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State hearings explore health of minority males

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When it’s 17-year-old Eric Gant’s turn to testify today at an Oakland legislative hearing on the health and welfare of California’s minority men and boys, he will ask for a safe way to get to school.

“Students deserve a safe path to school, like an adult wants a safe path to work,” Gant, who is African American, told California Watch. “A safe pathway is so that you can walk down the street and nothing would happen, so you can get an education and make it home OK.”

An outgoing and ambitious teen, Gant rattles off a few examples where he or students he knows have been targets of theft or violence on their way to school. “You think about it all day,” he said of the threats. “You think about it the whole school year, maybe.” He added that Oakland students need a safe place to do their homework.

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Gant’s experience hints at one of the concerns that youth advocates have for this population: overlooked trauma related to violence in their neighborhoods. Nationally, Latino boys and young men are more than four times as likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder [PDF] as whites. African American boys are 2.5 times as likely.

Today's hearing is being convened by the Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color in California. Assemblyman Sandré Swanson, D-Oakland, said he formed the committee to examine the adverse conditions that some black, Latino and Asian boys experience and their effects on state resources and agencies. It also will look at the connections among issues like health, foster care, truancy, school dropouts, unemployment and incarceration. 

“We are being holistic in what we are trying to do here,” he said.

Youth advocates say the needs of this group must be addressed for the overall benefit of the state.

“If you have a segment of the population that is consistently failing and consistently incarcerated and marginalized and excluded, you can’t have a state population that is thriving,” said Marc Philpart, a senior associate with PolicyLink, which is coordinating a network of statewide nonprofits and researchers on the topic. “The good thing about the select committee is that it’s an institutional mechanism for getting greater attention on the policy side of these particular issues, because there’s no way that we can service our way out of these problems.”

African American and Latino boys have higher odds of not having access to health care and experience higher rates of poverty, homicides and incarceration than their white counterparts, according to a 2009 statewide study [PDF] produced by the RAND Corp.

The RAND study documented various health and welfare concerns related to unemployment and incarceration among California’s minority men and boys. A 2010 national report [PDF] on the same topics found that, among other things, “when it comes to health and other outcomes, the odds for boys and men of color are more than two times worse” than for their white counterparts.

“There’s a lot of qualitative data on how young boys of color are faring emotionally,” said Cassandra L. Joubert, director of the Central California Children’s Institute, who has researched minority youth. “It suggests that they are under a lot of stress and are exposed to a lot of trauma because their neighborhoods are unsafe, they face a lot of life challenges, their parents are having difficulties, or their friends are being murdered. It’s a whole host of things.”

Community organizations and academics in Fresno, Oakland and Los Angeles also are examining these issues.

In Fresno, researchers confirmed many of the RAND findings. They also found that black and Latino boys had higher rates of emergency room visits for asthma and sexually transmitted diseases than whites. Nearly 45 percent of Fresno County's HIV cases are among Latino men, compared with 32 percent among whites and 3 percent among Asians. Only half of Fresno’s African American boys and 60 percent of Latino boys had a stable source of health care. 

Joubert of the Central California Children’s Institute said these statistics can be partially explained by poverty and a lack of awareness of health issues in Fresno. "A greater appreciation for how and where you live, and the resources in your community that are there or not there, or the dangers in your community and the role of place in health would help,” said Joubert, who conducted the Fresno study.

Oakland health, safety and other demographic data culled by the Urban Strategies Council found that African Americans were most likely to be victims of homicide and had the highest mortality rate, at 962 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with a countywide rate of 630 deaths per 100,000. Thirty-two percent of African American men had high blood pressure, compared with 26 percent for all males, and 31 percent were obese, compared with 19 percent overall.

The Los Angeles report has not yet been released.

Today's hearing in Oakland is one in a series that will be held across the state; similar events will be held in Los Angeles on March 2, Fresno on April 13 and Sacramento on Aug. 3.

Swanson said the hearings will help legislators generate new policy ideas. Those under consideration are support for school-based health clinics and an examination of the relationship between truancy and incarceration.

Gant, the Oakland student, decided to bring his safe pathways to school idea to legislators after he participated in an event for youth and community members Saturday at the Oakland Museum of California in preparation for the hearing today.

Students at last week's event said they were concerned with gangs and police brutality; they also worry that there are “no grocery stores in the ‘hood” and that there “are not many safe places where you can just hang out.”

Gant participates in a number of youth organizations, including a leadership program through Kids First Oakland, and he said he thought that the research showing that minority boys and men had poorer health “could be true,” but he thought it had more to do with money and resources. One of his personal mottos is “rich will thrive” because “money has a lot of power in the world, and the rich will survive and strive,” he said.

“It depends on your circumstances and what you can afford,” he said. “My mom, she tries to make healthy food, but I have friends who only eat ramen and McDonald's. It depends on what your job is, what your money situation is, or if you have five people living in one home and they’re only making $48,000 a year. You can only do so much.”

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