Black youth: repression and resistance

By LeiLani Dowell, Workers World, 23 February 2006

According to a report by the Census Bureau entitled “The Black Population in the United States: March 2002” Blacks make up 13 percent of the “civilian non-institutionalized population”—meaning people not in nursing homes or correctional institutions. That they use these figures is interesting to me, because we all know the deplorable numbers of Black men and women in prison today.

Of that 13 percent, 33 percent, according to the Bureau, were under 18. So, that's roughly a third of our population. I want us to remember when we talk about Black youth that we're talking about a third of the Black population.

Blacks accounted for about one quarter of the population in poverty in 2001, with the poverty rate for Black children at 30 percent, compared with 16 percent among all children and 10 percent for white children.

One in three Black men will serve time in prison. In 2000, nearly 30 percent of African Americans aged 18-24 had not completed high school. Black women account for 60 percent of women living with AIDS among women ages 13 to 24. Advocates for Youth says, “Urban minority female adolescents reported high levels of worry about AIDS, but they reported equal or greater concerns about having enough money to live on, general health, doing well in school, getting pregnant, and getting hurt in a street fight. For these women, HIV risk reduction could be secondary to basic needs, such as housing, food, transportation, and child care.”

And we can't have this conversation without mentioning the added hardship Black lesbian, gay, bi and trans (LGBT) youth face, as we mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Rashawn Brazell, a 19-year old bisexual man who was brutally murdered here in New York City. The Working Group on Police and State Violence at the Audre Lorde Project has noted a marked increase in hate crimes against LGBT people of color.

So, here we have it. These statistics translate into real-life hardship for Black youth. And meanwhile, Black youth remain one of the most demonized groups of people in the United States. The blame is always placed on the shoulders of those youth—and their parents—for the plethora of problems that they face, as opposed to governmental policies and institutionalized racism that began during slavery and continue to this day.

Demonization starts early

When Hurricane Katrina struck, and the world saw every level of government doing nothing to help the mostly Black people in the region, who did the media use as a diversion first? Black youth, specifically young Black men, who were derided for “looting.”

And the demonization starts as early as grammar school. In March of last year, two police officers entered an elementary school in St. Petersburg, Florida after school officials called them to deal with a 5-year-old Black girl who was being disruptive and punched a school official. Video footage shows her calm down before the officers approached, pinned her arms behind her back and put her in handcuffs. She was put in the back of a police car and had her feet restrained as well after, cops say, she tried to kick out the window. Police officials later said that the officers had committed an error of judgment but that they did not violate policy.

Two days after the incident in Florida, the assistant principal at P.S. 34 in Queens, N.Y., made her 13 Haitian students sit on the floor and eat their rice and beans with their hands. She screamed at them, in front of the rest of the students in the lunchroom, “In Haiti they treat you like animals and I will treat you the same way here.” Later the principal pulled the students out of class, tried to convince them it never happened, and offered some of them ice cream if they changed their stories.

Most recently, in January officials in the Brockton Public School District in Massachusetts suspended a six-year-old Haitian boy from an elementary school for the outrageous charge of “sexual harassment.” [See Feb. 28 issue of Workers World]

I know the last three examples are focused on children, and not technically youth. These are just the reported and most outrageous cases, who knows how much psychological trauma is inflicted on Black youth, considered a “lost cause” by many authorities in schools across the country. The psychological wounds from incidents like these will stick with a person throughout their youth, if not longer, especially when we consider the lack of health care, including counseling, for many Black children. This demonization continues throughout their lives, with “zero tolerance” policies, police brutality, attacks on affirmative action, discrimination, and so on.


In spite of all the very real hardships that Black youth face, and the demonization on top of that, Black youth are still resistant. Let's state for the record, that just surviving in a system that has placed all the odds against you is resisting. Often even the most well-meaning will overlook the resistance that Black youth undertake every day.

An article by researcher Cathy Cohen points out, “young African Americans … have been … active and instrumental in … movements and politics. Whether it is the Black Power movement, the anti-apartheid movement, or the organized mobilization against mass incarceration, African American youth have been and continue to be at the center of these efforts, providing leadership, analysis, and energy.”

She continues, “Many African American young people find themselves at the center of many national political struggles and are, therefore, politicized at a much earlier age than more privileged youth. Increased access to information through the internet, television, and popular culture, as well as the constant presence of the state… means that the age of political engagement… is spiraling downward…. Many African American youth engage with the state on a regular basis through state-run health care policies… through their own experiences or their children's experience in the public schools … and through encounters with the police. Thus, [we] are sorely mistaken if we proceed as if young people, who are often the targets of institutional and state campaigns, programs and policies, do not have strong opinions about and take action to better their position in society, their life chances, and the distribution of power in their communities and the country.”

And doesn't this make perfect sense? It's absurd to think that Black youth aren't politically active. Many don't have a choice. They are propelled into activism by the attack of the state on their lives. I'm remind ed of the Somerville 5 in Massa chu setts as a case in point—five young Black men who have had to become activists around their own lives after they were brutally assaulted by police officers in an unprovoked attack, and then expelled from school before their cases were even heard.

Music is also used by many Black youth as a form of resistance. It's a regular occurrence in my life that I'm approached by some young brother on the subway, selling their own political, conscious music, music they tell me they created to educate and inspire others to action.

But the activism among Black youth isn't isolated from a connection to the global struggle for justice. In the past two years, I've been on delegations to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade, and Vene zuela for the World Youth Festival. And each time I was pleasantly surprised by the number of Black youth that were on these delegations—not because I thought that youth of color wouldn't be in solidarity with Cuba and Venezuela, or revolutionary youth from around the world. I was surprised because we all know that it's not exactly cheap to travel to another part of the world. To do so takes real dedication, fundraising, taking time off jobs or school, etc. With Cuba there's the added pressure that one can face huge fines or even jail time upon returning to the United States.

In Venezuela one of the most moving things to me was the reception of the United States delegation by the other youth delegations. We were told time and time again, “We do not consider you to be your country. You are under the gun yourselves, and you are resisting, and you are our sisters and brothers.” And I just think about how energizing that was for me, and how energizing it must have been for some of these youth who have probably been demonized most of their lives.

So what's the state of Black youth? Well, it's not a pretty state—there's hardship, and brutality, and sorrow at every turn—from the most subtle to the most institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia, and violence. But there's a light at the end of the tunnel, and that's those youth themselves, making change and taking their lives back.