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Systemic Barriers or Personal Responsibility?

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With the recent pledge by our President to help raise money for “My Brother’s Keeper,” an initiative to assist black and Hispanic males, and the comments made by the Republican Budget Committee Chairman, Paul Ryan, who talked about a “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working, and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and culture of work,” it has set up a classic discussion about race, class and politics in this country. This is not new! On the surface, the two aforementioned perspectives do coincide with one another.  

Ryan is correct about one thing—far too many men (males) of color are isolated and marginalized from mainstream America. It is said that Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman, Marcia Fudge, was “troubled and offended” by Ryan’s comments. My question is, “Why?”  Is Ms. Fudge offended by Congressman Ryan, a white man, speaking a reality he thinks is true about black inner-city life, or is she offended by the fact that a lot of black men do not take care of their children, don’t aspire to have gainful employment, and could care less about the black family and/or community. 

The Bible speaks of a good man leaving an inheritance to his children’s children” (Proverbs 13:22)—a two generation approach! Far too many brothers are committed to a life of crime and ineptness. Isn’t that kind of the point and justification for “My Brother’s Keeper?” If we have to be offended, let’s be offended at the notion that racism is global and structural, as well as it is personal. For me, the dichotomy between personal responsibility and structural barriers is real.  

Structural inequality is defined as a condition where one group of people is attributed an unequal status to other categories of people. Institutional racism describes any kind of unequal system based on race. I am not sure what type of “productive conversation” Ryan wants to have with the Congressional Black Caucus about poverty, but if it doesn’t include how to eliminate systemic racial barriers, then I don’t know if anything constructive will get done. We also seem to leave the debate at the personal level. This is where it seems “My Brother’s Keeper” is going with it.  If we can just get these black and Hispanic boys and men to behave better, everything will work itself out. Maybe. All I know is that $200 million is a lot of money, and if it is not allocated wisely it will prove, once again, to be not enough. 

If we are to believe the conservatives spin on the issue, the federal government spent roughly $668.2 billion on 126 separate federal programs to fight poverty. If this is anywhere near true, then it makes Ms. Fudge’s point that the main culprit behind poverty is “lack of resources.” Really? If billions didn’t put a dent in the problem then how will $200 million work out for us?  But every little bit helps. Right? Also, I am just wondering (out loud) how much we need to spend on tearing down the walls and barriers that keep poor people trapped in poverty. Which of those foundations or private donors will step up and put their resources there? 

Structural racism gets a pass sometimes because we put a microscope underneath what the “person” should do to act responsibly. My question is, “When will we have a “serious” conversation about racism, classism, sexism and poverty from a structural inequality point of view?” It is an easier talk to have when we focus on the people in poverty because we can always default to blaming the victim. When we are courageous enough to have that conversation, I suspect we will affirm Ryan’s point that both black and brown boys suffer from isolation and marginalization.  

The conversation will also affirm that those who hold the true power are also isolated. They are isolated from the day-to-day struggles of the working poor and the entities in place to help. They are isolated not because they don’t know, but because they don’t care. My fear is we will spend a lot of good money ($200 million and holding), get more black and brown boys to act better, but still not get the core issue that helped to put them in their impoverished situation in the first place.  

There is no debate (or shouldn’t be) that structural inequality has a detrimental effects on black life. Inequality has nothing to do with feelings per se. It is more insidious than even hatred. It’s not a matter of either personal responsibility or systemic barriers—it’s both. It takes both to contribute to inner-city life for far too many black boys, and it will take addressing both to solve the problem.

When the “Home” Needs Home Training”!

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  Scripture Reading 1 Samuel 2:12-17

            “Now the Eli were corrupt, they did not know the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:12)

Many of us in the black community have heard of the term “home training” and have a close relationship to the concept. We remember the warnings coming from our parents and grandparents—“that boy ain’t got no home training.” The whole idea behind home training is that it needs to occur in the home. An African proverb states that “the ruin of a nation begins in the homes of its people.” 

With the many negative statistics and social ills that beset our community, now is a good time for us to take a critical look at our homes and the socialization processes we have in place. We have to ask the tough questions. Are we responsible for producing thugs, gang bangers and social misfits? Can we really say the devil made me do it? Can we still blame the evil of white racism on our attitudes and actions? 

There is a growing concern with this issue. As a black community we cannot ignore it. But where do we start? For most people, we need to start in the home. But that might just be problematic. It’s a natural inclination to say that training should start in the home…with parents. But what if the “home” needs some home training? 

