Picture of football players

Opinion

Youth Voice: How Limited Representation of Black Men Almost Limited My Life

Quintez Brown

This story is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English learners, students of color, and students with disabilities.

I made it.

In just a few days, I’ll graduate from the best public high school in the state of Kentucky. I'll be smiling from ear to ear as I walk across the stage and receive my high school diploma, and my family will be there to cheer me on and congratulate me for this accomplishment. But they saw this day coming—I’ve always been the “gifted” child, and graduating from a high school that has a 99 percent graduation rate is not a big surprise to them.

Though I am proud and excited, I’m also troubled by the many barriers I had to overcome to get to this point, barriers that fail many young people, like me, before they even realize it.

When I started high school, I saw myself with a future in sports. I dreamed of becoming an NFL or NBA player. If that failed, I saw a career in the music industry. It wasn’t because I wasn’t doing well in school—I was an honor roll student entering an advanced program.

Rather, my career choice was the result of the representation of Black men in the media. I didn’t grow up seeing Black doctors, Black lawyers, or Black politicians on TV. I never had a Black male teacher and there weren’t Black professionals in my family. The successful people who looked like me were making millions playing sports and writing catchy hooks. This is what I saw, and this is what millions of Black boys see every day.

Watching Black celebrities make millions of dollars and listening to their stories of coming from rags to riches is what made me hopeful of “making it out”—making it out of neighborhoods with high crime rates, high incarceration rates, and low graduation rates compared to wealthier zip codes across town. I knew I was smart enough to be successful in college, but I didn’t think I would be able to afford it without an athletic scholarship. Since no one in my family had gone to college either, I didn’t know the first thing about financial aid.

Picture from "The Blind Side"
“The Blind Side” follows the story of a young Black man’s journey from a tough childhood to the NFL.

To make matters worse, coaches and peers encouraged me to continue playing sports because it could pay for my education. So I spent countless hours and days training and practicing in different sports, hoping to land an athletic scholarship. My love of learning made it possible for me to maintain good grades, but my time commitment to sports took away from any participation in extracurricular activities and volunteering experience that aligns with my current career aspirations—to become a civil rights attorney, and one day run for office. It’s a career choice influenced by seeing a Black president and having a father who told me that politics was the best way to drive social change.

I tried multiple sports in high school but eventually quit all of them before my senior year. I knew an athletic scholarship to a big school had become unlikely, so I tried to snag an academic scholarship instead. I spent my final year of high school volunteering and getting involved in extracurriculars and community organizations that would build a college resume, including the debate team, Louisville Youth Resisting Injustice and Changing Systems, a Racial Equity Youth Council, and my school’s Black Student Union. These groups provided me with adult mentors and the connections that helped me figure out where to go and how to pay for college. Participating in these different groups also helped me realize the racial and social injustice happening within my community and the world. It’s where I began to realize that educational injustice is failing a lot of kids in our country.

Suspension Data for Girls and Boys
Chart taken from Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies

I and millions of other students will be graduating high school this spring, but what’s next? Some students will attend a four-year college, some will go off to the military, some will pick up a trade, but for many, this is the end of the road. Maybe they’ll try college, but once they get there, some will realize they were never prepared for it. They’ll realize that they were set up for failure. According to U.S. News and World Report, “Only about a third of U.S. high school seniors are prepared for college-level coursework in math and reading. And while the performance of the country’s highest achievers is increasing in reading, the lowest-achieving students are performing worse than ever.” This is an American achievement gap.

From grades, standardized-test scores, course selection, dropout rates, and college-completion rates, and even discipline rates, you can see America failing many of its “underserved” children. These children are often the victims of the horrendous systems of poverty and racism that has plagued the country since its founding. As a result of this history, the limited representation of people of color we see in the media, our day-to-day lives, and in positions of power is just one consequence of many that falsely erodes the mindset of young people and the decisions we make about our lives.

My graduation will be a great celebration for me. But I am not satisfied. There are too many young people who want to experience that same moment but were failed by their school system and our society. I am going to college to fight for them. I am going to continue to educate myself on the current injustices that plague our nation. I am going to take up political science so I can learn how politics are being used to further oppress disadvantaged groups and what more can be done to help improve their situations.

I am going to make sure that when young Black boys see me, they don’t see yet another musician or athlete, but a different future focused on service to others that also has value and purpose. I hope that they can look beyond the bright lights and catchy verses to the realization that they have options in how they shape their lives. As for me, my road will not end when I cross the stage at graduation. It is just the beginning.

Learn more about the GradNation State Activation Initiative

The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.

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To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to increase them, join the GradNation Learning Community, a hub for sharing strategies and successful practices. Just send an email to [email protected] with your name, email address and organizational affiliation. To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.