This is one of a series of Child Watch® Columns on America's Cradle to Prison Pipeline® Crisis.
Compared to today, many of the messages that our children received from popular culture in the 1960s and 70s were positive or at least not harmful. We all remember the Motown love ballads of groups like "The Temptations" who sang songs with lyrics like: "I've got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it's cold outside, I've got the month of May. I guess you'd say, 'What can make me feel this way?' My girl…."
Marvin Gaye's What's Happening Brother album offered a commentary on war, poverty, drug abuse and pollution. And there was message music like James Brown's anthem, "Say It Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud." This music was hugely successful commercially and broadly popular among all racial and ethnic groups.
Regrettably, somewhere in the last 20 or 25 years, many of our young people have been crowded into a cultural corner down a dark alley where violence, hedonism, misogyny and materialism are celebrated. I refuse to believe that children who are constantly exposed to these images aren't negatively affected. Too few videos depict aspiring college students, model teachers or industrious auto mechanics.
How did we get to the point where so many negative images pervade our society? There are a number of explanations. One is that we are reaping the fruits of a bitter crop sown about two decades ago when the portals to the Cradle to Prison Pipeline were widened by the zero tolerance, "tough on crime" policies instituted by the Reagan Administration, including long mandatory minimum prison sentences for even non-violent drug offenses. The focus on incarceration over drug rehabilitation brought a steady stream of young Black men into the Pipeline. Regardless of how bad they were before they entered prison, these young men became worse behind bars. To survive the predations of the other convicts, they had to assume a persona of a vicious, ruthless thug capable of the most unspeakable cruelty with no remorse.
With few lessons about how to succeed on the outside and fewer community supports, many of these brutalized ex-convicts brought everything that they had become back into our communities. In time, a critical mass of negative role models passed on a new set of antisocial behavior to the next generation. So instead of imparting values of hard work, personal responsibility, academic excellence, courtesy and cooperation, they taught young people to drop out of school, that crime pays and that their inability to succeed is someone else's fault. The prison experience has seeped into too much of youth culture and the raps that children and teens listen to.
And why is this toxic music so pervasive today? Profits. Major media and entertainment corporations rake in hundreds of millions of dollars from this music that is polluting our airwaves.
If our young people are going to grow up to be productive, law-abiding citizens who are stable, responsible parents and assets to their communities and nation, we must compete with and drown out thousands of messages that communicate the opposite. We must strive to topple drug kingpins as role models. And we must help children look beyond other highly visible professions like rap star or professional athlete, and realize that their chances of prospering in a career as a doctor, lawyer, pharmacist, journalist, engineer or software writer are many times greater than becoming a member of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team or making millions as a hip-hop artist.
We have to engage in systematic affirmative action to make character corrections in our children. We must monitor what they watch on television, put positive role models in their paths, celebrate their positive achievements — the "A" they got on a math test, their volunteering to tutor a younger student, or the hard work they put in to master a difficult piece on the piano. And we must always be mindful of the examples we set for the behavior we expect from our children.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund.