Young Men's Initiative: The White Mayor's Burden

Bloomberg aims to help the young black and Latino men he has been throwing in jail for a decade

2. It avoids the hard questions (and even the hard words). Despite claiming to be a critical, unflinching take on the state of young men of color in New York City, you will not find the terms "drugs," "marijuana," or "stop-and-frisk" within it.

3. Bloomberg likes to throw money at things. This is his way, and the $127 million public-private partnership is not a new technique for him, philanthropically. What is somewhat unusual, though, is that he's now putting money into line items (like the Summer Youth Employment Program) that, as recently as last year, Bloomberg's budget attempted to gut. Also, it's noteworthy that he got George Soros's Open Society to match Bloomberg Philanthropies' $30 million donation. (Soros also funds much bolder criminal justice reform efforts, such as the Drug Policy Alliance.)

4. Bloomberg is content to reform the disparate number of black and brown boys in the criminal justice system only after they have been sucked into it. The report specifically calls to "reform the pipeline that incarcerates young men of color"—but only deals with recidivism and reforming parole. The mayor was reportedly appalled that three of four people leaving Rikers will return; correspondingly, the initiative will beef up and branch out its parole efforts. But it's light on keeping young black and brown kids out of detention in the first place.

This last point is perhaps the most disturbing to those advocates who have routinely sued Bloomberg over the years to get the most accurate data on black and brown young men in the criminal justice system (and who were not invited to be on the committee).

"The recidivism focus, which is a rightful one but shouldn't be the only one, presupposes a legitimacy of all those arrests and incarcerations," says Kyung Ji Kate Rhee of the Institute of Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives. "And what we are saying is, they're not."

Simply dealing with recidivism and not with the policing that starts the problem is, according to Lieberman, "sort of like pouring kerosene on an area and then saying 'We're going to deal with the problem of forest fires! I am going to get you more firemen!'"

Speaking of firefighters, the FDNY is the perfect crucible to show how obdurate Bloomberg has previously been when it comes to hiring black and Latino men within a city agency.

In the Young Men's Initiative, Bloomberg will make a big push for jobs for young men of color. He'll augment occupational help for parolees, vocational training, and mentoring programs. Most concretely, he'll ban city agencies from taking arrests into account in the first round of interviews for municipal jobs.

These are all worthy goals.

But they're all absurdly ironic, given how far Bloomberg has previously gone to avoid engaging in any kind of affirmative action with the FDNY.

Today, the fire department is still more than 90 percent white, even though non-Hispanic white people account for about 35 percent of the city. The federal government has been suing the city for more than 40 years over this disparity, which has compelled it to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and create a force that is more reflective of New York's population.

During Bloomberg's tenure, a federal judge ruled that the city still engages in discriminatory hiring processes. When the last firefighter entrance exam was given, more blacks and Hispanics actually passed it than ever before. Yet the judge still found their percentage too low, ultimately ordering that a new test be written.

In the interim, a "limbo" class of would-be firefighters who had aced the exam sat in purgatory for years.

A popular misconception is that federal judge Nicholas Garaufis said that this class could not be hired. But almost the exact opposite is true. Garaufis gave Bloomberg five different options, all with a variation of some or all of these candidates getting the job. However, they had to be hired with assurances that the decades of underrepresentation by black and Latino firefighters would be addressed in some way.

Rather than concede to any form of affirmative action—even one mandated for public employees by a nearly half-century-old federal law—Bloomberg said no to all five options. So no brown or black (or white or yellow) candidates were hired. Everyone who aced the last test will have to take the new one this January.

And now, bizarrely, he wants to give a special hand to ex-cons.

When asked about the Young Men's Initiative, FDNY captain Paul Washington says, "My initial thought was that the biggest thing that you can do to help blacks and Latinos in poverty is to help them to get a good job."

Washington is a member of the Vulcan Society, the fraternity of black firefighters that has battled the FDNY's hiring practices for decades.

"If he had followed the judge's guidelines off of the current list, [Bloomberg] would have been giving hundreds of young black and Latino men the best job in the city," Washington says. "All he had to do was to follow the judge's guidelines."

It would not have been a terribly controversial move; many people on all sides of the affirmative action issue wanted to see that limbo class hired in some way.

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