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December 27, 2004 - The LA Weekly (CA)

Young Black Males: Are They The 'Throwaway Generation?'

(Part 3 of a 5 part series)

By Warrior Richardson

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Cal Wiltz, chairperson of the Criminology and Sociology Department at Dillard University, said, "The idea of a throwaway - that young black men are part of a throwaway generation - doesn't sit well with me. I look at it as a category of young black men who are perhaps carrying the curse of their fathers who have become stigmatized more so than a group who can be thrown away.

"It's not a lost generation. It's a generation that's inundated with stigmas.

When you have a category of individuals who have been stigmatized, the society seems justified in degrading that category of people. The high rate of incarceration, the lack of equality of education and the extremely high homicide rate are examples of this degradation. The bottom line is that it is the society that is stigmatizing them.

"When we look at the homicides, the high dropout rates, inferior education and all the problems associated with education and lack of education - you can put it all society's doorstep.

You don't put that on those kids' doorstep. It's my responsibility to make sure that they get an education.

It's because I did not send them to a school that would educate them in a way that I think they should be educated and make sure that school does its job. You promote gun ownership and you put lethal weapons in the hands of these kids and ask, 'Why is this happening?' It's because you didn't stop it. Perhaps what you should be looking at is us adults.

"When you look at prisons, you see they are inundated with young black men. I took my students to the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It's like stepping back in time. One of the things that strikes you is long lines of black men with farming utensils on their shoulders in a straight line under the supervision of a guard on horseback with a rifle on his hip. Why are all these men here? How did they get there?

As a society, we made a decision in order to deal with this stigmatized category of individuals. We will lock them up and forget that they are there.

"These young men are wasting away. They're experiencing social death.

Every day they stay there they die. When we decide to release them they are socially dead. They can't make a contribution to society at the prime of their life. Since they are socially dead they can make no contribution to the development and survival of their family.

If these individuals respond to their social death the way we don't like, we send them back and kill them more - now, not just stigmatized but unequipped to deal with society; so, they become predators."

Wiltz continued, "As a sociologist, I lay this at society's feet. We have to, as a society, deal with the problems head-on if we are going to solve them. We can't solve the problem if we are going to put people behind bars. Consider this: The penal facilities are in many respects better than our educational facilities. As horrible as the Louisiana State Penitentiary is, most of the buildings are air-conditioned. Most schools are not. What does that say? What's going on here?

"The rationale is we have to do this because if we don't provide air-conditioning they will revolt.

We'll have a riot. It's necessary to control them. It's making it more or less comfortable to be behind bars. That's our mentality.

We want to deal with the population where it can't harm us. We don't have to look at it.

"If you go to The Louisiana State Penitentiary you'll see a highway - Louisiana Highway 66 - that leads nowhere else but to the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The symbolism is astronomical. One of the better maintained highways leads to a dumping ground, literally and figuratively. We can't allow that highway to have potholes.

This is an important highway.

We get rid of rejects and refuse there.

It's interesting how society deals with the stigmatized. The ramifications are devastating for the black community and black kids.

Wiltz said, "There is a conspicuous absence of men in some black communities. As a sociologist, I have to ask what impact is this having on these communities. For one, it facilitates criminal behavior, particularly drug dealing.

Since there are no men in the neighborhood, this is a good place to set up shop for a drug dealer. 'They pose no danger to me,' he thinks. There is no man to say 'move on,' no man to be a threat to me. This literally facilitates crime, and as a result you have a continuous deterioration of neighborhoods. The neighborhood goes to pot, in large part because there aren't enough people there to maintain traditional values and norms; so, it all falls apart, because there are no men.

"Furthermore, children are not being socialized fully. Our mothers and sisters and other women in the community are doing their share of working with the children. I don't believe a child is completely socialized if there is no father in the household.

Some would say there are role models around, but these individuals are carbon copies, reasonable facsimiles, not the original.

They're not as clear.

A facsimile can be read, but it is not as clear.

