I’m in the process of writing a book based on my five years of experience working with the youth of the Sweet Potato Project. The tentative title is “When we Listen.” The book, which will be used as a fundraiser, is based on the one-on-one access I have to the worldview of young African Americans. I have admirably watched how they navigate a world that routinely demeans, dismisses and denies them based primarily on the color of their skin. The words the students have shared with me and the situations I’ve observed will serve to accentuate the need to invest and protect this endangered demographic.
You see, our youth did not create the environments that feed dysfunction in their lives. They had nothing to do with the abandonment of their neighborhoods or the disinvestment in their public schools. It’s not their fault that they were born into a system that finds it easier to incarcerate them rather than nurture them. If we are to be honest, we will admit that black youth are summarily locked out of opportunity, disproportionately locked up and prematurely labeled as criminals based on stereotypical perceptions rather than facts.
Take for example the recent online petition to label Black Lives Matter a “terrorist group.” Reportedly 140,000 people signed this appeal that was sent to the White House. Never mind that American-made groups like the Klu Klux Klan and its various hybrids have never been labeled “terrorist” even though they are. According to a study by the New America Foundation, radical white supremacists groups are in the United States. Yet, Donald Trump and his supporters stoke the embers of white angst by labeling black demonstrators Public Enemy #1.
In order to drive home the message of out-of-control, lawless black youth, the GOP Convention launched a propaganda campaign suspiciously based on the ambushing of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Instead of listening and responding appropriately to our young people, many choose to criminalize those who are publicly crying out for justice, accountability and that police simply stop killing unarmed black people.
As Vox Media accurately noted, there is a troubling fervor, shared by “a deep swath of the American population…that it is important to declare that the lives of police officers matter but to declare the lives of African-Americans those officers stop matter is an unacceptably radical and potentially terroristic act.”
"...it is important to declare that the lives of police officers matter but to declare the lives of African-Americans those officers stop matter is an unacceptably radical and potentially terroristic act.”
However, it’s easy to point fingers at extreme examples of racial stereotyping. What’s harder to accept is our overall complicity in the defamation and degradation of black youth. It irks me that every time a black youth commits a horrific, violent crime, many black adults will publicly damn all black youth or their parents or hip-hop music or the so-called “culture of violence.” We participate in the blame game without even acknowledging that we helped design the game board. Older African Americans are the ones who failed to provide educational solutions, economic opportunities or alternate systems designed to clog the nefarious preschool-to-prison pipeline.
What’s harder to accept is our overall complicity in the defamation and degradation of black youth.
The BLM movement was birthed right here in 2014 during protests that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown, Jr. The shooting led to dozens of articles, commentaries and studies outlining the economic, health, criminal justice and social disparities in our region that help fuel negative interactions with police. All this information underscored the feelings of youth who live hellish lives of generational poverty, social and governmental neglect, police oppression and greedy municipalities that have fed off their vulnerabilities for decades.
I wasn’t surprised when young people in Ferguson came out in droves to speak out against police brutality. Why? Because a year earlier, I watched and listened to my students describe their hurt and sense of betrayal to the “not guilty” verdict handed down in the George Zimmerman case. The indignity they stressed as young people who travel unknown neighborhoods, who eat Skittles and drink Arizona Ice Tea was palpable as they realized their lives really don’t matter. So, when the body of Mike Brown lay in the street for hours; when police showed up with automatic weapons and slathering German Sheppards and later with tanks, teargas and rubber bullets, I instinctively knew “something” was about to pop off.
It stays with me that a year after Mike Brown’s death; after reams of documented disparities contained in the DOJ, Ferguson Report and Wash U’s “For the Sake of All” damning study and after all the promises to “do better”…the biggest news item of the region was an effort to use tax-payer money to build a billion-dollar football stadium in downtown St. Louis. It was as if the powers-that-be, with complete compliance of many local politicians, flipped the proverbial bird to our youth and went about business as usual.
It’s hard to point fingers at far right extremists when left-leaning politicians in the region flat out ignore the conditions and concerns of young, black youth. It’s hard to scream “racism” when black politicians sign off on initiatives and efforts that primarily benefit already rich, white developers.
According to the East West Gateway Council of Governments, St. Louis is the sixth most segregated city in the United States amongst its peer cities in terms of education, health, labor market and wealth.
"...after all the promises to 'do better'…the biggest news item of the region was an effort to use tax-payer money to build a billion-dollar football stadium in downtown St. Louis.
Politicians, especially black politicians and leaders, can’t pretend they’re unaware of the disproportionate ills that their constituents endure daily. Recently, Michael P. McMillan, president & chief executive officer of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis wrote an editorial about some of these inequities. At the time of Michael Brown’s killing, McMillan wrote, black unemployment in Missouri “was 15.7 percent in the fall of 2014 – triple the state’s 4.5 percent white unemployment rate at the time.”
Last year, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch issued an editorial that should have been a clarion call for collective action when it wrote: “To be black in the St. Louis region means that you are more than three times as likely as your white neighbors to live in poverty, to be unemployed, to have less education, to die earlier and to see your child die in infancy.”
There is a rabid sense of endangerment for black youth even if they survive infancy. They live in areas where bullets fly on their way to school. The color of their clothing in certain neighborhoods can result in death. Not only do they have to worry about being shot by the “bad guys,” they live with the reality of nervous cops with fingers on triggers of guns aimed at stereotypes.
|A group of elders talking with some of our students|
Yet, through all these obstacles our young people manage to maintain, to navigate, to challenge our injustices, dream big dreams and try to make the best out of what a selfish, segregated society provides.
Now some will read this and interpret it as an excuse for the behavior of violent youth. It’s not. In reality, we may have lost a whole generation of youth who have turned to crime as a means for survival or just a way of life. The point I'm trying to stress is that, unless we find a way to change their environments and nurture their inherent genius and survival skills, we will have more crime, more deaths and more black youth herded into our nation’s already over-populated juvenile detention centers and adult prisons.
Yet, through all these obstacles our young people manage to maintain, to navigate, to challenge our injustices, dream big dreams and try to make the best out of what a selfish society provides.
|A few of the young men who have participated in the Sweet Potato Project|
I’ve learned that, if we listen, young people will tell us about the inequities they face and their thoughts on fixing them. The solutions may not be perfect but, if we care, we’ll attempt to address those concerns no matter how inconvenient they seem to be or how uncomfortable they make us feel.
I often wonder if people who support the petition or callously stereotype black youth have any black people in their lives. Thankfully, there are thousands who do. You've seen them protesting with BLM or speaking out against injustices designed to imprison or disenfranchise black youth.
I often wonder if people who supported the online petition or callously stereotype black youth have any black people in their lives. Thankfully, there are thousands who do.
Because I have been placed in a position where I can actually hear our youth, I’m immune to the propaganda. I don’t see young people calling for the death of police officers; I see them courageously reacting to senseless deaths enacted by the “bad cops” of a broken criminal justice system. I don’t see a generation of thugs and drug dealers; I see young people without direction, opportunities and resources surviving alone in a cold, materialistic world.
What promises may come if we encouraged them to use their energy, creativity and naïve optimism to change their worlds? What gifts will a nation receive if it shifted its priorities from criminalizing and denying a whole generation of young people to empowering them to make great change?
This we will never know...until we listen.