We must build a better future for African-American kids

As Dr. King said, progress is not inevitable; we must work hard to create it

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As we sit here in 2014 during National African American History month, it’s a great opportunity to reflect on the progress we as a people have made over the past 60 years.

African-Americans are represented in every profession. We attend and graduate from universities across the country. We sit in leadership roles in all walks of life and have countless opportunities that our grandparents could never have even imagined in the early days of the civil rights movement.

Even in politics, which is not the most welcoming environment, there’s been progress — for instance, four black governors to date and, of course, a black president.

The American Dream, however we define it, is within our reach. And while the path may be more difficult for us African-Americans than others, there is a path.

That said, this also is a great opportunity to contemplate what our children might see when they look back 60 years from now.

Will they still see a higher percentage of black children than other children growing up in single-parent homes? Today, 67 percent of black children grow up in a home with just one parent; 35 percent of white children do.

In Pennsylvania, 83 percent of children graduate from high school; only 65 percent of black children do. Nationwide, 28.5 percent of individuals over the age of 25 have earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to 10.8 percent of blacks.

Will our children still see more black people than white people in unemployment lines and looking for work? Today, the black unemployment rate sits at 13.4 percent. This is down significantly from the apex of 19.5 percent in 1983 but is twice the rate of whites.

Will our children see one of every 64 black Pennsylvanians in a state prison, versus one of every 200 Pennsylvanians overall?

The length and difficulty of the path that leads from where we are to where we want our kids to be will be dictated by the number and commitment of those among us who chose to lead our communities.

Sixty years ago this month, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “American Dream’’ speech. His words are just as relevant today as they were in 1964:

“We must get rid of the notion that human progress rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, we must come to see that human progress is NEVER inevitable, it comes through the tireless efforts and consistent work of dedicated individuals … the time to do right is now and the time is ALWAYS right to do right.’’

The fact is, every generation is responsible for the effects their actions or inaction have on the generations that follow. What consequences are we delivering to the generations that will follow us? Will we be defined by our sincere and effective action when confronted by the challenges of today or by our inaction and unwillingness to meet problems head on?

Winston Churchill said, “Sometimes, your best isn’t good enough; sometimes you must do that which is required.”

It’s time for us to do that which is required.

John E. Wetzel is Pennsylvania secretary of corrections.

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