Meeks Hosts Black Initiative Conference
Northeast Regional State of the African-American Male Initiative Conference (SAAM) opened last Saturday to an enthusiastic capacity audience of more than 1,000. Attendees from New York and New Jersey began arriving at the New York University School of Law as early as 7:30 a.m. for the day-long forum, which addressed a range of issues affecting men of African descent.
Titled “Changing the Image, Changing the Reality, Taking Responsibility,” the conference was convened by U.S. Representatives Gregory W. Meeks, Major R. Owens, Donald M. Payne, Charles B. Rangel and Edolphus Towns, and co-sponsored by the Community Service Society of New York. Presenters and panelists included business leaders, community organizers, educators, scholars and research specialists.
SAAM is a national effort lead by U.S. Representative Danny Davis of Illinois and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) to bring needed attention to the challenges facing African American males. SAAM conferences have been held in the District of Columbia, Houston, Miami, Chicago, Memphis, Detroit, Atlanta, Oakland and Los Angeles. Recommendations by participants from this conference and around the country will be incorporated into legislative proposals. Representative Gregory W. Meeks set the tone for the event, stating that, “It is important to start by addressing both the societal factors and the negative individual behaviors that are barriers to the full and successful participation of Black males in the economic, political, educational and social mainstream.”
Richard Boykin, chief of staff of Rep. Danny K. Davis, the founder of the SAAM Initiative, pointed to quality of life issues such as unemployment, health care, disproportionate incarceration rates, poor education, and stressed that, in addition to fostering a dialogue, it is important for the conferences to examine best practices and generate legislative and public policy recommendations.
“Image vs. Reality: African American Males in New York City and Newark in 2005,” a panel moderated by Rep. Major R. Owens (NY-11), sparked a lively discussion. David Jones, President & CEO of the Community Service Society, pointing to a Princeton study showing that white male ex-offenders have as good a chance of getting entry level jobs as Black males with no record, laid out a devastating critique of the inadequacy of public policy and private sector neglect. Other participants included Rodney Brutton, Project Director of the Essex County Construction Careers Program of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice; Darwin M. Davis, President & CEO, New York Urban League; Dr. Walter Stafford, Professor, Robert F. Wagner School of Public Affairs, New York University; Dr. John Flateau, Dean of the School of Business and Public Administration, Medgar Evers College; and Antonio D. Martin, Executive Director, Queens Hospital Center.
Stafford noted that the mean age of death of Black males in New York City is 61, 10 years lower than that of the city at-large. He also said that 48 percent of all homicide victims in the city were young Black males. Antonio Martin stressed the problematic health situation of Black men, including disparities in the incidence of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and HIV/AIDS.
Keynote speakers Rev. Al Sharpton and New York State Senate Minority Leader David A. Paterson delivered messages of inspiration. Paterson said that legislative reforms such as rescinding the Rockefeller drug laws were necessary to eliminate the racial disparities in incarceration rates. He also demanded a meaningful jobs creation program, including in the construction trades within the framework of the development projects the city is undertaking.
Sharpton claimed the African American community is suffering from a “battered race syndrome,” which includes symptoms like making excuses for those who discriminate, leaving the struggle for others and failing to support Black leaders. “We need to support the legislators that are here for action.” Sharpton criticized the mayoral candidates for failing to talk about the high unemployment rates Black men endure. He did not spare the hip-hop artists who help project negative images of Black America, particularly denigrating Black women. Sharpton called on Black men to stand up and help lead. “We don’t have to bow to nobody. Stand up like men. Be who you were born to be!”
NYU’s Pedro Noguera said that what “we are dealing with is not a crisis in the usual meaning of that word, but a long term debilitating condition that has been imposed on African American males.” He added it is important to “make a distinction between symptoms and causes, and that education is implicated in both the causes and the solutions.”
Gerrard Bushell of Citigroup concentrated his remarks on “assets for struggle.” He said the Black community, supplemented by other concerned sectors, “has many institutions that together have vast capacity for social action.” He also stated that officials and institutions have to be held accountable for the failure of education, economic policy and for community disinvestment.
The final panel, “African American Males in New York City and Newark Taking Responsibility,” focused on institutional and personal accountability. Moderated by Representative Edolphus Towns (NY-10), presenter Roland V. Anglin, Executive Director, NJ Public Policy Research Institute told the audience: “You are responsible for yourself, your families and your community.” Anglin also observed that Black men have been set upon by the media which “transmits depraved images of our community around the world.” He said Black males in particular by their example must refuse to corroborate those negative portrayals.
Co-presenter Walter Fields, Vice-President for Political Development at the Community Service Society, stressed the importance of challenging irresponsible institutions, policies and officials. He sited a number of instances in which Blacks acted to alter or remove offensive policies, personnel and procedures. The panelists included Ron Daniels, Executive Director, Center for Constitutional Rights, who talked about grassroots action, and actor Hill Harper (CSI: New York), who said that many of the images of Black people were so negative, constant and all-encompassing that they cultivated inferior thinking among young Black males in particular. “Film, music and television degrade our spiritual DNA.” Hill called on the Black community to meet his challenge not by rejecting technology but by mastering it. “Technology,” he said, “creates new opportunities for communicating and for image-building in a global context-this is where Blacks must take responsibility, especially since much of the new technology is readily accessible, especially the Internet. A handful of people can use the Internet to correct mistakes, to tell the truth, to build movements of thousands.”
Meeks closed the conference by restating the commitment of the CBC members to develop a continuations process that will draw in others. Plans include a meeting of the program participants and creating a system of periodic communication with the attendees and other interested parties. Recapping his opening remarks, Meeks said, “We intend to exclude no one. Every one-Black men and women, Whites, Hispanics, Asians, business people, union leaders, scholars, researchers, activists, clergy, artists and entertainers-who wants to help address the issues we talked about today is welcome to participate as we undertake the challenge of changing the image, changing the reality, and taking responsibility.”