|New Jack City, Warner Bros. 1991|
In 1991 the urban classic film New Jack City, Nino Brown (played perfectly by Wesley Snipes), and his right hand man, G-Money, throughout the film repeat the phrase “am I my brother’s keeper. Yes I am.” In fact, those are the last words uttered between the two before Nino kills G.
Fast forward to 2014, the President of the United States is Black and he has revived the phrase “My Brother’s Keeper.” This time, the aim is not to keeping his “boys” from the neighborhood in line, but rather it is an initiative designed to keep all boys of color in line by being more responsible and compassionate towards one another and for us, as a society, to value boys of color in more positive ways rather than strictly as drug dealers, corner boys, high school dropouts, unemployed, or deadbeat fathers.
While one would think that the premise advanced by the President and his Administration would be seen as beneficial both for the community and from the community, there are those who have been vocally critical, or at the very least, skeptical of the merits of this initiative.
Last month when the initiative was rolled out, in addition to Magic Johnson, Colin Powell and others Black leaders being in attendance at the White House, the President had a cadre of young black boys from a predominantly all-black high school on the south side of Chicago behind him as he gave his speech. The optics were one of positivity. Seeing black boys out of the “context” of expectations, meaning suited up, clean cut standing tall and proud behind the first Black President, was an important visual. However, where I am conflicted is whether or not we should EXPCECT Black boys and boys of color to “perform race” in multiple ways such as this example, or should the narrative exclusively be relegated to their supposed stereotypical “authentic” urban, hip-hop selves? In my own experience, it was irrelevant whether or not I was wearing a suit or a sweatshirt, too many cabs from Washington DC to Chicago have passed me by. Why does this happen? If adults with a little bit of status (as exemplified by wearing a suit) are seen as “problematic” or “threatening” (let me add not just by white cab drivers, but by a large number of Black immigrant cab drivers too), then how should we as a society view even younger Black male bodies?
Historically we know that Black and Brown bodies have been problematic to the dominant group, and seen systemically and structurally as “inferior.” Does one initiative by the first Black President change those systems and structures overnight? Of course not. Anyone who bought into the false premise of living in a “post-racial” society simply because of the election of Obama is living in a Willy Wonkaish dream world.
However, as I have repeatedly articulated, how do we flip the script and create a counter-narrative that both honors the historical background, but is not stuck there?
I will not repeat the statistics concerning boys of color the President cited. In citing the statistics in this context, in my opinion, he was not framing the discourse from a deficit perspective. Rather he was framing it from a structural and historical one. I think this aspect went unnoticed by many of the critics who claim that this initiative is nothing more than talk. It is not as if a President, of any race by the way, could explicitly come out and say that we are starting this initiative because the United States was founded on and has historically demonstrated institutional, and structural oppression, violent hatred and racial animus. As a politician, even one with no campaign on the horizon, any President would be cautious about exactly how “honest” he can be. By stating the obvious narrative of his own history of growing up without a father and citing this issue as one of “national importance,” he is saying implicitly what all the prognosticators, academics and critics would like to see him make explicit.
Dr. Lewis-McCoy in a piece in Ebony is quoted as saying “creating change is not simply about behavior but also about changing the pervasive unequal systems that ensnare young men of color.” No doubt Dr. Lewis-McCoy is 100% correct, but is it not possible to change systems and structures AND hearts and minds of the boys of color at the same time? Is it not possible to both encourage boys of color to be resilient and demonstrate persistence AND teach them about the world as it is – perhaps by articulating examples of our own experiences of navigating through the world as positive black males through highlighting difficulties in being unable to get a loan, being denied housing, tenure or a job simply because we are “too aggressive,” or any number of negative experiences even “successful” black males endure?
Mychal Denzel Smith both in the Nation and on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC explicitly called the initiative “flawed” and “counterproductive.” His premise is similar to Dr. Lewis-McCoy’s in that he claims the initiative does not address structural problems, specifically the two examples of stop-and-frisk and mass incarceration. I believe that any initiative when first launched cannot and should not be so etched in stone that it cannot adapt to legitimate criticisms such as articulated by these two commentators and scholars. However, I am realistic, or perhaps optimistic enough to know that just like it is difficult to lose weight gained over years of neglect, so too is it difficult to change structures and institutions overnight.
Changing the narrative from a negative to a positive one is never easy. Oftentimes people see highlighting what is good as disrespecting the history or reality of the negative. That does not have to be the case. We can, as Smith says “turn every black and brown boy into a ‘respectable’ citizen” AND advance society by eliminating the historical inequities inflicted upon them. We, as communities of color cannot succeed alone in changing the narrative. It will take allies from every walk of life to make change happen. I believe that the President’s initiative is a step in the right direction. Not the entire marathon, but a much needed, and long delayed step towards positive social change.