Mayor Bloomberg’s Misguided Young Men’s Initiative

by Dax-Devlon Ross

NAMOND BRICE: Like y’all say, don’t lie, don’t bump, don’t cheat, don’t steal or whatever. But what about y’all? What, the government, Enron, steroids? Yeah, liquor business, booze– the real killer out there? And cigarettes, oh [deleted]. You got some smokes in there?

FEMALE TEACHER: I’m trying to quit.

SOT: STUDENT 2: Drugs paid your salary, right?

HOWARD “BUNNY” COLVIN: Not exactly, but I get your point.

NAMOND BRICE: We do the same thing as y’all, except when we do it, it’s like, “Oh my God, these kids is animals!” It’s like, it’s the end of the world coming. Man, that’s bull [deleted]. ‘Cause this is like, what, hypocrite? Hypocritical.

From The Wire, Season 4

I couldn’t sleep last night. Mayor Bloomberg’s Young Men’s initiative was on my mind.  Early in the day I’d watched the Mayor stand before New York City viewers, purse his persmickety lips and announce he was ponying up $30,000,000 of his own cash in support  of a $127,000,000 effort to integrate young black and Latino men into the civic, economic, and educational life of the city. For a few hours I felt a wave of gratitude toward the Mayor. I thought, you know, it’s about time. But as the day wore on and reality set in,  my feelings soured.

Let’s start with the money. The total amount pledged for the initiative is up to (key words) $127,000,000. The figure seems significant … until you consider the following:

The number of young men the initiative is supposed to address: 315,000 young men over three years.

The total dollars per person: $400, if all of the money is actually allocated.

The New York Yankees 2011 payroll:  $207,000,000.

  • Amount Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez’s  will earn in salary in 2011:  $32,000,000.

The amount Mayor Bloomberg spent on his 2009 re-election campaign: $108,000,000.

The amount Mayor Bloomberg spent on his 2005 re-election campaign: $78,000,000.

The amount Mayor Bloomberg spent on his 2001 campaign: $73,000,000.

The Department of Probation’s 2010 budget: $85,000,000

  • The  number of adults  served by the Dept. of Probation in 2010: 40,000.
  • The number of juveniles served by the Dept. of Probation 2010: 20,000.

NYC’s Juvenile Justice System budget in 2008: $251,000,000

  • 2008 budget for Secure Detention: $60,000,000
  • 2008 budget for Non-Secure Detention: $24,000,000
  • 2008 budget for Alternatives to Detention: $2,400,000

Percentage of youth entering detention who are of African-American or Latino decent: 95%

The average annual detention cost for one youth in secure detention in 2007: $200,000

The average annual cost per pupil in NYC public high schools in 2007: $11,844

Amount NYC taxpayers spent on marijuana busts in 2010: $75,000,000.

The 2011  NYC Dept. of Corrections budget: $1,000,000,000

  • Number of inmates admitted in 2009: 98,313
  • Average daily population in 2009: 13,197
  • The number of people employed by DOC in 2009: 10,316

DOC’s projected 2010-2019  Capital Budget (expenditures for new projects): $1,500,000,000.

Just looking at these very basic figures should tell you that $127,000,000 is a drop in the bucket and will only scratch the surface of the systemic problem, which is that New York, like most cities, has developed a dependency on a vast criminal justice system that targets poor black and Latino males.

In his address Mayor Bloomberg made the case that servicing young black and Latino men is good for the  city. It will, he argued, save taxpayers money in the long run, create new tax revenue and make these young people feel like they have a stake in the city. I understood his tactic. In good times it isn’t popular or easy to make the case to spend public money on a segment of the population that’s routinely maligned in the media as shiftless, worthless and dangerous. In a time of austerity, the case requires overwhelming evidence of its necessity. Fortunately, the young black & brown male crisis is pretty much anywhere and everywhere you look these days: prisons, schools, unemployment offices, street corners.

But is giving a young man a government issued ID, low-wage, (let’s be honest: dead-end) employment, mentorship (by whom and to what end, I wonder) and yoga classes to control his anger (I kid you not) really going to make him feel like a valued member of society? And what’s so great about being integrated into a system that saddles young Americans  with loads of college debt, asks them to pay into a Social Security pot that may not be around to support them, under employs them, taxes them at every turn, and unabashedly caters to the wealthy and connected at everyone else’s expense? To a degree, I even heard echoes of Richard Nixon’s famous post-urban uprisings “piece of the action” sentiment. Driven by the fear of further unrest and, like Bloomberg, acknowledging obvious economic disparities in the ’60s and ’70s, Nixon championed a “black capitalism” initiative replete with programs designed to give black entrepreneurs loans and other incentives. Though Nixon’s program was a non-starter, it at least aimed to get African Americans in the capitalist game, which is more than I can say for Bloomberg’s modest “vision” for black and brown males.

Do I sound like a cynic?

I hope not.

I’m just not drinking this particular kool-aid.

I’m sick of elite egg heads (and, yes some would even consider  me one of them) and their “action plans” to fix the problems of the poor overnight with chump change and good intentions. I’m tired of this  same elite “ideaocracy” creating solutions that, remarkably, never involve the elite having to 1) acknowledge the invaluable benefits  it has derived from the very inequitable system it professes to criticize or 2) make any radical recalibration of the status quo that would in any way jeopardize its place at the head of the table. All anyone has to do is watch season 4 of The Wire or listen to the latest mixtape to realize a lot of kids are quite clear on what it takes to get ahead  in this society. Although there are some amazing people doing amazing work to change the order of things, this society, particularly the dysfunctional bureaucracies entrenched in our day to day lives,  is in no hurry to help them.

In my ideal world, a real radical initiative for young black and brown men would start with the  following:

  • Decriminalization of drugs and an end to the War on Drugs
  • Redistribution of resources being dumped into juvenile justice, probation services and prisons back into the communities being drained of their human capital
  • A Wealth Building high school curriculum that includes  education on and access to the global markets
  • An Entrepreneurship high school curriculum that provides start-up capital and support
  • A Health and Wellness curriculum  that includes mental health issues, raising healthy families, contributing to a healthy community and fitness and nutrition among other things
  • A Redistribution of the funds used to prosecute petty marijuana charges into grass roots organizations located in the community most harmed by these charges
  • A Recycling of all seized drug money as well as any proceeds from the sale of seized property back into the harmed communities
  • An end to the Draconian Stop and Frisk laws.

It seems fairly obvious to me that the real problem is that we’re not prepared to have an honest conversation about the fact that 1)  our current economic structure lacks the capacity  or desire to employ everyone, 2) a college and even an advanced degree can’t guarantee access to adequate employment and 3) our economy is deeply reliant on a criminalized class of people. Until we’re ready to be honest, then, while I acknowledge Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts, convening “experts” at Gracie Mansion to discuss policy initiatives and developing “action plans” is simply a symbolic attempt to clear a guilty conscience without making any meaningful — as in billions not millions — investment.