A Difference of Reality

Children from disadvantaged households and violent neighborhoods often do less well in school than peers from more economically comfortable backgrounds. Researchers have documented this repeatedly – in studies of individual children and through comparisons of schools, districts, states, and nations. Savage inequalities describe the striking differences between public schools serving students of color in urban settings and their suburban counterparts. These underprivileged kids have a difference in reality.

Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete? Proving nature’s law wrong, it learned to walk without having feet. Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams it learned to breathe fresh air. Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else even cared. Spoke out of the mouth of one of our generation’s rebel voices. In 1991 Tupac Shakur wrote these words that would essentially grow to represent the fortitude of a city under siege:

The beauty and the curse of the rose that grows from concrete lie in the stark contrast of our society. When you understand the sheer unlikelihood of a seed germinating under a slab of concrete and bursting through the stony exterior and yielding a bud that blossoms. Because everyone knows, roses need a specific environment to produce.

The word privilege means a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available to a particular person or group. So this would mean, an advantage like growing up in an area where a quality education has never been up for debate yet it is the topic of politicians in inner-city communities. The advantage of an education system that works with and not against you is seen as a privilege afforded to a select few. But never in our communities.

The Windy City of Chicago has long suffered the fatigue of a wind-torn resolve while facing some of the nation’s most staggering gun-related statistics. Leading the country for consecutive years in areas like shootings, deaths by shooting and illegal gun convictions. Throughout the 60s until current, Chicago has been plagued with jaw-dropping stats.

Tupac along with Nikki Giovanni sought to translate a life where your very survival is a feat not accomplished by the vast majority. While in the counterpart communities, survival is an expectation and right. In the ghetto, the story is far different. Shakur strives to articulate that despite the common law concerning is existence, he has managed the impossible. Going beyond merely blooming, he has taught himself to move. Defying insurmountable odds he now has access to fresh air. Breathing in the endless possibilities, the rose prevailed.

Poverty damages childhoods and life chances – it is a travesty of social justice that in one of the richest economies in the world, roughly a third of children live in poverty. Poverty and disadvantage have an impact on all aspects of life, well-being, poorer health, ability to participate in community and access to education and employment.

It is “a chronic and debilitating condition that results from multiple adverse synergistic risk factors and affects the mind, body, and soul.” This disadvantage affects students’ minds, bodies, and souls and makes it difficult to focus on education. Needless to say, poverty is very complex and the factors surrounding it are emotional, unique and certainly very personal.

Many outside of these communities cannot even imagine what life is like for youth coming of age in one of the city’s poorest and most besieged communities. Growing up in an impoverished Chicago neighborhood and trying to navigate the landscape of gangs and crime at a time when the city’s gun violence is at its highest. It is not uncommon to dodge a bullet on the way to school. For some young people, it is easier to not go at all than to risk their lives waiting at a bus stop.

The reality is that millions from the projects in Chicago to the ghettos of Watts in California have a difference of reality. These victims are given very little in the way of choices or opportunities in how they can live. Contrary to what the White House is saying or the news media reports, black and brown people are not just these unsavory characters addicted to drugs, crime, and unwedded pregnancies. They are children born into abstract devastation who desperately search for a way of escape.

Often mistaken for a threat, their behavior is actually a cry for help…or at the least, an acknowledgment. People who felt trapped in these inhumane circumstances were lamenting that life was not all good in the “hood.” The hood has become the place where dreams and people are forgotten. Tucked away neatly out of the line of sight of America, the government could easily throw money, subsidized housing, and food stamps at them in hopes they would kill themselves and keep it quiet.

Disadvantages such as parental unemployment and low wages, single parents, housing instability, segregated neighborhoods, stress, malnutrition, health problems, crime and violence, all leave its victims in survival mode. It does not take a genius to understand how these challenges could hinder the ability to learn and comprehend even things on a basic educational level. Face it, these young people have a difference in reality.

It is easy to wrap minds around post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as it relates to the military, but the truth is it is so much more than that. Witnessing domestic violence, experiencing or witnessing child abuse, or even watching a loved one suffer from a debilitating disease or condition are all circumstances that can trigger this debilitating condition. For those living in communities riddled with violence, they become forced spectators of bloody fights and gun violence. Watching a bullet tear through flesh and the suffering, or sometimes death, that follows is not a scene that can easily be washed away from the memory.

