There's a great read over at The Atlantic featuring a thoughtful discussion between Ta-Nehisi Coates, Senior Editor for the magazine and Dr. Harold Pollack, an expert on youth violence from the University of Chicago's crime lab. The article is in conversation form and while a bit lengthy, is pretty interesting.
I sometimes travel in some pretty tough neighborhoods, and it's been maybe 20 years since someone has laid an unfriendly hand on me. The gray hair seems to put me in a different category. The kids we encounter are sometimes a bit struck that one can be a shrimpy, nerdy guy and be a successful adult man. That option doesn't seem as open to them.
I remember when Allen Iverson came into the NBA and people could not understand why he walked around with twenty dudes. I totally understood, and I suspect a lot of black males did too. But one thing that's become clear to me, and that I've tried to grapple with in my blogging, is that cultural practices that offer some protection in one place are often quite harmful in another. Iverson's clique may have saved him countless times in Virginia Beach. But in that broader world, they sometimes empowered his worst urges. So much of my work is about how young black males negotiate violence, and how those negotiations affect them when they interact with the broader world.
I get a sense of that when I talk with young men in Chicago who participate in violence prevention efforts. Kids are wearing that ice-grill for some very real reasons in their world. It's just a tough assignment to be a 17-year-old kid in urban America.
We often hear some version of this story: "Dr. Pollack, I'm so glad you are doing this. There are too many guns, too much fighting out here. My friend was shot. But you have to know something: If some guy gets in my face in the hallway, I'm going to have to kick his ass because I can't afford to allow anyone to mess with me."
Your comments are right on the money that kids' approaches can be protective in one context, but quite harmful in another. If another 17-year-old gets in your face, you might have to be tough. If that's your automatic response, things won't go well when your 11th grade English teacher gets into your face over a missing assignment.
The academic literature also suggests that aggression-prone kids aren't very good at deciphering the unspoken intentions of other people. Psychologists speak of "hostile intention attribution bias," whereby youth interpret other people's ambiguous behavior as more hostile and more threatening than it actually is.
Some of the best interventions help kids with social-emotional and self-regulation skills so that they can deal more safely and productively with each other and with adult authority figures. We've found in randomized trials that such interventions can reduce violent offending. But you can't tell kids "Don't fight." That's not realistic in their world.
I do believe that kids are exposed to some pretty toxic messages about adult masculinity. Their lack of a decent roadmap is reinforced by crummy pop culture from Chief Keef to video games to BET. Much more important, though, many of these kids don't have adult men in their everyday lives available to show them how it's done. One could write 500 Ph.D. dissertations about how hip-hop or pornography mis-socializes young men in their relationships with women. I'm not thrilled about some of what the kids are listening to or viewing. Yet the Tipper-Gore-style anxieties seem misdirected. Media dreck is much less important than the ways youth observe adult men in their lives actually treat women. Much of the hip-hop that adults dislike reflects kids' real experiences. It isn't pretty to hear, but what's coming through people's ear-buds isn't the real problem.
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