The Devaluation of Detroit's Youth

by Donna Givens

“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal.” So wrote the authors of the Kerner Commission Report, in July 1967, in response to civil rebellions in Detroit, Newark and New Brunswick, New Jersey.  In 2015, Detroit’s pundits and politicians now decry the evolution of two Detroit’s – one white and wealthy and one poor and black.   A “New Detroit” with hope and opportunity and an old Detroit of blight and despair.  They fear anger and resentment towards racialized opportunity, where a growing number of black Detroiters are being displaced by white and wealthy newcomers.  They fear a Ferguson uprising in Detroit will reverse the new international cache of our comeback city.

As it turns out, there were never really two American societies; neither Blacks nor whites exist as monoliths and America is peopled by myriad ethnic groups. The racial divide is not new or unintentional, but a congenital condition of a nation founded in the conflicting ethos of freedom and oppression.  There are and have always been more than two Detroits.  Today, there is a Detroit of family wealth and privilege – primarily but not exclusively Black; a Detroit of young white affluence; a Detroit of working men and women at blue, pink and white collar jobs; a Detroit of hustlers, gangsters, and convicts; a Detroit of the neglected poor; and a Detroit that is peopled by black and brown youths.

And these black and brown youths, particularly boys, personify the fear of every other Detroit community.  Polite society has banned the N-word and resurrected Thug, as a shorthand representation of all we despise and reject in our youth.  We don’t like their music, their sagging pants, their hats, their hair, their speech, and their behavior.  They are loud and profane.  They lack work ethic and manners and they are Godless, sexist, hypersexualized, and out of control.  Their problems are attributed to “no-home-training,” absent fathers, passive mothers, indifferent teachers, and a devaluation of life.  When they congregate in groups, we cross to the other side of the street, grab our purses, lock our car doors, hold our breath, avoid eye contact, and speak silent prayers.

When they encounter police, these perceived thugs face harsh questioning, strip searches, harassment, beatings and sometimes death.  While at school, they are suspended for talking too loudly, talking back, running, playing, wearing the wrong color pants, or shoes, wearing a jean jacket instead of a sweater, putting their heads down while teachers are lecturing, using their cell phones, and taking bathroom breaks without passes.  We pride ourselves on our zero tolerance.  We are disappointed in their academic effort, attendance and outcomes. Young people live in a Detroit where they are feared, avoided, regulated, and frequently oppressed by a proliferation of rules and codes that are unrelated to their growth and wellbeing. Despite the ubiquitous claim that we love young people, Detroit’s youth are treated like deficits, discussed in reference to real and perceived deficiencies without any understanding of their strengths. 

And there are so many strengths.  Most of Detroit’s youth do graduate from high school and a majority attend college upon graduation.  Their hopes and dreams are the hopes and dreams of every other young person in America.  They want good jobs, money, material goods, and children.  They want to love and be loved.  So many of our youth are creative, inventive, generous, caring, hopeful, loyal and resilient.  They are poets and lyricists, artists and photographers.  Today’s youth are more tolerant of gender and racial diversity than any other demographic.  They are idealistic and principled.  Our youth are thoughtful and aware of their constrained opportunities.  The vast majority of Detroit’s youth are not criminals – they are not armed, they don’t join gangs, they don’t steal, carjack or invade people’s homes.  In fact, they are more likely to be victimized than any other group. 

If we really are concerned about unequal opportunities in Detroit, perhaps we should change the conversation.  Instead of speaking for or about our youth, why don’t we let them speak for themselves and help us understand what they value, what they perceive, what they need and how we can help them?  Why don’t we invest more of our public and private dollars in authentic youth development spaces, where young people have a chance to harness their strengths, access opportunity, minimize their weaknesses, and escape the threats they face on a daily basis?  And why don’t we give our youth a consumer’s voice about the quality and nature of their education, their citizen interactions with police, and their experiences at stores, at work, and in their homes and communities? Why don’t we help our youth understand that their learning potential is not measured by standardized test scores and that continued academic effort will eventually pay off?   Why don’t we speak of our youth as a critical resource, incorporate their thoughts and perspectives in our planning and decision-making, and why don’t we do a better job of protecting both their bodies and their dreams?