Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Personal is Political: In Thinking About Barack Obama's New Initiative for Young Men of Color, Do You Have Any 'Brother's Keepers' That You Would Like to Publicly Thank?

Obama's proposed "My Brother's Keeper" initiative has encouraged me to reflect upon those folks who offered me advice in these four decades of life.

I have been blessed with many brother's keeper's along the way. I should have listened to more of their wisdom and advice. If I had done so I would be much farther along my life path, with much more money in the bank, much less debt, and more personal satisfaction. 

Who doesn't have like regrets? 

But, I did take in quite a bit of their advice and wisdom. And years later, I have discovered, after the fact, that some of my best guardians and allies were working behind the scenes to either clear the path ahead for me or beat back the vipers that were waiting to strike.

I have no doubt that the policy level analysis of Obama's proposal will be sidetracked by an embrace of the powerful symbolic elements of the showmanship which accompanied the debut of "My Brother's Keeper"--"Look Obama is on stage with black young boys and men! How beautiful!"

Those are nice words for empty stomachs.

However, symbolic politics are no substitute for dealing with the specific structural dynamics of white supremacy and class inequality that are over-determining, in a profoundly negative way, the life chances of black and brown youth and adults. 

Moreover, the very title of the program lends itself to folksy truisms about "villages raising a child" and how "back in the day" things were really so simple and different. 

Two related questions for the weekend, questions that are also a chance to say "thank you" to those who watched over us, and if we are lucky, are still doing so.

Who were the "Brother's (and Sister's) Keepers" in your life? And do young black and Latino youth have such role-models in America's poor central cities and rural communities?

I ask those questions with the following qualifier: the demographic and sociological language of "black" and "Latino" and "young men of color" in "crisis" obscures the individual level experiences that do not fit an oversimplified framework where the words "young" and "black" and "brown" and "poor" are problems to be solved. 

I also wonder about what the empirics and the data tell us about "young black and brown 'urban' and 'poor' youth in crisis". When I think of Obama's proposal, I keep returning to questions of class, race, and social networks. I also cannot help but meditate on changing community norms and family structures which reflect broader macro-level changes in American political economy that are finally beginning to impact white communities in mass. 

I alluded to such concerns during my interview with the BBC's Newshour on Thursday evening. 

We need a comprehensive analysis of the particular and unique challenges faced by people of color in a society structured by white supremacy and where our young people are especially vulnerable to the politics of cruelty and the neoliberal order. However, this analysis cannot be divorced from a basic assumption that race and class are deeply connected to one another. 

Who would I like to thank for being my "Brother's Keeper"? My parents are a given. That is an easy choice. Thus, I will look elsewhere--and I will of course not be able to mention all the good folks who have aided and helped me.

These are just a few of my brother's keepers. 
  • I want to thank my neighbors who shamed me for being a kid who could have gotten in real trouble from setting fires, breaking windows with footballs and running away, and causing modest mayhem when in the company of my more rowdy friends. 
  • I want to thank my first boss, a tough war bride Korean-American woman, who accused me of stealing 20 dollars, and after I told her I would pay the money back, I did not steal it, and that I would quit because I was taught not to put money before my pride or self-respect. She later found the money on the floor behind the safe. My boss then proceeded to teach me a lesson with her apology and explanation that sometimes adults and bosses make mistakes. There is no shame in sincerely and humbly admitting when we are wrong. 
  • I want to thank my second "real boss", the first Asian-American to be a VP at his place of employment, a Fortune 100 corporation, who explained that "business isn't personal it is all business, and that yes, the 'good old boys' are often bigots. Learn their ways and how to turn their arrogance and ignorance against them if you can." 
  • I want to thank a later boss who basically called me a "nigger" to my face in such a manner as to attempt to physically provoke me--he failed. Such reminders are powerful moments of mentoring that occur despite the intention of the speaker. He was my "brother's keeper" despite himself.
  • I want to thank the manager at the bowling alley where I spent too many hours each day for helping me understand that "you don't have the job until you have the job". 
  • I want to thank my two "brothers's" father who was the first African-American VP at his bank in the early 1970s, and who made sure that he had a story about his career, the ups and downs, and life lessons about "how to play the game" ready for our long car rides and errands taken together.
  • I want to thank my adopted Irish-American grandfather for explaining, in no uncertain terms, that there are "white niggers" in the world. They will pretend to be my friend. They are not. Avoid them because they are usually white trash who heard some "race music" and think that they can put on an act. 
  • I want to thank my godparents for reinforcing at every opportunity how there is nothing worse than an Uncle Tom. 
  • I want to thank one of my other uncles who told me after I got lucky in a street fight with an armed assailant that you should never risk your life with a loser who has nothing to offer and no future. You can win and still die. 
  • I want to thank the parent of a fellow competitor who told me to be a good and graceful winner in my (then) chosen sport.
  • I want to thank one of my college professors, a man I thought was a racist at the time, who wisely told me that "being the first to talk, then gloating while I answer every question right, can and will have diminishing returns".
  • I want to thank the random senior consultant who works with various federal and private agencies that told me over a beer (or four) at the hotel bar how it is a small world. It is an especially small world for "folks who look like us". 


