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Come On, People
On the Path from Victims to Victors
By Bill Cosby, Alvin F. Poussaint
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 William H. Cosby Jr. and Alvin F. Poussaint, MD
All rights reserved.
What 'S Going on with Black Men?
For the last generation or two, as our communities dissolved and our parenting skills broke down, no one has suffered more than our young black men.
Your authors have been around long enough, and traveled widely enough, to think we understand something about the problem. And we're hopeful enough—or desperate enough—to think that with all of us working together we might find our way to a solution.
Let's start with one very basic fact. Back in 1950, before Brown v. Board of Education, before the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, when Rosa Parks was still sitting in the back of her Montgomery bus, when the NBA was just about all white, back in those troubled times, black boys were born into a different world than they are today.
Obviously, many civil rights leaders had hoped that with the demise in the 1960s of officially sanctioned forms of segregation and discrimination, black males would have greater access to the mainstream of American society. They had fully expected that these young men would be in a better position in every way—financially, psychologically, legally—to sustain viable marriages and families. Instead, the overall situation has continued to go downhill among the poor who are mostly shut out from the mainstream of success.
How is that possible?
There is one statistic that captures the bleakness. In 1950, five out of every six black children were born into a two-parent home. Today, that number is less than two out of six. In poor communities, that number is lower still. There are whole blocks with scarcely a married couple, whole blocks without responsible males to watch out for wayward boys, whole neighborhoods in which little girls and boys come of age without seeing up close a committed partnership and perhaps never having attended a wedding.
Build on Our Legacy
In 1950, we still feared our parents and respected them. We know that for a fact because we were both in our early teens that year and were both testing our limits.
We and the others in our generation weren't saints. We'll be the first to admit that. We were filled with piss and vinegar like many teenage boys—white, black, and otherwise. If we saw something we wanted and didn't have any money—and trust us, few of us ever had money—we thought about taking it, sure. But something called "parenting," something that had wormed its way into our heads from the time we were still in the womb, said to us, If you get caught stealing it, you're going to embarrass your mother.
The voice didn't say, You're going to get your butt kicked. We knew that and expected that from experience. No, that inner voice said, You're going to embarrass your mother. You're going to embarrass your family.
As we became older and grew more interested in girls, our hormones raged just as boys' hormones rage today. The Internet may be new. Cell phones may be new. But sex, we don't need to tell you, has been around since Adam and Eve. So has shame. We knew that if one of us got a girl pregnant, not only would she have to go visit that famous "aunt in South Carolina," but young Romeo would have to go too, not to South Carolina maybe, but somewhere. It would be too embarrassing for Romeo's family for him to just sit around in the neighborhood with a fat Cheshire cat smile on his face.
And there was something else we understood: that girl likely had a daddy in the home. And he'd be prepared to wipe that grin off Romeo's face permanently. This was what parenting was about. It wasn't always pretty, but it could be pretty effective.
Parenting works best when both a mother and a father participate. Some mothers can do it on their own, but they need help. A house without a father is a challenge. A neighborhood without fathers is a catastrophe, and that's just about what we have today.
Can we fix this? Can we change it? We don't have a choice. We have to take our neighborhoods back. We have to go in there and do it ourselves. We saw what happened in New Orleans when people waited for the government to help. "Governments" are things. Governments don't care. People care, and no people care like parents do—well, except maybe grandparents and other caregivers, and thank God for them.
The problems start early for black boys, and we can all see it. Call it ADHD or learning differences or whatever you like, but our young black males can act up a Level 5 storm in class. The fact is that little boys are diagnosed with ADHD approximately three times more than girls. Also, black boys are diagnosed with higher rates of mental disabilities and emotional problems than black girls, white girls, and white boys.
To be sure, little boys in general are more aggressive than little girls. In some cases, too, teachers are wary of black boys and too quick to dump them into special education classes. This kind of racial profiling and discrimination against active, aggressive black boys by school personnel accounts for some of the discrepancy in the numbers, but the bottom line is still bad.
Why is the problem so grave? A mother can usually teach a daughter how to be a woman. But as much as mothers love their sons, they have difficulty showing a son how to be a man. A successful man can channel his natural aggression. Without that discipline, these sons often get into trouble at school because many teachers find it difficult to manage their "acting out" behavior. If you think we're exaggerating, talk to a teacher.
