I'm the mother of two phenomenal black men.
They once were black boys.
I raised them in the '70s as a single mother, mostly in Oakland, and Washington, D.C. They're grown now, but the conversation we've embarked upon as a nation in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict brings back vivid, painful memories of them as young black boys.
It was not a normal life, raising them in the inner city. Which streets can they walk down, which stores can they go into without being followed, harassed, or worse? Who will walk them to school? Not because they don't know the way, but because I was too afraid to let them out of my sight for one minute.
We've started this conversation again, but when do things change? Not only am I the mother of two black men, and now the grandmother of two black boys, but I'm also a member of Congress who has been fighting this battle in legislatures for decades. In the early '90s, I led the California legislative effort to establish the California Commission on the Status of African American Males, and proudly served as its chair.
What we must recognize is that our issues with race do not just seep into our relationships on a personal level, they are endemic in our institutions, in our society, in our systems.
Fifty years since the March on Washington and Martin Luther King's, defining speech, African-Americans may be "more free," but we are certainly not close to equal.
From cradle to grave, African-Americans, and men in particular, are still wrapped in chains, and it begins before they are even born.
From the poor prenatal health care they receive to a propensity for being born prematurely, black babies start their lives from behind, forecasting future health disparities, complications and diseases. When toddlers should be learning to read and share, Republicans gut Head Start with cuts from sequester and push early childhood education aside. We send our black children to crumbling schools that are understaffed and overstuffed, where they are far more likely to be suspended than white students.
Almost one in two black boys drop out of school. Far too many that do graduate don't have good prospects for jobs, and the Supreme Court scaled back affirmative action this year, making it that much harder for students of color to succeed in college. When our boys realize they can't get out of their neighborhoods, oftentimes, some resort to violence: Oakland alone has had 54 homicides this year.
Our young black men are folded into the criminal justice system at rates that make my heart ache. We have made strides on mandatory minimums in recent years, but there are still deep-seated biases in our sentencing guidelines, laws and enforcement practices.
Our economy as a whole is recovering from the Great Recession, but black unemployment remains in the double digits and is unacceptably high. Because of this and many other factors, the poverty rate for African-Americans is more than 27 percent. These rates are deplorable and show a deep rift in our society.
But there's more. The Voting Rights Act has been gutted. African-American household net worth is down to $5,600 on average, and the health disparities that plague African-Americans will not be closed without a full embrace of the Affordable Care Act. From HIV, diabetes, hypertension, obesity and heart disease, the average life expectancy for an African-American is a full four years shorter than the average white American. So not only are African-Americans living harder lives, but they are living shorter ones, too.
In the face of these realities, memories, and statistics, what is to be done? President Barack Obama last week gave an unannounced, unrehearsed, heartfelt and difficult statement on race. He reminded us that we need to give African-Americans, and boys in particular, the sense that their country cares for them, values them and is willing to invest in them. We have to encourage them, support them and remind them that they have more opportunity than their jump shot. But first, we have to make sure that's true.
But we can't have this conversation at our kitchen tables where we look like each other and have more than likely already made up our minds. We need a hard look at ourselves, the historic and cultural context in which we live, and the institutions around us.
We need targeted resources for our most ailing communities; we need pathways out of poverty, ladders of opportunity, and not just a conversation, but a plan for action, which includes public policy initiatives. I'm so glad to hear the president speak out on this issue, and that he didn't just call for a conversation, he started one. I hope it leads somewhere, but we can't just talk: We must act.
Rep. Barbara Lee is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. She is a resident of Oakland.