Perspective: “The Plight of the African American”

by Susan Shaffer

Background – After the horrific killing of George Floyd, by a police officer, America become more focused on the poor treatment and stereotypes toward people of color. We have experienced a plethora of outrage on the issue. Venting / anger must now be transformed into ongoing dialogue and constructive action. As a person with a disability, I’m aware of how society may treat marginalized populations. I’m qualified to offer strategies for improvement. The key to change is meaningful action.

Introduction – The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a landmark civil rights and labor law in the United States that prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This mandate must again be front and center as well as upheld and implemented; there is no use for a law that has no teeth in it. Below are a series of typical scenarios illustrating what African Americans experiences as well as some success stories depicting ways to avoid the rabbit hole i.e. negative patterns. This is a two- way street the individual must be empowered to take responsibility one’s own choices and reject temptations.

#1 It isn’t easy being black: Exploring Life as an African American. I did not ask to be born black. I wish I was given a choice, as if I was able to check the appropriate box before my cells were formed. Life would be significantly easier I’d have been able to live in a house like Tom Brady’s with a parking lot on the balcony. Instead I lived in a rat -infested place in the projects. The space heater and fan never worked and sometimes the toilet wouldn’t flush. Dinner was usually cereal or an unidentified item that came from the fridge. Once in a while mom cooked but since mine wasn’t the only mouth to feed, I often left the table hungry. I loved visiting grandma who lived a few towns over she was a good cook and she cooked for an army so my belly was always full when I went there.

School was an escape from home but it was boring; students didn’t learn much. The class was located at the end of a long narrow hall filled with graffiti. Our books were outdated and most kids didn’t have nice backpacks and notebooks. The teacher spent a lot of time trying to get the kids to stop talking, not many listened.

After school I spent time with my friends but there were kids in gangs who kept trying to interest me. The kids seemed nice but after I agreed to hang out with them, they only wanted me to shoot people and take drugs. I knew it was wrong but they had money, power, and were happy. I didn’t want to live this life but before I knew it, I was committing crimes and could not see any way out. Sure, there were after-school programs for kids like me but it wasn’t cool and my group leader “reminded” me that he would not protect me if I chose to leave. I saw what happened to kids who wanted to take a different path. I grew up just like almost everyone else I knew. No real way to improve myself, hell, I didn’t think I could. What would I do? What were my skills other than stealing, killing, and selling drugs?

#2 Taking Responsibility for my action: Life is not a pity party. I realize now that I had to want to change and it wasn’t impossible. I must speak up and find my inner strength to reject the “easy” road as so many of my “friends” continue to do. They may feel like, “Nothing can happen to me.” But no one is invincible, too many people end up in jail or worse. They may have money and power now but what about tomorrow; there may not be a tomorrow. Especially if they have kids; what kind of example are they setting by inciting violence? What kind of future would their kids have? They are continuing the problem instead of being part of the solution. Some of my brothers have enrolled in college and will learn a profession that enables them to turn their future around completely. If they can do it I can too. I must seek out healthier routes. All I had to do was remember how many times I came to getting killed.  I snuck out with, the few dollars I saved, and took a bus to a town where no one knew me. I had no idea what I was doing and I knew no one, only that I had to leave my past horrid situation. I just walked up and down the streets then found a building that offered a program for kids like me who needed a second chance. I will be on the right side of the tracks (the law).

It was brand new and scary but so was breaking a window with a gun in order to threaten a home owner. I saw someone with a name tag around her neck and explained my situation. The person listened and called another worker who explained that he knew a local program designed to help people who are like me. I was driven to a house with teenagers who were in the process of turning their futures around. I met a few and spent time listening to “my” story but it was told by someone else. For the first time I realized I was not alone. If I could follow their lead, I will have a chance. College was not easy but I stuck with it, I found work, then a profession, then a girlfriend and followed the path to a life filled with healthy choices. The key is not to wallow in pity but take full responsibility for myself and my situation. As a counselor, I encourage anyone to pursue another route.

Here are some discussion questions:

  • What makes people resist making the changes that can help them find the way to a better future?
  • What can communities do to improve the situations of people in lower income neighborhoods?
  • How can people break the pattern of “poor me” that perpetuates the situation?
  • What steps can religious entities take to help troubled kids and their families?
  • How can the current programs and efforts be improved to reach more people?
  • What role does the family play in this situation? What can be done at a family level?
  • What can individuals do to encourage their peers to take responsibility for their own lives?
  • What is already done in the schools to encourage inclusion? What improvements can be made?

Susan Schaffer has a congenital physical disability. Since birth her parents were encouraged by many medical to place her in an institution. Her parents refused to agree with the bleak future others predicted. Her parents literally awoke throughout the night in order to clean substances in her body.

Susan was unable to make sounds, sit up, or eat independently. She grew out of many of the medical problems but made regular visits to specialists at Du Pont Institute during her childhood. She continues to be extremely sensitive to the stereotypes of the community her entire life. People did not understand her challenges especially her peers; public school was a very difficult experience.

The law mandated that she be accompanied and cared there by an adult. The formative years are crucial in psychological development. Low self-esteem can lead to a plethora of emotional problems. Attitudes cannot be legislated but actions can. People with  disabilities have the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. People of color have the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Statistics prove that people of both populations can make meaningful contributions to society. However, the former still get patted on the head and the later still get arrested though innocent due to society’s judgmental attitudes. There are many similar threads that result in anger and danger. Venting is a meaningful act but this energy must be transferred into healthy, simple action. Communication is the way to reach true inclusion.

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