Author Archives: James Ewers

Navigating the Racial Highway in America

By James Ewers

jewers1If you want to have a good debate or scare people away, then start talking about race.  The ‘race’ word is a powerful one in America’s lexicon and seems to bring out passionate feelings in us. It is a catalyst for both change and status quo. It is my thinking that the word race has brought into context words such as diversity, multiculturalism and inclusion, just to name a few. Many in this country would say that we are simply hung up on race. However, I think our racial healing, or hemorrhaging, is generational. Finally, it seems, young people are not as race-conscious as previous generations, although some may disagree with this statement. What makes the color of a person’s skin the object of so much attention and speculation? Why do some of us base our perceptions about a person solely on their skin color? As we all know, a person’s ability is not based on their skin color but on their competence and cognition. Yet, unfortunately, there are those who will go to their grave thinking otherwise. The uneasiness about race is felt on both sides. Many of our positions and mores about race come from our own experiences. Some of these feelings about race cannot be altered or changed regardless of how many diversity training programs we attend.

Some of our differences as black and white people are quite striking, most notably our responses to race.  I have both black and white friends, and my life is better because of it. But there have been incidents in this country involving race that have elicited such divergent responses I sometimes wonder, “are we looking at the same thing?” So we see things through different lens. There is also an extreme view held by each side about race relations. Some blacks and whites see their own race as the good guys and the other race as the bad guys. I disagree with this view, yet you would be naïve to think that it doesn’t exist.

Race is a slippery slope. Racial attitudes and positions seem to always follow us. Race never takes a break and is like the famous convenience store; it is always open. If you recall just a month ago now a white woman in Pennsylvania alleged that a black man had kidnapped her. We later found out that she was at Disney World. More recently a group of black children were asked to leave a swimming pool for reasons shrouded in race. Both incidents involved race and bad behavior.

So now just a few weeks ago, there was the incident involving Henry Louis Gates, Jr. the Harvard professor. Reports said that Professor Gates, who is black, had trouble getting into his house. He did get into his house yet by this time the Cambridge, Mass., police had arrived because of a 911 call placed by a local citizen. The police tape of the call never mentioned race, however the police report did. Officer James Crowley, who is white, and Professor Gates had a heated exchange even after Gates showed he was the owner of the home. Professor Gates was taken to the police station in handcuffs. However, throughout all of this we cannot forget that the police are there to protect and to serve whether it is in Cambridge or any other part of the country. Yet I wonder why the police could not have left Gates’ home once proper identity had been established. Because race is so explosive an issue, President Obama having a news conference on health care and other important matters was asked about the incident. President Obama, in my opinion and later by his own admission, used inappropriate language in responding to the reporter’s question. The three men, President Obama, Officer Crowley and Professor Gates met recently at the White House to hash out their differences and hopefully bring some constructive focus to the issue of race.

A lot of Americans are waiting to see if there is a blue print on how to talk about race. Fortunately, many communities have already started the conversation. It is my opinion that the rules of engagement ought to center around honesty, forthrightness and recognition of the need to get it out in the open.

Race and all of its complexities will not go away. If we want our communities to become better then we must be proactive in talking about our differences. Communities that understand each other better will prosper. Those that don’t won’t.

 James B. Ewers, Jr. Ed.D is a higher education consultant and the author of Perspectives From Where I Sit: Essays on Education, Parenting and Teen Issues.

 

Black Males Need the “Old School Approach”

By Jim Ewers

The behavior of some Black males has always been called into question. Adjectives like intimidating, aggressive and rude have been labels that have been affixed to us for as long as I can remember. It seems at times in today’s one-strike-and-you’re-out society that these aforementioned adjectives trump our education and our socio-economic status. It is said by some that no matter the education, the wealth or fame that we as Black men achieve, we are all placed in the same gumbo of indifference. I have often wondered why we carry this cross. Growing up in the South my parents wanted for me what all parents, Black and White, wanted for their children and that was for me to be successful.

