We, the members of 100 Black Men of Austin, write this epistle with a sense of disbelief. As citizens of arguably the most technologically advanced nation on earth, we are chagrined to witness yet another killing of an unarmed young Black male by a police officer. According to USA Today, nearly two times a week in the United States, a White police officer killed a Black person from 2005 to 2012. Nearly nine percent of Whites killed during this period were under the age of 21, compared to 18% of Blacks. Mike Brown’s tragic fate has a depressing sense of familiarity to it. The unimaginable pain of a family and community’s loss, the requisite press reaction, and the fading of a young man’s memory have become tragically routine. There is an endemic threat to Black males in America when it comes to interactions with law enforcement.
Both President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have focused attention on policing policies that disproportionately target Black Americans. Too often, partisan bickering deflects attention from the key issues that these national leaders have presented: what Joshua DuBois terms “a foolish, lethal fear of Black teens.” Sons, brothers, and fathers are sacrificed over mistaken identities and assumptions – a loss, and the threat thereof that simply does not affect the dominant culture in American society.
After the impotent rage and fury subsides the question then becomes, “what can we do?” One essential step is to embrace community policing. Community policing engages citizens through dialogue, civility, and respect; not simply when tensions are at a breaking point. Proactive efforts to understand community dynamics, relationships, and mores provide a context for law enforcement to effectively engage people in crisis. The protectors of the community should be those who have respect for, and an assets-based mindset regarding the community. Therefore, members of the community, as well as those with deep experience interacting with residents, are prime candidates to serve in these positions.
School disciplinary policies that disproportionately sanction and punish Black students help to embed myths about the criminal nature of Black youth. Fortunately, so-called “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies are coming under increased scrutiny. For the 2014-2015 school year, the Los Angles Unified School District is ending policies that cite or arrest students for nonviolent offenses – we are hopeful that other districts follow this example. Community organizations, such as the African American Youth Harvest Foundation (AAYHF) in Austin, Texas, are working with the local school district to intervene with youth who are assigned disciplinary referrals. The 100 Black Men of Austin is proud to partner with AAYHF and add to their powerful mentoring activities that help youth to see that they are cared for and supported by adults in the community.
A further important step is to provide leadership to young men of color to ensure that they are equipped with problem solving skills and an appreciation for collaboratively working towards peaceful conflict resolution. This is where the 100 Black Men of Austin play a pivotal role. Already, in its emerging stage, the Austin chapter of the national organization, which is focused on providing mentoring via successful community members and role models, has established partnerships with the African American Youth Harvest Foundation, Communities in Schools’ X-Y Zone and the Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy. With a focus on academic achievement, planning for the future, and respect for self and the community, 100 Black Men of Austin sees itself as an essential conduit in ushering young men of color into adulthood, and providing leadership opportunities so these young men, too often cast as “problems,” start seeing themselves as “prizewinners.”
We, the members of 100 Black Men of Austin, perceive our youth as our most valuable resource and treasure. Our commitment to serve these promising young people and help them reach their unlimited potential is steadfast. However, we will need all members of the community to share in the responsibility of supporting all our youth. The tragic events in Ferguson are not simply the concerns of Mike Brown’s family, or even the Black community. It is a concern that affects all people who believe in human rights. We recall the words of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who reflected that “modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit.” Noting our technological advances, he further stated, “We’ve learned to fly the air like birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters.” The 100 Black Men of Austin are poised to embark on this critical work – we hope our neighbors join us however they can to bring positive perspectives to the lives of our young men and women, many of whom live in fear of violence from authority simply because they are Black.
–Dr. Richard J. Reddick, Associate Professor, College of Education
–Dr. Gregory J. Vincent, Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement and President of 100 Black Men of Austin
Note: A version of this opinion piece was published in the Austin American Statesman on Aug. 25, 2014, and will appear in the Villager on August 29, 2014.