This post also appears on my professional website.
The little family had four children. Four children with four different fathers, and the mother was barely older than me.
They lived in the projects – what’s commonly known as the worst part of the city. They survived on food stamps and free rent. The children who were old enough to go to school came home to only their unemployed mother; the lucky ones were still in contact with their fathers.
Like almost every single one of its neighbors, the family was black.
The oldest daughter (let’s call her Kayla) would hide from me for the first couple of seconds every time I saw her. But once she got over her initial shyness, she would cling to me.
When she met any males who volunteered in the neighborhood, they became her “boyfriend,” regardless of age. And when she heard rap music blasting from a passing vehicle, the girl would wiggle her behind at the man behind the wheel.
She was about seven years old, and this was the male influence in her life.
Kayla was the oldest child. Next was a boy (let’s call him D.J.), then a girl and then, finally, a newborn boy. Their mother – tall, thin and beautiful – corralled them together with her booming voice and commanding presence.
My family loved this family. My mom would take the time to talk to the mother, to help her navigate the challenges of parenthood – especially in a community like theirs. My father loved Kayla and tried to show her what a father figure could look like, and my sister and I loved all of the kids, although we knew the oldest two best.
Contrary to what the neighborhood kids said, five-year-old D.J. wasn’t bad. He might have been ornery and loud, but at the end of the day, he was way too old to hold my hand or want a piggyback ride, but he did anyways.
The mother comes from the same kind of community. When I picture her at seven years old, I picture Kayla. And I call Kayla a product of her environment.
But I do know the point at which the mother’s life fell apart.
I was in my second year of college. The mother had taken the newborn to the hospital; he had been sick. He was released the same day, so she took him home and put him to bed.
When she woke up the next morning, the baby was dead.
I came home in time for the viewing. It was at night in a funeral home about a half hour away from my house, across the line that divides the haves and the have nots. My parents, my sister and I donned our black clothing and then got in the car.
We arrived at the funeral home with an hour left of the viewing, but no one was there. A guest book had a list of names written inside of it, but in a little room off to the side lay the little baby boy in an open casket, all by himself. He wore the smallest tuxedo I have ever seen.
The mother fell apart after that. It was unclear how to navigate counseling services through Medicaid, so as far as I know, she was never treated for her deep depression.
But she still had three children – three children who had even less parental guidance than before, as their mother succumbed to the darkness that no mother should ever have to fight alone.
My mother went to visit the family once toward the end of the month. D.J. came out of the house with a tear-streaked face. The family had used up their monthly food stamps, and he was hungry with nothing to eat.
My mom bought them groceries – including bananas, because D.J. loves them. She said that while she talked to the mother, he came out of the house twice with something different to eat. He was no longer crying and no longer hungry.
I saw the family for the last time almost exactly a year ago, on Thanksgiving Day. The mother sat listlessly on the couch, engrossed by her phone and seldom looking up from it. The kids came and went, eventually going to their grandmother’s house. A good, stable friend cooked in the kitchen. Someone else’s children played on the floor next to her.
I have always questioned at what point D.J. and Kayla transition from innocent children into guilty adults. I have little hope that there will be a point at which their worldview expands without any prompting, and suddenly they understand what life is like outside of the few blocks they cover when they’re bused between their failing school and their dysfunctional home. I highly doubt they will ever look out at the community around them and have the sudden epiphany that the universal violence of those streets is not acceptable. And sadly enough, the odds are against them in terms of earning a post-secondary education or breaking out of their family’s generational poverty at all.
My family has tried to teach them right from wrong, to give them hope and to inspire them to take ahold of their own futures. But our voices, heard at most once a week, are most likely drowned out by the deafening roar of the broken community they live in day in and day out.
But maybe they listen. Maybe one day in the past, they heard. And maybe one day in the future, they will remember.
What has happened in Ferguson this week is a tragedy, regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum or whether we agree or disagree with the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer that shot Michael Brown, costing him his life.
But what happens in low-income, majority minority communities on a daily basis is, in my opinion, an even bigger tragedy. And before we start pointing fingers and judging the members of those communities for their behavior, I hope the story of this family casts a little more insight on why those behaviors persist. I hope this story, as well as Michael Brown’s, points to much larger, systemic problems that plague this family’s community and countless others throughout America.
A Los Angeles Times story written in August fleshed out some of the racial and economic statistics of Ferguson, a suburb outside of St. Louis:
- In a single generation, from 1990 to today, the population of Ferguson changed from three-fourths white to two-thirds black.
- The median household income in Ferguson has fallen by 30% since 2000 when adjusted for inflation, to about $36,000. In the census tract where Brown lived, median income is less than $27,000, and only half of the adults work.
- Two north county school districts, including the one Brown graduated from in May, have lost their state accreditation in recent years. The district Ferguson shares with a neighboring town is still accredited, but scores low on state tests.
Race and class problems persist nationally. Here are only a few of many (intentionally not directly related to police-involved shootings):
The Economic Policy Institute reports that just under half – 45 percent – of poor black children (like Kayla and D.J.) live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, but only 12 percent of poor white children live in similar neighborhoods. And children in these kinds of neighborhoods experience more social and behavioral problems, have lower test scores and are more likely to drop out of school.
Recent research, according to EPI, suggests that reducing children’s exposure to concentrated poverty can up their chances of upward economic mobility.
EPI has a name for this phenomenon: residential segregation. Black Americans not only suffer from higher poverty rates, but also higher rates of concentrated poverty.
Last year, before Ferguson, The Washington Post released a blog post on the 50-year anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech. The title was “These ten charts show the black-white economic gap hasn’t budged in 50 years.”
To cap it all off and bring this full-circle back to the subject of criminal justice, the tenth chart shows that the racial disparity between black and white incarceration rates is even bigger than it was in 1960.
I hope, more than anything, that both this family’s story and Michael Brown’s show the need for more people to become a part of our country’s narrative of change – to jump in, to get their hands dirty and to become solutions to problems of violence, racism and classism. I hope more people commit to walking alongside children who witness unspeakable atrocities weekly, to help them achieve the education their parents never earned, and to break the cycle of generational, systemic poverty that is the root of so many evils. I hope people decide to take action rather than turning to uninformed social media blasts, the blame game or political manipulation.
I hope this story inspires us to love people with a transformative kind of love and to become a part of the change we want to see.
A formerly homeless friend of mine, who is also black, texted me late last night.
“Give me a reason to care after this! Mike brown,” he wrote.
I hope that as a country, we can answer his plea and, in fact, give him a reason to care and a reason to hope.