Leaders in the black community urged lawmakers at a Beacon Hill hearing yesterday to create a state commission to examine the "social status" of black men in Massachusetts.
They called on lawmakers to pass a bill that would appoint 21 people to study trends among African-American men, assess existing programs for blacks, and propose new ones to benefit black men.
"There are many people in the Commonwealth who are struggling, but I don't think there's much debate that there's a particular segment of our population who is really, really reeling for a host of reasons," said Senator Dianne Wilkerson, who proposed the bill.
Those who testified before the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities included Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Councilor Chuck Turner, and Ron Odom, whose son, 13-year-old Steven, was shot to death in Dorchester in October.
They and others cited statistics that reflect the problems affecting black men in the state: Less than half of black males graduate from high school; blacks account for 26 percent of the state's prison population, though they account for just 5 percent of the state population; and 34 percent of black men are unemployed, while the state's overall unemployment rate remains below 5 percent.
Not all black leaders saw the value of such a commission.
"I think there are better ways to spend the Commonwealth's money," Leonard C. Alkins, president emeritus of the NAACP in Boston, said in a phone interview. "Why do you need a commission to study black men? If you want to deal with inequities, fine. But I think it's a waste of taxpayer's money. I think we have far too many pressing issues that this money could be used for."
It was not clear yesterday how much the commission would cost the state. None of the members appointed to the commission would be paid, but they would be reimbursed for "any ordinary, necessary, or reasonable expenses incurred while in the commission's service," according to Wilkerson's bill.
Wilkerson compared the proposed commission to others created by the Legislature on the status of women and Asian-Americans. She said she expects the commission's budget would be about $200,000 a year. "We've heard no opposition," she said in a phone interview. "We're already spending a host of money on this population. We have to figure out a better way to spend the money we're already spending."
In his testimony, Ogletree called the proposed commission "timely and important" and a "well-crafted response to the pressing and urgent needs of the Commonwealth." He cited disparities, including that blacks receive inferior healthcare, according to studies.
"The status of our children in the areas of education, health, employment, and the increasing number of those involved in the child welfare and criminal justice system should give us pause," said Ogletree, executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.
John H. Jackson of the Schott Foundation for Public Education said the commission could help raze education barriers to the advancement of many black men.
Jackson cited a lack of education as a reason for the problems of young African-Americans.
"If there is any state that recognizes the benefit of investing in all children, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as the only state in the US with an African-American male governor, should lead the effort to underscore the benefits of investment," he said at the hearing.
Brian K. Gibbs, director of the Program to Eliminate Health Disparities at Harvard School of Public Health, suggested at the hearing that the commission could help persuade lawmakers to invest more in providing prisoners with jobs and crafting a curriculum that appeals more to black students. "It is time to stop the madness," Gibbs said. "How much longer can we afford to ignore this epidemic?"