Child Watch® Column:
How to Keep Our Black Boys Alive: Channeling the Rage

Release Date: July 17, 2015

Marian Wright Edelman

The recent spotlight on systematic racial profiling and police brutality against Black boys and men has exposed a painful truth long known in the Black community: just about every Black youth and man seems to have a story about being stopped by the police, and all live daily with the understanding it can happen to any of them at any time.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn is Director of the Center for Higher Education Enterprise at The Ohio State University and a Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Educational Studies in the College of Education and Human Ecology. He also has faculty appointments in the Ohio State John Glenn College of Public Affairs, Department of African American and African Studies, and Education Policy, Engineering Education, and Sexuality Studies programs. But none of these credentials mattered one bit when Dr. Strayhorn was pulled over by a White police officer a week before he spoke at the June Children’s Defense Fund training for college-age students preparing to teach at CDF Freedom Schools® sites across the country this summer. He shared this story with the 2,000 young mostly non-White leaders because it was an integral part of his message for the young teachers in training: “How to Keep Our Black Boys Alive.”

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He’d just bought a beautiful new car. “So I’m driving my really nice car because that’s what you can do in this country, right? You can work hard and you can make good money, and then you can use your money to buy a car…So I’m in my car, in my good hard-earned money car, and then comes a blue light in my rearview mirror.” The promise of the American Dream was gone in an instant. Instead he wasn’t even sure whether he would “live the next couple of minutes”—“because my nice car, and my nice degree, and my nice money, and my nice bracelet, and my nice looks, and my nice feel, my nice shoes—none of it, none of it, none of it, none of it, none of it is a panacea for the problems that we have in this country. And I watched an officer who does not know me come up to my window and say, ‘Mister, I need to see your license and registration.’ And I got ready to reach for it, and he reached for his gun—and I said, ‘Oh, my God. I know how this ends.’”

Dr. Strayhorn had to make an immediate decision about how he would respond. “I put my hands back and I said, ‘Do I have permission to do what you just asked me to do?’ And the cop said, ‘Yes, you can now move.’” Only then did Dr. Strayhorn go ahead and pull out his registration and license, along with his university identification card, though the officer didn’t seem to care. “He said, ‘Do you know why I stopped you?’  I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Because you don’t look old enough to drive this car.’ It sounded like a compliment, but then I had to remind him—in my head, not out loud—that in this country actually, [when] you get a driver’s license, you’re free to drive any car.”

Dr. Strayhorn knew he’d been stopped for no legitimate reason—a version of the “show your papers” demands Black men have faced since slavery—and he was furious. But he also knew that in that minute he couldn’t show it. That was part of the lesson he wanted to share with our young leaders: “When you are mistreated, deemed guilty before you are innocent, and oppressed by that form of unbridled, misused power and authority, it is infuriating. It is offensive. It is enraging…The rage just started in my pinky toe and it climbed all up my body. But, thank God, I had what I’m going to say is the number-one thing: if you’re going to teach [our children] anything—teach them literacy, teach them numeracy, teach them vocabulary, teach them history, teach them political science, but listen—teach them how to control their rage.”

He explained what he meant: “Don’t deny the rage …but teach them how to control it. How do I control it? How do I channel it? How do I redirect it? Because the word ‘rage’ means violently angry. But I love the second definition of the word ‘rage.’ The second definition of the word ‘rage’ is impassioned enthusiasm. You’ve got to teach them that there is ‘something inside so strong’ [the Freedom Schools theme song]. Tell them, ‘I know you can make it. I know. I know it’s rough sometimes. I know. I know, I know, I know, I know it’s unfair how police officers treat you, how some teachers treat you, but control and redirect that rage.”

He went on: “We’ve got to remember that while we’re teaching them how to control their rage, giving them the language to have that conversation, they need words for that encounter with the police officer, that encounter with the neighbor. The reason why people fight is because words are not present for them to have the conversation. Give them the literacy tools so they can have the conversation. Teach them rage is natural; rage against this thing; rage against inequality—but control it in the face of authority that can take your life, because the end of the thing is we want them to live.”