"A male child has to look to some older male or development of manhood is not clear.

Young men have to contend with the absence of a father in the household. How can they come to see themselves as men? What happens is they go through this exaggerated masculinity. They do things to convince themselves of their own manhood.

They're aggressive. They have five girlfriends instead of one. They have sex as much as possible, because this is what a man does - or so they think. There is no father to say, 'You should treat this girl with respect,' 'You should not act so violently,' 'This is what a man does' - The minute details of what it means to be a man. He is comfortable with those things he knows to be a man. He is overly chauvinistic. A father would say, "moderation." There are no parameters. He doesn't know what his limitations are. He could produce the same things that drove his father out of the home, such as crime.

Wiltz said, "The lack of the complete socialization process is putting black men behind bars. This is something that has ramifications throughout society. When you put a man behind bars, you are almost condemning his children as well. The son follows his footsteps. The problems are so severe that more and more of our women are being treated the same way. The fastest growing population in prisons is women.

They are building new cells, because more black women are being incarcerated. It's all about how this society responds to groups of individuals.

"I believe that if White America were to experience the same problems - homicide among youth, educational facilities that were deficient, most men were behind bars - something would be done to stop it. There would be a change in how that stigmatized population is defined. I don't have any empirical data, but what we would find would be a redefinition of what we would call criminal behavior, such as marijuana use. If White America saw its children being put behind bars for using marijuana, tomorrow it would be legalized.

White Americans would not allow its children to be put behind bars at the same rate as black folk. They would come to their rescue.

"How do you have a change in how a stigmatized generation sees the world and how it sees its role in the world and how it perceives success in this society of ours. What you find, in that stigmatized generation, is a tendency to begin to devalue those things that the older generation cherishes.

One time, in Black America, education was viewed as an avenue to success, a way to lift yourself out of poverty.

Our stigmatized generation no longer sees education as an avenue out of poverty. I say the problem is with us. The older generation, as a society, has allowed it.

Wiltz continues, "Educational facilities are institutional, especially elementary schools, are doing a horrendous job with young black boys. It has been my experience that young black boys are inquisitive, very bright and very intelligent. those traits manifest themselves well in kindergarten to third grade.

Then something happens.

The inquisitiveness and intelligence they manifested disappears. Earlier they were so bright and interested in learning.

Now, they fall by the wayside. For some reason or another, our educational institutions are not able to work with these bright kids. These bright black boys now are problems relegated to special education, expelled from school and disciplined.

"What happened to the bright boy? What happened to the very inquisitive boy I knew who is now relegated to special education?

What is happening is that our educational systems are failing to work with those kids. You're not bright one day and then dumb the next. Something or another is not being done to work with these kids. Some would point to teachers who are not willing to work with young boys. Others are saying their environment is taking over, works against them, so, they fall behind.

Wiltz has some definitive ideas.

"My contention it that it is because our educational institutions are not responding to the needs of these boys. Until it happens, they will express their frustration in some kind of violence.

They can do math related to sports, but cannot pass first-grade arithmetic. They don't see the relevance.

We have to do things that make sense to them, asking them to add apples and oranges may make no sense to them.

"After they are relegated to special education classes, this stigma stays with them forever.

Their diploma is different. They stay with that class.

You have parents who are willingly, without objections and in some instances requesting that their male child be put in special-education classes.

They tend to see this as a means of supplementing their meager income.

By getting their child certified as a special-education child they qualify for government assistance. They don't realize they are relegating their child into a stigmatized category that that child will carry for the rest of his life."

Wiltz believes that when a child, who as a first grader is in special education, when it's time to go to college or get a job, the categorization becomes an albatross because of a decision the parent made when the child was in first grade.

He believes that once the children are put in that category that they will never be able to get out of it.

Wiltz said, "I think its easy to do, because many of these kids have stigmas already.

Many teachers are not even willing to work with them. It's easy to ship them off. They are not yet ready to send them to prison, but can push them aside.

