Thursday, August 20, 2009

Street Cred

Allow me to let you in on one of my pet peeves. People who cross in the middle of the street instead of at the crosswalk AND take their time doing it. Young black men seem to have embraced this as a form of self-entertainment. When this urban phenomenon occurs, I find myself muttering, “Do you have so little power that you get off by daring me to run over you,” then I realize the answer to that question is, more than likely, yes.

Baltimore has one of the highest dropout rates in the country with only 34 percent of all students graduating. For black males in our city the figure is even more depressing – a mere 31% according to The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education for Black Males, 2008 edition.

And if knowledge is power, then it’s no wonder that these young men are grasping for some degree of influence in the most disruptive ways. The bigger question is why are our young people giving their power away by not completing school?

The reasons are myriad, from not being prepared for a rigorous learning environment to being bored by traditional class material. At the risk of alienating some good parents out there, I place the bulk of the blame on the families of these young men. Having a kid is hard – that’s why I never had any. I knew the commitment involved, both financial and emotional, just wasn’t for me, and I credit my parents for raising me with a sense of self-awareness so I knew how to make choices that were right for me. My parents also instilled the importance of an education and being able to communicate and navigate in the larger world.

When I think of the experiences my parents exposed me to in a time just after the civil rights movement, I am amazed. They always managed to allow a full helping of fun along with plenty of opportunities to learn and expand our horizons. I remember just as many trips to the newly integrated Gwynn Oak amusement park as there were trips to the Smithsonian or the Walters Art Gallery. And while all of my parents’ children haven’t turned out to be exceptional citizens, at least we know they did everything in their power to give us the tools we needed to succeed.

With many of our youth coming from homes that take no interest in their development, where education is not revered, and where the street life is promoted, it’s simple to see why so many young people make poor decisions. They have had no example set for them. How many of their parents gave birth in their teen years and are themselves high school dropouts? Probably quite a few. How many of these parents were prepared for instilling discipline that must go hand-in-hand with being a parent? My guess is not many. And how many young people grow up in a house like Namond's from The Wire? One is too many. With parents like De’Londa, a kid doesn’t stand a chance.

When young people are not required to exercise their brain, they will exercise their muscle. They will “represent” and show what little control they have over their lives, ironically, by living a life that is completely out of control. Those same young men who dare me to run over them in the middle of the street are the same ones I see on the street in areas known for drug activity. While I’d like to believe they are there trying to change things, I know that they are there advancing their street cred which leads straight to a deadend.

For real street cred, check out Alfred H. Foxx, Jr. Director of Baltimore City Department of Transportation. Mr. Foxx is responsible for overseeing over 2000 miles of roadways, 3600 miles of sidewalks, curbs and gutters, 72,000 street lights and 250,000 traffic and informational signs.


  1. 31% is an insane figure. How does that stack up against African American male school performance in other major cities across the country? When you're looking at a figure that grossly disproportionate with the rest of society you have to wonder if the problem is cultural.

    And I don't mean necessarily just the African American culture. I mean the culture of poverty. And the cultural influences of living in Baltimore. But something that pervasive goes beyond individual families, and individual students and their parents. There is an overarching worldview shared by the culture at large guiding such a large percentage of its constituent members. I think you have to address the larger cultural priorities before you can hope to fix the problem.

  2. Part of the cultural phenomenon is lack of parental involvement which leads to kids being overly influenced by outside forces. Unfortunately that statistic of 31% has company in the statistics from other urban cities. I have discussed this issue with folks in the educational system and the juvenile justice system and most agree that the lack of a disciplined family life, sometimes for genereations, is the petri dish for this social disease.

  3. It's curious too that, at least from what I've experienced, there's a strong vein of religiosity that runs through African American culture. You'd think that would be a positive influence, especially on family life, but it doesn't seem to improve things.

    I wonder if, in fact, it makes things worse, since it conditions people to simply accept their lot in this life, looking forward instead to a better life beyond the grave. Plenty of inequities can be explained by this sort of thinking.

    But it doesn't explain everything. Not remotely. If people simply accepted the hand they were dealt unquestioningly then the civil rights movement never would have happened. And that, I think points to a major difference between then and now in American culture in general.

    During the span of the civil rights movement and shortly beyond, individual members of society were greatly concerned with society at large. With the well-being of humanity. Today we are more likely to be concerned only for ourselves. And that goes doubly true for poverty-stricken areas of the country. It's all about "gettin' mine" instead of building up the common good.

    It's like you were telling me Gay, about the degradation of civics involvement in this country since WWII. We've become a nation of individuals, instead of a nation.