The group of academics, community leaders and politicians had gathered at Howard University to dig through statistics, review public policy and hear from people about how best to improve the "life options" of young black, Hispanic and Native American men.
But when a professor from California said Prince George's County was tops in the nation at graduating black men, there were groans from the audience. In case their meaning wasn't clear, former member of Congress Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.) told the speaker, "They don't believe you."
The exchange was part of the first public meeting of a national commission investigating three decades of policies that Dellums said have landed young men of color at the top of all the wrong lists. They perform poorly in school even when their backgrounds are the same as their white counterparts and are overrepresented in jails and juvenile detention centers. And those in attendance weren't buying any statistics their experience belied.
Neither schools, churches, jails nor community groups have found an answer, which led the Joint Center Health Policy Institute to launch the study, said Dellums, who spent 27 years in Congress and has lent the commission his name. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is underwriting the effort.
"Every institution at one level or another is failing them," Dellums said. "We have to show people that these are living, breathing human beings who are living and dying on the streets."
The commission of judges, ministers, politicians, academics and community organizers plans a series of meetings across the country to gather information before producing recommendations next year. Its official charge is to analyze the impact of policies, particularly those on education and criminal justice, on the "physical, emotional and social health" of young men. Dellums, who was trained as a social worker, said he has no interest in perpetuating myths or advancing conspiracy theories.
George Flaggs Jr., a Mississippi legislator who attended a news conference yesterday at the National Press Club, said results should trump partisan politics. Flaggs, a Democrat and chairman of the Juvenile Justice Committee in the Mississippi House, said he worked with a Republican governor and Senate to move his state away from jailing drug abusers to treatment and rehabilitation by successfully arguing that the change would be cheaper.
"The children are not Republicans, Democrats or independents," he said yesterday. "They're children in need."
Monday's meeting at Howard involved in-depth discussions about personal responsibility versus the need for government intervention. Presentations focused on drug use, discipline and expulsion rates and images of blacks in the media.
One presenter was Adolphus G. Belk Jr., who teaches at Winthrop University in South Carolina. His expertise is in how private companies profit from the prison-industrial complex and the isolation that is endemic in minority communities.
"There are a lot of young people, male and female, who feel shut out," he said. "There are options that elders told many of us were there for the taking. But no one is telling [kids] that."
Estela Mara Bensimon, director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California, focused on graduation rates. One of her starkest statistics was that, on average, 60 percent of black male students do not graduate from high school, according to a study by the Schott Foundation for Public Education.
One of the commission's goals is to focus on best practices, and Bensimon said that, statistically, Prince George's graduated black males at roughly the same rate as whites. That was news to those who live in the Washington area and hear regularly about the county school system's troubles. Its test scores are near the bottom in Maryland, better only than Baltimore's.
"All it tells me is that Prince George's is doing a lot better job than other school districts of that size," Bensimon said of the graduation figures. "I don't know if they're graduating with the same grade-point average or if they took the same quality classes."
Mary D. Jackson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the District, came looking for information she could take away to help with her three grandsons. And she wanted to make sure that the commission's effort -- which she said sounded good -- would not just end up on a shelf.
And R. Kayeen Thomas, 21, of Washington's Hillcrest neighborhood, asked why there weren't more young people in attendance. "I was initially a little put off," he said. But Thomas, a senior at Carleton College in Minnesota, said that the commission's focus on the problems of young black men is important. Two friends of his were shot to death. His car was stolen. Too many of his friends from Banneker, his old high school, he said, are now statistics.
"Too often, the discussion has been that [young men] need to act right or that the system is messing us over," he said. "It's a combination of both. I'm glad this commission is not trying to sugarcoat things."