Helping America's Youth
According to Bill, the desperate situation of many minorities has resulted in some of these shocking statistics:
- At least a third of all homeless men are African-American.
- African-Americans make up 12 percent of the general population, but they account for almost half of the prison population.
- According to the U.S. Justice Department, 28 percent of black men born today will go to prison in their lifetimes.
- Black youth are six times more likely to die of homicide than white youth and seven times more likely to commit a homicide.
- Homicide is the leading cause of death among African-American males ages 15 to 29.
Frustrated by these numbers, Bill gave an unexpected, uncensored speech in 2004: "In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on," he said. "They're buying things for the kid—$500 sneakers. For what? They won't buy or spend $250 on Hooked on Phonics.
"It's not what they're doing to us. It's what we're not doing. Brown vs. the Board of Education—these people who marched and were hit in the face with rocks and punched in the face to get an education, and we've got these knuckleheads walking around who don't want to learn English. I know you all know it, but I just want to get you as angry as you ought to be," he said.
Bill doesn't deny that he was airing some dirty laundry—but that was the point. "Have you ever seen dirty laundry? We have to clean it, don't we?" he says. "These people who talked about the dirty laundry somehow only cared about the laundry. They didn't care about the children. I said in my speech, 'Our children are trying to tell us something and we're not listening.'"
Despite the uproar, Bill says he does not regret the things he said, but he admits his comments only pertain to some members of the communitynot all. "With the drugs in the neighborhood, how can you excuse a drug dealer?" he says. "If you look at the domino effect of, [someone sells] you crack cocaine. You become an addict. You give up your body for some money to some man who has AIDS. You get pregnant. Your child is infected. It starts to domino."
Since making his speech, Bill has been on a mission to help people think about raising children with more integrity. He has traveled from city to city, lecturing about education, parenting and responsibility. In October 2007, he released a book called Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors, which explains the causes of the problem and gives parents advice on how to address it.
"I never said there's no such thing as systemic or institutional racism. I also never said that we've got some people of our own that happen to be on the side of the racists. I'm saying we've got to dig in and fight. The same way that you and I were protected by our grandparents," Bill says. "We need to see the problem the same way and protect our children."
Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Dr. Poussaint says many people have forgotten what the cause was all about. "A lot of people kind of fell into decadence that we see in the media all the time—the gangster rap, the people not caring about their neighborhood. Even since the civil rights movement, we have more black people hurting other black people, killing other black people," he says. "[There are] not enough people like Bill and others talking about what people can do for themselves."
Dr. Poussaint says one of the major issues is the absence of father figures. "Many of these fathers are not present. They're absent. Many of them are even incarcerated. Many don't have jobs," Dr. Poussaint says. "And a lot of these young men don't even feel that it's important to be a father because many of them grew up in fatherless homes. The cycle just continues."
The absence of fathers often leaves children feeling abandoned, which Dr. Poussaint says can lead to more negative feelings. "There's the grief and the [sadness], and later they get angry, and who knows how this is all playing out in terms of even the violence that young males have toward each other," Dr. Poussaint says.
Although it's not easy to break the cycle, Bill and Dr. Poussaint say in their book that the situation is not hopeless. "We just have to get these fathers to realize that the children they sired are their children and will always be their children. By walking away, they have punished their children. Once they come and claim their children, and feel the joy and beauty of a hug, they will at least begin to understand what fatherhood is all about. But let's not kid ourselves, either. This is much easier said than done."
Ronald says his son made the ultimate sacrifice in order to help another passenger. "He died a hero. He protected a schoolmate. He shielded her," he says.
Months after those heroic final moments, Annette is still struggling to move on. "He was a good student. He was writing rap music. We were encouraging him to write good, clean, wholesome music. He was politically conscious. He was an avid reader, loved by a lot of people," she says. "You know how you're just supposed to let your children follow your lead? I'll have to follow his lead the rest of my life."
First-degree murder charges have been filed against two teens in connection with the shooting. They have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
"We see so much of this in the streets, and we knew what we were dealing with out here, and we just thought that we were doing everything to protect him and get him to college," Annette says. "We had dreams and plans and they're all just gone. That was our only child."
