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What “My Brother’s Keeper” Gets Wrong about Young Men of Color

JJ Tiziou

A march of thousands coordinated by the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools

In a statement issued by the White House on President Obama’s latest initiative called My Brother’s Keeper, it says: “Boys and young men of color—regardless of where they come from—are disproportionately at risk from their youngest years through college and the early stages of their professional lives.”

What exactly are young men of color at risk for? We know that they are at risk for being funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline. They are at risk for being put in cages of the prison industrial complex. They are at risk for being shot, murdered, or sexually assaulted by police officers. They are at risk for living in a society that criminalizes, abuses and exploits their bodies, while refusing to invest in their communities and schools.

The White House goes on to say: “And we need to help these young men stay in school and find a good job– so they have the opportunity to reach their full potential, contribute to their communities and build decent lives for themselves and their families.”

This plan puts the onus of success on the backs of young people, rather than transforming the systems that oppress young men of color in the first place. When it comes to dismantling systems like the school-to-prison pipeline or the prison industrial complex, we know that it is not about individual effort. Collective organizing is needed to dismantle the systems that continue to oppress young men of color. We seek systemic change that would improve the lives of young men of color for generations to come. We do not expect that systemic change to come from those who manufactured the systems themselves.

This effort will seek “to make sure that every young man of color who is willing to work hard and lift himself up has an opportunity to get ahead and reach his full potential,” the White House official said.

By making the problem seem like young men of color just need to “work hard”, they cover up the real barriers to equal opportunity, such as the racial violence of police brutality that is directed at young black men. It is very difficult to “work hard” when the powers that be are working hard at criminalizing you. They allow the bodies of young men of color to be criminalized when they put the blame on young people rather than changing racist policing polices.

When society, specifically those in power, tell a young man of color to “lift himself up”, they are telling him to ignore hundreds of years of racial injustice designed to keep people of color down. This blames youth themselves for their disadvantaged position and the inequities they face. This delegitimizes the current systems and long histories of oppression that have led us to where we are today. We must look back at hundreds of years of the criminalization of young black men and disinvestment from communities of color before placing the responsibility of fixing that in the laps of young people.

Young men of color have in fact been rising up! They’ve been fighting the root causes of systemic oppressions in their lives. We’ve seen young men of color rise up across the nation in remembrance of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and other victims of racial violence. Youth of color, LGBTQ youth and other impacted youth work together to end the schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline. Young people know the obstacles they face, because they encounter them daily.

fund schools

Students during a Campaign for Nonviolent Schools march on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2011. Photo by JJ Tiziou

The White House recently released a statement on ending the school-to-prison pipeline. For years, young men of color across the nation have been organizing in coalitions such as the Alliance for Educational Justice, the Dignity in Schools Campaign, Journey for Justice and many others. This work has finally received a response from the the government on the growing crisis of the school-to-prison pipeline. Young men of color have been fighting for change in a way that far surpasses the White House’s request for young men of color to “lift themselves up” They have been fighting to lift up their entire communities despite stop & frisk, the prison industrial complex and widespread poverty.

The President made today’s announcement alongside Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Michael Bloomberg. These two men have been responsible for the closing of hundreds of schools in both Chicago and New York City; the results of which undeniably displaced hundreds of thousands of young black men. The systematic uprooting of young black men from their communities, those which the President claims will be lifted up by these various proposals, is a perfect example of why we cannot expect those in power to make changes that will actually serve to benefit young men of color in our communities. Real change always comes from we who are impacted by injustice and who have the vision to fight for a just world.

Let’s talk about the responsibility of those in power and their abuse of it, before we ask young people to do the same.

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