The crisis affecting black boys and men
The New York Times’ Bob Herbert had an op-ed out recently about the crisis affecting black males. Herbert offers the litany of statistics that all of us are already too familiar with. This is not necessarily a crisis of black men alone, but of black people in general.
The picture above is of two young children, a boy and a girl, age 14 and 17, respectively who killed an 87 year old World War II vet in Philly last week while robbing him. The girl shot him because he wasn’t “moving fast enough” to give up his money. I had read of this account earlier today and was going to post about it as I was particularly moved by the picture of these children. Their faces are so young and the girl has a tear rolling down her cheek almost as if she now realizes the terrible deed she’s done. They’re about the age of my own kids and kids with innocent faces like these don’t immediately engender fear so I can imagine that when faced with a child attempting to rob you, it might take a moment to understand what’s happening and put it in context. The elderly vet probably didn’t show fear and because of that, I imagine these kids probably got afraid and shot the guy. Unfortunately, an innocent face can still mean death with tragedy all of the way around as three lives were senselessly lost.
Herbert’s op-ed generated a lot of interesting commentary. There was one in particular that stood out for me, which follows:
At my gym on the UCLA campus, television monitors face a row of elliptical trainers. One afternoon this week, they were turned to MTVU, which was broadcasting rap videos. The contrast between what I saw for an hour on the screen above me, and what was going on around me — kids working out, reading textbooks as they pumped and pedaled — could not have been more surreal. The images — I didn’t have electronics on me to pick up the soundtracks — were ghastly. One video after another showed gangsta rap visual cliches: strutting men in ermine and mink, bikini-clad women shaking their booty. Bling was abundant. Champagne was everywhere, frequently poured on the floor in defiant waste, as if this conveyed some profound sophistication. Crime lords draped in fur and women threw down wads of cash, waved pistols, and danced on the decks of luxury yachts. Angry rappers jabbed their fingers at the world as stretch limos blew up, drug lords parlayed, and gangbangers traded gunfire from automatic weapons. There were Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, speedboats, sportscars, helicopters and private jets. Interiors were lavish enough to shame a Saudi prince. Women mimicked the moves of sex in front of slack-faced men slouched on couches, each with his own bottle of bubbly. Rarely did anyone smile. The director’s Wikipedia entry told me much about his cinematic techniques, as if they rivaled the French New Wave. If I, a white man, made any one of those videos, I’d be welcomed into the Klan. One after another, the succession of images depicting the most appalling stereotypes — the black man as a dope dealing, promiscuous, woman-trashing low-rent lout — played on through the afternoon, as hundreds of students, only a handful of them black, worked out. I had to sigh. Until America’s African-American community — the fathers and mothers — embrace education from kindergarten through college and beyond, nothing will change. No social program can come close to doing what that would do for America’s young black people at risk of losing every opportunity to achieve and enjoy a meaningful life. School teachers and administrators cannot do for black children what their families will not do. Racism is real, but so is opportunity in this world, however meager and unfairly distributed. It’s there, but it takes adults to help children see it, value it, and grab it.
I agree with much of this commentary, but there’s short shrift given to the outsized influence of the media and the competition it poses for things like education. Many of these kids’ lives are imitating this sort of “art”. That’s not particularly unusual as most of us imitate some image that portrays what we’re “supposed” to be. The problem is that imitating art like this is very destructive as the art itself represents nothing that’s morally uplifting, but is instead a perversion of life. Having said that, my intent is not to offer an excuse as something can be done about this sort of “art”.
We’re frequently too hesitant to slap the hands of the worst offenders in our communities which is why bad behavior rules with impunity. It’s almost as if we don’t want to be seen going after the elements who are the source of many of the problems for fear of promoting disunity or ruining the livelihood of some hip hop artist because “enough things are against the black man and he doesn’t need his own people against him.” That’s unacceptable because no one should be allowed to soil the nest that everyone lives in. He doesn’t have the right to promote images that destroy lives and communities. At some point, we have to say “hell no–what you’re doing is unacceptable. Stop it now, or prepare to pay dearly”. There’s been no limit set for our kids and because few have said no, the implicit message is that whatever you want to do is fine—and that’s what they’re doing. Their parents have not been around to say no and our collective voices have been silent in condemnation, but we’re too ready to march somewhere like Jena LA to snuff out and say no to perceived injustice. Those sorts of marches require us to “march right past” the problems right under our noses. That too is unacceptable and the pictures of the two teens above are a reflection of that.
Herbert suggests that turning this crisis around is going to take nothing short of a new civil rights movement. The problems we face are legion and can’t be solved overnight. Ultimately, we’ll need a far more sophisticated infrastructure and set of activities other than marching and protesting, but since our infrastructures can only accommodate those sorts of tactics currently, why not use them to begin a full frontal assault on the purveyors of these images? And I’m not talking about the record companies, but the artists themselves. If the artists are dealt with, then the record companies are addressed by default. We don’t even need to attack all of the artists. One or two will do. What needs to happen is a huge amount of coordinated negative publicity mounted against one or two targets with the goal of drying up their sales. We might even want to coordinate something with an Oprah or others like her to bring very strong pressure to bear on the artist. The record companies will feel the heat at some point and pull the artist or others like him. The message to the artists that weren’t targeted would be obvious—you’re next, so they would possibly begin to self police themselves and if they didn’t we’d go after them. An action like this would have very broad based support not only within the black community, but across the nation mainly because it would be relevant to a concern that everyone has. Besides, everyone is tired of this crap, but none more so than our people. Would this totally resolve the issue of crime? Of course not, but it might provide an incremental step towards the effort by eliminating the images that our kids are imitating when engaged in it, but more importantly this could begin the raise the all important voice of “hell no, this is unacceptable and will not be allowed”. Clearly more would need to be done, but at least this is a start at a critical piece of the puzzle where gangsta life is glorified. If these fools can mount a bunch of negative publicity around a mosque that’s not a threat, surely we can do something about mounting publicity around a situation that is a true threat.
Glenn Beck’s march this week is irrelevant as far as I’m concerned anyway, but can you imagine how irrelevant it could really be made if we pursued something like this that would positively affect our own conditions. If we were more about working on issues that are of true concern to us rather than mounting counter marches in response to people like Beck, then he himself would feel his own irrelevancy as far as black folks are concerned. Instead, we get diverted from handling our own matters by responding to an agenda that wholly benefits him. We don’t need to respond to Beck or folks like him directly thereby granting relevancy and recognition where absolutely none should exist, especially when our house is ablaze. We need to attend to putting out the fire and by doing so we reduce folks like Beck to irrelevancy while not even wasting time on him.
This is an urgent problem for two reasons. The first and obvious problem is the impact crime has on the viability of our communities. The less obvious one is the emerging mood of the country where xenophobia and various resentments rule the day owing to the economic conditions. Diversionary scapegoats are needed and continued rampant criminality, particularly when it’s interracial, as in this case, can easily become a rallying cry for martial law —we seen the calls for this in Chicago, Chester PA, Harrisburg PA and other places or even worst, vigilante action. We’ve all witnessed the frenzy the right wing media has whipped up on a host of issues and it wouldn’t take much for the tinderbox to be set alight here.