After the killing of Michael Brown last summer, the nation’s attention turned towards Ferguson, Missouri – a small town with a history mirroring that of many communities across the country. Over a period of just a few decades, white residents largely disappeared from the town, concentrated poverty became rampant, and the criminal justice system has disproportionately targeted black residents. In the months after the shooting, the town became a central focus in the media’s narrative, revealing how decades of disinvestment and a history of racially biased policies enabled this tragedy. In short, where you live matters.
It is within this context that the new book, REACH: 40 Black Men Speak on Living, Leading, and Succeeding, must be understood.
Co-edited by former NAACP President Ben Jealous, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, the book celebrates black men through the personal essays of entrepreneurs, artists, teachers, philanthropists, and activists. By chronicling each man’s path to success, the first person narratives in Reach also serves as a counterpoint to the negative images of black men that saturate the media.
One of the more subtle yet significant aspects of the book is how it reveals the critical role that communities play in the black experience. Contributors address everything from Jim Crow laws and the Great Migration to life in inner cities and current concerns over gentrification.
Derrick Johnson, State President of the Mississippi NAACP, captures some of the most seminal moments in the rise and fall of black communities when he writes: “The previous generation of my family had migrated to Detroit from the South in order to get good jobs in the auto industry, but after Reaganomics and the decline of the unions, those jobs went away.” He continues, “By the early 1980s, when I was coming up, it was drugs and poverty all around.”
Every contributor shares his unique story, and stitched together, they form a tapestry of the black experience in towns and cities across the country.
More importantly, the book reveals how the community you grow up in shapes your long-term life prospects. For example, Dr. Emmett D. Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, recalls an incident when a young man was shot outside of his Chicago home and his father came to the man’s aid. Shortly afterward, Carson and his family moved a short distance away for better opportunities.
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“I had moved thirty blocks, and all of a sudden, everything was in front of me – I was told every opportunity could be mine if I worked for it,” he writes. “And yet I had friends and family in the old neighborhood who were not going to be exposed to the same opportunities.” He continues, “We don’t have a society where we can say that success is random. Success is determined by your zip code, by your race and ethnicity, and by your parents’ wealth status.”
Carson’s words summarize the consequences of living in concentrated poverty, and how the opportunity to live in a better area can change the trajectory of one’s life. In fact, research shows that a person’s zip code has more to do with their life expectancy than their genetic code. For instance, poverty has been shown to genetically age children, and exposure to neighborhood violence impairs cognitive ability. Further, living in high poverty communities often means having little or no access to services that many people take for granted. Shaka Senghor, Director of the Atonement Project at the University of Michigan, highlights this at the beginning of his powerful essay. After becoming a victim of gun violence, he explains, “I was bleeding profusely waiting for the ambulance as long as I could – you know, in the ‘hood, we have no expectations of the ambulance coming.” He goes on, “I was exposed to probably every horrific thing you can imagine in that environment.”
Given that Reach takes on the heavy burden of combating the negative images of black men that flood America’s collective conscious, it would be tempting to select stories of individuals with spotless backgrounds. Instead, Jealous and co-editor Trabian Shorters rightly include the stories of men who were tangled up in crime and violence, highlighting how their communities became fertile grounds for such destruction. As Yusef Shakur, CEO of YBS Consulting, writes of his own turn down the wrong path: “When we think of ‘undeveloped’ places, we tend to think of third world countries. But here in Detroit we have third world neighborhoods. These communities don’t have the nurturing influence of families, of strong businesses or strong churches. The mentality of the streets is filling those voids.”
Inclusion of these stories is significant as black men are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. Due to structural racism and hyper-criminalization, black men are incarcerated at a rate six times higher than that of white men, and 49 percent of black men have been arrested by age 23. Not only is it important for young black men who may have criminal records to see that the paths to success are often winding, it is also critical for the public to understand the humanity of people who have borne the weight of handcuffs.
It would be easy to point to these stories as evidence that it is possible to “pull yourself up from your bootstraps,” but that interpretation entirely misses the important lesson of the book. We shouldn’t be satisfied with people succeeding despite the conditions of their communities; we want people to succeed because of them.
Reach serves as a reminder that there are children of color living in communities across the country who are still waiting on this nation’s promise of opportunity. Leaders must work together to right the wrongs of past policies that created these communities, and ensure that, as President Obama stated in announcing the Promise Zones Initiative, “A child’s course in life should be determined not by the zip code she’s born in, but by the strength of her work ethic and the scope of her dreams.”