On a recent episode of The View, Whoopi Goldberg asked 16-year-old Michael Singleton why he was throwing rocks and rioting in the streets of Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray before being famously slapped and pulled from the rioters by his mother, Toya Graham. Within hours of the incident, Toya became an instant celebrity, and both she and young Michael appeared on the popular talk show to discuss Toya’s tough love approach seen by millions. In a soft spoken, shy voice, Michael replied, “I went because in the past a lot of my friends have been beaten and killed. I went down there just to fight for what I stand for … my black people.” Singleton added that he was initially embarrassed by the public smack down at his mother’s hand, but eventually realized that she was looking out for him.
Anyone watching the broadcast could tell that Michael Singleton was basically a good kid. Unfortunately, like many young African-American men and boys living in our cities, he is confused, lost and uninformed. And his mother, despite the best of intentions, also doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. So everyone in that environment lashes out viscerally with little direction, focus or context. A recipe for disaster. Such is the state of our cities.
Hearing Michael Singleton speak reminded me of the young high schooler who pulled me aside while I was visiting his school in far northeast D.C. one day and asked me, “Mr. Chavous, can I ask you a question? Can you tell me exactly what Martin Luther King did?”
How can we change the destructive dynamic borne out of ignorance and oppression? What is the missing link? The answer, without question, is education and learning.
Like Michael Singleton, as a young 16- year-old growing up in Indianapolis during the 1970’s, I had a negative view of the police. At the time, the city also had a curfew, which was used by some police officers to hassle African-American teenage boys. I played basketball at a suburban school, but lived in the city. For a two-year period, I was stopped at least ten times – mostly by the same white officers – while driving from my high school to my home following our basketball games. At various times, the officers taunted me, called me the N-word, threatened to plant drugs in my car and pushed me around. But I was lucky. Never did I talk back, try to run away or respond in a sarcastic way. Every answer to their taunting questions was delivered in a calm voice and laced with a respectful ‘sir’ at the end of each sentence. My father had more than prepped me as to how to handle being stopped by the police. He even went through a little role-playing for me. My younger brother, Edwin, used to watch us with his eyes open really wide. Dad made sure I understood how to pull the car immediately to the shoulder as soon as I saw the police lights. As he instructed, I didn’t want to give any indication of possible flight. Once the car was stopped, I was told to stay in the car, with both hands holding the top of the steering wheel. Very important. Both hands had to visible at all times. Finally, I was told to never, ever show attitude or anger, no matter how much I was pushed. Beyond the instructions, my father took the time to educate me and my brother about the history of racism in America and the ignorance resulting there from. I was so well-armed with the history and knowledge of our people’s struggle that I came to view the officers hassling me with pity. My father helped me understand that their ignorance stunted their growth. With each police stop, I felt more empowered and in an odd way, intellectually superior to those officers. Knowing who I was and being educated about my history transcended the petty racism associated with those misdirected traffic stops. My identity was secure within me and it served as the ultimate weapon against ignorance.
Today, most of the television commentators and even activists offering opinions on the state of our cities are missing the real solution. In providing these kids immediate access to a high-quality education, we give them the tools to navigate around the ignorance of others because of the confidence and knowledge gained through education. Instead of talking incessantly about how and why are cities are exploding, let’s develop a sense of urgency around getting as many kids as possible in better schools – now. We can’t wait for the traditional school system to fix itself to save our kids. It needs to happen today. Once done, we will have provided the critical missing link to curing what ails our cities.