Self-control over rage at the right moment might help save a Black boy’s life, though even that has certainly never been a guarantee. But no matter what, the critical next step still has to be channeling rage at deeply embedded structural racism and blatant injustice into “impassioned enthusiasm” for the larger fight. That larger fight can and must start with all of us by getting ourselves organized and providing our children positive alternatives to the miseducation in so many schools and the dangers on the street from law enforcement agents. Dr. Strayhorn said: “What allows a young man to [have enough control to] sit there and say ‘hands up’ is that he knows that while his hands are up, someone else’s hands are on the job. I’m willing to put my hands up if I know your hands are on something, right? So I’ll put my hands up if your hands are on the educational problems in this country. I’ll put my hands up so long as your hands are on the problem of inequality in neighborhoods. I’m willing to put my hands up so long as my Black sisters and my White brothers and my Native American brothers and my Latino sisters and brothers are also putting their hands on the problem of racism … We fight for their freedom, and if they know that we are fighting for their freedom, they are more willing, they are more capable, they are more empowered to go through what they have to go through.” 

And, Dr. Strayhorn concluded, this all-hands-on-deck call to rage against injustice and fight for freedom is for everyone: “We’ve got to pursue freedom and justice not just for Black people, but pursue freedom and justice for Latino folks, pursue freedom and justice for Native American people, pursue freedom and justice for gay people, for LGBT, for poor people, for rich people, for tall people, for short people, for people who don’t have anything at all, for first-generation people, for welfare mothers, for everybody. Freedom and justice for all.” 

That’s the message every child of every color who is “different” must internalize to break the vicious cycle of deeply embedded cultural and structural racism that pervades so many American institutions including those too prevalent in the criminal justice system that too often takes rather than protects lives.

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Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by purpletavon at: August 10, 2015
Very important insights in this article/testimony. You have continued to send out creative life lines that are life & mind saving.

Submitted by Me at: July 27, 2015
He was TERRIFIC!! I wish everyone can hear him in person!! Freedom School for Life!!

Submitted by Doc at: July 19, 2015
As an African American female, I have watched my father, uncles, brothers, uncles and cousin submitted to the DWB (Driving While Black)syndrome. Now they are subjected to the WWB (Walking While Black) Syndrome. Surprisingly, even as a Black female, I have been subjected to the DWB syndrome and other forms of racialized thinking. I had a co-worker once ask my how I thought I could be elevated in the highest position in our corporation which was 99% white. This was a co-worker I had orientated into the company and who had witness me lead the company to innovative, creative policies of inclusion and social justice as well as initiatives that improved our service delivery. She, however, could not conceive of an highly educated, seasoned Black woman leading a majority white corporation and others shared her thinking. I have excelled and used my skills and intelligence to develop programs for black people in my field who have gone on to be leaders in a variety of initiatives and locations sponsored by our cooperation. Most of these roles have been within the majority black locations of our service districts. Racism is institutionalized in many of our nations corporations and social and ecclesial institutions despite our national declaration that all our citizens are to experience the "liberty and justice" which form the foundational ideals of our nation and the Christian ecclesial notion that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. Women of color are not only subjected to racial prejudice, they are also subjected to gender and class prejudice. (racism, sexism and classism). As I entered into advance age I began to experience a fourth prejudice ( ageism). In each case submitting to or internalizing these prejudices deprive our nation and its social, educational, ecclesial and corporate systems of the gift of people of color and women. I envision a future in which all people will be valued because they are human and because of the unique gifts each individual and cultural group contributes to our global world and global church. I look forward to the day when all of us will recognized our God-given oneness as human beings in that extraordinary diversity of culture, philosophy, skills etc. that enriches all.

Submitted by ricochet at: July 19, 2015
THANKS! I am a Teacher's Aid in K-6th. Plus I work in an afterschool program. This was very helpful. I will be keeping this on file in my heart and hands.

Submitted by Larry at: July 18, 2015
It's truth has been shown to be true over and over they are regarded as second class.humans

Submitted by Auntie at: July 18, 2015
I like the concept of all hands on deck communicated to our youth vs. asking them to have hope. It is both a call to action for adults and youth. It is both inspirational and instructive.

Submitted by Goughlaw at: July 18, 2015
When I was a kid, when mom and I saw a policeman, mom said,Be nice to policemen, they are your friends. So tragic that nowadays Black moms caution their sons, Be nice to the policemen or they might shoot you.