This attainment of success was also coupled with a code of civilized behavior. In some ways, I believe, Black parents back in the day thought that appropriate behavior was just as important as being successful. I believe their thinking was that it didn’t matter how successful you were if you didn’t know how to behave. In fact, I am not sure that you can have one without the other. There was really an unspoken rule in my neighborhood that said you represented your family, your neighborhood and yourself. As a result, we wouldn’t just come out and impugn our family’s name. For example, having it said in the neighborhood that you committed some infraction was simply unthinkable. There was a time during my elementary school days that I used some inappropriate language. Word spread in the neighborhood, and I was completely ashamed. It never happened again.

Unfortunately some Black men made some missteps and exercised poor judgment. These errors in principles can be attributed to several factors, some of which are well documented. What has occurred over time is the creation of a negative perception about Black men. So, for far too many people, all Black men are to be feared. While some may disagree, this is what we wake up to each day. The pressure is on to do our best and not to cave into the stereotype of what people think we are. Despite the positive actions and the dignified behavior, there are those who still cast aspersions. Take for example the White woman in the Philadelphia area who said that two Black men kidnapped her and her daughter. The alleged victim gave police a convincing story, and off the media ran with it. I won’t spend a lot of time on this, but what got the media’s attention? Was it the kidnapping or was it that two Black men did it? I will let you answer the question.

Black parents and grandparents who are raising Black boys face some particular challenges in the new millennium. It seems to me that there should be some “old school” rules implemented. First off, Black boys must know who is in charge, and it is not them. We as parents cannot compromise on discipline. We must be parents and not friends to our male children. Furthermore, we cannot let technology babysit our kids, thinking that the latest gadget will satisfy them. Nothing takes the place of human interaction between parents and children. Black boys need nurturing from their mothers and guidance and discipline from their fathers. You can add more to this equation as I won’t quibble with you. I can remember when your parents said no, and the answer was no! There was no equivocating on the answer no. Black parents back in the day did not have to explain themselves. Go back to the old school!

The expression “it takes a village to raise a child” was practiced back in the day. I was chastised by adults in my neighborhood even before I got home for my transgressions. Obviously the times have changed. We must become more visible in our schools as volunteers. If we want to know what is happening in our schools, then we must go and find out. Put on a school badge and volunteer your time. You will feel good and your child will feel better. The library was a staple in my neighborhood. We must foster and promote reading in our homes. Lastly, but most importantly, we as Black parents must ensure that our boys have a spiritual foundation. Sundays must return to the Sundays of old when we went to church and had dinner together as a family. We can change the prognosis for our Black boys if we go back to the “old school”.

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Are a Boy’s Chances Better at Becoming a Sports Star or a Doctor?

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by Dr. James Ewers

I often ask young children, especially boys, what they want to do when they reach adulthood. One of the most repeated answers is that they want to become professional athletes. The two primary sports that they have an interest in, and not to my surprise, are basketball and football. It seems that basketball almost has turned into a cult sport. Many boys want to, in some way, identify with Dwayne Wade, Yao Ming and Kobe Bryant. The goal of being a sports star is expressed by students as early as elementary school. So it is not shocking to hear some of the same answers coming from boys at the middle school and high school level.

I have often wondered what is the appeal to being a professional athlete? When I was coming of age in North Carolina, I don’t believe I thought once about being a sports star. My friends, as we mused about what would be our life’s work, didn’t mention athletics as a possible career field. Is the draw to being a professional sports star linked to money, fame or  visibility? I suspect that it is a little bit of all of these things. My professional career goal I considered when I was young was either to become a lab technician or a lawyer.

Professional sports stars are all around us as they fill our airwaves daily. I would suggest that today you can find a professional sports team on television 24  hours a day, every day of the year. Now, that is what I call sports overload but that is the current state of affairs. So maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised when we hear our children say they want to be the next LeBron James instead of the next Dr. Benjamin Carson. By the way, you may want to read his book entitled “Gifted Hands” which chronicles the life of this gifted surgeon.

