By Patricia Wilson-Smith
I’ve been trying to figure out for days why I am so perturbed by the proliferation of videos across Facebook and the rest of the web showing ordinary and not-so ordinary Black Americans dumping buckets of ice water over their heads as part of an ingenious campaign to bring about awareness of ALS, also commonly known as ‘Lou Gehrig’s Disease’. And good for The ALS Association – they’ve raised millions of dollars as a result that will no doubt be put to great use.
As diseases go, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is pretty insidious. It affects your ability to walk, talk, and slowly stops you from breathing on your own. There is no known cure for the disease, or even a reliable method of diagnosis – most people are diagnosed through the process of elimination for other causes of the symptoms they display. It’s a horrible disease, there’s no doubt about it. But it’s been a horrible disease that we’ve known about for 75 years. So one cannot help but credit the current wave of giving, and public displays of awareness in the form of ice-water dumps to the phenomenon that is social media. And more specifically, our need to feel noticed, to be in the know, to be part of a cool fad, and to feel, well – special.
That African Americans use the Internet and social media more than any other ethnic group explains why this particular fad, great cause though it is, has marched its way through our online culture with a vengeance. But on the two-week milestone of the killing of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, a 6-year member of the Ferguson Missouri police department, an event that has sparked one of the most important and enduring discussions we’ve ever had in this country on the value of the black male life, I can’t help but wonder - how much could we change about the experience of young black men in this country if we put as much effort behind challenging each other to get involved with one, as we have recording videos of ourselves dumping water on each other for a cause that’s been around for decades?
Stay with me – because the ‘blacks-and-social-media’ thing bears some additional scrutiny. The facts are startling – 40% of African American internet users aged 18-29 use Twitter compared to 28% of Caucasians of the same age, despite the fact that we still trail whites in access to technology and broadband internet overall. We spend endless hours perusing the Internet looking for funny videos, posting clip art that guilt our friends into typing ‘amen’ into a comment box (another thing I REFUSE to indulge), posting flattering pictures of ourselves (I’m guilty of this one), spreading the latest gossip from the ‘Housewives of Atlanta’, and scrambling to jump on the latest viral bandwagon, but almost none organizing around causes that could help our community, and that desperately need our attention.
At least it’s all equal-opportunity. I’ve seen videos of super-celebrities like Will Smith, assisted by his daughter Willow, braving a large pail of icy water and challenging power couple Jay-Z and Beyonce to do the same. and I’ve seen at least one video of an unnamed black mother from an unnamed inner city neighborhood, having a cooler-full of water dumped on her by her children. And it’s everyone in between – my friends, colleagues, co-workers, family – mindlessly dumping water on themselves, presumably unaware that they’ve just been pulled into what is perhaps the greatest viral social media fundraising campaign of all time. And through it all, I’ve personally not seen a single substantive call-to-action from any of my Facebook friends regarding the events of the past two weeks in Ferguson Missouri. Not one. I know that it should be a comfort that at least this ice water fiasco is for a good cause, but comforting ourselves in this way ignores one important fact – Black America has a myriad of GREAT causes that we simply don’t invest our time or energies into, online or otherwise.
Case in point: President Obama announced the ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ initiative six months ago, and in Obama campaign fashion, launched with it a website that allows and encourages ordinary Americans to sign up to mentor young men of color. And by ‘young men of color’ I of course mean that the videos about My Brother’s Keeper that can be found around the web are careful always to include at least one Hispanic boy, but let’s face it - when we talk about the work that needs to be done to turn around the lives of young men of color in this country, we know who we’re talking about – we’re talking about young black men.
Don’t misunderstand. We shouldn’t minimize the struggles of Latinos in this country, but it should give all African Americans pause to realize that in almost every statistic that matters, we are now being out-paced by them. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Latinos graduate from high school on time at a higher rate than blacks, 63.5% versus 61.5% nationally. In the state of Missouri, the state where I was born and raised and the state where both Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell were gunned down this month, the disparity is even worse – 83% of Hispanics are graduating on time, versus 63% of blacks. And it should shock our collective systems much worse than a cold cooler full of ice water that the homicide rate among black youths is nearly 400% higher than the overall youth homicide rate, while the homicide rate among Hispanic youths is similar to the overall rate. Add that to the fact that the homicide rate among white youths is 72% lower than the overall youth homicide rate, and it’s easy to see that homicides of all kinds disproportionately affects black youths. So yes – I’m certain that young Hispanics in this country have their own challenges, but it is young black men who invariably find themselves in poor neighborhoods, unemployed, frustrated, and facing down the barrel of a gun, be it wielded by an over-zealous cop, a retarded neighborhood watchman wanna-be, or another black male.
