When I was eight years old my parents packed me up and sent me off to YMCA camp in the Angeles National Forest straight out of our south Los Angeles suburban neighborhood. I didn’t know what hit me, but I realized I was about to get hit!
Another kid and I composed a white minority in a cabin filled with boys much darker-skinned than us. A sensitive kid, I was immediately assaulted by the anger, the frustration and the violence of boys I had never met and never been around. It was like being dropped into an alien world on another planet and I was terrified. I can’t now imagine my well meaning parents had knowingly sent me there. In fact, they must have been pretty clueless. That or they had overestimated my ability to survive on other planets!
Now, the tale Lord of the Flies comes to mind. Then, I had no experience with that level of aggression or racism or much in the way of what life was really like even a couple miles from my safe little post-WWII home and neighborhood. Terms like “inner city youth,” had no meaning for me let alone complex concepts like racial prejudice, historic discrimination or institutional racism.
The dawning in my awareness of a divided world, however, did happen before that nightmare camp experience. I remember my parents and immigrant grandparents traveling with me in a car through a part of town to reach a particular delicatessen to purchase their favorite sausage. Even on a warm day, the windows were rolled up….before most cars had air conditioning. I remember accompanying my dad who was taking our old Plymouth to a white mechanic in a “negro” neighborhood.
Luckily I did survive the calling out and threats of the boys in my cabin without getting pummeled. Others may not have been as lucky. Though I have no memory of it, there must have been a camp counselor somewhere on the premises. Actually, I have an old black and white photo to prove it, though I have no actual memory of adults present.
Not long after that Y camp, my family moved away to the high desert, returning for visits to my grandparents and on one occasion to a city in flames. Watts, the city just to the east of our old neighborhood had become one of the flashpoints for the extreme dissatisfaction of an historically oppressed people whose boats did not seem to be rising quite the same as others in the great middle class American Dream, to say the least.
Though I will never walk in the shoes of those boys I encountered at camp, I’m grateful that I have come to learn much more about why they seemed to live on the defensive, looking for the next conflict or way to show who was boss. It can be said that Lord of the Flies dynamic exists to some extent wherever boys of any color or background congregate with little supervision. Now I know some other factors were in the mix for these African American boys from the inner city, conditions no boy or anyone should have to face in the already tough job of growing up in modern America.
As reported in the Associated Press by Jesse J. Holland, last month President Barack Obama, a man of many colors himself launched what is called, “My Brother’s Keeper,” an initiative to urge stronger efforts in creating more opportunities for young men of color and to improve conditions that keep them impoverished and imprisoned in disproportionate numbers.
“By almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century in this country are boys and young men of color,” as the President ticked off statistics on fatherhood, literacy, crime and poverty.
“We assume this is an inevitable part of American life instead of the outrage that it is, “ he said from the White House East Room while surrounded by teenagers involved in the “Becoming A Man” program to help at-risk boys in his hometown of Chicago. He said he sees himself in them.
Under this initiative, businesses, foundations and community groups would coordinate their investments to come up with, or support, programs that keep youths in school and out of the criminal justice system, while improving their access to higher education. Several foundations pledged at least $200 million over five years to promote that goal. A government-wide task force will be evaluating the effectiveness of various approaches so that federal and local governments, community groups and businesses will have best practices to follow in the future.
An online “What Works” portal will provide public access to data about programs that improve outcomes for young minority men. This is an initiative that both the President and first lady Michelle Obama plan to commit to for the rest of their lives.
That certainly makes sense to me, though I believe it should be made clear that race and class, though inextricably intertwined, are also separate issues to be addressed. Many of the same problems the President cites for black youth, also beset boys of all colors in lower socio-economic groups. Not mentioned in the AP piece is that there is a whole middle class of color that has arisen since the l960’s Civil Rights days and it should be made clear that color and poverty do not always go together. We don’t want to keep upholding stereotypes that divide us.
With regard to the unique challenges African American boys and men have faced for so long, we know they won’t go away overnight no matter how much money is amassed to address the economic gaps. What I see in this recent initiative that may be different is that perhaps an even greater transformation is truly getting underway as more people see beyond the boundaries of their more comfortable and privileged lives, then reach across those to join in these new efforts to help boys and men most in need. It’s a start.
For discrimination, both personal and institutional, to become an artifact of history in this century it will take everyone moving beyond Black History as a month to celebrate accomplishments of those who’ve gone unrecognized and on to building a future that includes and empowers the energy, skills and talents of all those young lives emerging today. We really can't afford not to.
And that’s the kind of planet I want to live on.
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