Professional athletes, even retired ones, have been getting a lot of attention lately. Let’s just take the case of Brett Favre, who for many years was the star quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. He “retired” in a tearful ceremony just a few years ago only to come back last season and play with the New York Jets. He then announced after the season that he was going to retire “again”. Now at this moment he is being courted by the Minnesota Vikings. So some young boys see this kind of scenario playing out and they think that in some way this is cool and this is what living “large” really means. They say ‘maybe I want to be like Brett.’ What young boys don’t understand and what adult men don’t emphasize enough is that professional athletes live in an unreal environment. In the real world, you just can’t jump from job to job, and think that it’s okay.

It is my opinion that the hero worship given to athletes begins at a tender age. Over time, I have watched a number of sports being played by young boys and girls. I have had to smile as I listen to parents urge their children on to score the next basket, or hit the next ball. Don’t get me wrong as I think it is very important for us as parents to encourage and support our children. When my children were young I did the same thing. However, I wasn’t in the coach’s face demanding that my child get more playing time or, worst yet, trying to be a sideline coach. When a child is six or seven years of age they don’t really care if they score a goal. They aren’t looking for their name in the newspaper the next day. They simply want the “happy meal” at the end of the game. The winning and losing doesn’t stay with them very long. It ends when they get in the car. As a result of the emphasis on winning at an early age, it is not a wonder that some kids want professional sports careers.

Professional sports careers, in my opinion, are simply overglamorized. There aren’t many stores where you can’t find a jersey or a cap with your favorite player or team on it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful in some way if we couldn’t just “flip the script”, and put the names of successful people and businesses on jerseys and caps. Just for starters, maybe we could walk around with a Ben and Jerry’s (ice cream company) jersey or a Colin Powell cap. Yes, it is farfetched but we must balance a young person’s perspective about professional sports stars with a heavy dose of reality.

As adults, we know that there are only a limited number of opportunities in professional sports. In reality, a young boy has a better chance of becoming a doctor than he does of becoming a professional sports star. Planting early seeds about various career interests will help to broaden our children’s horizons. Providing them with information, taking them on excursions will also increase their confidence and broaden their minds. The next Dr. Benjamin Carson is out there!

Dr. Ewers is the associate dean for student affairs and director of community partnerships at Miami University Middletown in Ohio. He is the author of Perspectives From Where I Sit: Essays on Education, Parenting and Teen Issues.

Can Michael Vick Take the Steps to Rebuild His Life?

By James Ewers

jewers1It was only a few years ago that Michael Vick was playing quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons and riding high. He was slashing and dashing through National Football League lines, and it was a joy to watch him. Now, he is without a ride and grounded. Much was made a while back about Michael Vick, a star player, being involved in a dog fighting ring. As we know, he was subsequently tried and convicted of this crime. The public at large was taken aback. How could this popular player be a part of such a hideous activity? Of course animal lovers and lobbyists climbed all over him so the pressure to convict him was enormous. Roger Goddell, the new NFL commissioner, had his say and also reprimandeded Vick for his actions by suspending him from the league. So a Michael Vick jersey that once sold at a high price and was once a must-have in your wardrobe is now on sale. He was sentenced to 23 months in prison for the crime, and may be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel in the next few months. Just recently he appeared in court to share his plan of how he was going to get back on his feet. Of course a part of the plan included him coming back to play football in the NFL. The judge has denied it and asked Vick and his attorneys to submit another plan. Commissioner Goodell has yet to weigh in on whether Michael Vick will be allowed to play football again.

In just a few months, football season will be here and the NFL will be in full swing. Will Michael Vick be in the mix? I am a dog lover and I couldn’t imagine my dog Mr. Ferguson involved in dog fighting. It is my opinion that Michael Vick should have been punished for the dog fighting incidents. After all they occurred over a period of time and he supplied the money and the facilities to make this happen. You have to wonder what he was thinking as he had just signed a 10-year, $130-million  contract in 2004. Even though we’re in an economic downturn, $130 million is still a whole heap of money. Arthur Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons, while he dismissed Vick from the team, is still a father figure for him. Blank said, “I just try to be supportive and as understanding as I can be. He talks about the process he is going through and what he has learned, the lessons of life, how he is going to come out a different person. He is sorry he’s affected so many people in a negative way, the league, our club, our fans. He feels awful about that.”

