About two weeks ago I signed a letter with other Black men to President Obama expressing our concern that his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative improperly excludes an emphasis on girls and young women. Though I have been involved during much of my professional career with programs to assist and uplift Black boys, the plight of Black girls has always resonated with me. I come from a family of four Black girls, was raised by a widowed single Black mother, married a Black woman and have a teenage daughter so I make no gender differentiation when it comes to the struggle Black children encounter on the road to adulthood. And, while I admire President Obama’s decision to advance a program on behalf of young men of color, it stands to fail if we don’t acknowledge that social and economic marginalization knows no gender when it comes to Black youth.
Yes, the statistics on Black males are frightening and suggest the need for some immediate interventions on behalf of this population. The plight of Black boys has been chronicled and agonized over, and rightly so. Too many of us have personal horror stories to tell or can recount the experience of family members, relatives and friends who have barely escaped the jaws of educational failure, criminal activity, criminal victimhood, poverty, incarceration or death. The story of Black males in America is poignant but it is only half the story.
Black girls are in no better shape but their plight is often unreported or they fall victim to fantastical or culturally palatable narratives of success. Yet, across the country we see Black girls falling prey to poor academic performance, criminal behavior, incarceration, violence and youthful pregnancies. To think we can heal our community by focusing only on boys misses the point in a contemporary and historical analysis. Our present barriers to family formation, no matter how you define family, can be traced to our failure historically to create holistic remedies that uplift boys and girls, women and men. We spend inordinate amounts of time expressing gender neutrality when we should be cross-gender focused. Too much public policy is created from an either or perspective, and misses the point of the interconnectedness of gender in the Black experience. The result has been damaging to our community and has spawned unnecessary gender conflict over who has rights to the life preserver when we are all drowning. We have also allowed Black boys and girls to go to separate corners of the ring and beat each other down for the amusement of larger forces in society. Sadly, those early age conflicts often play out in adulthood and prevent the development of healthy relationships.
Think Black boys and girls are not equally set upon? Just look at many of the music videos that entertain our youth today. The portrayal of young Black men as mindless, money grabbing thugs with violent tendencies is set against the portrayal of young Black women as disposable sex objects interested only in material possessions and willing to submit physically to satisfy their material needs. This imagery might not be directly responsible for the plight of Black boys and girls, but it demonstrates how society uses both with no good intentions.
There is no path to a better place for Black people if we don’t address the challenges facing our children in their totality. We cannot say “let’s focus on Black boys first” when many of them are being raised by young Black women. To ignore the plight of Black girls is to deny the truth and to pretend that by buttressing Black boys our young girls will by osmosis benefit. It cuts to a common stereotype that I often hear as a Black father; that we need to help Black boys so our daughters can find mates. My hope is that my daughter will be able to stand on her own and be a strong mate to an equally strong partner. That won’t happen if we ignore the challenges and landmines that she and her peers encounter every day. I see it through my daughter’s experiences in our community and school district. In fact, in our public school system Black girls disproportionately face harsher discipline than their peers. It is no cake walk for Black girls and the sooner we acknowledge the shared struggle of our youth, the sooner we will proffer solutions that make sense and work.
Judging by some initial reactions to the letter to President Obama from the group of Black men, and a subsequent letter from a larger group of women, too many people are being overprotective of the administration and missing the bigger point. Our struggle preceded this President and will extend beyond the life of his administration. If we fail to critique and offer recommendations to improve the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative we will have succumbed to idolatry and missed a golden opportunity to address systemic inequities. This isn’t about the President. Many of us who signed the letter have been some of his most ardent supporters. This is about our children – all of our children. As we forge remedies to support Black boys we must also be our sisters’ keeper too.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.