In the course of my management consulting, I've been to some of the toughest neighborhoods in the country.
If you do business in these areas, you know to always visit them relatively early in the morning, before the animals wake up. Thus, in my travels, I'd see four- and five-year-old kids playing as all four- and five-year-olds do.
But as they got older, they developed an increasingly hard look in their eyes. Even at that age, they had put up with more crap than one can imagine. The neighborhoods they were born into have astonishing crime rates. The few terrorize the many, and unlike the police, they don't leave.
A great deal of America's $500-billion annual illicit drug trade flows through their world. It's an illegal trade where violence and fear take the place of contracts and the rule of law – an illegal trade that, unfortunately, often offers the best economic opportunity.
Job opportunities are limited, and youth unemployment reaches heights unheard of anywhere else in the country. A hand up is not an easy thing to find in these neighborhoods.
In many of these places, a culture has taken root where the very keys to success are viewed as being somehow foreign and something to reject, not embrace. These realities are true regardless of one's heritage, but they have fallen disproportionally on black Americans.
What of the education opportunities presented to these children today? The inner-city schools these children are forced to attend are a national disgrace. Education has been called the civil rights issue of our time by political leaders across the political spectrum.
What we see in the inner cities is the result of a lot of factors. A major one is the collapse of the educational system decades ago, resulting in generations of people receiving a lousy education – generations of people pretty much screwed from the womb, with their only hope being a chance for a decent education. In the face of this desperate need, the schools that are forced upon these children are an obscenity.
It is quite easy for someone who has never witnessed these realities to talk about hard work and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. It is much easier said than done. What future truly awaits a 12-year-old with very poor reading and writing skills, little to no math skills, and no command of the English language? They are supposed to happily go to jobs pushing a broom or flipping burgers? And fighting for these jobs against an army of illegal aliens willing to work for below-market wages? Or is a much more logical path one of crime? Far too many of these inner-city schools are simply one stop on the assembly line from school to prison or the cemetery.
It is a fact that blacks commit an astonishingly high percentage of all crimes, especially when you consider their percentage of the total population. The NAACP reports that "one in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001 and if current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime."
In the vast majority of cases, spending time in prison destroys a person's economic situation today and, in many situations, the rest of their lives. Losing one generation to prison usually ensures that the children will also be born poor and forced to attend lousy public schools, thus perpetuating the cycle. Public schools where violence is the norm. Public schools that operate more as daycare and institutional holding cells than as institutes of education. Public schools where even the top performers are not prepared for college.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education."
The public education system is doing neither for the poor souls forced to attend these life-destroying institutions.
How many of the problems of the inner cities in general and of black Americans in particular find their roots in generations of failed education? We will never address the issues of race, crime, poverty, and the pathologies they unleash until we at least provide an opportunity for every child in America to attend a quality school where his intelligence and character are developed to the peak of their potential.
Will every parent and child take advantage of this? Of course not. But until everyone who wants it is given a true opportunity to send their kids to quality schools, this country will fail in its basic commitment to those poorest among us. When you consider the resulting crime statistics and the cost of filling our prisons, that's a problem for all of us.
For the richest country the world has ever seen to allow this destruction to these young lives is simply wrong. Not every parent is "parent of the month" material, but at least let's give those who cry out for help a chance by offering them a school that at least has the potential to save their lives rather than destroy them.
John Conlin is an expert in organizational design and change. He is the founder and president of E.I.C. Enterprises, www.eicenterprises.org, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to spreading the truth here and around the world, primarily through K-12 education. E.I.C. Enterprises' GoFundMe page can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/so-you-believe-in-science-eh.