As first graders, they are going through the same process their older peers are going through. They have begun the process of socially dying. They are on that path that will make them less productive, less capable of making a substantial contribution to society.

"We, as the adult population, are focusing on our immediate responsibility. We must go beyond our immediate family.

Our quality of life is influenced substantially by other families.

If I don't take on the responsibility of looking at public schools, it still impacts me whether my children go there or not. We can't afford to say, 'Thank God that I don't live in that neighborhood because that neighborhood is infested with drugs.' All of us must take responsibility for what is happening to our neighborhoods - rich or not. It's all of our responsibility. We have to take responsibility.

"Given what's happening to young Black boys in this society and due to what's happening to our black boys and the impact that society is having on them, there are many well-intentioned adults who are interested in doing something, but feel impotent to take action.

In large part because they are viewed as individuals who are not as 'real.' 'Keeping it real' is a term used by some young people.

As an African American, if you have achieved a certain level of success, if you are middle class, then some kind of way you are not real. So there is little that you can do for our black boys. To talk about your experiences, to talk about how you have achieved a certain level of success is seen as not real.

"It is somehow believed that professional black men, in achieving their level of success, must have compromised their blackness, so they are not legitimate black men. This does create a problem.

It's evident when young black boys are more likely to emulate athletes and rappers than educators or individuals who are in the mainstream. Black men who have made it are not totally accepted.

Wiltz is truly concerned about the prison rate and how those numbers come about.

"What I find is because that stigmatized population has such a high rate of incarceration there is a normalization of incarceration. In certain circles, it has reached the point where the incarceration rate is so high (1 out of every 3 black men) that there is a tendency to see that experience as normal.

It is no longer seen as a stigma, but celebrated. An African-American man who can say I have dealt with the police and been in prison, and I've made it through and have come out on the other side is bigger, stronger and blacker. When compared to someone else who has not, these individuals are able to stick their chest out and say, 'These are my experiences. Now tell me what have you done.' They view themselves as masculine and an appropriate man for Black America, while those who are not are not as appropriate, not as strong, not as masculine.

"I look at the socialization of a child and how subtle the socialization process is. For example, little Johnny is at a celebration with all the cake and ice cream, food and soda that he could want. Why is there a party? Because Uncle Willie has been released from prison. What is Johnny thinking?

What is the celebration all about?

What is the message?

How is he being socialized by this event? 'You know, when I get big and I go to prison I know they are going to do the same thing for me.' Prison is not that bad, because they'll celebrate it. It's not stigmatized. Perhaps it's a rational kind of thinking to view it as normal. Most African Americans have uncles, brothers, fathers, sons, etc. who have been incarcerated. You can't look down on anyone.

It is now almost a normal process.

"Ask who has been arrested."

Almost all the young black men will raise their hands.

The normalcy means that we can't really look at it as a deterrent, because everybody has experienced it. It is an inevitable occurrence. You are going to be stopped by the police, and almost anything can happen that will result in your incarceration. You may have a ticket that's not paid. Your brake tags may not have been renewed.

So, its normal - no longer something to deter people or stigmatize them. Everyone experiences that process.

The message that most young men have is 'Its going happen. So, just get ready for it,'" Wiltz said.

Editor's Note: The following persons have made this series possible by providing their insights on this subject: Saddi Khali, age 31, writer, artist and educator; K. Gates, age 21, rapper; Charles Duplessis, pastor of Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church; Dwight Webster, pastor of Christian Unity Baptist Church; Willie Muhammad, age 29, educator and the New Orleans representative of the honorable Louis Farrakhan; Anthony and Renee Simon, ministers of the Gospel; Terry Clay, social worker and community organizer; Cal Wiltz, chairperson of Dillard University's Department of Criminology and Sociology; Wardell Picquet, age 35, artist and educator; Harold Muhammad, educator; Toniell Henry, single mother; Blake Henry, 12, a 7th grader at Lusher.

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