Hope for "Omar"
A letter from a reader
In recent weeks, John McWhorter and I have devoted much of our attention to “Simone,” the fictionalized version of a college student enamored with critical race theory. But it’s important to acknowledge that, whatever my disagreements with Simone, she will likely be fine. She’s smart, she’s got the work ethic to gain admission to and excel at an elite school, and she’ll have plenty of options when she enters the workforce. I may be worried about what Simone represents, but I’m not too worried about her as an individual.
The other character we often refer to, “Omar,” is another story. Omar is a young man living in a troubled, predominantly black urban community. His early life was unstable; he was almost certainly raised in a one-parent household. He’s troubled at school, demonstrating either behavioral problems or low academic achievement or both. Like most of the other young men he knows, Omar has had some contact with the law. Perhaps he’s been arrested or even convicted of a crime, perhaps even a violent crime. Unlike Simone, Omar probably will not be fine. Unless he manages to break the patterns into which he’s fallen, his future looks pretty bleak.
I often despair of Omar. And I worry, too, that advocates of CRT either don’t understand or choose to ignore the fact that eliminating “systemic racism” is not going to get Omar out of the mess he’s in. He was dealt a bad hand at birth, no doubt. He is working with some real disadvantages. But he’s got to change the way he lives his life. When the intellectuals and pundits who are supposedly most dedicated to helping Omar tell him, “Don’t worry. It’s not your fault, it’s the system’s fault. You don’t have to change anything, the system does,” they’re setting him up for further failure.
Luckily, there really are people on the ground dedicated to helping the Omars of the world change their lives. One of them wrote to me recently—I’m posting his email below. What’s most heartening is this person’s contention that many people in Omar’s position actually want to change their lives. If that’s the case, and there are people out there willing to do the helping, then the situation is serious, but it’s not hopeless.
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Good evening Professors Loury and McWhorter,
I so enjoy your semi-weekly conversations. I am a charter school administrator overseeing seven high schools and a couple "YouthBuild" vocational programs in inner-city Los Angeles, which target youth and young adults who dropped out of or who otherwise were unsuccessful in school. I know a lot of Omars and I wanted to encourage you with my on-the-ground perspective.
My students and their friends have never heard of Ibram X. Kendi or Te-Nehisi Coates. They have never heard of critical race theory. They aren't familiar with the tenets of systemic racism and their own alleged victimhood. This topic and ideology is something that exists on college campuses, not in the streets of Watts or Compton.
My experience with Omar is that he knows right from wrong, and, for the most part, he wants to pursue right. Why? Because his pursuits of wrong have gotten him nowhere, and he wants to turn his life around. But there are a couple of barriers. First off, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Second, he does not have a clear path or a vision for how to get to where he wishes to go. That's where programs such as my own, and many others, come in.
I am not blind to the fact that there is a lot of violence and murder in the communities to which I have devoted my life. And I can't help some of those people. But there are levels of lostness; the shot callers are rare. The vast majority of Omars have been caught up and played a contributing role in this dysfunction, but, as I said above, they want to get out and get right.
I'm also not blind to the fact that what takes place in the university and intellectual realm does eventually trickle down. But I want to tell you that my experience with at-risk youths and young adults in the inner-city is that they are oblivious to all of that. They aren't infected by a victim mentality. Those are taught and learned ideologies, and since they typically have huge holes in their educational experiences, this is something they missed as well. Thinking about and focusing upon all of that is a luxury reserved for middle- and upper-class college students. My experience with Omar is that he is just trying to survive and find his way towards a better life for himself (and, often, his child).
So, all is not lost. Omar isn't as far gone as you might think.
I want to thank both of you for all that you do. Your candid conversations inspire me and touch me, and I don't feel so alone in my pursuits.