“I am not a role model. I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” – Charles Barkley, 1993 Nike commercial.
I recently had dinner with two friends. We’re all in our early 50s, but that’s about where our similarities end.
I grew up white and middle class. Although my parents never saved for my education, I had the opportunity to go. My high school prepared me and educated me on all the avenues that were available to me. If I didn’t have the financial support of my parents, I certainly had their moral support. They saw the value of a college education and they encouraged me. At the barest minimum, I knew that if I failed, I always had their home to come back to as a cushion.
I also had the good fortune of having a father and a mother at home. They taught me through their actions, the value of going to work every day and obeying the law. Without ever saying a word about it, they taught me the importance of being honest and respectful of others. I had all the trappings of what some would call “white privilege.”
My dinner friends, Marcus and Kyle, grew up on the south side of Chicago. Marcus told me about how he remembers his father beating his mother when he was very young.
“I was only about eight years old.” He said. “But I wished I was big enough to hit him back.”
His father wasn’t around much after that. Consequently, he never really grew up with a male role model. In high school, a major Division I college was looking at him to play basketball. He was getting good grades. But he made some bad decisions. He got involved with a gang and ended up getting shot. He spent several weeks in the hospital. The major college suddenly lost interest.
Kyle joined the military. There, he learned a lot about leadership. He demonstrates those leadership skills today. But when he returned, he didn’t get the opportunities to lead. Instead, he ended up working as a janitor in a Veterans Administration hospital with a boss who treated him like the dirt he swept from the floor.
Fortunately, they both decided to go back to school. They are now half way through completing their associate’s degrees at a local community college. It was there that their paths crossed, and thanks to a coaching program, that’s how my path intersected with theirs.
Different views from different worlds
Our celebratory end-of-the-school-year dinner turned into an interesting, personal, and very touching conversation about race. Over the past school year we observed from our own points of view as a Ferguson, MO grand jury ruled in November that officer Darren Wilson would not be charged in the shooting of Michael Brown. We witnessed video of New York police officers strangling Eric Garner to death as he cried, “I can’t breathe” in December.
We saw the video of a South Carolina officer shoot Walter Scott in the back in April. And in May, riots flared up in Baltimore after a young black man named Freddie Gray died in police custody.
These incidents have provoked much debate within each point of view. In my conversations with my white suburban friends, I’ve heard many arguments that seem to try to justify the behavior of the police.
Admittedly, the police are in a difficult situation. They don’t know each individual that approaches them or his motives. They are placed in dangerous situations every day. They are tasked with risking their own life in order to protect the rest of society. Sometimes, they have to make a “kill or be killed” decision.
I’ve heard arguments such as:
- “That kid provoked the cops. The liberal media isn’t going to show you that.”
- “All you have to do is be polite to the police. I got stopped a couple of weeks ago. I said ‘yes sir and no sir’ to everything he said. He ended up letting me off. That’s all these kids have to do.”
- “There’s video proof that he stole a box of cigars right before the shooting.”
Determining cause and effect
When the grand jury verdict was announced in Missouri, President Obama said, “There is a need for each side of the nation’s racial divide to show some empathy for the other side’s very different point of view, shaped by their very different life experiences.”
It has become the classic “chicken and the egg” argument. What causes which effect? Do inner-city blacks break the law, join gangs, and fail to be positive forces in society because whites have suppressed their ability to succeed? Or do whites suppress inner-city blacks because they break the law, join gangs and fail to be positive forces in society?
The answer to both questions is a resounding yes. It’s an endless spiral. Like two arguing siblings, one refuses to budge until the other makes the first move. It’s a societal cry of “Well he started it!!!”
Between bites of Fettuccini Alfredo, Kyle told me a story about meeting with his young nephew in downtown Chicago. His nephew looked up at the city’s skyscrapers and asked, “Do any black people work in those buildings?”
I was stunned. Many blacks work in those buildings. We can debate whether there are enough. We can deliberate whether enough of them have been promoted to leadership positions. But many blacks have earned their college degrees and work in those tall buildings that represent the business world and success.
Our conversation that night went on for three hours. I could have talked for at least three more. We decided that we will continue the conversation. But we need to also expand the conversation. We need to get whites and blacks talking with each other; showing some empathy for each other’s side. We need to air our disagreements and come to some common understanding.
The deck is stacked
The likelihood of a black child being raised by a single parent is 67% as opposed to 25% for a white child. The missing parent in most of these situations is the father. Inner city children, predominantly fatherless and impoverished, face strong recruiting efforts of gangs at virtually every street corner. Gangs offer the only structure they’ve ever known.
Over dinner, the three of us agreed that, among other things, we need to achieve two very big initiatives:
- Convince inner-city youths that they can get out of this downward spiral.
