Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Value of a Black Man's Life

It goes without saying that one of RICH's goals is to instill in our young men the notion that their lives have value as much as anyone else's.  Everywhere they look, however, they see evidence to the contrary.  It didn't take the institutional downgrading of black men, via the non-prosecution of white police officers who kill unarmed black men and children, for the young men we work with to reach a conclusion of nihilism.  I am told the police in Washington, D.C., apparently have improved in their behavior and decision making, but every one of RICH's African American students, from the kid with the highest GPA right down to the one who commutes to work at all hours, has been stopped for indefinite amounts of time for no legal reason.

I'm not sure why the police find it difficult to distinguish between a man or boy who is walking from store to home or from home to school from a man who is standing on a street corner twelve hours a day, but they do.  Our students are used to the abuse and never file complaints when the "jump outs," as they are called, pop out of their unmarked vehicles to illegally search or detain our students.  It is part of our students' lives to receive such treatment.

Since I have lived in Ward 8, for three years, I have been pulled over more often than in my previous thirty-six years.  I imagine the police in Ward 8 are a little jumpy, or perhaps there is a "broken windows" policy, where if someone rolls through a stop sign right turn, the driver needs to be talked to.  When I was incarcerated for driving with an incorrectly suspended license, one of my students remarked afterwards, "You're officially a n_____ now."  As I mentioned in a previous post, the police can be callous, not caring how injured several citizens were in a shooting, and not worried about telling me they don't care.

What can RICH do?  We need to hold our students to high standards, to push them to college, and when they get there, to push them to their highest limit of achievement.  To those not attending college, we need to be able to help them plan a future that does foresee employment, retirement, and Social Security, which another of our students says has "no meaning in the black community."

I just finished reading "The Blind Side," Michael Lewis's story of a gifted but neglected African American boy who is adopted into a wealthy family in Memphis.  This is a true story that is ten years old, and it should have received more notice when it was written and again when the Oscar-winning movie was produced.  The subject, Michael Oher, who has now played six lucrative years in the NFL without missing a game, would have lived a short life and one of destitution had not a family friend engineered his admission to a private "Christian" school when Michael was 15, despite Michael's utter lack of preparation and despite the school's genesis, post-Brown vs Board of Education, as an avenue for wealthy white kids to avoid going to school with blacks.

Have we made any progress since Michael Oher was growing up?  The city of Memphis stopped tracking him when he was ten years old.  I know of at least two sixteen year olds who do not attend school who have equally been essentially ignored by city agencies.  One hangs out and "traps" near the intersection of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Avenues.  The other is simply off the grid, with an address where no one answers the door.

I asked one of our once truant but now-reformed Anacostia students, who is applying for college, what he believed in.  Did he believe in his future?  Did he believe in our society to treat him well?  Did he believe he could be successful?  Did he believe in himself?  All were in doubt.

On the other hand, sometimes it just takes a semester of college to produce the look and feeling of pride that allows our young men, who have been through so much, to think, "Yeah, I do have a future."  One of our students came home last week and liked the fact his school had so many connections with the outside world.  He was looking forward to making some of those connections.  That was nice to hear.