Are Young Black Men Trapped by Constantly Hearing That They are “Endangered”, “Vulnerable”, and “At Risk”?

(Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
(Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

by David J. Knight

The moments of protest and frenzied media coverage that followed the deaths of Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant and too many others always bring me to the same thought: We have a problem with how we talk about the lives of young black males.

Yes, those who work in the media, education and criminal justice are complicit. But so are the rest of us. The issue strikes closer to home than we realize.

Several years ago, I was at an orientation for new teachers. I had just gotten a job teaching middle school in Boston and was attending a workshop on educating African American boys. The facilitator, a black man himself, began by asking all the black men in the room to stand. Unsure where he was headed, I got up out of my chair. A few other young professionals did so as well.

“Everyone, I’d like you to take a good look at these men,” the facilitator said. “Take a good long look, because they are an endangered species.”

At these words, my chest tightened. Forced to remain standing while he spoke, I fixed my eyes on the floor — anywhere but on the faces staring at me.

As the facilitator recited a string of damning statistics about black males, I felt ashamed. Then, ashamed of feeling ashamed. But ultimately the experience left me deeply unsettled. Endangered? How could he put me in that position?

The truth is, I am privileged. By then I’d had 24 years of living under my belt — years filled with accolades, graduation parties, college acceptances and global experiences — that helped me realize a life beyond the rhetoric.

But many black males get this message — they are “endangered,” they are “vulnerable” or “at risk” — when they are much younger. They hear it in middle and high school, certainly, and sometimes they hear it in the third and fourth grades. Think about the effect such stark words could have on any young person’s psyche, regardless of race. Suddenly, your destiny is no longer your own, and it doesn’t matter who you are: Your fate is tied to a long history of racially fraught struggle. Worse, you are told you’re on the losing side, the side where blackness connotes limitation.

And you learn that you will either defy statistics or, more likely, live up to them.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post

David J. Knight is an affiliated researcher with the Justice in Schools Project at Harvard University and a public school teacher in Boston.


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