INDIANAPOLIS | More than 100 men and women from across Indiana organized Tuesday to begin finding solutions to the myriad problems plaguing the state's African-American men, and correspondingly their families and communities.
The statistics compiled by the Indiana Commission on the Social Status of Black Males are grim:
Just 17 percent of black fourth-graders are proficient in reading and only 51 percent of black males graduate high school in four years, in part because black students are three times more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled.
That lack of educational attainment reduces job prospects, which helps explain why 44 percent of black Indiana men are unemployed or not participating in the workforce, and 45 percent of black children live in poverty.
Among black male Hoosiers between ages 20 and 34 who dropped out of high school, 26 percent are employed while 37 percent are in jail. Homicide is the leading cause of death for young black men in the state.
"When we look at the issues that take place nationally, the issues that take place locally and on a statewide level, the conversation is overdue," said Eddie Melton, of Gary, the commission's chairman.
During the commission's daylong conference, participants heard from local and state officials, experts and advocates detailing the issues facing black males in Indiana and spent time working together to come up with solutions.
The state commission, in conjunction with similar local panels in Gary, Michigan City and elsewhere, expects to issue a report in November with recommendations for state policy changes and new programs.
State Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, who sponsored the law establishing the commission, said he believes the intertwined effects of poverty and low educational attainment, made worse by a recent focus on standardized testing, are keeping African-Americans in a type of bondage that is reproducing generation after generation.
"This is orchestrated to make our young people feel inferior," Smith said. "We have to go back to the drawing board and go back and rethink this process called education."
State Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, identified the lack of well-paying jobs in Indiana as a key culprit, and said the $10 per hour positions Gov. Mike Pence brags about bringing to the state aren't doing much to improve things.
"How can you raise a family on $20,000 a year? How can you do it on $40,000?" Taylor asked. "Talented young people are moving away, because you can't make a living wage in Indiana."
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said she believes community action can play a role in helping overcome the issues impeding success for African-American men, pointing to numerous programs in her city that aim to reduce school truancy, promote mentoring and encourage hiring the long-term unemployed and prior felons.
"The only way that we can really impact the status of black males, and in turn the entire community, is to focus on those who are there and to provide the remediation and the extra assistance that we know is needed," said Freeman-Wilson, the state's former attorney general.
David Lewis, Jr., a 2015 Merrillville High School graduate and current student at the University of Indianapolis, perhaps personified the promise of an intense focus on success for black Indiana men.
Lewis said his attendance at the commission's Black Males Matter rally at the Statehouse earlier this year encouraged him to live a life that turns stereotypes about African-Americans upside-down.
"We need to put this race on the map. We live in a society where we allow others to disrespect our African-American culture," Lewis said. "We have to remember that we will forever be a proud race because of what our ancestors went through. We have come so far as an African-American community that there is no reason for us to cease changing this world."