Racial injustice still impacting African-American psyche

05/18/12 Janelle Irwin
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A seminar aimed at preventing crime in and among the African-American community is in its final day in downtown Tampa today. The 27th annual conference on preventing crime in the black community addressed how slavery and other racial injustices are still impacting young African-American men now.

Wali Shabazz isn’t shy about calling out the mistakes made by his own cultural group - pants drooped around the knees, provocatively dressed women and the tendency to intentionally sound ignorant. He claims that all of those things, though some superficial, contribute to the lack of success many African-American individuals and families experience. But Shabazz said so do centuries of negative conceptions about people who just happen to be black.

“This kind of mentality has destroyed the excellence that African-Americans used to strive for in their historic development in this country. So, in the last 25 or 30 years, there’s been a shift – a cultural shift – in young people. As opposed to overcoming a bad circumstance, they want to be gangsters and deal with immediate gratification as opposed to working hard and getting an education, getting a skill, being dignified in how they present themselves and being delayed in their gratification.”

Shabazz led the 150 or so African-American adults in the room in an exercise with words. List. Ball. Head. And finally, men. They’re all seemingly innocent words. But, add the word black to them, Shabazz instructed. No one wants to be blacklisted or black-balled or have a blackhead. The color is associated with negativity he said, but that stereotype can be overcome.

“So, if other ethnic groups see me treating my own ethnic group with respect that would psychologically cause them to change their behavior towards me. But if I continue to be ignorant in reference to how I deal with my own people, then why should someone else treat me with respect?”

One of the things Shabazz addressed was the readiness and even playfulness in which adolescent African-American men throw around the n-word. Cathy Waters, a student intervention specialist at Middleton High School in Tampa, said she hears students call each other that all the time and it bothers her. She said their explanation is that it’s just a word, but they don’t know where it came from.

“In order to change that and turn that around, we’ve got to be pushing the truth to them on a daily basis so that can get into their psyche as well.”

The truth is that the dare-to-be-said n-word came from Niger. Many slaves were, as Shabazz put it, kidnapped from to be sold into slavery. He said the Europeans that took them couldn’t even say it right. Thus a g was added and the word was turned derogatory. But what Shabazz says they don’t realize is by using words that have those kinds of negative connotations, these young men are setting themselves up for failure. Plainly, it makes them sound ignorant.

“If I’m excellent in terms of how I behave and I’m intelligent in reference to how I deal with issues, that overcomes the ignorance of someone else’s prejudice. One. And two, sets me on the path of human dignity as opposed to being black, I’m really a dignified human being in this society.”

Shabazz’s words might have been shocking. He even apologized if he offended anyone. But Whitfield Jenkins, a retired mentor and a member of the NAACP in Ocala, said positive reinforcement – just having someone to pay attention – is something that’s needed everywhere, but particularly in the African-American community.

“If you know the history of African-Americans in this country, there’s even more of a compelling need for that concept because there are so many obstacles that our young people have had before them and continues to have before them that it’s very important that people step up when sometimes, for various reasons, their might not be parents there.”

David Williams is a success story of mentoring programs.

“I didn’t know how I was going to get a scholarship to go to college. I knew I wanted to go to college. My mom wanted me to go to college.

So, in high school he applied for a college prep mentoring program where he was accepted and assigned to work with Jenkins. It wasn’t just help with math after school or a pat on the back once a week. Williams got help filling out college applications, making the right choices to get into college and even finding financial aid. But most of all, Williams said it gave him someone to look up to.

“This program helped me – provided for me to go to college and pursue my goals of getting a college education and one day achieving all of my goals.”

Williams graduated from St. Leo University. He’s now a teacher and football coach in Marion County. He was the first in his family to finish college. To give back, Williams works with his own students to help them get into college in spite of whatever obstacles they think are standing in their way.

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