Marian Wright Edelman offers Chicago-area students, faculty and activists a wake-up call on racial inequity among children

Children’s Defense Fund founer and leader, Marian Wright Edelman spoke to a collected group of faculty, staff, students and alumni at Chicago’s Roosevelt University last night on October 13th, 2011. I was lucky to attend the lecture and left both stunned and energized by what was being done to right some of the wrongs done against children of color in the United States.

I learned about Marian Wrigth Edelman because of her connection with the Clintons – particularly Hillary Clinton. Before she was secretary of state or the junior senator from New York, Clinton’s law career and interest in children’s rights led her to work on the board of the Children’s Defense Fund. Edelman and Clinton have a somewhat frosty and thorny relationship as of late, due to President Clinton’s “welfare reforms” that slid thousands of families into crushing poverty. While she considered Hillary Clinton an “old friend,” she doesn’t view her or her husband as “political friends.” I also can’t imagine that Edelman appreciates Clinton’s initial support for the war in Iraq, either.

Her dissatisfaction with her one-time protegee is important to note because Edelman does not worry about sounding partisan or offending people. She’s an old-fashioned liberal who made repeated allusions to the need for universal healthcare and strict gun control (she described our society as “gun-saturated”) and made pointed comments criticizing the war in Iraq and blind tax relief for the rich.

What struck me most about her speech were the frightening statistics she shared about the paucity of education among  children of color, as well as, the grinding poverty that targets children of color. She maintains that race and poverty are at an “intersection,” which is a sturdy claim – we cannot separate the two, though many of tried to make the claim that it’s socio-economic factors that truly divide our society – while I don’t dispute that assertion, gender and race definitely play a major role in contributing to poverty – racial minorities and women are vulnerable to poverty at higher rates than their white male counterparts.

According to Edelman’s research, 40% of our nation’s black children are born poor, 85% of black children cannot read at grade level in the fourth grade, and a black boy has a 1 in 3 chance of ending up in jail at some point in his life.

I hate to emphasize statistics, because they only tell a part of the story – but the numbers are stunning. For example:

  • Black children are more than twice as likely to be arrested as their white counterparts.
  • Black children are more than four times as likely to be detained in a juvenile detention center.
  • More than five times as likely to be killed by a firearm – if this isn’t a huge red flag/wake up call for gun rights activists, I don’t know what is…
  • The mortality rate among black children before their first birthday is twice as high, compared to white infants.
  • Black children are more than twice as likely to be born to a teen mother.
  • Black children are more than twice as likely to live neither mom or dad.
  • More than seven times as likely to have a parent in jail.

For more disturbing statistics on the disparity that black children suffer, please visit the Children’s Defense Fund’s Website.

Despite the presence of some terribly discouraging numbers, Edelman’s talk wasn’t disspiriting. In fact, it was uplifting to see this leader be able to put her thoughts into practical use – whether it’s creating mentor programs with teacher that attack the apathy and sense of doom in innercity schools and jail, or exercising political and grass-roots organization skills to lobby the government for better access to education for all our nation’s children.

The overall theme of Edelman’s talk was to disrupt and finally dismantle the “cradle to prison” system that essentially funnels young, poor and (overwhelmingly) black youth from childhood to prison – investing in education, which Edelman argues will have a fiscal benefit for our community as well as a holistic one, is a primary focus for her.

Marian Wright Edelman is also a prolific author – visit her page for more information on her writing.





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Filed under commentary, Nonfiction, politics

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