My Brother’s Keeper: Let’s Tackle African-American Male Unemployment

“Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises.”


“We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”

John W. Gardner

“Life is an ever-shifting kaleidoscope- a slight change, and all patterns alter.”

Sharon Salzberg

President Obama has faced and continues to face a ton of criticism regarding his commitment and efforts to help people of color. While it is true that no president is ever going to please everyone or make all the right moves, President Obama deserves some “street cred” for another policy by his administration that could make a big difference in the African-American community: My Brother’s Keeper. It can be a great first step (although I caution that it is just the first of many steps that are desperately needed). And if a nobody from the Southside can add his two cents, I would like to make a suggestion.

Mr. President please include two things in your wonderful initiative: (1) programs to help reduce the unemployment rates for African-American young men between the ages of 16-24, and (2) broader opportunities to wipe the records of felons clean through pardons and expungements.

The labor market has never been kind to the African-American community regardless of the age group or even the level of education. It is much more daunting to young African-American men between the ages of 16-24 and young African-American men with felony convictions. It is imperative to attempt to reduce the unemployment rate of young African-American men by providing greater employment opportunities in the private sector to allow them to break the cycle of bad outcomes and cultivate an atmosphere of good outcomes.

obama-my-brothers-keeper (1)The unemployment rate for African-American men between the ages of 16-24 has been high for years. Just recently it was at Great Depression levels of approximately 30%. The unemployment rate for African-American teens is even higher at 40%. Both unemployment rates are at least twice that of their white counterparts. High unemployment rates coupled with the fact that young African-Americans are fifteen times more likely to go to prison than their white counterparts is a recipe for a bleak future for the young generation. This must change if we are to change the reality for young African-American men and promote good outcomes. Helping young African-American men to find jobs before they get into trouble with the law is very important. It is equally as important to help young African-American men that have been convicted of a crime to find a job to prevent them from being caught up the cycle of recidivism.

That is why there need to be more programs and opportunities for them to receive meaningful job training, apprenticeships, and job placement. These programs can be something that seems as insignificant as an expansion of summer jobs for teenagers of color to opportunities for job training in a trade to allow young men of color to have access to good paying jobs even if they do not go to college to more mentoring programs for young men of color in college.

There also should be educational, job training, and job placement programs for felons even while incarcerated in order to help with their transition back into society. This need is particularly urgent since many states have eliminated or severely cut back funding for educational programs for prisoners. Felons can be helped through providing more job training programs in federal and state prison, particularly for nonviolent offenders. These programs should have a job placement component that will place offenders that have successfully completed the programs in jobs to work on a temporary basis in order to give the offender work experience.

There also needs to be set guidelines for ex-offenders to receive pardons at the federal and state levels that allow them to expunge their records. The criteria could be something as simple as a five year period for nonviolent offenders and a ten to fifteen year period for violent offenders without any new convictions and a steady employment history. If they meet the criteria then they should be allowed to file for a pardon with the express provision that their record is expungeable. This will allow them greater employment opportunities in the future, which may cut down on recidivism and lead to more stable communities. The old saying of “give a man a fish, he will eat for the day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime” is still very true. Let’s help young brothers gain the tools to eat for a lifetime!