There is another thing that little boys don't do any more: go to church. When we were kids, once a week we had to get dressed to the nines in clothes we'd rather not wear and spend an hour sitting and kneeling quietly in a place we'd rather not be. But this was a useful and necessary discipline. We learned how to sit still. We learned how to sit quietly. We learned self-control, and we knew the consequences if we didn't. We could always go out and play ball when church was over, a little wiser for the experience.
Today, many boys don't go to church and couldn't even put their clothes on straight if they did. Many of these kids have never tied a tie or buckled a top button or shined their shoes. Sadly, the first real suit many of them get to wear is colored orange. And what's really unfortunate is that the beltless, droopy-drawered look you see on the streets is a fashion straight out of prison. Boys like the defiance of the look, and some make it part of their permanent identity, but that look doesn't get anyone a job.
Acknowledge the Problem
As these boys move through school, their behavior goes from bad to worse. The schools don't help much because they are often of terrible quality. Even the good schools are designed to favor girls, whose language skills tend to develop earlier than boys.
The boys are much more likely to end up in special education programs than girls, or white boys for that matter. Special education at its best is helpful for kids who need it, but too many kids are warehoused in these classes and never make it back to the mainstream. And if the drugs or the warehousing doesn't work, the schools finally just suspend the kids or expel them. Troubled black boys in schools are more than twice as likely to be suspended as white boys or Hispanics, and this does no one any good except the neighborhood drug dealers.
When the boys get suspended or expelled—admit it, parents—there is usually a good reason. The problem is that not all of us will admit it. Our boy gets sent home, and what do we do? We get angry at the teacher or the principal or the school board. We call a parasite lawyer like those we see on TV. "No, Mrs. Jones, it's not their fault! How dare they punish little Jovon! Let's sue." By the first grade, we're encouraging the kids to use "the other dude did it" defense, and some of them never forget it. They'll keep repeating "The other dude did it" like a mantra right up to the day they die, all too often courtesy of the state of California or Texas or Florida, (at this time the leading states in applying the death penalty).
To be sure, the justice system disfavors black males, and some are in the system who should not be. But tragically, too many of our sons deserve to be right where they are.
Those black boys who do make it to high school drop out more often than they graduate. Without a working dad in the home, or in their lives, most of them fail to learn the kind of basic hands-on skills that would help them find an entry-level job.
Working fathers can teach their sons about the necessity of hard work and about the need to show up on time and stick to a job. A working parent can also introduce them to a rather simple device that all of us hate but that most of us have learned to live with—an alarm clock. Getting up when you're tired and going to school or work is not something that comes naturally to anyone. It's something that kids have to learn at home.
One advantage that African-American kids have over most people in the world is the ability to speak English. It's the international language of business. To be a success anywhere on the globe, you have to speak it. But we're letting this advantage slip away too.
Many of our kids don't want to speak English. In our day, we used to talk a certain way on the corner, but when we got into the house, we switched to English. Everybody knows it's important to speak English except for some young people you see hanging around on the corners.
You can't land a plane in Rome saying, "Whassup?" to the control tower. You can't be a doctor telling your nurse, "Dat tumor be nasty." There is no Bible in the world that has that kind of language. We used to blame the kids for talking this way until we heard some of their parents. Some black parents couldn't care less. Too many teachers, of all ethnicities, couldn't care less too.
Most black employers we know want to see the entire community prosper. But even they don't want to hire boys who can't dress properly, and who speak as if English were a second language. When we see these boys walking around the neighborhood, we imagine them thirty or forty years down the road wandering around just as aimlessly, and we want to cry. The problem is they don't see themselves down that road.
These boys don't really know what the word future means. Neither did some of their parents. And that's why they're just hanging out at the bottom for five or six generations, trapped in housing projects that were built to stabilize people just long enough to get a job, move out, and move on. Even if there were more affordable housing out there, many of these guys would not be able to find their way to it!
Face the Facts
Black males are failing at alarming rates in the schools. Their rates of suspension and expulsion from school far exceed that of other groups. Given the high drop-out rate, the number of black men entering and graduating from college is far below the number of black women. Currently, in college and professional schools, black women outnumber black men two to one. And if you don't think that causes a problem for female students, you haven't talked to one.