- Enable a pathway out of the downward spiral.
How do we do this? How do we teach them respect for themselves and others? How do we convince someone without a role model at home that education creates more opportunity than crime? How do we convince them that four years of hard work and unknown expense will give them more opportunities than they have today? How do we convince them that black people actually do work in those office buildings?
Initiative 1: How to convince inner-city youths that they can get out of the downward spiral.
Get them involved in positive activities. My friend Marcus has a dream of establishing a community center where at-risk youth can congregate. He would get them involved in activities like basketball and teach them to play chess. He would teach them about the high risks of getting involved in gangs and the great opportunities there are if they avoid the lure of crime.
He believes that by exposing them to a positive environment like this, that he could give them an alternative to the streets and that he can make a difference.
Give them the role models that they don’t have at home. Most of these youths don’t have a father figure at home. And a great number of the fathers that are at home, aren’t good role models.
My friend Kevin told me that he regularly meets women in public. He says hello and treats them with respect. They don’t know how to deal with that. They’re more likely to be called “Bitch” at home. He believes that by providing these young people – both male and female – values like respect, that we can teach them out of the spiral.
Teach them that there are whites that they can trust. The news stations rarely show the white cops that serve and protect black people. They are out there. But they get better ratings by showing the white cops who shoot and beat the blacks. Indeed, there are too many of those and we need to be made aware of it.
But we also need black people – all people really – to be made aware that there are many fair minded white people who are on their side. Inner-city blacks need to know that not every white person is against them.
Demonstrate the possibility of college. Few inner-city kids are encouraged to finish high school. What’s the point? No college is going to want me. Someone needs to be there to convince them that there are avenues to college. There are scholarships and grants available based on need. The city of Chicago has the City Colleges of Chicago, a network of seven community colleges. They provide special assistance to students in need. But it’s hard to take advantage of opportunities that you are unaware of.
Initiative 2: How to create a pathway for inner-city youths to get out of the downward spiral.
Educate them on the process. Many of these young people don’t know what they don’t know. We need to educate inner city youths on the benefits of finishing high school and getting good grades. We should tutor them and encourage them to take the ACT or SAT college entry exams. We should educate them on grants and loans available for college.
Identify alternatives for funding support. Every governmental agency at every level is facing a financial crisis. Wasteful spending is pervasive. Citizens rally against the welfare state of helping people who won’t help themselves.
At the same time, we face the prospect in the next few years of full employment. That may sound like some type of utopia to some, but the reality of full employment is zero growth. Employment demand will exceed the supply of skilled people to fill the jobs. That doesn’t mean everyone will be employed. Some people without skills – the unemployable – will not be able to fill the jobs. If corporations get involved and sponsor education programs for individuals, they may insure a market for the skills they will need in the future.
Support them through the process. Inner city youths that are persuaded to finish high school and attend college still face obstacles. There is no support team behind them at home. Gangs turn up their recruiting pressures by offering immediate financial gratification rather than suffering four years of school without any guarantees.
Inner city college students need role models to mentor them on appropriate behavior and study skills. Mentors need to encourage them and remind them of the long term benefits of an education over the high risk of joining a gang.
Educate whites on what the blacks are up against. People that grow up with privileges often don’t realize it. Anything worth achieving takes hard work. We tend to focus on all of the hard work we went through to get that college degree or a promotion.
But any adversity we faced usually pales in comparison to the adversity of poverty and discouragement. When family and friends criticize your decisions and encourage negative behavior, trying to take the high road can seem like a futile effort. When no one respects you, it is next to impossible to respect yourself.
It benefits everybody
It is easy to become self-focused. As we become more successful, we desire to protect what we have worked hard for. For anyone just starting out, we remember what we were up against and expect them to succeed simply by having the same perseverance we had.
And why should we help others? They might just come along and take our share of success.
But it doesn’t work that way. When we help others, they become part of our network; part of our team. They don’t take a piece of the pie that is rightfully yours. Together, you expand the pie so there’s more for everyone.
Helping inner city kids helps them to become better citizens. They become role models for their children and the downward spiral is reversed. The child you help may invent the next iPhone or improve the performance of the next generation of microprocessors. Jobs are subsequently created for their children and yours. Crime is reduced and taxes can eventually be spent on building schools instead of prisons.
Inner city children don’t need sports stars, rappers, or even presidents of the United States for role models. They need everyday people like you and me to demonstrate a model of success, to mentor them towards a better life, and to clear the path for them to set their destiny.
What can you do today to fill a void and help inner city kids become better citizens? I would greatly value your suggestions and input. Let’s keep this dialog going. Let’s expand upon it.
Images courtesy of Victor Habbick, podpad, Ambro, and digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net