kokanee said...

Thank you for sharing your life wisdom with us. You really got some great advice along the way. My favorite was, "...I told her I would pay the money back, I did not steal it, and that I
would quit because I was taught not to put money before my pride or
self-respect." You showed wisdom beyond your years. As a matter of fact, I think I just learned this one now.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

this post sparked a lot of thought today. I don't really have the time to go into much detail, but I too have had a number of helpful people, many in spite of themselves.

I can't help but think that there is a serious lack of adult role models throughout my childhood. It's like they didn't really want to interact with youth in any way other than being absent or authoritarian.

For youth of color, I wonder if this is also true and if in institutional settings they usually do not have a role model that can help them because they will often be white and won't be able or willing to relate to the experiences of youth of color.

chauncey devega said...

My great advice was just sharing what my brother's keepers shared with me. My first boss was tough as nails and taught me alot. Your father sounds like a raw pragmatist. Interesting. Mom and Mark need to do an exorcism brother. Really. Did you read that Salon piece about Fox News and its impact on older listeners?

chauncey devega said...

I hear you. In schools today the great teachers are kicked out--I know a few that had this happen--and many others are just police officers and guards following through on standardized tests and other garbage. Do you really feel like there weren't folks out there who had your back, mentored you, offered advice?

kokanee said...

My father was a staunch conservative. My mother was a left-liberal. When he died, my mother compensated by becoming a Tea Bagger. We hardly converse anymore and when we do, we fight.
Yes, I did read the Salon piece. I linked to it above.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

My mom voted democrat all her life until Barack Obama ran for president. Now she's all communism this, socialism that, terrorist Muslim dictator, lazy scary black people, any opposition to her is unthinkable. We also don't speak much any more, but we didn't have the closest relationship since I moved away from her when I was a teen.

My dad was always conservative and an outspoken bigot. Now he's extra bigoted and addicted to Bill O'Reilly.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

well, I think there were some, but it just seems in my memory they were few and far between. I remember a neighbor who was really nice to me, not as nice to my parents. She was cool.

One man that worked for my step dad who was Tejano, he was a hot head and a hard ass, but he could also be pretty cool. We spent a few nights with him and his family and they lived out in the country with horses and chickens and farm work to do. We lived in the suburbs, so it was a nice change and they had a large family it was nice to see that kind of thing every now and then coming from a broken home.

We moved around a lot. I went to four different elementary schools, but only one middle school, by then I was a moderate troublemaker. My step dad abused my brother pretty hard, me a little less because I was terrified of him. My brother abused me because of his treatment and I was sort of a bully to my friends (not a real great way to keep friends). It took me a number of years to realize what I was doing and stop.

I was really thankful to finally move out of Texas and to West Virginia. My male role model was still a stupid racist (my dad) but we at least lived like a family instead of me being home by myself until 7 or 8 at night.

My wife has been my best keeper. She's seen me through my worst and I think I have also seen her through some rough years.

kokanee said...

We have a lot in common, Mysh. My sympathy for that. I also left home at 18 and was never close to my mother. I forgot to mention to CDV that as people get older they become more susceptible to persuasion. You see it with telemarketers all the time.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

that link, I lost my dad to Fox News is hilarious. glad to know I'm not alone.

chauncey devega said...

Older people are very often lonely. Thus, they like getting phone calls and the social interaction which facilitates the con game.