Welcome to Conversations with Coleman. My guest today is Jamil Jivani. Jamil actually went to Yale Law School with my sister. That’s how I first heard of him. He is a community organizer who focuses on social mobility for young men. He is the author of a new book called Why Young Men: The Dangerous Allure of Violent Movements and what we can do about it. And that’s going to be our main topic of discussion for today. Thanks for being on with me Jamil.
JJ: Yeah. Thanks for the invitation Coleman.
CH: Of course, so mmm. So this book, which I really recommend is kind of part memoir and part social science analysis of why it is that young men are so attracted to violent movements like ISIS, radical movements, white supremacist movements and what are the uniting variables that make young men so vulnerable to be recruited into these things worldwide. And you kind of position yourself as someone who was very susceptible, who kind of had all of the variables that would select for someone going into radical movements or um otherwise being kind of lost to society, getting involved in the criminal justice system. And I want to talk about your background and what makes it, you know, what gives you a unique standpoint? Or an especially useful standpoint on these issues? So what was it about growing up where you did that made you particularly vulnerable to the pull of radical movements?
JJ: Yeah. Well one of the foundational pieces I start the book with and I think is a pretty key part of my perspective on everything is growing up without a father in my household. You know, often when we talk about how we identify that’s not something that people tend to, you know, hold onto as a key part of their identity is being a fatherless kid, but for me, that’s there’s such a big part of my life and
how I experienced the world. And how I try to frame it to people is that a lot of violent movements position themselves as these authorities on essential identities, right? That they’re the authorities on what it means to be part of a certain race or also what it means to be part of a this the male gender. They’re offering this kind of masculine a narrative of how to be strong and how to be forceful and how to stand for something and many of the virtues that we associate with masculinity are things that these groups claim to be experts in. So for me growing up without a dad, that’s the starting point is that I’m leaving my mom’s house everyday, like looking for this sort of father figure somewhere in a neighborhood, where lots of other people are doing that too. And the research continues to show that when you’re in a community where a lot of people are searching for that, whether that’s because their father is not around at all, like in my case or because your father works too much or your father got locked up or your father’s just not emotionally available, right? But there’s some sort of vacancy in your household. I think that just puts you on a starting point of searching for something without very much direction and without much clarity on what how to distinguish, you know a good male alternative to your father versus a bad one. And that’s where I started off and so my my childhood was this sort of 18-year journey to try to find a father that that wasn’t in the house, but hoping that I could find him at school or in my neighborhood or somewhere else. So that I think was a key part of my vulnerability and I I recognize that not everyone who is susceptible to being recruited into a violent movement is starting in that same exact place, but I think where my life intersects with a lot of the people who do become jihadists or gangbangers or white supremacist is that there is that same sort of void in our lives. There’s a sense of we’re hoping someone else is going to teach us what it looks like to be a strong man and we unfortunately take that message in from wrong people too often.
CH: And the wrong people you took it in, you took it from as a kid were essentially what you call like the Hollywood gangster rap culture, right? You were listening to DMX as a kid and you were taking the messages that were prescribed in those songs as kind of literal communications about how to live rather than just as great music, right? And I I think, you know, I want to talk about the impact that that had on you and your friend group. Like what, how did the behavior change when you started listening to DMX and gangster rap in general? And, you know, how did you feel listening to that music? How did, you know, how did that influence you?
JJ: Yeah, I think that we’re at this point in society where it’s common to say things like representation matters, right? So when we’re analyzing who sits on the board of directors at a Fortune 500 company, when there’s not gender parity or there’s not representation of certain minority groups, we acknowledge that, you know having whatever identity you attach yourself to in certain places is relevant in society. People, it’s like widely recognized that that’s important.
JJ: But when we talk about it in the context of pop culture, I think a lot of those same people are uncomfortable recognizing that if you are a kid who grows up and over and over again, whether it’s because of what you experienced in your neighborhood or in your family or culturally you’re taught to think of yourself on almost this race-first basis. So your primary identity is that you are black and that you are a man, but then you look around and say, “Well, where are the black men that I see every day?” In my case, they there weren’t very many older black men in my neighborhood. As I said, a lot of us didn’t have dads around. So then you say, “Okay. Well are they at school?” No, they’re not at school. They’re not professionals that we’re interacting with in whatever capacity. But where do you find them? And that’s where pop culture starts to become, have this outsized role. So you say, “Okay. Well the black men I see every day are basketball players on TV. They’re rappers on BET. They’re people who I’m listening to their music. And that’s where the black identity that I am holding so close to my heart, that’s why I’m getting some direction on what that means and what it looks like.
