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The awful statistics are widely publicized: More than one-third of black men in America are obese; they also experience the highest rates of HIV infection and die from gunshots at a higher rate than any other population. One in six African-American men has been incarcerated, and if trends continue, a black man born after 2001 has a one in three chance to be incarcerated in his lifetime. Black men have the highest school dropout rates and highest unemployment rates in the country. In 2014, 47 percent of young black men in Chicago were out of work and out of school.
Cook County commissioner Richard Boykin believes that decades of government policies are to blame for these disparities, and that it's time for local government to take serious steps to remedy them.
On Wednesday, Boykin called for the creation of a commission to "examine the status of the African-American male" in Cook County and plans to introduce the bill to the county board in early August. The proposed commission would gather data about the effects of government policy on socioeconomic outcomes in the African-American community.
The commission would also hold public meetings to solicit the input of experts and personal testimony from Cook County residents.
"It's not enough just to know the statistics and quote them," Boykin said Wednesday in a phone interview from the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. "It's our responsibility to turn them around."
The urgent need for the commission is evident in the levels of poverty and unemployment across black neighborhoods, Boykin added. African-Americans are "virtually living in third-world conditions in many of our communities," he said, pointing to average per capita incomes of $10,951 and $11,993 in West Garfield Park and Englewood, respectively, and unemployment rates spiking above 20 percent.
Although the Illinois Department of Human Services published a report in 2009 that reiterated the grim prospects for black men in the state, Boykin says the problem has only worsened in the past seven years. "I'm seeing it every day in Austin, in East and West Garfield Park, in Lawndale, in places like Englewood. I'm seeing the misery, I'm seeing the faces of hopelessness," he says. "We can help build upon the work the state did in 2009 and focus it on the county."
Boykin's proposal is reminiscent of federal efforts such as the 1967 Kerner Commission, created by Lyndon B. Johnson in the wake of riots across the country and chaired by then-Illinois governor Otto Kerner Jr. The commission attributed growing racial tensions to white racism solidified by discriminatory policies. It famously concluded: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal."
In 50 years, Boykin says, the federal government did little to follow the recommendations of the Kerner Commission. He hopes the a more localized commission will be more effective. "We've had 50 years of policies that have devastated black communities," he says. "My hope is once they have verifiable data, maybe the resource allocation will be a little bit different."
Dates for the three proposed commission hearings have not been set yet, but one will be held at the Cook County Board of Commissioners, one in the south suburbs, and one in the west suburbs. Boykin hopes to see the commission up and running by September.