Failing our youth

It has now been nearly two months since George Zimmerman was acquitted of the shooting of 17-year old Martin in Sanford, Florida. This tragedy was a witch’s brew of race, a flawed criminal justice system and, especially, political indifference and often hostility towards our youth.

These attitudes and the policies that have accompanied them, have visited a very real plague upon young people, particularly those of color. Fewer job opportunities, underfunded schools, and criminal profiling are facts of life for many African-American families.

Yet, much of the debate about the fears and motivations of George Zimmerman, and the many who sympathize with him, revolve around perceptions about high rates of violence -- real and imagined -- among younger persons of color.

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Never mind that in this case, Mr. Martin was committing no crime when returning home. He was a presumed suspect from the moment he was spotted by the self-appointed guardian of the neighborhood, Mr. Zimmerman, who should have followed police instructions to stop following Martin. Had he done so he would not have become the household name for overzealous vigilante, and another young African American would not have been robbed of his life.
 
What’s needed, beyond the enactment of gun safety and repeal of stand-your-ground laws, is a closer look at the conditions that contribute to higher rates of violence among black youth in poor communities. Violence that in turn is used to justify harsh measures, private and public, for containing future offenses.

Many black youths start their lives at a disadvantage. The black child poverty rate is 39 percent, for whites 14 percent. Sixty-seven percent of black children are in single-parent households, 25 percent for whites. The black youth homicide rate is seven times that of whites. The black youth incarceration rate is 4 times the white rate.

This is not to say that white children and youths are automatically better off: while rates for these indicators are worse for blacks, in every instance the actual numbers of children in these conditions are higher for whites, because whites are a much larger proportion of the general population.
    
Statistics cannot be used to excuse bad behavior, by whites or blacks, but they do help to explain it: young victims can turn the table and become young victimizers.
    
We have long known how to create emotionally and physically healthy human beings. Indeed, for decades our country made continuous investments in children and their families that lifted millions—white and black—out of poverty and despair.

Today, safety nets meant to protect and educate are being shredded as lawmakers turn their backs on children and families. Head Start is slashed, while nutritional programs for babies and mothers are threatened, and prison becomes a substitute for mental health treatment. Millions remain unemployed, while roads, bridges and schools physically deteriorate.

Meanwhile, unfathomable wealth has become concentrated among a small economic elite. Wide gaps exist between and within racial and economic groups. The poorest families, white and black—but disproportionately black—suffer. Fear becomes the go-to emotion for all of us, creating great cultural stress and conflict.

We know hope can trump fear. Our children are a unifying force. A lasting monument to young Trayvon Martin would be a renewed national commitment to equal opportunities and protection for all of our children, and a return to devoting the financial resources necessary for their well-being.

Petit founded the Every Child Matters Education Fund in 2002 with the mission of making children’s issues a political priority. He was a delegate to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in Helsinki, Finland. (www.everychildmatters.org). Contact Petit at mpetit@everychildmatters.org.