The Washington Post

Helping young men of color is not a priority in D.C.

Gary Durant, 24, helps coach football players from Richard Wright Public Charter School at the Randall Recreation Center off South Capitol Street. Durant, middle, was a celebrated athlete at 17. He then spent almost seven years in prison for manslaughter for his role in a shootout that left a fellow teen dead; he was convicted as an adult. Two of those years were passed in solitary confinement after fights with other inmates. Now, he says, is trying to transition to life outside incarceration and aiming to guide youths away from poor choices. – Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post

When you get ready to lay your head at night, after you brush your teeth and before that last e-mail check, you probably don’t think about D.C.’s youth unless you have to. You don’t do it, because if you did, you wouldn’t get a wink’s rest.

If you’re one of the many people that work to ensure that kids in this city have a fighting chance at life, two things likely help you rest: the natural self-satisfaction of having done what is believed to be the right thing and the sheer physical and mental strain it takes to do that work.

But for the most part, we’re not even trying. Admit it.

Since the beginning of the year, 9 people have been shot and killed roughly between the hours of 9 a, 5 p.m., when much of Washington is working. All the while, people call the violence “senseless,” and claim the causes are “inexplicable.” It must be nice to have such a narrow understanding of how privilege works.

Thursday afternoon, President Obama introduced his “My Brother’s Keeper” program– a program designed to improve the lives and chances of young men of color in America. Critics have blasted it as unfairly focused on a certain group, but it’s a known fact that law enforcement has been unfairly focused on certain groups since the dawn of the nation.

The President spoke honestly and candidly about his struggles growing up. “I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realized at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do,” Obama said Thursday. “I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.”

That last sentence is the most important. If nothing else, this effort shows to a lot of young people, that on a basic level, someone cares about you. The message to young men of color in this country is usually the exact opposite. To hear a pledge of support from the leader of the free world, a person that in fact looks like you, will most definitely be an empowering feeling for those youngsters.

The notion that this is a “too little, too late” proposal from the president lends too much credence to the notion that the status quo is remotely acceptable and not worth working to change. It’s open season on many young folks of color in the U.S., and people don’t even understand their own biases.

As a young person growing up in this city, one with the privilege of education, a father in my life and a family support system, mortality was still a primary concern. There was nothing senseless about it. My motivation for success was primarily rooted in my desire to stay alive. When that option is cut off due to structural flaws in the legal system or systemic lack of opportunity for education, violence becomes absolutely explicable. And the result is crime.

Yet, at WAMU 88.5’s Mayoral Candidate Forum Wednesday night, the word “crime” was mentioned just once. And the word “violence” never came up at all. Of course, it takes more than increased enforcement to break the cycles of psychological and physical oppression that have led to this current state of affairs, but the callous approach we’ve taken toward the lives of young men of color has never been more obvious.

For example, in 2009, the Healthy Families Thriving Communities Collaborative Council put together an initiative called “A Blueprint for Action,” commissioned by the D.C. Council. Its goal was to focus on strategies that attempt to engage the community and address some of the causes of violence. I haven’t heard anything about it since. Nationally, you can take a look at Florida and the open season that’s apparently been declared on one demographic.

So, while politicians stand on stage and tell you about cranes and commercial spaces in D.C., very few of them are willing to speak to the moral paradigm shift that needs to be made before any changes of significance occur. They can propose all the special programs they want for areas East of the River and hire more law enforcement officers than ever. It won’t matter.

Because it will take more than that. Change, it starts by transforming our collective consciousness. It isn’t about throwing money or even time at the problem. Those are obviously important factors, but it starts by asking yourself what you believe. Do you honestly think young men of color are different from you as human beings? If so, start there. This is everyone’s community and it makes sense for everyone to wish and work for the achievement of others.

Personally, I try to speak to students and spend time coaching as a way to let kids know that their thoughts are worth my effort. As a secular humanist, I think of it as kind of a social tithe, since I don’t do church.

Frankly, until we divest ourselves from this notion that the solution to disenfranchisement comes from anything other than personal involvement, we will have all failed.

Sleep well.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.



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