Achieve…or Else? The Dangers of a Prevention Based Approach to Defining Black Male Achievement

Achieve…or Else? The Dangers of a Prevention Based Approach to Defining Black Male Achievement

Achieve…or Else? The Dangers of a Prevention Based Approach to Defining Black Male Achievement

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Last year I took the young men in our Jersey City Kappa League program (Kappa League is a national youth leadership program for young men of color, supported by my fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated) to the Newark, NJ Municipal Courts. The purpose was to introduce to legal system to our youth who had an interest in pursing a career in law. The young men, dressed is shirts and ties, highly educated and well-mannered, were enjoying  the field trip when a gentleman approached the group. As he complimented them on their dress and behavior he stated that while it was great for them to learn what’s needed to become a lawyer he then said, to the bewilderment of the students and myself, it’s also good to see what not to do so they would not end up here.

Translate: End up in jail. Even though the gentlemen meant well, his statement revealed the subconscious and dangerous lens in which a segment of our population views young Black men. The lens of those who end up in the prison system, gangs, on drugs or, most tragically, six feet under.  While it is easy to attach this thinking to people that may harbor personal biases, prejudices, racist and ethnocentric beliefs the more concerning aspect is when it comes from those who work in the fields to improve outcomes for young Black men.  When it does, we run the risk of adapting an “Achieve or Jail” approach to Black Male achievement.

Reading the last sentence may make some very uncomfortable. Yet there is much evidence that lends itself to this argument. At many conferences on youth education, discussion around Black youth is often dominated by negative statistics ranging from HS drop-out rates, single parent households and the pipeline to prison challenge. In the non-profit world, programs seeking fundraising for great and innovative practices often resort to utilizing a “prevention” messaging strategy. They may say, for example, because of “x” program they have been able to keep “x” number of Black youth from experiencing violent outcomes. Even in the announcement of President Obama’s ambitious initiative “My Brothers Keeper” one could not help to feel a slight sense of discomfort among the pride as he rattled off the depressing outcomes of Black men and boys like post game statistics at an NBA game.

This is not to say that we should overlook the reality that a segment of our Black male population. To ignore the research, the evidence and what is happening right before our eyes on a daily basis is not only delusional but highly irresponsible and harmful to the effort to improve those outcomes. That said, we should caution against creating programs with a false thinking that the sole alternative for any youth that does not achieve based on society’s preconceived notion of  achievement or the goals and objectives of any well-intentioned initiative or program is jail or death. Maintaining that premise does nothing to allow either the service providers or the young person themselves to see the depth of potential and choices that they have in their lives and instead renders such potential invisible in a way that is akin to Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man.

For the 86% of Black youth that may not be reading at  proficiency level there is 14% that is.  42% of Black males may be suspended or expelled from school by 9th grade BUT there is 58% that are thriving. Indeed we should be alarmed that Black males made up 43% of murdered victims in 2011, but it is not 100% and within that other percentage there are great fathers, college graduating students, student leaders and young Black men in high school doing great things throughout this entire country.  The point is through all the negative statistics lies the positive ones and, if we are to improve the outcomes of all youth, we must begin to look at our young Black men through the lens of positive potential. The one that shows their potential of what they CAN be and do when engaged rather than what we wish to prevent them from becoming.

All I am saying is the life of Black youth is not whittled down to a false choice of  “achievement or jail.” That inside every young man exists varying levels and depths, talents and skills. What we as advocates and leaders must do is redefine the current narrative about Black male Achievement. By removing that notion of negative outcomes as the predominant alternative for Black youth, it will allow for non-profits, foundations, educational systems, governments and communities to develop more far-reaching and ambitious programs and initiatives for our youth.  Programs such as increasing more students in Advanced Placement courses, college readiness mentoring, service based leadership, etc, etc, etc.

Simply put I am only advocating for what we all truly want and believe. That our youth Black men are achievers. And the only way to show them that is to let them, and the world, know that achievement in any and all fields is the ONLY option.


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