Black Male Achievement: It’s More Than Just Good Grades

The other day, I came across Gene Marks’s controversial Forbes article, “If I Were a Poor Black Kid.” It describes economic inequality as the most important issue of our time, as marked by President Obama in a poignant speech he gave recently in Kansas. Marks, a white, middle-aged tech writer, discusses how if he were a poor black kid, he would make sure to receive the best grades possible. But the obstacles poor black kids face in this country go far beyond studying hard and getting straight A’s. The article grossly minimizes the reality of inequality faced by black people and other disenfranchised groups. Marks clearly does not understand what life is like for poor black kids.

Though I’m on staff at the Campaign for Black Male Achievement here at the Open Society Foundations, I’m not a black kid either. I’m Latina and can only speak to my own experience. But whatever our ethnic or racial background, it’s much more important to fight inequality than it is to waste time claiming what we would do if we were someone else. In the last quarter of 2011, the campaign’s grantees and partners did just that.

Highlights include three exciting new partnerships. With Echoing Green, we announced a new fellowship program for individuals dedicated to improving the life outcomes of black men and boys in the United States. It is the first fellowship program of its kind that targets social entrepreneurs who are starting up new organizations in the field of black male achievement.

With the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, we embarked on a new campaign that will highlight the stories of black men and boys, celebrating and supporting them so they can lead others in strengthening their communities. The Black Male Engagement project piloted this year in two cities, Philadelphia and Detroit.

We also partnered with Root Cause in launching a Leadership and Sustainability Institute to bolster the efforts to improve the life outcomes of black males in the U.S. The project will strengthen the capacity of the campaign’s grantees and other nonprofit organizations working within the field of black male achievement.

In addition to these partnerships, we granted funding to the following organizations:

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It's refreshing to see a group doing such great work for the black community. Our black men are getting a much needed helping helping hand from CBMA and it will be great to see the fruits of this group's labor in years to come. Great piece!

What are we doing to help those individuals, especially African Americans males from American inner cities, who made decisions in their past but has since turned their lives around, some attaining college degrees, while others simple evolved socially and morally; yet are consistently denied opportunities?

The biggest compounding problem for African American males who developed in urban areas, is the felony question. Many of my brothers have petty "controlled" dangerous substance charges, yet never was incarcerated as a sentence, never committed a violent crime, never committed crimes of moral turpitude, and are decent morally upstanding individuals.

We approach the issue of dysfunctional personality disorders and lifestyles as if it's simply a question of making the "Right" decision, but no elements of social dysfunction is that simple, if it was we not have the phenomena of the number of African American males incarceration, gang violence and membership, and disregard for family commitment, and all the rest that we see in the majority of urban environments.

I see many organizations like yours appealing to and recognizing those minorities who are doing the right things in their life from the start, who have succeeded in the process of adolescent development and are continuing on to invest in themselves though education etc. This is great, no doubt about it, but….what about potential?

There are numerous individuals from the environments and from the groups you represent, who are talented and gifted, yet, who are undiscovered because there is no focus on potential. There "life schooling" equips them with a unique insight and character; they are an untapped resource.

Why do we see these young males in gangs, in youth intervention programs, and facilities with all the different "evidence based" therapeutic approaches, developmental psychology theory applications, behavioral science approaches etc…..yet, they seem to be ineffective?

What I see is a group of individuals, in these organizations, with good intentions, passion, and will, but no common sense street smarts approach.

You do not need to have done what these young men have done, but you do need a sincere and realistic experiential knowledge of their life experiences; they recognize it and respond to it.

Open your doors and opportunities to those individuals with potential and then refine them.

I've been trying to join any At-Risk-Youth intervention program, organization, treatment facility, etc... for the last year. I Wrote many letter summarizing my life experiences growing up in Newark, NJ and the surrounding cities, in a single parent household, neglected and left to raise myself since 14 years old, which is not uncommon.

There has not been one single heartfelt response. There are resources right within the communities that this curse of African American male underachievement persist.

Thanks so much for your note, Charles. Indeed, you've touched on one of the more critical aspects of advancing black male achievemnt in American - providing support and equitable opportunities for the disproportionate number of black men returning to their communities from the criminal justice system. Do know that many of organizations that we have partnered with are providing innovative strategies for engaging men with with criminal records. Check out our website - - and you will see organizations like the Center For Urban Families in Baltimore, the Los Angeles Black Workers Center. Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (Campaign to End the New Jim Crow) and Philadelphia Leadership Foundation (Healing Communities), just to name a few, supporting the men you describe in your note. Keep pressing on in your desire to create solutions for our community and you might want to consider exploring whether the Open Society Black Male Achievement Fellowship ( might be a good fit for you.

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