcus Bright is a scholar and educational administrator.