Obviously Michael Vick now knows that he did something wrong. Yet in the beginning, I am not sure that he thought he was doing anything against the law. Vick was raised in Virginia and probably saw dog fighting as he was coming of age. As an adult he only played out what he had already seen. On the grand scale of criminal activity, he and his friends just didn’t see dog fighting as that big of a deal. I can remember my parents telling me when I was a young boy to watch who you call your friends. I have always taken that advice to heart. If you recall it was one of Vick’s so-called “friends” who in the words of the young “ratted” him out. It is my hope right now that Michael Vick is trying to get a new set of friends who will be more uplifting and positive. Many of us have found that we have a lot of friends when good times are rolling who disappear when things aren’t going well.

The good news is that Michael Vick will soon have paid his debt to society and can move on with his life. Now the question is, will we let him? Predictably there will be people and organizations who will continue to attack him and be critical of his behavior. We get a weird and distorted sense of pleasure when we see other people suffering. It increases when they have fame and money. If your day is made by the challenges of other people then you have a sad and unappealing life. I am cheering Michael Vick on and want him to be successful. My thinking is there are some teams in the NFL where Michael Vick could be a starting quarterback. Let’s hope that an owner takes a chance on him understanding that he has paid his penalty. Vick was once the most exciting player in the NFL. I don’t know Mr. Goodell personally, but if he does happen to read this column, I am asking him to give Michael Vick another chance to play football. Sometimes some of us need more than one chance to get it right. “We fall down but we get up” are the lyrics sung by gospel singer, Donnie McClurkin. So let’s get ready for some football and hope that Michael Vick is a part of the NFL.

Dr. Ewers is the associate dean for student affairs and director of community partnerships at Miami University Middletown in Ohio. He is the author of Perspectives From Where I Sit: Essays on Education, Parenting and Teen Issues

African American boys can learn something from President Obama

By James Ewers

jewers1President Barack Obama’s victory is meaningful to a cross-section of Americans. His candidacy resulted in more new registered voters than at any other time in American history. As we reflect now on his journey, especially his Democratic primary battle with then-Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, it is safe to say that this country was energized by seeing a woman and an African American compete for the highest office in the land. I believe that women everywhere hailed the accomplishments of Clinton, now the U.S. Secretary of State. Young girls are now thinking that they could someday become president of the United States of America. It is in that same vein that I think young African American boys have also been buoyed by President Obama’s achievement. To my mind, I hope that that the bar has been raised for African American boys.

There are many aspects of President Obama’s demeanor that can serve as a road map for young African American boys. Obviously he has seen and unseen traits. At or near the top is self-respect. His self-respect did not just begin when he became successful. He had it as a child. As we all know, he was raised primarily by his mother and his grandparents. He also developed goals, had dreams at an early age and factored in the need for an education in order to achieve his goals. His respect for other people is tied to his own self-respect. All throughout his march to the presidency, we saw that people of all races/ethnicities, young and old, were attracted to him. One of my old expressions is that in order to get respect, you must first be willing to give respect. I have long held the opinion that respect is earned and is not an entitlement. Obama has been able to move effortlessly through environments where the vast majority of people, at times, have not looked like him but they have respected him.

Another character trait that has endeared President Obama to the American electorate is his grace under fire. He had the ability throughout to deal with pressure-packed moments and not show his agitation or frustration. As he said early, on folks were examining his kindergarten papers yet he remained unruffled. His critics attacked the fact that he was black, yet he was undaunted. One of the most defining moments for me was the speech that he gave on race in Philadelphia. It was thoughtful and eloquent yet it is unfortunate that in 2009 race is still at the windowsill of our discontent. But he made his enemies that day his footstool and did it in such a respectable manner that he won over even more supporters. His inner qualities and his outward appearance was simply a winning combination. His adroitness when it came to his communication skills certainly gave him a clear and distinct advantage. The naysayers, of course, said that “anybody” can give a good speech. Of course when you are losing you tend to make those kinds of statements. His appearance was always presidential, with or without a suit and his trademark white shirt and stripped tie. His level of confidence transcended whatever he wore.

