Dr. Boyce Watkins (Professor Syracuse University)

Interview from June 22, 2012

Etan: Tell me how important it is to instill a “you can do it” mentality into young people. As we discussed, my main reason for writing this book was to combat all of the negativity that young people are bombarded with. Tell me how crucial it is not to tear young people down but to encourage them to really believe that they can make it no matter what their situation is

Dr. Watkins: Well, young people are naturally wired to rise to whatever level of expectations are placed upon them by the adults around them. If we set the bar low, they are going to jump low, if we set the bar high, they are going to reach for those goals and jump high. If we put the bar on the left, they are going to jump to the left. Etc. So the reality of the situation is that we shape their reality. There is that old song The Message that says, “A child is born with no state of mind, blind to the ways of mankind”, and I think that tells us and reminds us that when kids arrive here, they don’t know who or what they are suppose to be. They don’t know what they are suppose to do or how they are suppose to do it. They look to the adults around them to guide them in terms of figuring out who they are and what they are suppose to do. And, if we tell them the wrong things, they are going to do the wrong things. So, we cannot underestimate that power of parenting, the power of influence, and the power of what we say to our children because that makes all of the difference for kids.

Etan: I totally agree. Let me ask you this, because it seems as though the older generation is a little scared of the younger generation to be honest. When I was younger, we wore baggy clothes, big baggy jeans, timb boots, etc. and the older generation was scared of us. The younger generation now, they wear skinny jeans and sag all crazy looking showing their boxers, but thats their style, next generation it will be something different that adults find deplorable. But my question is, how can we move forward when we have that kind of a disconnect between the younger and the older generation?

Dr. Watkins: I would argue that not every person from the older generation is not afraid of every person from the younger generation, I would say in many cases, we do not have time for the younger generation, or we will see what is on the surface and believe that person is beyond redemption (which I definitely find to be passively false). I think all of us know at least one young person who will listen to us and if they don’t fully listen, they will at least be respectful enough to hear what we have to say. Even if they don’t fully take our advice. So, what I say to people is that we can’t get past the fact that these young people are human beings. They are not animals, they are not something out of the jungle. They are human just like you. They may speak differently, they may dress differently, they may be more aggressive than we are in many areas, but when it comes down to it, they are human just like we are. And the fact is, most of the kids today don’t represent the stereotypes that are constantly portrayed in music and television. Most kids are simply trying to find themselves just as we were when we were young. Almost every living creature on earth responds positively to love. You can find the hardest gang banger out there, and if you show them love, he is going to show love back. Thats usually why he joined the gang in the first place, because he was looking for love. Thats why he respects his homeboys because he believes they love him. So, if you show love and respect, most people are wired to love and respect you back.

Etan: That is definitely true. Now, you said something very interesting. You said that most adults believe that young people are beyond the point of redemption. Now, I work with a lot of young people in correctional facilities, and I would say that society as a whole really looks at them that same way. Do you think that is true?

Dr. Watkins: Absolutely. If you look at our society right now, we are living in a society that has absolutely no problem giving a 13 or 14 year of kid life in prison with no parole. Which is probably one of the sickest things that has happened in American history. Many of those children are black and brown kids. I think that the lack of respect for their humanity has increased over time. I think that we have a capitalist profit motive and a set of twisted social norms that allows us to believe that a human life doesn’t have value in certain contexts. Meaning, that it is easier to exterminate and get rid of those people than it is to help reform and redeem those individuals. We also find that it is more profitable to keep those individuals incarcerated than it is to actually make them free citizens. I think that we have to reject that ideology completely.

Etan: I think that it is really important, and I talk about this in the book, for young people to know and understand that that is what they are up against. They need to understand that that is what society wants you to do. The system is basically set up for them to fail. There is a reason why your school has brand new metal detectors and old books, because they don’t value your education. How important do you think it is for young people to be fully aware of the destruction that society has in place for them not from a blaming standpoint but from identifying reality and then figuring out a way to navigate around it, and not fall into the traps that society has set for them. And when I say “they” I mean society, I don’t mean all white people or anything but there are black people on that side of “they” as well.

Dr. Watkins:  I definitely agree with you there. But, I think it is very important. When I speak to my own kids, we discuss that all the time. I tell them that if you are a black woman, they don’t have any respect for you, and if you are a black man you are a constant threat. I tell them that everything they hear on the radio, that the negative images that is being constantly pumped into their minds is for a reason. Nothing is accidental. Corporations are putting billions of dollars into funding the most negative forms of music imaginable. It is pretty much giving you a personalized recipe for self destruction and young people are then repeating these mantras in their minds everyday. Stay high and drunk all the time, remain ignorant, blow all of your money, have sex with everything that is willing and able, carry a gun on your hip and use it on another black man if you get the opportunity, disrespect your woman, and women don’t act as if you are deserving of any respect, dress half naked, don’t value your most prized possession, I can go on and on. You take all of these messages and consistently pump them into the young minds of the masses, and you can control their actions. You are ushering them into a jail cell, a casket, welfare, fatherlessness, and ultimate self destruction. Not to mention destroying their self worth and self image. It commands a double effort of educating our kids about this system that is definitely put in place for their destruction, but then to take it a step further and not accept this system, but to outright reject everything they are being bombarded with. We have to talk to the victims as well as the perpetrators. And put an end to this madness that is killing our kids

Etan: Well, I was taught about all of that at home by my mother when i was growing up, and as I always say, after I read The Auto Biography of Malcolm X, that really changed my life so I became aware of the traps and the poisons that were put there for my destruction. Do you believe that is really the parent’s role whoever is there mother, father, grandparents, uncles, aunts, extended family, whoever, to teach the kids these important lessons we are describing that could save their lives?

Dr. Watkins: I am going to make this last answer very short, direct and to the point. I can go on rants sometimes so you will have to forgive me but I am going to say answer this very directly.....

What your dealing with is a reality that says that if you do not properly prepare these kids, not only will they be lost, but society will gladly gobble them up to pieces.

Etan: That was perfectly stated Dr. Watkins thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview.