We need to put fire to the idea that the best way to ensure the health and safety of our black boys is to throw them in prison. Despite Masters degree candidacy at our nation's highest ranked public health graduate school, one of the most well informed, eloquent and effective communicators, and overall supreme teachers of social justice under which I have ever been taught is Andres.
Andres is an 18-year-old male with two quarter-sized patches of pink flesh tattooed across the left side of his black face. Unfortunately, at the time of this publication, Andres is now behind bars -- a victim of a penal system that throws one in three black boys on the cradle to prison pipeline.
It's well understood it takes a village to raise a child, but as illustrated through Andres' narrative, I am strongly of the opinion not only has our village abandoned our black boys, our country is actually deliberately and permanently keeping these males at the bottom rungs.
I currently serve on Baltimore, Maryland Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake Supper Club Initiative, a mutual mentorship program where professional adults and youths involved in the justice system meet twice a week, over dinner, to gain glimpses into the other's life.
The theme of tonight's conversation was to discuss a personal injustice. The youths particularly assigned to me, like many youths, tend to be boisterous and light-hearted jokesters, often speaking above the other for attention. However, Andres' gentle, yet assertive demeanor commands attention and respect. When Andres speaks, everyone -- youths and adults alike -- shuts up.
Andres recounts an evening, several weeks ago, when he and a friend were walking in downtown Baltimore. With a previous misdemeanor under his name, two police officers confronted and searched Andres and upon finding a significant amount of money in his wallet, the officers demanded Andres hand over what they surely thought he had -- drugs. Andres insisted he had none, so the officers took him to an alley. Despite pounding after pounding, Andres smiled at the officers -- his defense mechanism for withstanding the pain. Interpreting this as instigation, one of the officers threw Andres and forced his face to the scum of the ground. This is why I can see the pink flesh under Andres' black skin. Not able to find any drugs, the officers take Andres to jail and allegedly slip a couple of pills with his money to paint him guilty.
When I asked Andres why he didn't file a report, he replied, "They're not going to believe me. They're never going to believe me. They always side with the officers." The counselors, social workers, previous offenders, and other community leaders at the dinner table (all of whom work with youths in the justice system) nodded in agreement. Not only did they believe Andres, they had heard and even themselves experienced his story many times before.
Most impressive about Andres is he doesn't lament in labeling himself a victim. Rather, he discusses that although his alleged crime may be fabricated, there are other youths who are indeed perpetrators. He argues the 'black boy' stereotype should not be generalized, but exists because of similar circumstances many black boys are born into. You hear this as he discusses the reality of broken education systems. He not only shares reasons for high high school dropout rates, such as the additive effects of single parent homes, absent mentors, and the appeal of quick hustle, but also offers solutions for fixing the system:
"First, we've got to get more men role-models to serve as mentors for our students and encourage us to come to school. That's the greatest hurdle right there -- just getting students to come to school. If we know that someone actually cares about us and is asking about us and is looking for us when we don't show up, you'll find more and more students coming to school and ultimately graduating. School is important, but when all your homeboys are making it seem cool to go after the cars and the watches, we need role models to show us how to get out of this mindset. The fact that you're sitting here right now, listening to me, that's important. We all want somebody to listen, to give us attention. It makes us feel like we're actually worth something. That's just one way to fix this education system."
For almost an hour, Andres spits knowledge on how not only his district, but troubled districts nationwide can transform their education systems. I am uplifted by his dialogue and begin brainstorming ways Andres can be engaged as a motivational speaker to both leaders and fellow peers in the community. But quickly am I brought down to Earth as I remember a corrupt penal system saw handcuffs as the most fitting accessory to complement his levelheaded insight.
"My biggest dream is two months away. I want to graduate high school. Everyone thinks I'm not going to, and I can't wait to prove them wrong, " Andres told me. If it weren't for the fact that the system recaptured Andres with an adult warrant, I have no doubt that this summer he would hold a high school diploma. I share Andres' narrative to illustrate the extent to which our country holds back our youth.