The term home is defined as “an environment affording security and happiness; a place where something is discovered, originated, or developed; an institution where people are cared for.” Based on this definition, many of our homes are anything but caring, developing, happy or secure. I truly believe that most parents want the best for their children. But many are struggling caretakers. Some are disinterested providers. And, still others just don’t give a darn. That is a sad commentary on the status of many black homes, but it is true. 

In the book, “Black Children: Their Roots, Culture and Learning Styles,” Dr. Janice Hale-Benson, she states that black children are educationally at risk. About 28% of African-American students drop out before graduation. The achievement scores for black children are approaching critical. This is where I think the home needs some home training. Young parents especially need our help. One of the things we need to concentrate on is an Early Childhood Development Strategy for the community. 

I am the Executive Director of the Chatham-Savannah Youth Futures Authority, which is a 28-year old collaborative that was started with Annie E. Casey Foundation dollars back in 1987. We are a state legislated authority to address critical issues impacting youth. Two of our collaborative partners are the Savannah Early Childhood Foundation (SECF) and the Child Care Resource and Referral (CCR&R) of Southeast Georgia. The SECF was founded by my good friend, Paul Fisher. Two other good friends, Ms. Sherrie Costa and Ms. Katrina Chance, are affiliated with the CCR&R, which provides information and training to childcare facilities and parents. 

There is a tremendous amount of interest in brain development and the first five years of life. Studies have shown that this is a very crucial time for brain development, and we need to pay more close attention to the development of our children at this early age. There are things we can do, and other things we can do better, to create a “home” environment that is truly developing, nurturing and affirming. We are at a place as a black community where infanticide (the killing of an infant) is happening at a more alarming rate. I can’t imagine what a three-month-old baby could do to deserve being shaken to death, but there lies the notion that the environments in which some of our children are being raised are not safe and developing. Yes, many black homes need home training. Yes, training up a child in the way he should go is the Word. But that assumes the person doing the training is himself or herself trained. That’s not the case in so many of our homes. 

The concept of early childhood education is about our future. It has been said that the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now. This is the best time to plant seeds of encouragement, training, education and skills to an entire generation of parents. The human by-product of some of these homes indicates we have a serious problem. We are our brother’s keeper and we are responsible for one another. Each one reach one, each one teach one. The cognitive development of black children is predicated on the cultural and social environment in which they are produced and raised. In other words, social class and ethnicity develop sets of behaviors and attitudes that “train” the home environment. It is this socialization mechanism that we are calling into question. Something is happening (or not happening) where scores of black children are under achieving academically, socially, and morally. Early childhood education is about training the home to train up a child socially, academically, and morally in the way they should go. 

It would be somewhat of a moral victory if we could honestly say that the child “departed” from the training. But in many instances they never learned the proper behavior in the first place. That was the case with Eli, a very good man but a bad father. The sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineahas, brought shame and ruin to their father and sin to a degenerate priesthood. Eli, like many of our men today, was a failure as a father. The primary responsibility of rearing children in the way of God is in the home. As a father, Eli knew the sins of his sons but did not restrain them. This is what the Lord said to Eli:

“In that day I will perform against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I will judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knows, because his sons made themselves vile, and he did not restrain them”                       (1 Sam. 3:12-13). 

So many of our black youth are doing vile, ungodly things in our homes and in our communities, and the fathers and/or parents are not restraining them. Early childhood is the time to teach and train them. After a certain time, it becomes too late. The old saying, “bend the sap while it’s young,” means teaching children while they are teachable, while they are young and impressionable. Eli should have disciplined his sons before it became impossible to do so. After a while, children turn a deaf ear. “Nevertheless, they did not heed the voice of their father…”     (1 Sam. 2:25).  

The terrible fate of Eli and his evil sons is recorded in 1 Samuel 4:10-18. Phinehas and Hophni were both killed at war. Eli, as an old man, fell and broke his neck. As black Christian parents, we can save ourselves a lot of pain and grief if we just do what the Bible says when it comes to raising our children: “And you Fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Galatians 6:4). Prayerfully, it will come a time when we will never have to say again “that boy ain’t got no home training.”

“What the child says, he has heard at home”-Nigerian Proverb. “Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die” Proverbs 23:13. As a parent or elder in the village, I will correct if need be a young person if I see they are going astray. 

Youth Violence and the Case for Moral Aptitude!

