Black Youth Filling the Leadership Void

Updated Dec 9, 2015
Dr. William Small, Jr.Dr. William Small, Jr.

Over the past several decades in America, Black youth have endured a complicated assault of abuse, criticism and relative political abandonment by Black political, spiritual and even educational leadership. The exploitation and overmagnification of the “hip hop movement,” gang activity and the failures of American public education have all contributed to the development of an image of Black young people that is incomplete, inaccurate and undeserving.

Sadly, too many Black adults have bought into this image, and in doing so we have excused ourselves for failing to exercise the kind of adult leadership that all of our young people deserve.

While the interests of Black America were being marginalized and generally minimalized, the image of our youth from the 1960s and 1970s was also being deliberately transformed from an image of political activism and consciousness to a predominant image of “gangsta culture” and “thuggery.” This transformation coincided conveniently with the “War on Drugs,” the abandonment of the “War on Poverty” and the acceleration of a series of “blame the victim” policy initiatives. All of which costs Black families indeterminable amounts of wealth as Black neighborhoods were successfully programmed for destruction.

If one recalls the scope, magnitude and intent of the Counter Intelligence Program, little difficulty is encountered in understanding how federal, state and local governments had the wherewithal to destroy the Black Panther Party and other transformative youth organizations and Black movements and in the next breath demonstrate their complete impotence in being able to control the flow and distribution of drugs into Black communities. Not only were our young people as representatives of our “warrior class” being systematically destroyed, jour communities were being destroyed as a base of wealth and political power.

An equally tragic and unspoken aspect of this phenomenon was the evolution of the schism in thought and space that evolved between Black youth and Black adults.  Seemingly, so many Black folks, who saw themselves in a “newly arrived status” or for other unarticulated reasons, began to see the continuing efforts for the solidification of recent social, economic and political gains being waged by Black youth as embarrassing. In too many cases, we became the critics of our young people and in doing so we became the unconscious surrogates for the forces resisting Black progress and Black Power. In too many instances, we functioned in this capacity more effectively than White America could have dreamed of performing. Today, we continue to wrestle unsuccessfully with the consequences of this flawed and too often selfish short-sighted strategy.

There are many legitimate indictments, for past, present and continuing conduct, that Black America can bring and lay at the feet of American society and Western political and religious institutions that account for the negative conditions existing in Black communities in America and throughout the Diaspora. However, we can no longer overlook our contributions to and support for the institutional policies and practices that create and sustain models and programs that frame and reinforce the oppression of Black opportunity structures and the suppression of Black lives.

A general assessment of some of the conditions restricting the opportunity for Black youth helps to clarify and sustain the argument.

  1. Increasing numbers of Black people, without question or public criticism, work in, with and actively support a “public school to prison” pipeline for our children who attend urban and rural public schools.
  2. Too many Black people and leaders are entirely too accepting of  the disproportionate percentage of Black men, Black women, and Black children who are impacted by the existing prison industrial complex that also de-emphasizes rehabilitation and seeming plans successfully for recidivism and re-incarceration.
  3. Too many Black people and Black leaders give insufficient attention to the development of strategies to support the institutions that were and continue to serve as major points of entry into expanded opportunity and social mobility in racist American society. Institutions such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities and churches that espouse a contemporary social gospel ethic are severely under supported.
  4. Neither the masses of Black people in this country nor any of our major institutions or organizations have a significant philosophical connection to or publicly expressed transformative interest in Africa or Black people anywhere in the Diaspora. Most Black people express a greater interest in the welfare of modern Israel than we do in the welfare of the African continent.
  5. Sadly, it appears to me that none of our major Black leaders or major Black organizations can seem to marshal an initiative or transformative agenda for the empowerment of Black people that does not require the blessings, resources and political approval of people outside our community.

This list can be easily expanded when one stops to examine the question of whether the predominant thrust of Black political activity has devolved from a quest for empowerment into a simple obsession with participation. Here I am reminded of a question that I would from time to time pose to students in my African Politics classes: Are we as African Americans upset with the American political system because the system is rotten or are we upset because we are restricted from participating fully in the system’s rottenness? How one answers the question will profoundly influence the perception regarding the scope of needed change and the desire for social justice.

Today when we examine the array of organizations and new voices that are framing the demand for social and political justice, once again we see young Black people in the forefront of the effort.  Whether we are talking about street youth in Baltimore or Ferguson, or football players and other student leaders in Missouri, or students at Yale or in Ithaca, New York, or California, we find young Black voices at the helm demanding fair play and a level playing field.

Let us remember that even in the “heydays” of the Civil Rights era, it was a cadre of young Black leaders who brought their voice to the conversation in a way that expanded the agenda for Dr. King and the SCLC, and the Urban League, and the NAACP, and Black Church leaders.

As this youth-lead movement develops and we are reminded by our children that Black lives and Black institutions do matter, we must be aware of and sensitive to the fact that at least so far the student voices are not the voices of Black students in our HBCU community. Admittedly, intra-institutional racism is not the same as experiencing the impact of racist policies and practices that are imposed from outside an institution and administered from within. Nevertheless, the distinction between the two circumstances is a “distinction without a difference.”

So why in this season are the HBCU students among the last to react? The political assault that is being waged on HBCUs is not new and it is well documented. How do we account for the absence of that HBCU voice without simply blaming our students?  That is a question for future consideration.

Putting the HBCU voice aside, where do we find the voices of our veteran defenders in this conversation? The NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Urban League, the Howard University Law School, NAFEO, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund? Does the cat have everyone’s tongue?

What about our public elected leadership? Where is the Congressional Black Caucus on these issues and how are organizations of Black state and local elected officials linking up with the demand from our youth for an improved opportunity structure and the construction of a level playing field and a secure learning environment? After all, it will soon be 2016. Who can fairly criticize Black youth?

I speak with entirely too many young Black people who feel a sense of abandonment by adult leadership. They perceive the gates closing on their road to big dreams and real opportunity. They are demanding the right to define their own interest; unlike previous generations, they are unwilling to defer their individual success in exchange for the success of a few more brothers and sisters who are handpicked with the hope of imbuing those who are following with unending patience.

Black youth today are re-writing their individual 21st century version of “Why We Can’t Wait.” The biggest plus perhaps is that among young Black people so much of the aggression and drive that was permitted and encouraged to be misdirected for generations is beginning to be re-focused into this renewed quest for social justice and opportunity.

If America can ask its citizens, particularly its young, to join the effort to spend trillions of dollars to save, defend and destroy Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and spend millions on the development of military structure across the continent of Africa, then no one should be surprised that its youth are awakening. If America can find the unlimited resources to help the poor souls who are the displaced and the dispossessed and the new sources of cheap labor who will feed the economic engines of international capital; American youth and particularly Black youth should have something to say about the opportunity structure existing at home. Remember the Black mantra from World War II “Victory at Home and Victory Abroad”?

I say to our Black youth, continue to lead and be of great courage as you struggle to frame the conditions that frame your destiny and create the blue print for future generations. Thank you for your service.

Dr. William Small, Jr. is a retired educator and a former Trustee and Chairman of the recently fired Board of Trustees at South Carolina State University.