From a terrible waste to selfies, what are we saying to the youth?

By Michael Vass | February 17, 2015

President Obama recently released a series of “selfie” photos to promote his vision of health care (commonly known as Obamacare). These images, criticized by some for being a degradation of the office of the President, brought up a thought few have touched on over the years. What are we telling the minority youth of America?

As a child of the 1970’s, there were messages being delivered to my generation. Ads and television commercials that called for specific action from the youth. Many who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s may recall the “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” commercial and several similar ads.

These Public Service Announcements (PSA) were a direct and unsubtle call to action on public television. They were a direct response to the gains via the Civil Rights movement made in the 60’s, and the sacrifices of several generations. The understanding was that without education, the Black (and as an extension all minorities) community would falter. That without active participation, the social gains of the 60’s would fade away opening the door to history repeating itself.

The effect of the Civil Rights movement, and the highly effective PSA television commercials, was to spur education. In 1960 the percentage of high school graduates was 43.2% for Whites and 20.1% for Blacks (no Census data [table 263] was available for other minorities until 1970). In the 1970’s that percentage increased to 54.5% for Whites and 31.4% for Blacks – data for Hispanics was initiated at 32.1%. The increase for Blacks was an improvement by more than half in a single decade. By 1980 the figures resulted in graduation levels of 68.8% for Whites, 51.2% Black, and 44% for Hispanics. In 1990 there was growth in graduation from high schools of 79.1% Whites, 66.2% Black, and 50.8% Hispanic – it was also the first year where figures were reported for Asians – 80.4%. In the space of 3 decades, a generation of Americans, the emphasis on education, especially among minorities, had increased the number of graduates by more than 300% for Black Americans, and more than 50% for Hispanics.

As a society this was also seen in a growth in television shows and movies featuring minorities. Not just as background characters, or a single episode supporting character, but as leads. This was most notable with The Cosby Show. A family of successful, intelligent, and upper middle class Black Americans. The spin-off of A Different World further signaled the potential and need for minorities to become educated and excel.

But in the mid-90’s, there was a sea change in the nation. The advent of instantaneous communication via beepers and later cell phones, the emergence and growth of the internet, as well as the change in marketing and attitudes of rap music culminated in a new view towards education and minorities in society.

Movies, and television shows, emphasized the teen and 20-something hero. A character that was singly the smartest and most necessary figure in the universe of that small or silver screen world. Characters like Moesha, who was identified as the source of all knowledge and motivation for that show. Characters that were not highly educated, and lacked any visible determination to achieve the fruits that an education may provide.

At the same time, in rap music, acceptance finally arrived on the heels of gangsta rap. While rap music had evolved into multiple genres and mass appeal, it was still shunned as a fake style of music of its own. Only until rap focused on the negatives of society – drugs, money at any cost, a lack of education, and a glorification of incarceration and a lack of education, was it widely accepted and mass marketed.

In fact, gangsta rap was so heavily commercialized that it grew to dominate and essentially eliminate all other forms of rap music. With that came the media hype of the new rock stars of generations to come. Individuals who couldn’t speak well enough to get a job as the fry guy at a fast food store, with prison records and convictions for violence and drug dealing suddenly became famous instead of infamous. The blurring of the line between fame and infamy would eventually become so severe as to no longer exist anymore.

There is no societal rebuke for a rapper who sold (and in some cases still sells) drugs. Actually drug use has become a somewhat accepted social behavior. There is no penalty for abuse of women in music videos, or in fact in the real world as R. Kelly and Chris Brown have proven. Instead, the appeal of becoming just like one of these individuals has been intensified. Why suffer through long classes, years of study, and hard work in developing a career when effort can be put into just developing a talent (or devising a new marketing angle – i.e. 50 cent, Biz Markie, ect)? Kid Rock was showered with adulation for his crossover appeal, and virtually ignored for his inability to read.

While there are other socioeconomic factors involved, we cannot ignore the impact of what we as a society are showcasing to our children, and especially minority children, everyday. Gone since the 1980’s are the PSA of wasting a mind. In its place we have music videos and pitiful attempts to impart a message like 2008’s Read a Book [a particularly insulting packaging of a serious message].

Some will of course point to the same stats from the Census [table 229], to state that the message of education and self improvement has not been lost. They will point out that Black and Hispanic graduations from high school has continued to grow. By 2000 the percentage grew to 78.5% and 57% respectively. In 2010 the figures were 84.2% for Black Americans and 62.9% for Hispanics.

Still, the improvement over 30 years from 1990 – 2010 was just 18% for Blacks. Hispanics has a mere 12.1% improvement. College graduation over that same period of time grew a paltry 8.5% for Blacks, 4.7% for Hispanics. Since 2005 the graduation figures have all but stagnated.

Somewhere along the line since the mid-90’s, we have collectively given up on not just the American dream, but the concept of education as the key to future success. We have become complacent in accepting drug use and drug dealing as a part of our daily lives. We have abandoned the goal of hard work to attain better for ourselves and our children, and replaced it with a hope of instant stardom (American Idol, et al) and a glorification of poverty (ghettofabulous).

Perhaps worst of all, the shining example for many in the minority community was the election of a Black President. This was something that was impossible 30 years ago. It was widely expected not to occur in the lifetime of those born at the start of the Civil Rights movement. But in 2008, a figure that looked like he could fit the bill appeared and swept the nation with a hope for change.

Now in 2015, the reality that change was too much to hope for from this particular President has reached many. Even die-hard supporters have lost the bravado and luster they maintained as late as 2012. All the while a message is being sent to children and minorities, one that is hardly uplifting.

While serious threats to the nation abound, our President offers selfies. Where open debate and compromise are essential, our President offers Executive Orders and threats. Where support of our allies is required, we offer a 21st century version of singing kumbaya around a political campfire. In many ways, no matter the spin attached or offered after the fact, the message is after all the strife and effort, incompetence is the reward.

On a daily basis we are selling the wrong message to our children, especially if they are minorities. We are so busy trying to ensure how we look and are described is pleasant, that we have effectively ignored improving our surroundings and self. We are so busy defining what words can be used, and by whom, that we are wallowing in the circumstances that promote the use of negative stereotypical terms in the first place. We have not just stagnated, but begun (or debatably already began) to reverse all the gains provided by the Civil Rights movement of the past.

Any society that does not learn from its past is doomed to repeat past mistakes. In the active promotion of shunning education we only hasten the outcome. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, and even more tragic is when that mind is unaware of the waste.

What is needed is not the pandering to the instant gratification of the internet. We do not need further indulgence in “selfies” or carefully politically calculated watered down messages during the glorification of bad (and in some cases criminal) behavior. What we need is to simply, and seriously, regain the pride and societal drive for improvement that education can fulfill. Not just as a means of low- to mid-level employment, but in gratifying life-long affirmation of self fulfillment.

But these are my thoughts. I am open to hear your own.

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