For nearly thirty years, there has been an uncomfortable and persistent conversation within the Black community concerning the condition and behaviors of Black youth and young adults. As a people whose expectations for success were increased by the civil rights/Black Power Movement, the youth and young adults that came of age in the 1980s through the new millennium were supposed to have it easier and realize the dream of Dr. King. However, suffering through the realities of the Crack cocaine epidemic and street gang wars that claimed thousands of Black lives, many of our people – particular some elders and Black elite – became disenchanted with their own kids and grandchildren and bought into the mainstream narrative that Black youth and young adults, in particular, had largely become a group of disrespectful, violent savages.
With every news report of another gang-related murder or music lyrics laced with the “N” word, this problematic perception grew in the hearts and minds of many of our own people which resulted in collective behaviors that further isolated and damaged a vulnerable group of young people beset by the impacts of white supremacy, Reaganomics and police brutality. While there were elders, community leaders and members of the Black elite that understood the changing and complex landscape impacting Blacks born in the waning decades of the 20th century, too many still defaulted to simplistic and useless explanations to the rise of gang membership, poverty and political apathy among the youth. Some of their theories centered on the evils of hip hop music or lack of prayer allowed in schools. As convenient and appealing as these explanations may be, they fail to hold the white power structure accountable or expose the divisive dynamics within our community. Below are two scenarios that became prominent within the last 30 years, which highlight the dilemmas of our young people.
Enrolling Black Children in Schools Outside of the Black Community
Desperate to keep their children away from the so-called “riff raff” youth found in our community’s public schools and emboldened by the integrationist leanings of the civil rights movement, many Black parents – particularly the middle and elite class – began enrolling their sons and daughters in schools in predominately white areas. While their actions were in many respects understandable, this decision by a critical mass created additional problems for their own children who had to struggle for support, credibility and acceptance within a white-dominated, racist learning environment that did not and could not affirm the self-worth and identity of a Black child. Furthermore, since school is where many life-long social practices are honed and developed, the scenario described above effectively prevented many Black youth from relating to and learning to work with their Black peers, who still went to school in the ‘hood. Since many of the highest achieving Black students began attending public or private schools in white areas, talented, yet low-performing Black students who suffered from a plethora of familial and socio-economic distractions were isolated to underfunded or neglected schools in the Black community. In short, the educational conditions and practices within our community have worked together to create divisions within the younger generations and ineffective leaders who have grown up relatively separated from the masses of Black people. While the recent development of charter schools and magnet programs in our community have kept some Black youth from heading to Santa Monica or the West Valley for school, these models have still re-enforced, in many respects, the self-destructive pattern of dividing the talented Blacks from the struggling masses.
Lack of Response to the Crack Epidemic by Black Leadership
For many in Black leadership, the post-civil rights era was supposed to be about moving forward in new and expansive ways. We were inspired by the growth of Black mayors and Jesse Jackson’s run for President. We were encouraged by the growth in the number and visibility of the Black middle class. On television, the Cosby Show and A Different World showed that a Black oasis within white America was on the brink. In the midst of the celebration, however, conditions were being created in the Black community by the white power structure (i.e. Iran Contra Program) and other entities that introduced problems not yet seen. By the mid-1980s, a new form of drug called “crack” came onto the scene. While there had been drug epidemics before in our community, this was different in so many ways. Given the white power structure’s elimination of many domestic living wage jobs and cuts in public services to the poor, crack became arguably the primary economic engine in many parts of the Black community for over a decade. It may be embarrassing to admit, but while many Black people lost their lives to this drug, many also paid their rent, bought groceries or started businesses because of the crack game. This created a scenario where local drug dealers and gang leaders became the heroes of a large number of youth and young adults who were not being touched by more positive examples of Black leadership. Furthermore, the aggressive behavior associated with crack addiction and the growth of street gang combat over the control and distribution of dope created heightened levels of murders, assaults and robberies. By the end of the 20th Century, some Black neighborhoods had lost thousands of lives to drug-related murder and addiction. Sadly, however, since the crack epidemic and gang violence were seen as “poor Black people” problems, many civil rights organizations – with their middle-class orientation – were inadequately prepared to respond. Churches witnessed the devastation among their members but couldn’t successfully solve the issue through its traditional means of prayer and preaching. In the meanwhile, the numbers of children in foster care skyrocketed and incarceration rates rose to record highs – thus creating an overwhelming sense of loss, grief and anger within many Black youth and young adults that still haven’t gone away.
The two preceding examples highlight the complexities of conditions impacting Black youth and young adults. In the course of trying fight back the impact of white supremacy, members of our own community made decisions, at times, that actually made the situation worse – particularly for our young people. Thankfully, we have the capacity to change mistakes made in the past. The issue of poor education, drug addiction and gang violence remain and we have the opportunity to address these problems in more creative and dynamic ways. However to do so, we must do at least for things:
1. Embrace every Black child as a member of our family through word and deed
2. Teach Black children about our fight for freedom and justice
3. Challenge and eliminate any thoughts that re-enforce division within our community (i.e. income, geography)
4. Get out into our community and organize