Wilkerson pushes for state focus on black males

March 7, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

A proposal by state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson for the formation of a state commission on the social status of black males received an enthusiastic response at a public hearing at the State House last month

“It went better than I even anticipated. The committee was especially attentive,” Wilkerson, who represents JP, said.

JP resident Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, helped organize the hearing. He said he was “blown away” by the crowd.

“What was really heartening for me was to see the number of white folks who thought it was important…and the stereotype of black men was blown out the window,” he said.

The room was packed, Small said. “There was wave after wave of black men…It’s something you never see in the legislature.”

Locally, advocates from the JP-based Judge Banks Community Justice Program expressed hope the commission will look at strengthening the Department of Correction’s (DOC) re-entry program for ex-offenders.

Wilkerson’s proposed legislation would create a 21-person commission, with members appointed by the Speaker of the House and Senate president, the governor and the Congressional Black Caucus, among others. The commission will look at issues facing both youths and adults, Wilkerson said.

It would “do research and compile data and information and make reports and suggestions on ways to deal with issues [facing black males] driving the negative statistics,” she said.

In Gazette interviews, Wilkerson and Small had a number of statistics on hand.

“The city of Boston suffers from a 54 percent unemployment rate for black males over the age of 18,” Small said. The Gazette was not able to immediately confirm this unemployment rate, but the Boston Globe reported recently that the statewide unemployment rate for black males is around 34 percent. The statewide unemployment rate is around 5 percent.

Wilkerson said the Commonwealth is spending around $30,000 on incarceration per inmate but only $5,000 to $6,000 per pupil on education.

The state is also spending between $300 million and $400 million providing healthcare for individuals with respiratory-related illnesses that are “for the most part, affecting populations of color,” Wilkerson said. Air pollution attendant with living in a densely populated urban area is considered to be a major risk factor for contracting asthma.

A recent survey by the Boston Urban Asthma Coalition found that 22.6 percent of adults in the predominantly black Dorchester neighborhood of Boston reported having been diagnosed with asthma, compared to 14.6 percent statewide. The main environmental factors contributing to the higher asthma rates are vehicle exhaust and mold, the report said.

Wilkerson described both of these situations as instances of back-end drains on the state budget. In the case of respiratory illnesses, she said, the high price tag is the result of a “failure to monitor health status, particularly as men in pockets of our community are growing older.”

Small said the commission would be a “great vehicle to get these issues heard.”

It will provide a forum, he said, for advocates to make their case. “[We can tell them] here’s the deal, now make policy,” he said.

Eva Baker, executive director of the Judge Baker Community Center at the Bromley-Heath housing development in JP, said she was not aware of Wilkerson’s proposal, but supports the idea.

“The area I work in is the re-entry of ex-offenders—people who were incarcerated—into the community. We focus on redemption, rehabilitation and restorative justice,” she said.

The majority of the center’s 150 clients a year are black males, about 25 percent of whom are former Bromley-Heath residents she said, “So we definitely have a stake in it.”

One thing she would like the commission to look at is lightening the center’s workload, she said. “A lot of the things we do should have been done by the Department of Corrections.”

Ex-offenders are often dumped on the street without state identification cards necessary to rent rooms, secure jobs or seek medical help, much less referrals for where they might find these things, she said.

“When individuals don’t receive services at the DOC, with the vast majority coming back into the community, it doesn’t create a safe environment for any of us,” she said.

Wilkerson said the question was raised at the hearing of broadening the mandate of the commission to include issues facing Latino men.

She said, however, that conversations with Latino community leaders around the state had convinced her that, while Latino communities face similar issues, “The remedies are different because the cultural realities are different.”

The idea for the commission on black males itself came after a commission to address issues facing recent Asian immigrants to Massachusetts was formed last year, she said. And legislation proposing a Latino commission is currently being drafted, she said.

Wilkerson’s legislation, Senate Bill 2182 “An Act Establishing a Permanent Commission on the Social Status of Black Males,” is currently before the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. She said she hopes it will be voted out of committee and considered by the Senate this month.

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