During this two-year process that led Barack Obama to become this nation’s 44th president have black boys paid attention and have they learned anything? Do they see him as a role model? If the answer is yes then self-respect and character must become more important in their lives. African American parents and love providers must become more proactive, and we must raise our own level of expectation about what we expect and more importantly what we are willing to do. It is exciting that he is in the White House but it also means that we must take care of our house too. While some will call it “uppity” it is imperative that our young men learn to speak correctly. We still have far too many African American boys who don’t see the advantage in speaking well. If young African American males want to enjoy the many fruits of success they will first have to learn how to master the English language. Not all black boys will go to Harvard Law School like Obama but at a bare minimum they must graduate from high school and get a job with a training component and advancement to it. Having at least an associate degree is now being seen as a means to achieve a decent quality of life. Wearing droopy pants and oversized jackets thinking that you will get a job much less respect is only fooling yourself. African American males can’t see President Barack Obama saying “yes we can” when they are standing at the corner of despair and disappointment lamenting the system.

As African American males, we all have choices. I was young once and I, too, had some choices to make. Many of us as older black men had the good sense to listen to our elders and followed their rules for success. Young African American males can now see someone who looks like them as president of the United States of America. But in all of their jubilation and exhilaration they must remember one thing and that is success won’t grab them, they must grab it.

The Perils of being young, African American and Male

The Perils of Being Young, African American and Male

By James Ewers

jewers1There is an unhealthy generational gap within the African American male community. It is acute and now more serious than ever. There are some stark differences to what was and what is. Black men my age grew up respecting social customs. For example, we loved our parents and honored our teachers. Our neighborhoods looked out for us. Courtesy and good manners were the rule and not the exception. Using appropriate language with our friends and adults was the common practice. We did not stray from these tenets. We respected girls and women. Sure, my generation had girl friends but we didn’t go around calling them nasty names. We answered the telephone by saying hello and not “yo”.

I and other black men of my generation respected our parents. Personally, I loved and feared my parents both at the same time. My mom provided me with exceptional spankings. She orchestrated my spankings. First, she told me to go in the backyard and get a switch. As she spanked me, she always provided me with wonderful commentary. She would usually tell me how much it was hurting her to do this to me. My thinking was if it was hurting her so much, why wouldn’t she stop? My dad, with his heavy Jamaican accent, chastised me even more. His technique was to make me feel so ashamed for committing the indiscretion. Now after all of this was done the embarrassment of it all set in for me. Whenever the kids in my neighborhood got a spanking, everyone knew about it. All of the adults looked at you with shame and we kids just tried to console each other. There was no number to call to say your parents were disciplining you. Quite frankly, that would not have prevented parents from fulfilling their role as parents.

Going to school was a time for learning and for making friends. Our generation of African American men respected teachers. We would never berate them or talk back to them. I simply can’t fathom talking back to a teacher. Our discipline problems never involved guns and knives. If anything, we may have gotten out of hand with another student but never a teacher. I and many others of my time can honestly say that school was a safe place to be. We just enjoyed school and couldn’t wait until the next day. Our neighborhoods were for the most part quiet and serene places. During the school year we were in the house at an appropriate time. When the street lights came on, we were in the house. Police cars in neighborhoods were a rarity. I am sure that I speak for many African American men during this time when I say we didn’t see our friends with handcuffs on getting into police cruisers. We didn’t have street gangs who tormented each other and neighborhoods. Experiences like I just described happened rarely whether you grew up in cities or towns. Did African American males who came of age in the 1950s and ’60s have perfect environments? No. However, there was a certain level of love, respect and civility that we gave to each other and our families and friends. Even those we didn’t know received the same treatment.

Hurt, harm and danger seem to be words that are used too frequently with today’s generation of African American males. When I look out at some African American males in their 20’s and 30’s, I wonder what has happened. Some seem destined and almost determined to go down the wrong track. In the words of the young, they simply love “drama.” I observe and listen to young black men and I wonder, what has happened? Conversations about dope and not hope go on too often. Going to visit a friend in jail and not in college seems to be happening too frequently. Am I being overly concerned? I don’t think so.