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Like most Savanniahians, I am appalled by the rash of violence in our beloved city. I am equally disheartened over the number of youth and young adults who are engaged in violent, deadly behavior. Most recently, the District Attorney’s Office is trying four young black men and is seeking the death penalty in those cases. At a recent symposium sponsored by the Chatham County Juvenile Court, it was reported that there were 1,281 delinquent referrals in 2015. Of that amount, 63 percent (809) were black males. In 2016, the majority of the delinquent referrals (94%) were youth 12-16 years of age. Sadly still, the majority of these incidents involve African-American males, both as victims and perpetrators. It appears to be a growing problem. 

In 2014, there were 1,825 arrests for Part I crimes. Of this number, 301 arrests were to youth ages 8-16 (16%). Of the Part I crimes (minus shoplifting, car theft and arson), there were 421 arrests. Of this number, 99 arrests were to youth ages 8-16 (23%). For 2015 between Jan 1st to August 23rd, there were 261 arrests for Part I crimes. Of this number, 182 were to youth ages 10-16 (70%). Of the 62 youth arrests, 50 were black males, five were black females, six were white males, and one was a Japanese male. (Source: SCMPD) 

To stop the violence we have to stop what is feeding the beast. We are told by politicians and social pundits that a major culprit is poverty and related factors (i.e. lack of education, high unemployment, lack of things to do, and a host of other “lacks”) they like to espouse. Granted, these elements do play a part. However, I want to make the case for another type of lack: lack of “moral aptitude.” Aptitude is defined as “inclination, intelligence, being appropriate.” The best way to effectively dealt with youth violence is before it starts. “Bend the sap when it is young” my grandmother used to say. The truth is, not enough bending of the sap goes on in our homes. What we are witnessing is the Biblical, spiritual truth of “you reap what you sow, more than you sow, and later than you sow.” I don’t care how much jobs, government benefits, welfare reform or other antipoverty measures you put in place, until and unless we deal with the “root” causes of antisocial behavior, the violence and bloodletting will continue. 

In 2017, social service organizations are simply overwhelmed to deal with the madness. And in some cases, ill-equipped, to deal with the sheer number and magnitude of the problem. Parents, especially many teen parents, are ill-prepared to take on the rigors of parenting and socializing children of today. The socializing/parenting apparatus is broken in far too many cases. Not to get too deep into Bible study, but recall (or if need be study) the case of the Priest Eli and his two sons (Hophni and Phinehas) who were behaving wickedly. Why? Because their father rebuked them too lightly and was unable to stop them. Eli’s failure to lead his family led to his downfall. The punishment for this lack of “bending the sap” was all male descendants dying before reaching old age. (1 Samuel 2:1217; 22-36). The point is clear—absence of moral and ethical training of children at a young age (sow) will eventually end up with our youth acting wickedly and blood running in the streets. If we fail them, then they will end up failing society and us. 

Many homes have relegated the responsibility of moral education to schools and the social service industry. That is why we have initiatives like “Character Counts” sponsored by the school district. I am glad we have such programs in the community, but that does not mean it is solely, or even primarily, the school district’s job to properly instill moral values in our youth. They can assist, but it is not their job. 

This leads us to the question of who is ultimately responsible for the moral training of the community. Or perhaps a better question is, “Who is in the best position to offer such training?”  Many would say it is ultimately the responsibility of parents to convey moral values to their children. Others might identify the church to dispense such teachings. So point to the notion that Christ left the church in charge: not the schools, not DFCS, not Greenbrair Children Services, not EOA, not YFA, but the church. The rest of us can help because it does take an entire village to successfully raise children. You can provide everyone with an appropriate amount of jobs, food stamps, EITC benefits, health insurance, and other poverty reduction efforts and still not end the violence in homes, in neighborhoods, in schools, and eventually in the streets. 

“The ruins of a nation begin in the home of its people” (African Proverb). The “ruins” we are seeing in our streets is a byproduct of the ruins in homes. A child without a moral compass is liable to take the life of another child because of their lack of moral aptitude, not simply because he was bored and had no other outlets. The sooner we begin to deal with the root of this problem, the sooner we can alleviate it. Statewide in Georgia, there were 34,946 youth served by the Department of Juvenile Justice in 2013. The cost of confinement was approximately $249.66 per day per youth, or about $91,126.00 per year (Data sources: Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, Statewide Snapshot, 2013; Justice Policy Institute, Sticker Shock, 2014). I am not saying we should not do our best to amass the appropriate amount of social benefits to people, but I am saying that a lack of ongoing moral training of our youth at a young age stands the chance of rendering those benefits non-consequential. I do know we need to do something different, intentional, and forceful concerning our wayward children if we want the violence to stop.