JJ: So there’s a there’s not much diversity in that either, right? I mean we’re talking about the late 90s, early 2000s where you’re seeing Allen Iverson and DMX. And Tupac and Biggie were just killed. And you have this sort of um you know, kind of post-Tupac era where you got all these rappers coming in and a very particular kind…
JJ: …of rap music is getting most of the attention.
JJ: Right. And it’s the, it’s the guys who are talking about shooting people, selling drugs, fighting, being violent. So yeah, I think for us what that meant was not just that it was exciting. I mean look a lot of people regardless of your background are drawn to Hollywood gangsters, right? We love their movies, we like seeing them in action. Rap is super popular across the board, but it took on a different sort of cultural meaning for us. And the behavioral changes that means is that we start to dress like DMX, right? And then you start to have people perceive you like they perceive DMX. Like they see DMX and say,”Well, he’s a drug dealer and a gangster.” And so when they see you now walking on the street, they start to associate you with that.
JJ: Whether you are conscious of that’s what you’re doing to yourself and to your community, that’s nonetheless the effect of what you’re taking on, right? And then you start to sell, think selling drugs are cool. You want to smoke drugs. You want to mimic the lifestyle that is depicted on TV as much as possible. Um, and yeah that that that I think was the the primary behavioral change. It also means that you start to hire, you know, you create a hierarchy of values and a hierarchy of people who exhibit those values. So my, one of my friends that I write about in the book Rich. He was a guy who actually was like held back in school. So he was bigger than all the rest of us, stronger, could fight really well. Um, he was a guy who came to Canada from Jamaica. So he was like the closest thing to what we were seeing on TV in our peer group. Like he was the biggest strongest guy and he mimicked DMX and Tupac incredibly well in his language, in his attitude. So he was a cool guy. He was a guy everyone wants to be like because that’s the the value hierarchy that you’re you’re you’re ascribing to in that moment, right? And things like doing your homework, or you know going to class, following instructions from teachers, having a peaceful relationship with cops, having a a a peaceful of relationship with your mother, all of those things start to seem less cool. They’re lower on the value hierarchy. You just not that you’re not you’re not measuring your own life by what might be actually good things to want to aspire to, right? And it breeds a certain sort of dysfunction and what it does too, is that it puts, I mean, it’s like young men leading other young men, right? I mean we’re talking about these rappers who are like in their 20s and they’re, these guys are you know from poor neighborhoods. They just made a bunch of money for the first time. They didn’t ask to be cultural leaders…
JJ: They’re not signing up to to tell a bunch of young boys in the suburbs of Toronto how to think and feel about themselves. So in some ways it’s a bit of that case of the blind leading the blind like like they are, they’re a lot of them are fatherless young men too, like they’re struggling with the same things we are and yet we’re looking to them as if they’ve answered those questions and we haven’t.
CH: It’s it’s interesting like this point about role models, like it can sound like a Hallmark card, kind of like a, kind of glib sentiment, but it’s actually extremely deep, right? Like when I was 7th grade, I wanted to be a basketball player. I was watching Allen Iverson videos and I just loved everything about him. I was practicing basketball everyday. And I was also a person who was very smart in school and also I had a lot of healthy role models or rather more realistic role models, right? Because there’s this tension between on the one hand, telling kids to pursue your biggest dreams and if you notice that half of the boys in the room, their their biggest dreams are rappers, basketball players, and football players. Well, you know that the likelihood of them becoming any of those things is really low. So there’s this tension between telling people to pursue their biggest dreams and on the other hand being realistic, right? But but this point about role models, I think is a really really good one because men, especially men, and women but, men what we are driven by I think is status, prestige, right? And how you attain status differs wildly based on your identity and where you grow up. So there’s I think of it kind of like different sports. Like there are, there are rules for what to do to be a good basketball player. You put it in the hoop. You use your hands. You don’t use your feet. In soccer, there’s a different set of rules for what it means to be a good soccer player. What it means to be a black person, a black boy specifically in many contexts, what it means to attain status is to be who you were in high school, right? Yeah, I mean you talk about bringing knives to school or bringing bringing, you know, Louisville Slugger bats to school and hiding them in your jeans kind of, almost hoping for a fight, right? Never backing down from a fight. So like the rules of that game, the blackness game. There’re, there’re a very particular set of rules. They vary somewhat, but they’re very much influenced by hip hop. And the problem with that is, you know, when you’re, when you’re that age, you’re playing whatever game you’re playing and you’re not thinking about the long-term consequences of the game. And it seems as if it’s the only game on offer to you. When you know, whe- when if you had different role models, if you had an example of a black father who was playing a very different game, a game where what it meant to win was to do well in school and to you know, make money in mainstream society, um not to be involved with gangster or criminal subcultures, then you might you might have had a kind of choice of games in front of you and you might have picked the one that has the better chance of paying off in the long run. But what you have available to you is what you have available to you. And we’re programmed to play the game that we think we’re supposed to be playing. So what was it, you know about you. Let me ask a different question. How do we change this? How do we change the game that many young black boys feel that they have to play?
