Columnist: A Tigress for Equality

By Neal Peirce

Through the decades of her rich life, Marian Wright Edelman -- founder and leader of the Children's Defense Fund -- has been a tigress for equality, fighting to assure a sound and fair start in life for all children. 

But it's been an uphill battle all the way, especially for lower-income African-American and Hispanic children. Today, Edelman asserts, our proud United States is fostering a pernicious "cradle-to-prison pipeline." It means that a black male born in 2001 has a one-in-three chance of going to prison in his lifetime. For Latino boys, the chances are a one-in-six risk of the same fate. 

What fuels the pipeline? It's a series of mishaps and injustices that often start before birth with single teenage mothers who've had no prenatal care and sometimes permit alcohol and drug problems in utero. After birth, there's often no father around -- often he's in prison (today, 1.7 million minor children have a parent in prison). The child all too often encounters rough rather than tender care and discipline, and suffers a huge gap in basic word-building skills. And he often gets to witness violence in his household. 

Then American society's general disregard of children's needs kicks in. There's a severe shortage of early Head Start programs. No mandatory public pre-kindergarten system. Sub-quality public schools. Low expectations of the low-income kids. High percentages who can't read at grade level and get subjected -- in Edelman's words -- "to ridiculously stupid school discipline policies criminalizing children at younger and younger ages." Too many schools become dropout factories. 

Meanwhile, out around the neighborhood, there's social breakdown. Neighbors who used to be stand-in parents are now frightened and lock their doors. Church doors are also closed and bolted. On television and in films, children witness extraordinary levels of violence. And they don't, notes Edelman, experience the "strong, mediating adult influences they need. For a black or Latino child, it's a long ladder to adulthood, and many don't make it. 

Indeed, says Edelman, the result is "tens of thousands of young children, especially blacks, on their way to prison or death." 

In fact, about 200,000 American children and youths are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults every year. More than 2,500 have been sentenced to die in prison (life sentences) for violent acts they committed as children. 

And now there's the phenomenon of private prisons -- their "enrollment" having risen a staggering 354 percent in the last 15 years. Edelman's anger mounts as she cites the bid of Corrections Corporation of America -- in communications to 48 state governors -- proposing that their company be given contracts to run the state prisons for 20 years, the states guaranteeing a 90 percent occupancy rate: 

"How dare they make money off the backs of our most vulnerable young? It is the new Jim Crow, the new apartheid. It is slavery under a new name." 

And the trend isn't just hitting young black men, she notes, citing the Alabama immigration law that leaves Hispanic children afraid to go to school because one or both of their parents may be undocumented, so that there's constant fear of a broken-up family and deportation. 

Mobilizing to fight the ever-worsening trends, the Children's Defense Fund will hold its first convention in eight years next month in Cincinnati, expecting 3,000 advocates for children and the poor to be at hand, organizing to break the cradle-to-prison pipeline. 

It's time, Edelman asserts, to yank Americans out of the "comfort zones" they occupy "while millions of children are living hopeless, poverty- and violence-stricken lives in the war zones of our cities" and "to close the political and spiritual gaps that keep us from organizing, protesting in every creative nonviolent way -- and voting, voting, voting to stop politicians from cutting and assailing children's programs and from investing in punishment rather than prevention and early intervention." 

One hears the militant words and is tempted to sigh -- what chance of a turnaround in today's politically frozen America? Especially in a nation in which the gun and prison lobbies appear to wield dramatically more power than the advocates of the poor and downtrodden. 

There remains a strong "blame the victim" mindset in America -- an easy writing off of the problem of poor black or Hispanic families as "their fault," from black fathers who've disregarded their responsibilities to the substantial numbers of Latinos who crossed the border into America illegally. 

But a "writing off" makes little sense. We darken our own national future -- from social peace at home to the capacity of our workforce in the stiffly competitive new global economy -- by cold-shouldering the plight of young blacks and Latinos. Marion Wright Edelman makes a powerful moral case on their behalf. But common sense, indeed sober national self-interest, says we'll pay a bitter price by ignoring her. 

Neal Peirce's email address is 

(c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group 

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.