Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Who's Gonna Liberate America?

They had come to turn in their final exam essay papers and they stayed to talk with each other and with me, sitting sideways or on top of the desks as if to make sure that a viewer would immediately recognize that they were only temporarily perched and not required to be there. It doesn't always happen, but it often does and I have learned to expect the possibility. It's fun to see who'll stay this time and where the conversation will go. I'm just a willing participant, along for the ride in these cases. It seems to be their way of disconnecting from a context in which they have felt safe and to which they apparently feel beholden. I am, inevitably, humbled by this process and never leave before they do, no matter what. I feel as if I must make sure that they are ready to let go or know that they don't have to, whichever it is for them. Last night, the topic was the juvenile justice system.

It probably happened because I'm teaching a course on Adolescence and Delinquency in the fall, a course for which a number of them have already registered. Or maybe it was because several of them either do now or have worked with "at risk" kids in one way or another, while a couple of others had been in the system themselves. The process of this closing discussion is always, somehow, magical to me. And must be for them. Why else would markedly "busy" young people choose to "hang out" with a teacher for nearly two hours when they don't have to? Why else would they actually apologize to the group when they get up to leave the space?

Anyway, one of them, an African-American man in his twenties who'll graduate this summer, came in during the conversation and stayed, putting in his two cents from time to time, but clearly waiting, marking time until the others left. It didn't surprise me when he walked me across the campus as I headed for my car and it took almost no encouragment for him to begin talking about what was really on his mind.

He's been in my classes before. And he'll finish his degree without question in just a couple of months. But it's not really school that captures his best attention these days. He's a bright and highly capable young professional in his field and he longs to be given his head, to be allowed to run with the other bright young professionals. Besides taking senior-level college courses, K. transports youth in the foster care system for a paycheck, manages a sizable student-run business on campus, and is finishing a professional internship, as well. He had left the student-run business at one point, yearning to expand his wings and explore his mettle elsewhere, but they begged him to return and he did, not a little discouraged by the way things have been going anyway.

It seems that he applied for a position he really wanted in his field, a position he felt strongly he was ready to do and wanted to prove himself doing. But not only did he not get the position, but when he met the man who did, a man he actually had to teach a few things, he was seriously disappointed. How could they have chosen this man over him, he wondered? This less competent, less prepared, less motivated man--how could he have gotten the brass ring while K. was stuck with continuing his preparation?

Then, in New York, K. met the head man of the organization in which he was interested. The man recognized his name immediately, he said, volunteering that K.'s resume was on the head man's desk even as they spoke, but there was no subsequent contact after that. And K. was left in the dark again, discouraged.

When he went in to work his internship, he was not only loaded for bear in terms of the useful capabilities he had already developed, but he quickly committed to working twice the hours of the other interns, only to find himself being sent out for coffee or lunch and otherwise being told to "slow down--it'll come." And now the internship is over and they "can't afford to hire him." And he feels as if he's back at Square One. All dressed up and no where to go.

It's not that he doesn't understand that he has to pay his dues. He's paid so many dues, in fact, that academic advisors are now telling him not to put everything on his resume that he has actually already done because it's liable to keep him out of the "entry-level" positions to which he's probably going to be relegated for a while, maybe a long while. Still, he's a thoroughbred in the prime of his youth. He's feeling his oats and he's ready to run.

I said all the things he needed to hear. And he said he felt "better," might play some ball. But what we didn't talk about--either one of us--was his worst fear (and mine): the effect his skin might be having on his situation. Maybe it's not connected to all the dead-ends and the "slow downs" and the "leave-it-off-the-resumes," but what if it is? After all, I'm the one who told him that African-American men are four times more likely to be unemployed than European-American men--at every educational level. What's he supposed do with that knowledge as he walks to the plate for his time at bat?

Then he started telling me about how he used to play basketball as a middle school boy, wanting to be a pro ball player until he faced the fact that his height was going to preclude that. He didn't try to put the story in context for me, but I already know the context. He was, in essence, asking me what a young, gifted, and Black man is supposed to do about his access to the work place when he's just too short or too slow or otherwise unsuited for the only positions those with the power to define will allow someone who looks like him to fill. And I have no answer for him. And he just has to sit at the starting line, with all that power under the hood, burning the rubber off his tires against the pavement without being given the signal that he can put his motor in gear.

A couple of months ago, in a discussion about the way the United States military is mobilized, supposedly "bringing democracy" to countries all over the world, K. once verbalized a crucial rhetorical question: "Who's gonna liberate America?" And the fact is, K., I don't know.


Piscean Princess said...

How frustrated young K must be. I think that he is at a critical point in his life - when he has to decide if he's going to acknowledge the situation and keep on trying, or if he's going to submit to it and risk living life as a victim of "the man".

I'll think of him when I'm sending out metta energy today.

Changeseeker said...

I'm sure he'd appreciate knowing that, P. (and if he's reading, which he very likely may be, then he knows). Still, the heart-breaking thing is that, of course, he's only one of millions. I hate the way this system works. Sigh.

Hillary For President said...

I know. Its lick, thank to NEOCONS and GEORGE BUSH, we half to deel with thing like this. With Hillary Clinton fore president none would happen. All kind of peoples of African dissent would half what they want. I say, time to get rid of NEOCONS and get Hillary Clinton for presidnet. We need to be fare to people of African dissent. Columbus discover america 1942. Has not happend in over 500 years that people have bean treated fare.

Rachel S said...

I have had a few of those conversations with friends and or students. It one of those cases where you know there is a high likelihood that race has played a factor in the decisions, but with colorblind racism it works subtly and insideously (SP?). It is much harder to know, and if you get too caught up in focusing on it, you end up using a tremendous amount of mental energy.

There no reason he cant ask why he was passed over. If I were him, I would be curious wht they said. They may have something constructive to say, and then again, they may not.

It's interesting that you mentioned the military because it is one of the most racially diverse workforce's in the US, and at the present it has a pretty good record of promoting Black men. One of my students claimed that's because they don't mind Black men dying. It was a really interesting discussion....why can't Black men get the same kind of opportunities in the rest of the labor force. (I should note that I don't think the military is perfect; it's just better than several of the other workforces when it come to promoting Black men.)

Changeseeker said...

I may not have suggested that he ask why he wasn't chosen, Rachel, though interestingly enough, I pressed a Latino woman to do just that a few weeks ago when she was passed up for something for which she seemed ideally suited. I think the fact that K. had met the Head Duck face-to-face without getting that information naturally non-plussed me a bit.

As for the military, I agree with your student completely. Ever since Lincoln emancipated the slaves (in states that had seceded) to beef up the Union forces, the U.S. government has unapologetically "allowed" men of color to fight for "their" country. For that matter, they're currently "allowing" Latino men to fight in Iraq who only have green cards (promising a fast track to citizenship if they don't die). The reason they "let" African-Americans rise in the ranks, I think, is that it keeps greater numbers of other Black men and women engaged in the military for the long haul, something badly needed since European-Americans with other options tend to opt away from the military.

If African-American men had similar options throughout the rest of the labor force, the military would suffer and European-Americans would have to compete harder for available jobs. It's not an accident that military recruiters are haunting mall parking lots in African-American neighborhoods these days.

At least, that's how it seems to me.