Submitted by jk at: July 18, 2015
Excellent presentation. I present at the NABCJS in AZ, on 7/21/12 and want to use this doc in my message, if I have permission. My topic is Special needs, their effects when met or not - on education, life and the penal system. I have operated a CDF Freedom school. More/broader exposure is needed - of this teaching. Janetta Kearney

Submitted by Anonymous at: July 18, 2015
This is something that every male and female child of color should read.

Submitted by Pat at: July 18, 2015
Excellent article. I am going to share this article at my next forum.

Submitted by LaSheryl at: July 18, 2015
Great Article

Submitted by Gloria at: July 18, 2015
This will stop when we have enough articulate people like Dr. Strayhorn telling us it is happening At least it is Step 1.

Submitted by Concerned Caucasian at: July 17, 2015
I fully support these ideas and concepts. Ever since Ferguson and everywhere since I have been working in my community to create a coalition of Christian churches to work with our police department to sponsor a series of community forums to help expose the issues in our culture. I would like to know stories of what others have done that have been failures and successes. Hopefully I will hear more of the latter!!!

Submitted by "Doc" B at: July 17, 2015
First, giving honor to my Lord & Savior, Jesus, The Christ, Good Evening to All! This is a very excellent column! The tragedies that have occurred with our youth, especially as they relate to the police officers. This is indeed an atrocity! What we have to understand, when we understand, is that this is a systemic matters that stem back to slavery. Through generations after generations, the African- American male has been oppressed- "You aren't ever going to be anything." Through the rigorous years of segregation, not being allowed to read, less much write, there was an educational struggle. When allowed to seat with White students, and asked to read, they would get laughed at. Now, the plight of a Black man is in dire straits- Education, Economy and Health. The Black man now had the arduous tasks of taking care of himself/ his family. This still lingers today. I remind parents and young people of constant struggles that our ancestors had to wiggle through to get themselves to obtain freedom, justice and equality. Parents and their children must be reminded that our ancestors were called "nigger", spat on, and pushed down stairs in schools. To fight back would further complicate matters. Although some fought back, some picked themselves up with dignity and pride and moved on. The other side of this is that we, as an African- American Community have divided ourselves to point where we don't want to see one another become successful in the wonderful life that God gave us. If we would stop and regress on how our Black brothers and sisters built this country, we should say, Wow! If they did it with little education, and we have all this technology, "We can do all things through Christ, which strengthens us". Parents must admonish their child/ children that they have a life to do whatever they want to do! First and foremost, we must teach our child/ children to respect themselves and others! Parents must admonish their child/ children to obtain an education! We must tell our youth to save and invest their monies wisely. Teach them how to balance their checking account in their registers. The various medical matters that have transpired over the years, we must admonish our children regarding their health! When we teach them the little things, the bigger picture will blossom. Therefore, when we nurture them, and admonish them in the right way, they shall make a difference for the better! Blessings and PEACE!!! Clarence

Submitted by Anonymous at: July 17, 2015
Wonderful column. I like to tell clients (especially the more oppressed they feel!) that there are 2 parts to rage. The dangerous part is the FEAR that we will not be respected... which is just infuriating in a primal way... and that fear itself needs our RESPECT! Then there is the WILL or Positive Intention in the rage. Dr. Strayhorn described it so well. The Will to feel and Be respected. This Will is the life sign and power that can be embraced until you finally OWN it. In therapy it can sound something like: 'How DARE YOU not respect me'.... express that rage in safety and process this painful feeling to the hurt under it.... then, 'I Will Be respected!'... realizing none of us have any real control over the will of any other... regardless of how paltry they may seem... but staying with your own will to respect (I often like to point out that the person IS ALREADY Respected in the highest places... which can allow them to assess what really is High.... ) until you can say calmly 'I will accept Respect... not less... I Welcome and appreciate respect... I give it and get it'. Now they are moving into Ownership of their will which is 100% theirs! I like to finish with a meditation on 'I Am respected... already am'.

Submitted by Phyll at: July 17, 2015
Oh My Gog!! So powerful! Everybody in this country need to hear his presentation!