As parents, Annette says she and Ronald tried to do all the right things. "We went to movies together. Even as a teenager, I would take him to parties. I would pick him up. I would meet the parents. I didn't trust the streets to raise my child."
Annette says parents need to realize that violence can touch anyone—and it's everyone's responsibility to change things. "Everyone owns a part in it, not just African-Americans and Hispanics. All of us. Because it could be any of your children, any of your nieces, nephews, any of your parents. It could be you," she says. "If we all don't step up to the plate and do something, we're all going to be living in a world that we're afraid to go out and just do anything in life. We're going to be shut inside."
Bill says he learned one way from a student teacher whom he met at Florida A&M University. "She said, 'What I do is, when the bell rings, the child that I'm interested in at the time, I follow that child out of the building. The child usually leads me to an adult. And I say, "Hi, I'm So-and-so's teacher. And who are you? I've been trying to reach you all this time."' So maybe you might try that."
Angela's struggles remind Oprah of Ron Clark, the recipient of the 2000 Outstanding Teacher of the Year award for his commitment to education in Harlem. Before the semester would begin, Ron went to the parents of his incoming student to let them know what he expected. "He's a young white guy. And he said at first, the parents thought he was crazy," Oprah says. "Once they realize how much you really care, for a lot of them, it encourages them to care."
Dr. Poussaint says Trudy needs to be forceful in telling her children what she thinks. "You tell them that it's a vicious, awful, demeaning word that has led to the killing, lynching and the demoralization and feelings of inferiority in black people—and that you can't make that word positive," he says. "It really damages our children. It's damaging all the way through. You should never justify it."
"He just started immediately loading his gun and then he went over to my mother and then he put the gun up to her face," Williams says. "And he just shot her about two times in her face and she dropped right on the floor immediately. And I just remember all of this blood coming out of her mouth and just going all over the floor. And then he went to my brother and then he shot my brother. Then he came to me and he put the gun to my head."
William says he begged for his life. "I looked up into the sky and I was like, 'God, please, please don't let him kill me,'" he says. "And then for some reason, he just pulled back. And then he said to me, 'You can leave.'"
In addition to his grandmother's love and support, William says he drew inspiration from teachers, friends and his sister. Without this support network, William says he could have ended up on the street selling or using drugs. "I was susceptible to that, going in that direction," he says.
William's sister, Manyka, who was across the street at the time their mother was murdered, says she went down the road William avoided. She says she sold drugs, including cocaine, as she was growing up...until the efforts of her grandmother, teachers and coaches turned her life around.
"I was a victim, but I had a village around me," Manyka says. "I thank the Lord that he put people in my life, because I can now stand and not have to remain in that spot as a victim."
Manyka says her experiences—both selling drugs and learning that selling drugs is wrong—inform how she helps her community. "I [say, 'I] was in your shoes, but I'm standing now. They told me that I would never be anything, I wouldn't make it. But I'm standing because I had a choice,'" Manyka says. "I did all of the wrong things, thinking that I was no one and nobody and nobody cared. But somebody reached out to me—my coaches, my grandmother, the teachers, my pastor."
High expectations must begin early, Dr. Poussaint says. "You can see it on the street [with parents saying], 'You're stupid. You're an idiot.' So even before [kids] get to school, many of them are damaged in the way they think about themselves," he says. "Parents from the very beginning have to respect and care and nurture their children and not do bad things for them."
Studies illustrate the lasting harm parents' actions have on their kids. "A lot of the inmates in jail, particularly for violent crimes have been victims of child abuse themselves," he says. "Violence begets violence in the home."
Bill says he has a friend who thinks parents can keep track of their kids by adopting the "shake down" philosophy used by prison guards. "He talks to his congregation, telling parents why they don't have to knock on a door—a bedroom door—of a child, and say, 'May I come in?'" Bill says. "Why? Because you don't pay any rent. This is not your place."
Parents need to know all about what their children are doing—they should look under beds, monitor Internet usage, know who their friends are, Bill says. "We have parents who don't know what subjects the children are taking, who don't know when the test is coming, who don't know if they're finished, don't know the grades," he says. "We must know."