It was intended as a good deed: Two teenage boys sprucing up city fire hydrants in exchange for a small fee to be spent, saved and shared with the youth group organizing the program.
But when a white motorist saw the black youths splashing yellow paint around Saturday near Old Decatur and Tillman roads, she suspected they were up to no good, followed them and eventually called the police.
Andre Patterson, supervisor of the “Just for Youth” program, may or may not be correct when he compares the incident to the tragic case of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen who was killed in a struggle with a volunteer neighborhood watchman who suspected he might be contemplating a crime. After all, the driver's concern may have been motivated by the painters' age, not race. But that very ambiguity only highlights the need for people of all races to reject negative stereotypes while at the same time addressing the very real problems that fuel those stereotypes.
Patterson, a former Fort Wayne Fury professional basketball player who now an outreach coordinator in IPFW's Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, also chairs the Fort Wayne Commission on African-American Males, which on Saturday will host a program Patterson hopes will enlist men – and especially fathers – in the education of children.
“We've had a rash of violence in our community, but when men get involved in education, violence goes down and (students') self-esteem and grades go up,” said Patterson, who does not absolve white racism and the lack of economic opportunities but also insists that blacks not make excuses for the conditions they face. The lack of male role models and its negative impact on education (fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of school) is especially acute in the black community, in which unmarried women account for about 70 percent of the births.
“I can't change the facts about single moms, but men need to stop making excuses for not participating in their children's lives,” Patterson said. The “Glynn Hines Back to School Fatherhood Initiative” – named in honor of the long-time 6th District city councilman – is a commendable effort to replace apathy with involvement.
The first 250 fathers or male mentors who agree to accompany their children to their first day at school and to remain involved in various ways throughout the school year will receive free backpacks and supplies. Free food and haircuts will also be available at the event, which coincides with Black Star Project's “Million Father March” scheduled for 600 U.S. cities on Monday.
It's easy to be cynical about a program that offers free stuff so men will promise to do just a small fraction of the things they should be doing not only willingly but enthusiastically. But you've got to start somewhere, and Patterson hopes to assemble a database of names that, over time, will represent a group of dedicated men large enough to make a difference not only in children's lives but also in the community.
“If men get re-engaged, we'll see different outcomes. Education is the No. 1 vehicle to get there. It brings transformational change,” he said.
Nor is Patterson alone in his efforts to motivate men of all races to fulfill the obligations that accompany fatherhood. As I wrote in May, Allen County Health Commissioner Deborah McMahan has also sounded the alarm about the problems posed by absent fathers – a condition that in addition to poor education is also a predictor of poverty, health problems and crime. Nearly 37 percent of all the births in Allen County in 2011 were by unwed mothers.
Racism is pernicious precisely because it substitutes broad stereotypes for individual knowledge and discernment. Would that woman have judged the two young painters had she known they were apparently model high school students who were part of a youth group working to help themselves and taxpayers alike? Would young black males be subject to as much scrutiny, however unjustly, were they not responsible for a disproportionate number of negative headlines?
"My daughter was painting hydrants in a black neighborhood and was thanked,” Patterson said. “The boys (questioned by police) just said, 'We knew it would happen.' It was disheartening. Kids get blamed for not doing things and harassed for doing positive things.”
And will the unfairness of that experience make those kids less eager to do the right thing next time?
Education -- in more ways than one -- clearly is needed to help unite a city that too often remains divided. Saturday is a start, but mustn't be the end.