Bringing Conversations on Race into the Open

In inaugural Black Male Experience panel at GW, black activists and intellectuals take on difficult issues.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., addresses opening remarks to panelists and audience members at the "Black Male Experience" forum, hosted by the George Washington Law School.
September 24, 2012

By Ruth Steinhardt

A political party system that takes black voters for granted without consistently addressing their concerns. Educational disparities between black and white children. Racially motivated hatred against America’s first black president. The disproportionate number of black and Latino men in prison, and the systems that keep them there.

The inaugural “Black Male Experience” panel—held in the George Washington University Law School’s Jacob Burns Moot Court Room, and organized by Ifeoma Ike, LLM ’10, with business partner Michael Hardaway—took on these and more tough questions.

Two members of congress were present: Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., who took the opportunity to announce that they were forming a new congressional caucus on the issues facing black men and boys. The importance of such a caucus—and of the panel itself—was, Rep. Norton said, “to bring these [conversations] out into the open instead of sequestering them.”

“We have tended to focus on the symptoms of,” instead of the solutions to, black male disenfranchisement, she said.

“GW Law School is always proud to open our doors to unique opportunities to have conversations about critical issues facing our nation, and today’s event is no exception,” said Associate Dean for Trial Advocacy Alfreda C. Robinson, introducing a distinguished panel that included author and MSNBC contributor Michael Eric Dyson and Dean Everett Bellamy of the Georgetown University Law Center.

The conversation drew on each panelist’s experience as a black man in American society, focusing on the roots rather than just the indicators of the problems black men confront.

Glenn Martin, vice president of development and public affairs at Fortune Society—a nonprofit advocacy organization whose mission is to help ex-inmates re-enter society and to promote alternatives to incarceration—pointed out that, in American society, men of color are often incarcerated as a consequence less of their crimes than of “our failed educational policies, our failed criminal justice policies, [and] our failed economic policies.”

“We’ve set up a system that it is inherently hypocritical,” he continued, pointing to the increasing privatization of the prison system as a financial incentive for perpetuating the cycle of incarceration and recidivism.

Black men have also been told, for years, that their aspirations should be limited. Dean Bellamy, who served as an assistant dean at Georgetown Law for 30 years, recalled his experience in a then-recently integrated high school. A high-achieving student, he asked for a meeting with a guidance counselor.

She met him in the hallway, he remembered, neither permitting him into her office nor even glancing at his file. When he asked about attending college, he recalled, “She said ‘Why do you want to go to college? When you leave here, you better get a job.’ Then she turned around left me in the hallway.”

“And the system still says that to young black men,” added fellow panelist James Braxton Peterson, a professor at Lehigh University and MSNBC contributor.

And legislation has not found a cure. “The real issues are often not even on the table” when it comes to political decision-making, said Maryland state Sen. Rev. C. Anthony Muse of his experience as a black lawmaker. “We have a dying generation, and the issues we are divided over are not relevant to how we are going to save them.”

The solutions offered had a common thread: mentorship and example-setting. Mr. Hardaway and Ms. Ike organized the panel in part to launch their initiative to sign up 500 mentors for the US Dream Academy, a nonprofit organization that connects mentors with the children of incarcerated parents. Three young “dreamers,” mentees from the organization, were in the event’s audience.

Panelist Rev. Russell St. Bernard, a youth pastor at Reid Temple AME, remembered that when he was in high school in Brooklyn, “I thought, I can either play ball, sell drugs or be a fireman.” His school’s effort to bring in professional black men and women to address the students, he said, was critical in showing him that he had more options. “You bring in the guy who owns a recording studio, the physician, the professional, and you see that you can do more.”

Dr. Peterson pointed out that one thing needed in black communities is a higher proportion of black teachers. A possible solution, he said, would be “something like a black Teach for America,” a high-profile organization with federal support that would recruit elite black students to teach for a few years before continuing their professional development. Such an initiative, Dr. Peterson suggested, would help “restore the value of education as a profession” in the black community.

Although the work of restoring opportunities to black youth is far from over, panelists agreed, the election of President Barack Obama has an intense symbolic power that goes far beyond his impact as a lawmaker.

The benefit of that symbolic power is substantive, not theoretical, said Dr. Dyson. “One presidency cannot solve the problem of black suffering,” he said. But “when black kids see a black president on television every day, they think, ‘I can do anything.’” To laughter, he added, “‘I can be an astronaut with a tattoo!’”

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