The world we live in is scary place. We have threats from abroad in the form of terrorist factions. At home, we face home grown terror from shooters at elementary schools, movie theaters, and government buildings. While our hearts go out to the innocent victims of these tragedies, we have victims of another kind that are consistently overlooked. Young black males in this country are victims of shootings on a regular basis. Yet, there is not a hint of national coverage dedicated to their plight unless someone happens to capture the inequity and injustice on video, as in the case of Eric Garner.
Unfortunately, the man of color seems to be consistently portrayed in a negative light no matter his efforts to avoid it. Too many times black men are characterized as thuggish, Richard Sherman, for every gesture that does not fit status quo. What exactly is that status quo? Whether we are wearing a hoodie or a three-piece suit, we are targeted the same. Society has been conditioned to believe that black men are a threat to the community. When the media interviews minorities, they seem to always choose a person that is not well spoken with a disheveled appearance.
The one constant is the media spin. Be it Trayvon Martin and now Michael Brown, the spin machine has been effective in scouring the social media profiles and finding the most unflattering picture possible to show these victims as villains that had it coming. The spawning of the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown trend is a direct result of professional black men wondering, “Am I next?” Even white protesters of Ferguson recognize that their children can wear hoodies and sagging pants without being perceived as a threat. It is a terrible reality that makes you wonder as a black man, “Am I still considered only 3/5 of a person?”
Before I became Mr. Refined, I grew up in Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood during the 1980s. It was the epitome of the crack-era and its effects. Neighborhoods were tough to navigate. You had limited choices when it came to your future. However, Harlem had largely insulated me from direct racism and I had been successful in limiting my interactions with cops. I am a product of the now defunct Rice High School. Although my grandmother sacrificed to send me to parochial school, finding African-American role models and mentors was hard. You could join the gangs, go to the military, or work a minimum wage job. While intelligent, I did not have reinforcements in my surroundings to show me that school was a viable option.
College was not on my brain. My dying grandmother made me promise to go to college. But if not for that promise, I could have been Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, or Michael Brown. I entered college to fulfill a promise. However, I still was not sure I belonged. Being a black face amongst a sea of white faces is an experience that anyone not attending an HBCU knows all too well. It was a culture shock and road I had to navigate with no map or point of reference. My white classmates were not culture shocked by the collegiate experience. They were not questioned about their attire, mannerisms, or speech patterns. My college experience became a microcosm of the world at-large and the true perception of being a black man, even in professional environments.
I knew that the old ways of “the block” would not cut it. It was a growing and maturing process, not without its stumbles and pitfalls. I struggled early on dealing with how to stay true to my roots while navigating college and the business world thereafter. Not having a blueprint for this eventually led to the creation Mr. Refined as an online lifestyle platform to guide men from who they are today to better state of living. Mr. Refined is my story as a Harlem native, first generation college and MBA graduate. Mr. Refined is an incarnation of my transformation in style and professional stature from Harlem’s Sugar Hill to Westchester to Wall Street. It is how I learned to assimilate without forgetting where I came from.
However, assimilation and an MBA still does not shield me from being profiled and targeted by police. I am still subjected to the dehumanizing experience of police randomly stopping me for being black and walking in my neighborhood or any neighborhood where I do not “look like I belong.” We need to change the perception. Let’s all come together for real change. Change like this starts from the inside. If we will not do it, “they” will not do it for us.
What does real change look like? It resembles being an active part of the community. This can take many forms. However, soup kitchens and painting a few playgrounds is not enough. If we do not instill the value of life in our youth, then our current actions in response to Ferguson is simply a band-aid on the gunshot wounds of those injured and killed in our communities. Mentoring programs and true community outreach are what we need. We need to get back to, “Each One Teach One.” We need hands-on support for students navigating the education system. Families and organizations in the neighborhoods need volunteers willing to invest their experience back in the community. Programs like iMentor, where I volunteer, work with at-risk high school youth to help them get into college. Organizations like the National Urban League bring together professionals of color from various industries to make an impact in the community.
Unfortunately, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Sean Bell keep happening to us. When do we take a stand? Not just in the sense of rallies and protests, but in our everyday lives. What we share on social media, the pictures, the stories, and businesses we support matter. What happened after Barneys? People are still shopping there.
When will we make a consistent choice to support homegrown community enterprises? We need to change the images that our youth see and the light the media portrays us in. We need to create and support our own media channels, businesses, and community organizations. Gentrification is only bad for those who do not think progressively and take advantage. There is a level of information asymmetry when it comes to matters of real estate, finance, legal, etc. However, there are enough college-educated folk in the neighborhood who can make a difference. We need to re-invest in “the blocks” that raised us and made us strong, persistent, and entrepreneurial in college and life. It starts with us.