I’m constantly struck by the memory of my first time in a jail. It was during a tour as a part of SPLC’s efforts to monitor the conditions of detention facilities. I recall being shocked at how young some of the people looked. When I stepped into the first cellblock, I muttered a prayer. In front of me stood rows and rows of black men. I was sick to my stomach; so many of them looked like they could be my cousins, uncles and other loved ones.
I don’t know the precise circumstances that led those people to that facility, but I have a good idea where their paths began. In this country, much depends on where you start in life. The parents you are born to, how much money they have, and which schools you attend are all incredibly instrumental in where you will go in life. To pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you have to have bootstraps in the first place.
Somehow I managed to beat the odds. I was born into a single-parent home and spent most of my childhood and adolescence on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. In some ways, I was very fortunate. I learned early on that doing well in school isn’t easy if you don’t have the right tools. I know classmates and family members who were doomed from the start: their parents had no idea how to help them excel in school. The children had responsibilities and challenges no child should have; teachers and school staff held preconceived notions about who they were and who they were going to become. In short, things they had absolutely no control over cost them the ability to dream or hope for more.
Thinking back on those situations, I ponder what makes me different. I worked hard, but that alone isn’t enough. Maybe it was the 1st grade teacher who had me sit for the advanced placement exam; I did well and was then bused to a better school in a better neighborhood. It could have been my mother, who pushed me to excel academically after I made the honor roll. It could have been the unshakable faith of my family that I would go to college—the first in my family to do so.
The point is, I’ve always had cheerleaders—whether it was my mom, family or school staff. No one ever doubted that I could do anything I wanted to do. In turn, I believed in myself, and the results have shown themselves.
I don’t say all this to say that I’m awesome. I’m very, very blessed. I didn’t have to end up where I am today. For people to point to my success and the success of other African Americans and say that we are proof that anyone can excel is silly. It is OK for Barack Obama to be an inspiration to youth of color in this country. It is not OK for him to be an indictment of people of color who do not achieve upward mobility or a counter-argument to the school-to-prison pipeline.
I work for SPLC because there was no guarantee I’d end up where I am today. Absent that 1st grade teacher or my supportive family, I could have taken a turn that led me down a completely different path. During my work at SPLC I’ve seen that possibility up close. I’ve met kids who are beautiful and funny. The promise of youth is so strong in them that it glows.
I’ve watched that inner light dim in some of these kids. Life keeps happening to them: they get into a fight at school and the School Resource Officer maces them; they are arrested and strip searched; they miss more and more school; they eventually end up hanging with people they shouldn’t and get into more trouble; their parents are too busy working or don’t know what to do to stop the apparent downward spiral; school staff members have decided they are trouble. As more and more things happen to them, their promise fades away.
In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau found that almost 40 percent of black children were living in poverty. A recent study by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California Los Angeles found that one in six male African-American students were suspended during the 2009-2010 school year. Black students were also more likely to be repeatedly suspended and more apt to be suspended for subjectively judged offenses—such as disrespect or excessive noise—than observable offenses such as smoking. A U.S. Department of Justice study of 2008 inmate populations found that 4.8 percent of African-American males were incarcerated at the time, as opposed to only .7 percent of white males.
In response to these alarming statistics, amazing people across the country are working to figure out how to craft education systems that promote the success of all children. Systems like PBIS, restorative-justice and trauma-informed teaching will be instrumental in changing the way we teach our kids.
But first, we have to start seeing all kids as our kids. One of the reasons why I do the work I do is because not everyone sees what I see when I look at youth of color in this country. Initially, I see myself, then my family, and finally—promise and hope.
Howard is a staff attorney and juvenile justice policy specialist at the Southern Poverty Law Center.