Thirty-two black men who get it.
Thirty-two black men who understand what's happening to black children and families in Modesto and across the nation.
Thirty-two black men who want to promote accountability and responsibility among other blacks who father children, teaching them how to be the strong male role models too often missing in black families.
Thirty-two is an intriguing number because it so closely reflects the positive portion of an American culture whose youth is otherwise immersed in crisis. Consider these facts:
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Seventy percent of black children in the United States are born out of wedlock.
Seventy percent are raised by single parents, the vast majority of whom are mothers.
Add high unemployment and incarceration rates and low graduation and academic achievement rates, and it forms a future of social and economic desperation for many young blacks.
Something has to change, and someone has to change it. That is why John Ervin of the King-Kennedy Memorial Center invited black men from the Modesto area to an organizational meeting this past week. Thirty-two attended, leaving 3½ hours later and promising their meeting would be the first piece of a very intricate and important puzzle — not a one-time-and-forget-about-it assembly.
Thirty-two black men — as they refer to themselves, in preference to "African-Americans" — began plotting a course they hope will reverse the trends among youth in Modesto by showing they care enough to intervene.
Buoyed by a powerful and motivating message from actor and activist Gregory Alan Williams, they vowed to return next month, each recruiting other black men willing to be mentors and role models. They plan to reach out not only to young kids whose fathers aren't around but also to fathers who have shirked their roles and responsibilities toward their children.
"Just because you're not married to your children's mama doesn't mean, as black men, we can't be involved in their lives," Ervin said.
Mid-60s warnings come about
They have to do something, Ervin said, because there are far too many kids at risk.
According to The City Journal, a New York-based quarterly publication dedicated to inner-city public policy issues, many of the concerns about black families forecast in a mid-1960s report by the Department of Labor have come true.
The report warned of the beginning of a shift in the black family unit — a shift in which more and more children were being raised solely by their mothers, with fathers having little or no role in their lives.
Written by then-Assistant Labor Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the report was criticized on many fronts at the time. But within 15 years of its publication, black society had "witnessed both the birth of millions of fatherless babies and the entrenchment of an underclass," The City Journal's Kay Hymowitz wrote in the summer 2005 issue. School dropout rates among blacks rose, as did delinquency, crime and unemployment. Meanwhile, their earning power declined.
These are the problems the men who met this week in Modesto identified and pledged to address.
Problems, Ervin said, such as 80 percent of black murder victims being killed by other blacks.
"There's an indignancy when (the murder of a black) involves another race," he said. "But there's no protest when we kill one of our own. Nobody's going to march in the street."
Problems such as kids learning about economics on the streets in gangs and/or selling drugs instead of in classrooms learning how to someday own legitimate businesses.
Problems such as kids planning on careers in pro sports instead of getting college degrees that can provide lifelong earning power.
Media image doesn't help
Williams struck deep chords when he talked about the need for many more male role models and for fathers to be involved with their kids.
"Some families raised solely by women are doing well," he said. "But two heads screwed on straight are better than one. Fathers are essential."
But he also warned that reaching kids and preaching responsibility isn't going to be easy because some have never had strong men in their lives and won't readily accept them now.
"We have a problem, gentlemen," he told them. "And the problem is that you're obsolete. We have a society that doesn't respect age."
The entertainment media, he said, does little to help.
"Every image of a father on TV is a Homer Simpson," Williams said. "A bumbling idiot. Out of vogue, worthless. Day to day, there are market forces that seek to diminish your role, your importance as fathers."
It can be re-established, he said, by being there for their children from the beginning and being an integral part of their lives.
"Read a story to your child," he said. "There is so much we can bring to our sons and daughters."
So the plan is this: Ervin wants to involve churches, schools, the King-Kennedy Memorial Center and men's organizations including Seeds of Wisdom, a nonprofit human rights organization run by Timothy Daniels of Modesto.
"All of these groups should be together, bonded by a strategy," Ervin said.
Every meeting must include setting a date for the next meeting, they decided. They'll meet again March 8. They need to recruit more mentors and father figures to spend time with kids. They need to develop resources to help fund activities such as bowling, camping trips and other events that take kids out of their element — away from peer pressure and into an environment where they can feel free to open up.
The group plans to host a conference for black men, to create a dialogue within the community that delves into the "good, the bad and the ugly," as Ervin put it.
They need to work toward solutions and foster a positive atmosphere.
They need to get through to men who father children, showing the need to be involved, as well as the rewards.
And they must find a way to engage young people in the process — the earlier, the better, Williams said.
"You'll see a little boy in the store and he's staring at you and staring you, and you know he's got no daddy at home," he said. "That little boy is just crying out for a father figure in his life."
Because out of every 10 black children, only three are likely to have their fathers in their lives.
There are 32 black men in Modesto who want to change that — 32 black men who get it and who want to make a difference.