Bringing the socio-economic challenges of Blacks into a discussion of the recent killings in Missouri, though uncomfortable, is unavoidable; the reaction of the protestors, looters, and rioters who blanketed the small city of Ferguson after Michael Brown’s murder shines a bright light on the continuing plight of African Americans in some pockets of the country, generations of the descendants of slaves who find themselves caught in the trick-bag trifecta of poor schools, neighborhoods that are in rapid decay, and non-existent career opportunities. It is not to say that I don’t flinch at the site of hordes of young black men and women rushing into a building to take armfuls of what doesn’t belong to them, I do. But rather than curse their ignorance or bad judgement, it seems to me that what we have is a great opportunity to truly understand the plight of those who are systematically locked out of opportunities in this country and how it got this way. It’s an opportunity to ask ourselves why, and begin moving in the direction of doing something about it. What should really make us uncomfortable? African Americans over the past few weeks, clicking our tongues at the desperation and destruction that has ensued in Ferguson, liberally slinging about the ‘N’ word in reference to the young people acting out there. Then heading back over to Facebook to post a video of the ALS ice bucket challenge. Or yet another wise-cracking meme of Kermit the Frog sipping tea.
It’s no longer enough for us to voice our frustrations among ourselves, hiding behind our keyboards and computer screens, resigned to the idea that someone else will find a way to solve the problems in the Black community. Our boys are in deep trouble, they are hunting each other and being hunted, and we have to do what we can to keep the discussion of their value in the collective consciousness of the country, we have to. Ferguson has shown us is that there is a very real problem with the value white America assigns to a black life; South Chicago has shown us that there is an even bigger problem with the value our young black men place on their own lives. Ferguson has shown us that good people, when wronged, will act on their simmering frustrations over the many inequities that plague them; South Chicago has shown us that allowing those inequities to go unchecked for too long can have deadly consequences. I’m embarrassed to say that I had no idea that there was a website that is seeking to organize volunteers for the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, but now that I know, I’m committed to spreading the word using social media. Because that’s where those of us who could potentially make a profound difference in the lives of young black boys can be found, currently busy making videos dumping water over our heads.
Some of the root causes of the current state of young black men have been thoroughly documented. In his recent article entitled “The Case for Reparations”, Ta’Nehisi Coates paints a vivid picture of how many African Americans in this country have been summarily cheated out of opportunity and prosperity in the worst way. It’s a long read, but I highly recommend finding the time to get through it. His article in part, describes how over the years local municipalities in the Midwest created an impossibly constrained economic environment for blacks to try and buy homes, build families or save money in. Indeed, the practices he describes of ‘red-lining’, or purposely keeping blacks out of decent housing, and saddling them with the equivalent of sub-prime, inflated mortgages more than explains why in areas of the country like Ferguson Missouri, generations of African Americans live in poverty, with no hope of taking part in what’s left of the American Dream. It illustrates clearly why African Americans continue to struggle to get a financial foot-hold, or to amass any wealth whatsoever to pass on to their children. And it most certainly explains why after generations of trying to make their way under such circumstances, an event like the murder of Michael Brown in their town would make the people of Ferguson go a little crazy, even in a way that it is ultimately detrimental to them.
To the droves of Black celebrities and ordinary folks who have stepped up to the ALS ice bucket challenge I say – we’re literally in danger of losing multiple generations of black men to crime, poverty, lack of opportunity, and yes, a justice system that is unfair to them, and a a whole list of other societal ills with its roots in the ravages of slavery, Jim Crow, and the prison industrial complex. It would be a sad shame and a pity if we have to lose another young black life because we just can’t seem to get our collective eyes on the ball and keep it there. Despite the condition of so many in our community, as African Americans we do have more political and financial might than at anytime in history, so it’s incumbent upon us to focus like a laser on the issues that plague us. And we have to do it soon – if the events of the last few years have taught us nothing, it should have taught us that without action on someone’s part, our black boys are in danger of continuing to fall between the cracks at best, and becoming nearly extinct at worst.
So here’s a challenge for you – if you’re African American and you’ve dumped water on your head this week in support of ALS, good for you. Now go and use your considerable online might to get behind another cause, a cause that affects more people in this country than ALS ever will. Sign up to mentor a young man of color, and hell, video tape it and post on Facebook if it makes you feel better. But it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever that we continue to voice our outrage over the condition and treatment of black men in this country while not doing a single thing to turn it around, even as we flock to dump water on ourselves and give to a cause just because it’s the “in” thing to do.
For more information on “My Brother’s Keeper” and how you can get involved, go to http://www.whitehouse.gov/my-brothers-keeper. Then sign up. That’s what I’m going to do.