Dr. Ewers is the associate dean for student affairs and director of community partnerships at Miami University Middletown in Ohio. He is the author of Perspectives From Where I Sit: Essays on Education, Parenting and Teen Issues

America Is Saying ‘Yes We Can’ Because of President-elect Barack Obama

Six years ago many of us could not really say with any authority that we had heard of Barack Obama. Our first real glimpse of him came as he delivered a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention held four years ago. After hearing him speak that evening at the convention, I knew that he was someone destined for something great as he captured America’s attention. So approximately two years ago, Barack Obama now a U.S. senator from Illinois announced that he would be running to be president of the United States of America. Many Americans said Barack who? Barack Obama was not a familiar name on the political landscape so the wonderment about whom he was and his politics was to be expected. We should have known something was about to happen when Barack Obama won the Iowa caucus even though he was not favored to win. His campaign used the momentum from the Iowa victory and launched a drive never before seen in American history. Obama certainly had the 3 c’s well in hand as he was competent, compassionate and committed.

Barack Obama used the word “hope” and the phrase “yes we can” throughout his quest to be president of the United States of America. There were enough people who criticized him saying that the word hope had no meaning and was a fluff word. If ever his critics made an error in judgment and calculation it was when they discounted “hope.” You see Americans have always been a hopeful people. Each day that we wake up we are hoping for a god day. When our children tell us what they want to do with their lives, we see the hopeful look in their eyes. When we are up and things are going our way, we are in a hopeful and joyful mood. And even when we are down, we are hoping that things will turn around. Those who don’t believe in hope are usually pretty miserable and negative people.Yes we can’ is just as important because it suggests a can do attitude and spirit. As time went on, Barack Obama was giving people around the country hope for a brighter tomorrow.

I have said on many occasions that the other candidates had campaigns but Barack Obama had a movement. There was a wind that blew across this country which was filled with the air of expectancy and favor. It suggested that while we might have been off course that we were ready to get back on course. This spirit of togetherness that Obama started was inclusive and placed value on each individual regardless of race and gender. All of us were made to feel like we had a seat at the head table and that we could be the shapers of our future. If you had any doubts all you had to do was to look at his audiences. There were people there from different walks of life and socioeconomic status. Teachers were standing next to builders and young folks were seated next to businessmen and businesswomen. Yet even as this powerful force called change was sweeping across America there were those who derided Barack Obama for being too articulate, too clean cut and too professional. And of course for some the three-hundred-pound elephant sitting on the table was his race. So you couple his ability to communicate, his consummate cool and his race all of which was for some Americans just too much to handle. I find the fact that some folks were critical of his oratorical skills almost laughable. Would they have been more comfortable with him babbling or just maybe that would have fit into the stereotype that they have about black men. Despite this challenge, and a few others, the Obama movement has prevailed.

Baby boomers like me can remember where we were exactly when certain life changing events happened. It was no different on Tuesday night as I was glued in front of the television. As the election returns came in my nervousness increased. At just a few seconds at 11p.m. breaking news on CNN declared Barack Obama to be president-elect of the United States of America. My eyes were moist as I thought about going to school in the segregated South and not being able to eat in certain restaurants simply because I was Black. And now here is an African-American who will hold the most powerful position in the world. Yet Barack Obama never used his race to make his case. He talked about the issues of the day and those issues resonated with the American people. Early Wednesday morning Barack Obama had garnered over 330 electoral votes more than the 270 needed to win. During his many speeches, Barack Obama always said that the election was about us and not about him. It is my thinking that with his victory that Americans have reclaimed America. Never before did so many people make it to the polls both on November 4th and through early voting. For example early voting was never in play until this year’s election. The same is true for giving financial contributions through the Internet. These strategies can all be attributed to Barack Obama. The fact that Barack Obama will be the 44th president is almost too surreal for me yet it is true. In my heart I believe that ‘yes we can’ become one America again. President-elect Obama reminds us that we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. And yes we are. I feel now that hope is alive and help is on the way.

Dr. Ewers is the associate dean for student affairs and director of community partnerships at Miami University Middletown in Ohio. He is the author of Perspectives From Where I Sit: Essays on Education, Parenting and Teen Issues.