The car door opened and a cascade of ice appeared at my neighbor's curb, followed by a crumpled paper cup. The car door started to slam shut--but not before I popped my head through the window. "Excuse me," I said to the young man in the passenger's seat, "but you seem to have dropped your cup. Would you mind putting it in the trash can at the side of the house before you drive away?"
The young man blinked. "Um . . . OK." And he left the car, picked up the cup, tossed it in the trash and crossed the lawn in front of me. "Thanks," I told him. "Welcome," he replied, his long arm waving a casual goodby as he and his friend drove away.
OK, I do not deserve a Medal of Honor for doing what I've been brought up to believe is my civic duty, but it did occur to me--way afterward--that I might have been playing fast and loose with my future. "Are you crazy?" a friend asked. "They could have killed you! And you'd have died over trash in the street--and it wasn't even in front of your house."
Which was why I did it. I have decided to stop being afraid of our own kids. The "our" here is a communal one. Many of us have had the experience of growing up in neighborhoods where neighbors were allowed-- encouraged--to supervise our comings and goings in the absence (and sometimes the presence) of our parents. I was keenly aware that to misbehave away from my mother's eyes didn't necessarily mean that my mother wasn't going to find out about it.
Thanks to the neighborhood Mafia, who did not believe in the practice of omerta when it came to children's safety or manners, I'd very likely be scolded twice: first by the neighbor who caught me, then by whichever parent the neighbor chose to enlighten. As kids, we complained a lot about our neighbors' nosiness (to ourselves, of course; we weren't total fools), but we secretly respected the system. It set limits. It kept us safe and accounted for. And we knew that other people cared about what happened to us. (Yes, they tattled on us, but they also bragged about us when we did well.)
Somewhere in time, my guess is within the last 20 years, the Maginot line of neighbors, friends and relatives who watched after one another's children fell. Things have never been the same. There are contributing factors: disintegrating families (of all races and income levels); an increase in poverty and the tensions and dysfunction that come with it; a growing chasm between people with economic options that permit them to escape some of the ugliness of life and people with few or no such options; a sharp rise in violence in many parts of America, especially in cities; a growing despair in African American families that larger American society is not particularly concerned with our long-term survival. (This wasn't all paranoia, as the Nixon Administration's "benign neglect" manifesto made clear.)
One does not need a degree in psychology to figure out that intact self-esteem is a powerful fuel for the engine of social progress. Perhaps part of why our progress is so stunted is the message, conscious and unconscious, that young black men receive daily in many ways: You are criminals or potential criminals. We are afraid of you. You will probably not amount to much. We do not want you near us. It's the sociological equivalent of Muzak, and its effects are powerful. It has given us a generation of swaggering, loud-talking, posturing young men of whom many people--including many in their own communities--are desperately frightened.
But maybe the posturing occurs simply because not enough of us are brave enough to ask them to do
anything else. The elite but growing club of African Americans whom society considers role models for children of all colors come from widely disparate backgrounds. Some, like James Baldwin and Alice Walker, were reared in poverty. Others, such as Marian Wright Edelman and W.E.B. DuBois, came from more privileged backgrounds. But the one ingredient they all said was critical to their success is that they knew others' expectations of them were high. "The adults in our churches and community made children feel valued and important," Edelman says in her book, "The Measure of Our Success."
If we ever want to stop being afraid of young black men, we must, as Edelman suggests, communicate to them that we have not given up on them, that they are an important part of our communal future, that they are not disposable but valued and important. Many people (including current and former gang members) have begun this work. Many more are needed.