The woman, a grandmother, was telling me about her two grandsons, aged four and five, “I’m afraid for them, and they are just little boys.”
She was explaining how, as boys will, they tussled and played rough sometimes. One of them was a little “hyper,” but they were both good kids. The boys’ mom was raising them with the help of the grandmother, and both were invested in bringing the boys up to excel in school and in life. The grandmother was worried that their rambunctiousness might be labeled as inappropriate and the boys could already be going off the tracks.
Why was she so concerned? After all, they are still little kids, not even in elementary school yet. She was concerned because they are black. And she, with a lifetime of being black in the United States, knew the “deck is stacked against them.”
Consider a few pieces of data, gleaned from a 2011 report broadcast on PBS:
Fifty four percent of African Americans graduate from high school, compared to more than three quarters of white and Asian students.
Nationally, African American male students in grades K-12 were nearly 2½ times as likely to be suspended from school in 2000 as white students.
On average, African American twelfth-grade students read at the same level as white eighth-grade students.
The twelfth-grade reading scores of African American males were significantly lower than those for men and women across every other racial and ethnic group.
Only 14 percent of African American eighth graders score at or above the proficient level. These results reveal that millions of young people cannot understand or evaluate text, provide relevant details, or support inferences about the written documents they read.
The majority of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails are people of color, people with mental health issues and drug addiction, people with low levels of educational attainment, and people with a history of unemployment or underemployment.
A quick Google search would produce a similar, though much longer list. The point is, that by nearly every measure, from employment to health to earnings to length of prison sentences, African-Americans, and boys and men in particular, lag behind the general population.
Two questions arise from acknowledging this situation. First, why are things this way? Second, what can we do about it? As much as all of us value personal responsibility, these two questions go to the heart of how society undeniably influences behavior. While we will never remove, nor would we want to, the relationship between personal choices and consequences, it is important that we remember how deep structures in a society can impact our actions.
The first question is perhaps more difficult to answer. The conflict theorist Johann Galtung writes that “Structural violence is … an indirect form of violence built into social, political and economic structures that gives rise to unequal power and consequently unequal life chances.” That is the reality of our world. Black people are at a structural disadvantage in our society. Denying it for ideological or political reasons is putting our heads in the sand at best. At worst it is dishonesty used to perpetuate systemic racism.
Acknowledging the situation is an important first step, but what do we do next? On a large scale we can advocate for political changes that will address the problem. This could be changes to zero tolerance policies in schools, addressing drug use as a medical rather than criminal issue (and enforcing the rules fairly), and changes in juvenile justice laws that decrease disproportionate minority contact and favor rehabilitation and community reintegration over detention. It is any action that can shift the way rules and norms are enforced unfairly.
On the personal level we can get involved in our communities. Volunteering to be a tutor or mentor, helping nonprofits that serve school kids and their families with academic support or other assistance and many other opportunities. If you aren’t willing or able to work with families directly, give money to these organizations. Most importantly, when we see unfairness at play we can call it out.
There is power in naming and continuing to name inequality. It’s not all that difficult. Really, all we have to do is be decent human beings and stand up for what is right.
That’s not always easy or comfortable, but these young men need our help. The deck is stacked against them.