It wasn’t until I had gotten locked up at the age of 18 that I began to willingly learn and deeply care about governmental law and politics. If you’d asked me anything about politics back in my high school days, I would’ve rudely responded with an answer expressing love only for my gang.
Growing up in the Jungles, a tough neighborhood in South Los Angeles, there was too much street politics for me to deal with to worry about what some old, white politician had to say about farfetched and unfamiliar concerns. At that time, I perceived politics as the U.S. military in a foreign country, always blowing some shit up. So why would I care about war in another nation when there was a war in my backyard?
I think about the beginning of 2009, which is of great significance because it’s the year Barack Obama was inaugurated in office as the first black president of the United States and about three months before I was abruptly incarcerated for a crime I did not commit. Despite my dark and unfortunate predicament, President Obama symbolized a beacon of hope and change to myself and to millions of people across the world.
Now, as a rising senior and sociology major at Morehouse College in 2017, I have witnessed the departure of one of the most revered presidents followed by the election of a man who will probably go down as the most immoral and controversial president in U.S. history. In just his first 10 days in office, Donald Trump already signed executive orders to repeal Obamacare, build a wall along Mexico’s border and install a temporary ban on travel to the U.S. by Muslim citizens of seven Muslim countries.
Trump’s election alone, in addition to these hateful acts, has further divided our nation, sparking countless international anti-Trump protests. But, according to our billionaire president, he’s “making America great again.”
I’ve been told that there is no excuse for ignorance of the law but that it’s the law that is ignorant of us. As a fairly recent teenager who once thought politics was irrelevant and played no direct role in my daily life, I would advise teens today and those working with them to no longer remain uninterested in the policymaking and actions constantly transpiring around us. Even the politicians we despise or brush off are making major decisions about our personal lives.
But to really broaden their political knowledge, I would also advise that more young people travel around the world to meet other cultures. Last month, I was privileged to travel to Cuba for a week as a part of a study-abroad program through Morehouse. This was a very fun but humbling trip because I witnessed poverty at its finest in a Communist country long ignored by the U.S. Based on my interactions and interviews with the people there, I learned that many Cubans love Americans but hate our government, especially now that Trump is in office; the entire world is sitting on the edge of their seats.
As I’ve grown older and started to view life from a sociological standpoint, I understand that the government is largely responsible for the structural conditions of poverty I was in and that many others are still growing up in, where violence is prevalent and youth life expectancy is low. Even in Cuba, although the poverty rate is high, violence is minimal. This isn’t some anomaly, but the result of the way life plays out because of policymaking.
My experiences traveling have also shown me that it’s very important for more young black men like myself to travel abroad. If it weren’t for my U.S. passport allowing me to travel to countries like Brazil and Cuba, I would lack an understanding of different cultures and norms across America; I wouldn’t have fully comprehended that I didn’t grow up that poor, at least compared to people living below the poverty line in other countries; and I wouldn’t have seen the firsthand impact that politics plays in the lives of everyday, average citizens; from the food people eat to their life expectancy.
In other words, sometimes we have to place ourselves outside the box to be able to see what’s going on inside it. Now that I’m back inside the box, I’m constantly educating myself on the political views and issues taking place in our society. As black youth, we are typically raised to automatically reject the police or any other government official because they are often perceived as an enemy.
However, I believe that we must build ourselves up to obtain these political positions, including the presidency, because it is the only way we can gain the political power needed to reconcile with and uplift the most vulnerable people of our society.
Alton Pitre is a senior sociology major at Morehouse College. He hails from the Jungles, a neighborhood in South Los Angeles.