Synopsis: How do young people deal with race in their lives? We aren’t born racist, so how do some of them become that way? We talk to two young readers authors about their new book that addresses the issue. We discuss how young people relate to those of different races, how friendship and loyalty can figure into how we think of race, and why we need to question our expectations of behaviors based on race.
Host: Gary Price Guests: Jason Reynolds, Brendan Kiely, authors of the young reader’s novel, All American Boys.
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All American Boys: Young People Deal With Race
Gary Price: Where does racism come from? We’re not born to discriminate or stereotype minorities, so how do people grow up to become racists? That was one of the questions addressed in a new young adult novel written by two authors – Brendan Kiely who is White, and Black author, Jason Reynolds. They didn’t know each other when they went out on a book tour together, but Reynolds says that during that trip they got to talking about recent events in the news and decided to delve into the world of young people and race.
Jason Reynolds: As we embarked on the tour, this is coming just after the George Zimmerman verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. Naturally, I was feeling emotionally taught and torn and frustrated and confused and, to make matters worse, I’m on tour with a stranger, a person that I do not know. And fortunately for me and fortunately for Brendan, once it actually came up we ended up really, really connecting on that pain, on that anger and that frustration and all the questions and other things to assess and to analyze in terms of police brutality vigilante killings in America. And as the year went on and the tour went on, there were more and more of these incidents. And with each incident we continued to have conversations delving deeper and deeper into very personal and sometimes uncomfortable issues within each other and the community at large. And finally Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson and that was the final straw in which Brendan came to me and said, “hey, man, we have to do something. We have to do something.” And all we know how to do, other than talk a lot of trash, is write books.
Price: Kiely says that they wanted to show what racism looks like to teenagers who are themselves often caught in the middle of situations involving the police. And they did with their new book, All American Boys.
Brendan Kiely: I think this book in particular is really important for young adults because this is a book about their generation. This is a book about what racism looks like today for young people in America. This is a book about what it looks like to have racism imposed by law enforcement. So young people are the ones who are most often affected by this in today’s society – that’s boys and girls. And so, on one level, that’s why we think it’s important for young adults but it’s also really important to talk about hope, and this is a book that talks about how young people can organize. Young people can work together to make a statement, a powerful statement about what’s happening in their life. And so it’s also important for us to write this book for young adults because we want to give them a little tool so they feel empowered to do great work that they can do.
Price: Reynolds says that the story is about two boys, Rashad who is Black and Quinn who is white.
Reynolds: Rashad and Quinn are sixteen- and seventeen-year-old boys who go to the same high school, who live in the same neighborhood and who have the same group of friends, though they do not know each other. And it’s a Friday night, they’re both going to the same exact party, and on the way to that party they both make the same exact stop, which is at Jerry’s Corner Mart. Rashad stops to get a bag of chips, Quinn stops to try to bum beer using one of the local burn-outs. As Rashad goes into the store to get his chips, a lady trips over him, he drops the bag of chips and the police officer who’s on guard in that store then accuses him of stealing those chips, and things escalate really, really quickly and he’s taken out onto the sidewalk and he’s beaten. And while he’s being beaten, Quinn happens to be standing on the sidewalk. And as he’s standing there he witnesses this brutalization, and furthermore, he knows the cop. And even further, he knows the cop as his father figure. And so then the boys sort of split off into their own sort of realities for a week as they try to deal and reconcile with what has just happened.
Price: Kiely says that the story is structured so that the reader sees the situation from each boy’s point of view.
Kiely: The chapters are alternating between Rashad and Quinn, Rashad and Quinn. It’s as if their two experiences going to the same high school, going to the same party that night, but it’s two wildly different experiences living side-by-side. And the hope is that the book then becomes both a mirror and a window for different kinds of readers. So that Rashad’s experience may seem like a mirror for some; or Quinn’s experience may seem like a mirror for some and vice-versa with the windows. And the third thing that we like to say too is that then it becomes a doorway, so that this doorway is a way in for young people – but also older people as well, families, teachers, librarians, folks who are interested in this issue at large – a doorway for them to walk into the conversation about these two side-by-side experiences.
Price: When the two boys and another witness tell their stories about the incident, we can see how expectations of exactly what goes down and who is at fault are formed. Reynolds says that in similar real-world situations, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on stereotypes and loyalties.
