As President Barack Obama talked from the East Room of the White House last week about violence and young African-American men and boys, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. was among a group of mayors meeting in New Orleans who say they are ready to back a new approach to the problem.
Wharton is among the big city mayors who formed “Cities United” to explore common issues and concerns. And the meeting in New Orleans was the inaugural session of the coalition.
“We know where the challenge is – it’s with young men of color,” Wharton said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines” the day after the gathering and the White House speech. “We’ve got to just fess up to that – face up to that. … Young male blacks in the city of Memphis are in grave jeopardy – in the United States as a whole.”
The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.
Obama’s approach to the problem is My Brother’s Keeper, a private program with federal coordination and local support.
“The stubborn fact is that the life chances of the average black or brown child in this country lags behind by almost every measure, and is worse for boys and young men,” he said.
My Brother’s Keeper would work across several fronts, including mentorship programs and juvenile and criminal justice system changes aimed at a basic “disconnectedness” the president said is at the root of a cycle of problems and lowered expectations.
“We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is,” Obama said. “That’s how we think about it. It’s like a cultural backdrop for us – in movies and television. We just assume, of course, it’s going to be like that. But these statistics should break our hearts. And they should compel us to act.”
Wharton termed the problem “black boy crime” and he said it is the specific issue that some social services agencies and advocacy groups want to avoid.
“We have to stop saying, ‘I don’t do black boy crime. That’s not my thing. I’m in health care.’ ‘I don’t do black boy crime, I’m a minister or I’m a business person,’” Wharton said. “If you are in this town, you’ve been impacted by what young male blacks are doing. Your stores are closing. People are not investing. People are moving out. The fear factor is there. Let’s face it. And everybody’s impacted by it, so they are your little brother. The system at 201 Poplar will never do it alone.”
Wharton said too often the reaction is based on an assumption that what works is an unforgiving and immediate response that makes black young men disproportionately more likely to find their way into the criminal justice system.
“We cannot do it simply by saying they are marauding out there. Let’s just round them up and make everybody mad,” he said. “See the value side of it when you get inside their heads and minds.”
The issue isn’t a new one for Memphis. But it is building critical mass politically.
A detailed U.S. Department of Justice investigation of Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court, which spanned several years, concluded black male juvenile offenders were disproportionately more likely to be transferred by the court for trial as adults and disproportionately more likely to be detained and face harsher punishments than their white counterparts.
The finding was one of several that led to a settlement agreement with county government and the court that is bringing about major reforms of court procedures, including due process protections.
Wharton, a former Shelby County public defender and criminal defense attorney, said the local criminal justice system is not working as it should.
“It’s spotty,” he said. “Does it meet the standards now? No, it does not because we are heavy on the prosecutions, heavy on the incarcerations, heavy on the punishment side. This is not to say that you just give up on suppression. You’ve got to hold people accountable.”
The issue is likely to remain in the political spotlight this year as voters decide countywide races on the August county general election ballot for district attorney general, juvenile court judge and juvenile court clerk. All three races feature candidates who have expressed strong concerns about the current direction of the criminal and juvenile justice systems.
“More and more and more that’s becoming the face of crime,” Wharton said of young black males. “It’s going to eat us alive if we don’t get a handle on it. Let’s just come to grips and stop tiptoeing around it.”