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sharptonRev. Al Sharpton President, National Action Network

I could have easily been a statistic. Growing up in Brooklyn, NY, it was easy — a little too easy — to get into trouble. Surrounded by poor schools, lack of resources, high unemployment rates, poverty, gangs and more, I watched as many of my peers fell victim to a vicious cycle of diminished opportunities and imprisonment. If it weren’t for the mentorship and guidance from people like my mother, James Brown and others, I wouldn’t have been able to make something of my life.

Today, as the father of two young women, I can tell you firsthand that while I continue to push for a society that doesn’t disenfranchise them, I cannot ignore the reality that our young Black men are facing unique and jarring challenges. We simply cannot fight for equality without addressing the gravest injustices around us. I’m proud to say that we have a President who not only understands this concept, but is doing something about it.

My Brother’s Keeper is a White House initiative designed to empower boys and young men of color. Last week, the Presidential Task Force for My Brother’s Keeper released a 90-day report that entailed progress and a set of recommendations. Various clergy members, academic professionals and civil rights leaders including myself gave input on this initiative all the way to its launch, and I was very happy to see this report released. In order to keep progressing forward, we cannot close our eyes to certain realities. While we fight for justice across the board, we must have a candid conversation about the specific plight of young Black men in this country. As I like to say, it’s time to keep it real.

In 2012, the Schott Foundation for Public Education released a study titled “The Urgency of Now” which indicated that the national high school graduation rate for Black male students was only 52 percent, while the rate for White males was 78 percent. In other words, almost half of all young Black men in high school do not graduate in four years. We should all be ashamed of that abysmal figure. When education and educational opportunities are one of the greatest mechanisms by which a child can excel, how can we do such a disservice to our young men of color? Not graduating high school on time leads to fewer chances of attending college and obtaining good paying jobs, and creates instead higher chances of incarceration and unemployment. And the problem begins even before high school.

According to the Department of Education, 86 percent of Black boys read below proficiency by the time they reach the fourth grade. That is simply outrageous. If studies continually prove that most brain development occurs during the earliest years of a child’s life, we must reach these kids from the beginning. Why are we leaving so many of our young Black men behind? What have these innocent children done to receive such an insufficient education? It’s no wonder that we see higher dropout rates and incarceration rates among these young men. In fact, as Valerie Jarrett and Broderick Johnson wrote over at the White House blog, “by the time students have reached 9th grade, 42 percent of Black male students have been suspended or expelled during their school years, compared to 14 percent of White male students,” and 23.5 percent of Black female students. Which leads to the next problem: the school-to-prison pipeline.

Black men are more than six times as likely as White men to be incarcerated in federal and state prisons, and in local jails according to a study by the Pew Research Center