“So I had more of a safety net.”

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The President visits the Becoming A Man group at Hyde Park High School. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Now, this is what I had a chance to talk about when I met with some young men from Hyde Park Academy who were participating in this B.A.M. program. Where are the guys I talked to? Stand up you all, so we can all see you guys. (Applause.) So these are some — these are all some exceptional young men, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. And the reason I’m proud of them is because a lot of them have had some issues. That’s part of the reason why you guys are in the program. (Laughter.)

But what I explained to them was I had issues too when I was their age. I just had an environment that was a little more forgiving. So when I screwed up, the consequences weren’t as high as when kids on the South Side screw up. (Applause.) So I had more of a safety net. But these guys are no different than me, and we had that conversation about what does it take to change. And the same thing that it takes for us individually to change, I said to them, well, that’s what it takes for communities to change. That’s what it takes for countries to change. It’s not easy.

-President Obama speaking on Friday at Hyde Park High School.

Out of everything he said at the public school down the road from our church and home, it was these two paragraphs from President Obama’s speech that grabbed my attention.  I noticed not because the President said something new but because he acknowledged the systemic injustices that are rarely mentioned in public.  So much of the commentary about the violence in our city ignores the surrounding circumstances not to mention the troubling history that has led to this constant crisis.  And while he just barely eluded to it, the President is right about the systemic inequity that provides a safety net for some while leaving others to fend for themselves.

The day before the President delivered his speech at Hyde Park High School, Chicago Public Schools announced the list of 129 schools that are on the preliminary list of schools to be closed.  Most of these are on the city’s south and west sides, in the neighborhoods that already lack much of the safety net the President referenced.  And so it goes.

2 comments

  1. Josh S

    This is a really good way of looking at systemic injustice for people who are in positions of privilege. It’s not that fighting systemic injustice means foregoing personal responsibility, it’s that lapses in responsibility happen to everyone and some environments are more accommodating to those lapses than others.

    For a kid growing up the suburbs, screwing up and getting caught at it means perhaps some stern words or a grounding. People tend to start from a perspective of “He’s a good kid and we all screw up. Let’s show some mercy, give ‘a lesson,’ and let the kid move on from it.”

    For a kid growing up in a rough part of town, screwing up and getting caught can mean a real change in life path — facing a judge in court, a rap sheet, or even time in jail. The perspective never starts with a default of “must be a good kid that made a bad decision, like we all do”, but rather with a default of “must be a bad kid.”

    The actions are the same, but the margin for forgiveness or leeway is much smaller.

    For the people who preach personal responsibility, consider the difference in response for the little mistakes that most all kids make. In some environments, those little mistakes are a hiccough on the way to productive life; in other environments, those little mistakes are unrecoverable. That’s systemic injustice.

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