Reynolds: The questioning of expectations across the board would be a healthy thing to start doing in this country. And I think furthermore, we wanted to take a hyper-distilled incident. These incidents are hyper-distilled. They’re literally boiled down to two- or three-minute sound bytes, to 30-second video clips or to talking heads giving their opinions. But we never sort of pull the camera back and look at it from a macro-level and deal with all the complexities and the nuances. It isn’t as simple as everyone thinks it is, and there are so many human beings – I want to make sure I accentuate the term human beings – right? Because these are people, these are human beings in these incidents on all sides and that communities on the whole are affected. Now, what does that look like? How does that shake down? What are all the, sort of, conversations and arguments and debates and all the details that makes these really, really oversimplified experiences a little more nuanced.
Price: But are there expectations on both sides of the incident? Kiely says that certainly there are, but in their story and in real-world situations like it, there is a historical context which we have to acknowledge.
Kiely: At the beginning of the book, Officer Paul Galluzzo, who’s the policeman who brutalizes Rashad, he’s a white police officer. And it’s important for us to think about the long history in the United States of what racism looks like. And Paul, although he is really someone who gets up in the morning and thinks of himself as a hero who, when other people look at him they think of him as a hero, including Quinn. He’s the kind of guy who, in the neighborhood, is the guy who’s flipping burgers and everybody loves his burgers the most. He’s the guy who’s looking out for people like Quinn’s mother, helping her through hard times, carrying her up the front steps when she’s in emotional trouble. He’s a nice guy. But nice people sometimes have buried within them the effects of racism. And so Paul probably brings to this moment our own, large American historical at young Black youth, which is something we want all of us to examine.
Price: He adds, though, that the purpose of the story is not to be a wholesale condemnation of law enforcement.
Kiely: I think it’s true that we can demonize all too easily all police officers, and that’s not our goal with this book at all. There are plenty of police officers who are doing great work. But what we would love to do is to encourage a conversation for us step back and examine these complexities before just perpetuating the same problems over and over again.
Price: Isn’t there more acceptance now of different races, ethnicities and lifestyles? Certainly there is a lot more diversity and minority integration in Quinn’s and Rashad’s world than there was in the world of their parents or the police officer. But Kiely says that this change in culture doesn’t erase the racism that still exists in young people’s lives.
Kiely: We have 400 years of reinforced racism over and over again, and so although kids are hanging out with each other and they’re on the same basketball team and they’re friends, the kinds of signals and cues people get when they’re sitting in class. You know, a teacher might call on one student more than another. The kinds of cues you get over and over again when you’re watching commercials about, “hey, who’s driving which kind of car?” The kind of cues you get when you’re watching movies, and who are the people who are in positions of power in all of these movies. All these cues, over and over and over again enforce a kind of subtle understanding of superiority and inferiority, and so to me, that’s what I mean when I’m talking about the kind of under-the-surface kind of racism. These kids all want to be friends, but all those societal cues, even parents who think they’re doing wonderful things and usually are, sometimes subconsciously might be sending some of those same signals.
Price: So how do we end racism in America? Kiely says it’s not going to be easy, but that young people today are the key to moving forward on the issue.
Kiely: Kids ask us this question wherever we go. Kids are always asking us, and these are Black kids, these are white kids, these are young Hispanic and Latino kids who are asking us, “will racism ever not exist? What can we do to help stop these kinds of things from happening?” And I think that by not teaching each other to be colorblind, but instead to create safe spaces where we can talk about all this and try not to hurt each other’s feelings, to create really open, honest conversations is a great start. And, secondly, I think that if I’m a student who’s become accustomed to talking about this with ease and fluidity the same way I can rattle off basketball statistics with my friends, in a way that depersonalizes some of it, I think it’ll be really important 10 years down the line.
Price: When those kids become police officers and HR executives and CEOs of major corporations. Reynolds agrees that racism in all its forms isn’t going to disappear overnight.
Reynolds: I think it’s just going to take some time. I think there’s a lot of reworking and a lot of things that have to be undone, and a lot of hard conversations. And I think there’s going to have to be some generational die-out, to be completely honest. I think that as generations continue to fade away, younger generations have a chance to actually spread their wings and sort of be whoever it is they want to be. I mean we’ve seen that with the gay rights movement, we’ve seen that with all sorts of movements, the diversification of the government slowly but surely, so I just think that it’s going to take constant work. It’s not going to turn over in a day; it’s not going to be a decision that we’re all making tomorrow that everybody’s good. It’s going to be over the course of decades and decades we’re going to hopefully see America become a better place when it comes to race relations. But it’s going to take some patience.
Price: You can read how two young boys work out their issues with race, loyalty and justice in Jason Reynolds’ and Brendan Kiely’s young adult novel, All American Boys, available now in stores and online. To find out more about all of our guests, you can log onto our website at Viewpointsonline.net. You can also find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.