The Good News About Young Men of Color

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It might be helpful if we can acknowledge that we all view reality, relationships, and actions of others through lenses that have been constructed in early years and fortified over our lifetimes.   These perceptions can change, but for most of us, it will take a conscious effort to expand our worldviews and to understand the backgrounds, realities, and perspectives of others.

I feel fortunate to have had some very positive experiences with young men of color which included supportive relationships with a bi-racial boyfriend at age sixteen and a 29 year marriage to a very bright, caring, and supportive husband.  Through the years, however, it would have been hard not to notice that young men of color sometimes struggle when attempting to pursue the commercialized American dream.  Most of the time these struggles are cleverly disguised with body language that projects indifference, false confidence or hostility – masking feelings that run the gamut from fear to anger.

Fraternities and organizations such as the 100 Black Men of America have constructed positive mentoring programs to help guide young men into responsible adulthood and citizenship.  For years, I watched my husband construct a collegiate chapter of the 100 Black Men at a university, and I saw how this affiliation helped to transform, expose, and build confidence in young men as they experienced thousands of role models who cared about them and offered them opportunities to learn in supportive and safe environments.  Because of these and other experiences, many of these young men are now college graduates and contributing and responsible members of their communities–they are eager to give back.

I have personally witnessed many of these transformations and the development of intellectual and emotional human capital over the years.  Nonetheless, over these same years, I have noted that our view of young men of color has not been shared by many in our society.   I have seen people bristle at the size of some young men, comment on their tattoos, and lock their car doors when some young men of color simply walk through a parking lot.  As a women, I am frequently traveling by myself.  I also acknowledge that when I find myself in situations with young men of color I do not know, I have to consciously resist stereotyping them– without appropriate reasons.  Moreover, over the years as a college president, a faculty member, and an administrator in higher education, I have noted that many young men of color arrive at college carrying the baggage of society’s overt and covert unresolved issues  imposed on them because of the melatonin of their skin– as if there is, indeed, any correlation between melatonin and cognitive abilities, criminal intent, and/or moral tendencies.

In my various roles in higher education, I have made it a point to invite many young men on campus to stop me, look me in the eyes, and tell me about their future plans and dreams.  Many of these young men seemed amazed, sometimes uncomfortable, but they were also grateful that faculty and staff had confidence that they could learn and develop both cognitively and emotionally.   In fact, in most evaluations of faculty, students commented that faculty were caring and challenging – a combination that they did not see often in their former secondary environments.  These caring and reassuring faculty were a stark contrast to the verbal and non-verbal messages communicated to them in many other societal venues.

So, as we are drawn, once again, to a national conversation about race, look for best practices for expanding opportunities, and angst about how to enhance our collective well-being, I affirm, we know what to do–get to know these young men and act accordingly!  It occurs to me that we are all passengers in life in a lifeboat called Earth.   This lifeboat is not so large that one end of the boat can continue sailing unaffected when the rest of the boat is sinking,

In the words of Herman Melville, “We cannot live only for ourselves.  A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow man, and among these fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”   Thus, it is very important that many more people on the lifeboat get to known young men of color and recognize that we are one, big human family.  Transformation will happen to these young men and you–when you treat them as you would a son, nephew, or treasured human resource!

Champions needed for the next generation of leaders

After serving as a college president for the last eight years, and a higher-education administrator for well over 30 years, I admit I have some serious concerns about the lack of apparent urgency we (our country) seem to evince regarding the need to develop a vast pool of human capital.   This broaden pool would have to include Americans of all affinities, not to mention racial, ethnic, and geographical diversities.   The recent immigration debates also leaves many unanswered questions about our forth-going vision of the country’s melting pot concept inscribed on a plaque near the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Granted when Emma Lazarus wrote this sonnet that contains the aforementioned, America was still very much in its infancy, and seemingly believed it needed able-bodied men and women to populate and experience “freedom” in a country occupied previously by Native Americans.

As a president, I spent most of my time interacting with the descendants of later generations of immigrants and descendants of slaves who arrive at college seeking the dream of a somewhat elusive freedom.  These students come to college to learn how to construct a life that resembles a plausible version of the “American Dream.”  Unfortunately, many of these college entrants have already faced a gauntlet of seemingly intractable problems including family backgrounds that cannot support college tuition, low academic expectations from secondary schools,  and underdeveloped communication competencies which add to their already burdensome lives.

From my many interactions with these students and their families, I know that they bring with them a desire for guidance, for structure, and for a fair chance.   These families rarely come for a handout.  They already know how some of the more-advantaged citizens view them– as a drain on the economy.   The dream and hopes they bring with them are that they will leave college and be able to build lives in which they can contribute to the economic stability, well-being, and intellectual capital of their communities, regions, and the nation.  Such a contribution brings with its an enhanced self-esteem that enriches future generations of their families.   For the rest of us their transformation and self-confidence augments our communities’ intellectual capital and societal well-being.

Thus, possibly I have missed it,  but I must ask with so many benefits where is our sense of urgency to invest in, and to support, our connected future?

Michelle Howard-Vital