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Dr. Boyce Watkins Headshot

Black Teen Flash Mobs: A Frightening Result Of Chronic Political Neglect

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Like the rest of the country, I couldn't help but notice the occurrence of black teen '"flash mobs" around the country. For those who haven't been made hip to the game, flash mobs are random groups of people who get together and do "stuff."

The acts committed by flash mobs can be naïve and cute, like singing the Star Spangled Banner on one leg while drinking a Pepsi. They can also be nasty and violent, like beating down anyone who happens to be passing by.

We can leave it to teenagers to find creative and potentially frightening ways to use the amazing power of social media. Black teen flash mobs have been formed throughout the country, with many of them being designed to break the law in some way.

The most recent incident involved the 60-second robbing of a 7-11 store in Maryland. A group of teens got together on Twitter/Facebook/email/Myspace/text message and agreed to walk in the store, grab things off the shelves, and then walk out.

Another series of incidents occurred in Philadelphia, leading Philly Mayor Michael Nutter to put the entire city on lockdown with a 9 p.m. curfew for all citizens under the age of 18. Mayor Nutter went so far as to appear in a church in Philadelphia to proclaim that these young people had "damaged" their own race. Nutter is certainly correct that it's difficult to excuse the behavior of flash mobs, especially those who engage in violence.

I can't help but notice how the creation of flash mobs is probably the first time in recent memory that black teenagers have gotten this much attention from media or public officials. Rather than focusing on the teenagers who are doing great things with their lives, the media loves to put a spotlight on the few scary looking black kids who decide to rob a store on a Saturday night. In spite of the media bias, there are quite a few reasons that the media, Mayor Nutter and the rest of us could have been paying attention to black teenagers in the past.

We could have spent time addressing the 40 percent unemployment rate of black teens all across America. Public officials seem to forget that an idle mind is the devil's workshop... when you combine a hot summer with nothing productive to do, teenagers are going to find their own ways to use that free time.

Mayor Nutter and other critics of these errant teenagers could have also taken note of the fact that Philadelphia has the most racially segregated public school system in the entire United States. Suburban kids are getting all they need to build a great future, while inner city kids are only learning how to join flash mobs.

Finally, there could have been a spotlight shed on the dramatic rise in black teen homicides in Chicago, Philadelphia and other major urban centers across America. But of course, this doesn't make the news because it's not an inconvenience to everyone else. Also, politicians who might decide to change gun laws to curb the violence would miss out on financial contributions from gun manufacturers.

So, in all of his righteous outrage, I would ask Mayor Nutter this: Who is a greater embarrassment to their race? The teenager who is led astray because adults have neglected him, or the black political figure who silently administers and maintains the most racially segregated school system in the entire country?

I dare to point out the irony of any elected official (not just Nutter) who ignores the serious social diseases of black teen unemployment, violence and improper education and then has the audacity to complain about the symptoms of the disease that he/she has allowed to fester.  Black teen flash mobs are our society's creation: if we'd chosen to give these kids something to live for, many of them wouldn't be out finding ways to self-destruct.

Since flash mobs are the new fad, perhaps politicians should join in the fun. Political leaders could form a flash mob where they all actually get together and do something for the American people, instead of taking care of themselves and their corporate partners.

Politicians could form another flash mob in which they pass a few pieces of legislation designed to create jobs for teens so they have something to do during the weekend that doesn't involve robbing people. In another flash mob, Mayor Nutter and his friends could desegregate the educational system so that thousands of kids aren't leaving high school without being able to spell the word "NBA."

Teen social deviance has been around for as long as there have been teenagers. But it is also universally true that young people respond more effectively to love than to hate. When we remind our children how much we hate them and how little we care, we can't act surprised when they are equally reckless.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and the founder of the Your Black World Coalition.  To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here. 

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