For Young Men of Color in Newark, Life Remains a Struggle

Colleen O'Dea | March 28, 2019 | Social
Despite homicide rates far higher than their peers statewide, and lower graduation rates, new report also reveals hopes for a better city and a better future

Life can be difficult for young black and Hispanic men in Newark: They are less likely to graduate high school, more likely to lack health insurance, and far more likely to be murdered than young women in Newark or their peers in New Jersey overall.

That’s the picture painted by a new report out today from Advocates for Children of New Jersey that presents, for the first time, a detailed look at more than 18,000 men of color ages 15 to 24, using statistics and their own words. This deep dive was part of the 2019 Newark Kids Count report that ACNJ annually publishes about children living in the state’s largest city.

A number of young men talked about threats of violence and other challenges growing up in an urban area, their desire to change their high school experiences to make them more meaningful, and their dreams for a bright and successful future.

High murder rate

But the most disturbing data was the high homicide rate for young men. Between 2012 and 2016, 122 males ages 15 to 24 were murdered, representing three-quarters of all deaths due to injury. By contrast, 11 young women in Newark were homicide victims, half of all injury-related deaths. Statewide, homicides account for just 27 percent of injury-related deaths of young men.

“It is troubling in that it tells us that far too many young Newarkers live in poverty and become victims of violence,” said Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka.

According to the report, almost two-thirds of Newark children under age 18 were living in poverty or in a low-income family — defined as less than two times the federal poverty level of $24,858 for a family of four. That’s more than twice the statewide rate of 30 percent of economically disadvantaged children. Some 38 percent of blacks in Newark ages 15 to 24 and 28 percent of Hispanics had incomes below the poverty level in 2013-2017.

Living without medical care

Getting medical care can also be challenging. Despite increases in the number of New Jerseyans with health insurance, largely due to NJ FamilyCare and the federal Affordable Care Act, 35 percent of Newark men ages 19 to 25 had no health insurance. Statewide, less than 9 percent of New Jerseyans lack insurance.

Men of color lag behind white males and females in the public schools, as well. Black and Hispanic males are far more likely to be chronically absent — missing 10 percent or more days of schools — than white males in grades nine to 11. With a graduation rate of 74 percent from Newark’s high schools, males are less likely than girls (83 percent) and the average New Jersey male (88 percent) to finish school.

Newark Kids Count
Despite a substantial decline in juvenile arrests and admissions to county detention facilities, Newark’s young black men continue to be over-represented in the juvenile justice system. Roughly 82 percent of Newark residents ages 18 to 24 who were arrested were males. And although Newark males between the ages of 15 to 24 make up roughly 40 percent of Essex County’s total population, 54 percent of them are held in detention facilities.

“This year’s Newark Kids Count shows us that young men of color in Newark are faced daily with systems that may be holding them back,” Baraka said.

A helping hand

But the mayor also found “hope and strength” in the report in recognizing a number of organizations and initiatives that “empower our youth with the tools they need to succeed in life.” Among those he cited are My Brother’s Keeper, Community Street Teams, and Men’s Meetings.

My Brother’s Keeper Newark, an organization that works to improve opportunities for young boys and men of color focuses on leadership, education, and violence prevention, partnered with ACNJ on what the mayor called a “sobering” report.

“We know that the experiences of young men in Newark are diverse and complex,” said Khaatim Sherrer El, managing director of My Brother’s Keeper. “There are no easy solutions, but it is clear that we are listening, and engagement is key.”

Eyewitnesses to Newark

ACNJ and MBK Newark held listening sessions with young men of color, asking them to reflect on their experiences growing up in the city and to share ways to improve outcomes for young men. The report includes some of their comments, which provide a window into life for young men in Newark. Among them:

  • “In our communities, what’s respected? Strength, toughness; violence is respected … so being strong in front of your peers becomes your primary concern, even more than education.”
  • “I went to McDonald’s. The guy said I did the interview right, but I wasn’t dressed right. And, me thinking back, I didn’t have a male figure to teach me how to dress up to go to an interview. I went with regular clothes.”
  • “… even though (there’s) a lot of crime in the city and you do have to watch over your shoulder 90 percent of the time … I do have a lot of experience(s) in this city that were good.”
  • Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of ACNJ, said the insights from the young men, coupled with the data, provide a detailed picture of how they are faring in the city.

    “Although many describe life in Newark to be ‘unpredictable,’ the stories the youth shared were also full of hope and aspirations,” she said. “They spoke about wanting meaningful careers and making an impact — goals no different than their peers across the state. Yet far too many boys and young men of color face roadblocks impeding their potential to succeed, making the path that much harder.”

    Things that would improve life

    Taking into account the statistics and the stories, the report makes a number of recommendations for improving life for Newark’s young men of color. These include:

  • greater access to mental health services and to other outlets for increasing motivation;
  • more mentors, advocates, and caring adults to guide young men;
  • increased opportunities for personal and professional development, particularly in the areas of entrepreneurship, leadership, public speaking, advanced technology, networking, and financial literacy;
  • additional information about a wide range of career and college options beginning in middle school and throughout high school.
  • “We must provide opportunities where we see young men of color as a part of the solution, filled with untapped potential,” Khaatim Sherrer El said.

    In addition to My Brother’s Keeper, Newark has embarked on several other initiatives to address the barriers that young men of color face. For instance, Community Street Teams, which help resolve conflicts in high-crime areas, redirect youth to education, life skills, and employment and make sure children get to and from school safely. And citywide men’s meetings reach out to hundreds of attendees to encourage entrepreneurship, networking, and employment opportunities.

    “For me, this is personal,” Baraka said. “Growing up in Newark, I was fortunate to have a support system that helped me succeed — family, friends, and mentors that saw my potential and kept me motivated. But I know not everyone has that strong support system.”