Can Young Black Men Be Saved?

Our Board of Economists examines the lost potential of African American males and develops a prescription to improve their fortunes

Before David Muhammad graduated from elementary school, he was well on his way to becoming a statistic. Living with his divorced mother in one of the poorer sections of Oakland, California, Muhammad observed his two older brothers succumb to the drug trade. “I saw how dysfunctional my brother’s drug use was,” says Muhammad. “The first time I realized my other brother was selling drugs was through a collect call from the county jail. Later, that example was the path I followed.”

By the time he was 14, Muhammad had received a first-class education from the streets. He ran away from home and began dealing drugs. At 16, he was charged with attempted murder over a disagreement about money. “The charges were later dropped, but the seriousness of the prison time I was facing began to make me think a little bit,” he recalls.

In high school, his black studies teacher took an interest in him, becoming Muhammad’s first positive African American male role model. Through his teacher’s mentorship and the influence of several coaches who encouraged him to improve his grades and play varsity football, Muhammad developed an interest in his own educational growth. Later, he joined the Omega Boys Club of Oakland, which he says helped put his life in perspective. “I went from having a 0.6 grade point average in the 10th grade to a 3.8 grade point average in the 12th grade,” he says. The Omega Boys Club paid for Muhammad’s college education at Howard University. Today, he reciprocates that generosity by steering a new generation of young black men who are at-risk.

Muhammad, 33, is executive director of The Mentoring Center, a nonprofit organization committed to helping high-risk youth, including disadvantaged and formerly incarcerated black males in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Area striving to transform their lives. Each day Muhammad and his staff struggle to reach black youth who are being consumed by what he calls a “culture of death largely promoted by hip-hop and legitimized by corporations that control hip-hop and modern media.”

Composed of seven programs, The Mentoring Center promotes an intensive, curriculum-based group mentoring process that shares information and knowledge, builds rapport and relationships, and provides resources to more than 400 youth of color. The four- to six-month “transformative mentoring” system focuses on changing the mentality that gives rise to destructive behavior among black men. The program also assists young people in finding empowering answers to three key questions: Who are you? How do you see yourself? What is your life’s purpose?

The program has enjoyed remarkable success. Over the past three years, The Mentoring Center has doubled the number of young people who receive its services. Records show 20% of the formerly incarcerated youth who participate in its programs return to the juvenile justice system, compared to a recidivism rate of 75% in California and 66% nationally. Several participants are attending college-six are currently enrolled in four-year universities, and another 15 are in community colleges.

Muhammad exemplifies the increasingly rare black man who turns his life around

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