Kids who experience things like domestic violence, gun violence, and child abuse become teenagers and young adults with PTSD symptoms. Only about one-quarter of African Americans seek mental health care, compared to 50 percent of whites. Remember, many of these families do not even have health care. Not getting treatment and learning to manage PTSD can turn to depression, bipolar disorder, or other personality disorders.

Many times, this can lead to some type of conflict with the criminal justice system, which can begin a whole new cycle of issues. PTSD is one of the more common psychiatric disorders in youth detention facilities. Dr. Kim Dulaney, professor of African-American Studies at Chicago State University, received training on PTSD after symptoms of traumatic stress were being demonstrated by some of her students. When asked to describe the impact of the high level of racism and violence in the Black community that African-Americans deal with on a daily basis, she said:

As a scholar and educator, it was me recognizing broken people. I just finished training for PTSD. I needed to know what that was so that I could be better prepared to help my students and I needed to know how to deal with compassion fatigue from hearing all the traumatic stories.

It is living in a state of constant trauma. You generally see PTSD in people returning home from war. In the Black community, it feels like a war on your black body just because someone fears the stereotypes they have of Black people in their imagination. Trauma is different from stress. Trauma is an emotional wound that can cause physical changes in a person. The impact of trauma can be substantial and can have lasting damage to psychological development in youth.

United States school reforms cannot work if they ignore the special challenges of educating underprivileged children. Reformers must provide teachers and school administrators with the extra knowledge and support they need to counter the impediments to learning that, through no fault of their own, many disadvantaged children bring to school.

The streets have hardened many of its victims. They are not bad kids looking for trouble. They are afraid of their everyday environment. With a real risk of being shot, they tend to have guns because that is the reality they live in. Dodging bullets to go to school or even the corner store, not to mention having seen their friends gunned down and killed; this is not an unreasonable fear. It is simply a different reality.

Even if the youth want to turn their lives around, their criminal records follow them for life. Looking at life through shattered glass, their prospects for finding work are severely hampered by criminal records. Many of those charges stem from drug-related crimes or carry unlawful weapons in hopes of survival.

Ignoring the ill effects of poverty and violence on student learning comes at a price. For many people living with PTSD, hope and faith for tomorrow are either nonexistent or the only things that keep them going each day. However, if brains can change for the worse because of hopelessness, they can change for the better because of hope. Is that too much to ask for?

The 1989 American biographical drama film “Lean On Me” written by Michael Schiffer and directed by John G. Avildsen depicts this type of struggle. The film chronicles a bottom-ranked school that seeks out a maverick ex-teacher to take over.  Unfortunately, before the new principle can focus on improving the student body’s state exam scores, he has to somehow rid the school of its gang and narcotics problems and give the students a sense of hope.

Hope is the belief that circumstances will improve, or at least not deteriorate further, but without a strategic or methodical way to circumnavigate this detrimental landscape, hope becomes increasingly scarce. Individuals who possess hope for the future tend to have a concern about the impacts of their actions. The lack of such hope removes the specter of negative consequence from one’s mind and leaves him or her free to participate, without restraint, in criminal activity.

The crime rate that exists within the black community is a tragedy; however, this does not justify the disproportionate number of lethal encounters with police. It is no secret that African-Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and four times more likely to be victims of unnecessary force during encounters with law enforcement.

We all know the frustrations of disadvantage on some level. For many, it is the simple things such as being stuck in a line at the grocery store while another seems to dissipate quickly. Others may find themselves stuck in a traffic jam with their destination only a few blocks away, but they are unable to exit. Now imagine a more permanent manifestation. One where your skin color has already dictated how you will be both viewed and judged. Your status in life has gone before you to influence another’s infringement of your inalienable rights. Not because you are less than. Not because you are a bad citizen. Simply because your skin is black or brown. A different reality.

Editorial by Cherese Jackson
(Contributor Early Jackson)


Black Youth Project: PTSD is more common than you think
Grape Seed: How Poverty Affects Education & Our Children
Chicago Tribune: Growing up with poverty and violence
Chicago Public Schools: CPS Stats and Facts

Image Credits:

Top Image Courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense – Creative Commons License
Inside Images Courtesy of The U.S. National Archives’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Featured Image Courtesy of Gratisography’s Pexel’s Page – Creative Commons License