So I'd like to use this moment to dismiss this notion that the cultural issues are about sagging pants or what words one choses to use or music lyrics. I'll harken back to one of the most powerful articles ever written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. You'll want to read the whole thing because he leads into it with a very personal experience. But here's his basic point.
It defies logic to think that any group, in a generationaly entrenched position, would not develop codes and mores for how to survive in that position. African-Americans, themselves, from poor to bourgeois, are the harshest critics of the street mentality. Of course, most white people only pay attention when Bill Cosby or Barack Obama are making that criticism. The problem is that rarely do such critiques ask why anyone would embrace such values. Moreover, they tend to assume that there's something uniquely "black" about those values, and their embrace.Too many African American boys are learning a "street culture" that is necessary for their survival. But they're not being taught how to code-switch in a way that allows them to succeed beyond the streets. That's part of what President Obama was talking about when he said this:
If you are a young person living in an environment where violence is frequent and random, the willingness to meet any hint of violence with yet more violence is a shield. Some people take to this lesson easier than others. As a kid, I hated fighting--not simply the incurring of pain, but the actual dishing it out. (If you follow my style of argument, you can actually see that that's still true.) But once I learned the lesson, once I was acculturated to the notion that often the quickest way to forestall more fighting, is to fight, I was a believer. And maybe it's wrong to say this, but it made the rest of my time in Baltimore a lot easier, because the willingness to fight isn't just about yourself, it's a signal to your peer group.
To the young people in my neighborhood, friendship was defined by having each other's back. And in that way, the personal shields, the personal willingness to meet violence with violence, combined and became a collective, neighborhood shield--a neighborhood rep...
I think one can safely call that an element of a kind of street culture. It's also an element which--once one leaves the streets--is a great impediment. "I ain't no punk" may shield you from neighborhood violence. But it can not shield you from algebra, when your teacher tries to correct you. It can not shield you from losing hours, when your supervisor corrects your work...
I suspect that a large part of the problem, when we talk about culture, is an inability to code-switch, to understand that the language of Rohan is not the language of Mordor. I don't say this to minimize culture, to the contrary, I say it to point how difficult it is to get people to discard practices which were essential to them in one world, but hinder their advancement into another. And then there's the fear of that other world, that sense that if you discard those practices, you have discarded some of yourself, and done it in pursuit of a world, that you may not master.
The streets are like any other world--we all assume an armor, a garment to suit that world. And indeed, in every world, some people wear the armor better than others, and thus reap considerable social reward...Inducing them, and those in between, to change class, to trade their plate for robes, to trade the broad-sword for a spell-book, is the real work.
...we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys. And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?And so Mr. Lemon...simply telling those boys to pull up their pants, change their language, and go to school doesn't cut it. Until we learn how to protect them on the streets, it could get them killed. We have to enter their world, understand the risks they face, and teach them a new language...one that offers them something beyond street survival.