In comparison to white children, black children are more than seven times as likely to be persistently poor, seven times as likely to have a parent in prison, four times as likely to be placed in a juvenile correctional facility, and just as likely to use drugs, yet more than seven times as likely to be placed in residential placement for these same drug offenses. Mass systematic incarceration of poor people of color is a fact and there is an obvious, urgent need for reform of our criminal justice system. (Look at the Black and White Report).
We need to be more particular in choosing honorable men and women to protect our streets and stop preying upon the visible, low-hanging fruits of our communities, while ignoring root causes of crime. Furthermore, when we understand criminal records have lifetime penalizations for these children and when it is three times more expensive to send a child to prison over school, we must reevaluate whether national priorities are to open or close doors on our youths' future.
Federally, the need for policy reform is necessary. However, locally, more deeply, and separate from this unjust criminal justice system, our community and school leaders must address other influences that keep our youths out of school.
Youths (but for the specific subject of this post, black boys) are a brilliant source of insight. In a way that adults have lost as a result of the weariness of time, they have the resiliency, tenacity, and courage to transform their own lives. To capitalize upon their assets, school and community leaders must provide them with a supportive environment.
- Bring out of class discussions into the classroom. For example, let us recognize that rap was an ancient African oral tradition, continues to be, and will forever be an integral part of this nation. Instead of attempting to censor hip-hop and rap out of our communities, be honest. Teach them the negative influences the industry has on popular culture, but also expose them to how they can use it to positively transform communities.
- Stop acting like our kids live in Disney World. Curriculum must be honest and more reflective of the environments where our kids grow. Many urban schools have bars on their windows and yet the conversation of how/why those bars are there (or more importantly, how to remove them) is never had with the students. Schools have become idealistic bubbles where we teach what could, not what actually happens on our planet. Multiple studies indicate abstinence only education does not decrease teenage pregnancy and curriculum that teach safe sex, in addition to abstinence, do not promote earlier first sexual interaction, but may actually reduce teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Why are we still not teaching it?
Similarly, gang violence, poverty, and the effects of single parent homes are present in many young men's lives. Why aren't we offering both short and long-term ways our boys can cope with these challenges? When we're honest with our youths and acknowledge their circumstances, they become more likely to accept what insight we have to offer.
This curriculum reform idea is not radical. Because when a black boy (who is five times as likely to be killed by firearm, in comparison to a White boy) is worried he'll have a glock pulled on him on his walk home or is concerned whether his mom will have dinner that night, that boy can easily fail to recognize the importance of how many electrons are in a Helium atom (look at the Black and White Report).
We must build an education system that works for everyone -- not just those who come from well-resourced and connected social networks.
Children born into isolated, poor communities rarely encounter a person or idea starkly different from their own. Exposing them to the bigger concerns and ways of the world will encourage them to think and set bigger goals for themselves, even when their environment provides them with more of the same.
In addition, placing young people in the teacher role, we show we have respect for them. This is dignifying them in a way that is likely foreign to many youths.
Young black males are not inherently immoral beings, contrary to how our justice system targets them. They are victims of classism, racism, and ageism. They are also humans who make mistakes, as we all do, and are often born holding unlucky cards with which the majority of our society could not even begin deciding how to play.
Conversations of how we can support our black boys need to happen at all levels, especially at a criminal justice level. But until we engage these young men in academic and community settings, they will remain the largest untapped resource in challenging the cradle to prison pipeline epidemic.
By 2025, census estimates that minority children will be the new majority and if this rising majority continues to struggle with incarceration, poverty, unemployment, and dependency, not only will our country economically suffer, but we will also lose the productivity contributions of a majority of the American people.
And as we seem to be great at coddling, let's recognize it's most economically, politically, and socially strategic to coddle the big men just a little bit less and boys like Andres just a little bit more.
Lamees El-sadek is a public health Masters student in Social Factors in Health at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. She focuses on the social and economic structures that contribute to ethnic health disparities. She aspires to serve in an avenue that integrates the influences of policy, education, and healthcare to preserve human dignity.
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