The defendants who stand accused of the murder of Chicago schoolboy Derrion Albert will appear in court today. Many questions remain, but perhaps the most salient one is why so many young black males are, like the accused, choosing a life of violence and self-destruction.
Everywhere we look, we see young people striving to maintain what is known as “street cred.” Unfortunately, their mentors have ingrained this term and its associated way of life into their psyches effectively blocking alternative options when conflict arises.
We know that these young men need something else. They need leaders and mentors who will give them new options for gaining respect and creating new futures. Those leaders will need positive “capital cohesion”, a term describing notions that create bonding within diverse groups. Capital cohesion unifies people and moves them toward goals but the emphasis must be on fruitful, constructive and positive capital cohesion and goals that will replace the existing, destructive ones.
Street cred is a unifying concept among black people. It has positive connotations when defined from the perspective of being from the streets, caring about the urban poor and attempting to bring about positive change. However, there are malignant forms of street cred that need to be revisited.
Wherever there is chronic aimlessness, people attempt to find meaning and leaders. The young men who took Derrion Albert’s life had some form of street cred that they learned from someone, as well as a perverted understanding of respect. Their version included using force to win respect. The video of Derrion’s death confirmed that those who were responsible for his demise were skilled practitioners in the art of violence.
Yale Professor Elijah Anderson penned these memorable words in his cerebral work, entitled The Code of the Street: Decency, Violence and the Moral Life of the Inner City: “In street culture, especially among young people, street cred is viewed almost as an external entity that is hard won, but easily lost, and so must be constantly guarded; it is high maintenance and is never secured once and for all, but depends on a series of performances that effectively answer challenges and transgressions by others.” Street cred is further amplified by the influx of prison culture into urban areas when convicts are released. We have to tackle this head on. The question is how.
We need a revolution in the inner city. In his song ‘Makes Me Wanna Holla’, Marvin Gaye sang eloquently about the structural inequalities in America that often fall along racial lines. They still exist. Nevertheless, the grip of poverty is not an excuse to unleash murderous rage upon your brother. It’s not a reason for young people to adopt the violent nature of convicted felons.
We need better ideas and better mentors. The power of ideas is best expressed through caring mentors who bridge the gap where fathers are rarely present. Countless successful black men credit a coach, teacher, neighbor, pastor, imam or other figure as the person who turned their lives around. We have to do as much as we can, while we can, to turn around as many lives as possible.
We, particularly caring black males, are a big part of the solution. We are able to invest in young people and reshape their thinking while creating new paradigms and visions for the future along the way. It’s time to change our dialogue to one that is reminiscent of the powerful ethos created during the civil rights movement, a movement that focused on overcoming, and respect and parity for all.
What need to be overcome now are the worst aspects of a code that strives for respect and parity and will attack anything perceived to be in the way of attaining those goals. One of the core principles of our organization, L.E.A.D.E.R.S.H.I.P. 1st, is respect. We believe that there are ways to earn it within our culture and outside of it.
A code that defines respect as an externalized thing based on material possessions, gang colors, body language or mannerisms is problematic. There are other, better ways.