Is it something about being an African-American male? Aren't we smart enough? Black Americans fought to open doors of opportunity—and now black immigrants are walking through these doors while too many of us are hanging out on the street corners. There is certainly institutional racism—particularly against black men—but racism doesn't explain everything. Black men are, in fact, lagging. If it weren't for the relative success of recent black immigrants in schools and college, the statistics would be even worse.
Enough young black males behave badly at an early age that they set the norm for other black boys. The stereotype of the angry and potentially violent black male can lead to racial profiling by teachers in the early grades. This makes it doubly difficult for those boys who are trying to behave and trying to get ahead to succeed. Soon the kids begin to stereotype themselves. These images lead to low expectations for achievement, which then become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Check the numbers:
Homicide is the number one cause of death for black men between fifteen and twenty-nine years of age and has been for decades.
Of the roughly sixteen thousand homicides in this country each year, more than half are committed by black men. A black man is seven times more likely to commit a murder (excluding military actions) than a white man, and six times more likely to be murdered. (Black mothers live with these numbers. We don't know how they sleep at night.)
Ninety-four percent of all black people who are murdered are murdered by other black people.
The life expectancy at birth of black men is sixty-nine years, compared to seventy-five years for white men, eighty for white women, and seventy-six for black women.
In the past several decades, the suicide rate among young black men has increased more than 100 percent.
In some cities, black males have high school drop-out rates of more than 50 percent.
Young black men are twice as likely to be unemployed as white, Hispanic, and Asian men.
Although black people make up just 12 percent of the general population, they make up nearly 44 percent of the prison population.
At any given time, as many as one in four of all young black men are in the criminal justice system—in prison or jail, on probation, or on parole.
By the time they reach their midthirties, six out of ten black high school dropouts have spent time in prison.
About one-third of the homeless are black men.
This is madness! Back in 1950, there were twice as many white people in prison as black. Today, there are more black people than white in prison. We're not saying there is no discrimination or racial profiling today, but there is less than there was in 1950. These are not "political" criminals. These are people selling drugs, stealing, or shooting their buddies over trivia.
And when these kids get out, they are no longer kids. Many are hardened cons, and they are then recycled back into the community with the same antisocial, violent skills that got them sent away in the first place.
Keep Your Cool, but Not Too Cool
We'll be the first to remind you it's not easy being a black man in America; it never has been. If we seem hard on our brothers, it is only because we know how hard they will have to work to regain control of their destinies.
Over time, we admit, we have had to adapt in unique ways to survive, to maintain our sanity, and to excel in areas that were open to us. One important way that black men have tried to maintain their dignity and to keep control of their anger is by being "cool." Even successful black athletes have had to work at being cool in provocative situations as a way of saving their jobs—or even their lives.
For better or worse, we invented "cool." Being cool, incidentally, is a male thing. For black men, being cool has been a way of projecting strength and manhood in a society that stereotyped us as trouble. It has never really caught on with women, many of whom don't quite understand its roots or its value. Men tend to. That's why it has intrigued males all over the world.
Coolness is very attractive as a cultural force. Let's never forget that black men have made major contributions to American culture as a whole—in music, in fashion, in literature, in oratory, in science and medicine, in sports, in dance, and yes, even in comedy. In fact, no group of people has had the impact on the culture of the whole world that African Americans have had, and much of that impact has been for the good.
Still, for all its superficial appeal, coolness can shut down other emotional reactions and shield us from our true inner feelings. Being cool is protective, but that protection comes at a price. Playing it cool is not entirely harmless and can interfere with our emotional health.
To be cool is to be emotionally detached, at least on the surface. For some, showing emotions is uncool, unmanly. Expressing the kind of emotions that any good father should express—like warmth, love, caring, and grief—is almost impossible for someone who has spent his whole life stuck on being cool. Many who feel abandoned by a parent protect themselves from being hurt by putting on a cool detachment. Better to put on those bad shades and shut off the world.
But when that cool mask comes off, watch out! We have some powerful macho emotions beneath the surface, and when men and boys who have never really learned to deal with their emotions "lose their cool," there can be hell to pay.
Excerpted from Come On, People by Bill Cosby, Alvin F. Poussaint. Copyright © 2007 William H. Cosby Jr. and Alvin F. Poussaint, MD. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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