JJ: It’s a great question because so often people think the easy answer is, “Well, why don’t we just have more black teachers?” Right? Like if I if I had more black male teachers in my school perhaps, that would disrupt that would introduce me to a new game, right? Or introduce me to new rules to live by. The challenge is I don’t think you can construct a society where you are, you know in almost having these like these these introducing role models in every institution that could meet the needs of every single person who interacts with that institution, right? So it may have been really helpful for instance to have black male teachers in my school, who could show an alternative to what I was seeing on television or listening to in music. But should the health of a child be dependent on that, right? And I think that’s that’s where in my mind, you have to have a much deeper conversation about where are you accessing the rules, right? Do you have to have role models that mirror your race and your gender? dDo you have to have role models that mirror your life experience? Did I need to have, if I had a black male teacher but he was not a fatherless kid, would that have made a difference to me? Right? And I think a lot of it is in my work has been recognizing that that there needs to be some sort of like moral universalism in these conversations, right? That if you’re introducing rules to a young person and showing them, “This is how you live your life. This is what a good life looks like. This is a healthy life.” That it doesn’t necessarily have to be written specific to your race.
JJ: Or specific to your class.
CH: You know that was interesting, I was I was I was re-watching 8-mile the other the oth-…
CH: The Eminem, sort of loosely based on his life in Detroit coming up as a rapper. And he’s an underdog the whole movie, right? And he’s a white guy, but I I related to him in that movie, not not the black people in that movie that were kind of higher status at the beginning. But Eminem is the underdog, he lives in a trailer park, you know that…
JJ: He gets discriminated against.
CH: He gets discriminated against because he’s white in that in that kind of subculture where you know, white people actually are viewed as lower status in that context. And it’s just this amazing movie. At the end of the movie, he has this amazing scene. where he kind of earns the respect of the community. But long story short, I think you’re right to say that the the axis along which you identify with someone is not necessarily race, um you know, we are, you know… As intersectional feminism, I think the truth in that philosophy is that we are all many things and it’s not clear in any given situation, which part of your identity is is activated. So I Columbia when I’m talking to someone about politics, I kind of have the trump card of being black in that subculture where there is this kind of “Oppression Olympics” type scenario. But then when I try if I if I’m talking about gender, then suddenly, I’m the oppressor. I’m the man. So I have the experience of being perceived as both the oppressed, which gives me power and the oppressor in other conversations. And it’s interesting just to know what it feels like in those two different situations, right? A white woman would have the same experience. If you’re talking about gender, you have the card. If you’re talking about race, you don’t. I think what what part of what intersectional feminism gets wrong is…ah kind of your book is the perfect explanation, which is there are many ways in which black boys face unique problems that black girls don’t necessarily face. Um, if you’re talking about, we know from Raj Chetty’s studies on on social mobility that the if you hold parental income constant, black girls are doing about as well as white girls are. Black boys are doing much worse than white boys are. So there are these unique problems and the framework of intersectionality suggests that “black plus woman” is worse than “black plus man”, right? It’s too simplistic I think. Um, but I want to talk about I mean the the one of the uniting themes in your book is you’re going straight into the heart of these deep clashes or perceived clashes, narratives of clashes–Islam versus the West–is one you talk about a great deal. Black Lives Matter versus the police. The alt-right versus the brown- browning America. And you go right into the heart of these clashes and you problematize their narrative, you know, your your you’re, there’s this great blog post I like from from one of my favorite writers Scott Alexander called “Conflict Theory versus Mistake Theory.” Conflict Theory looks at society as just kind of a sports match, right? There’re two teams. They just want different things. Only question is: “Who’s gonna win?” Mistake Theorists look at society more like you’re on the same ship and it’s slowly drowning and we all have to think about why it’s drowning so that we can fix it. And it seems to me you’re going into these clashes as a Mistake Theorist talking to different Conflict Theorists, who think, “It’s just a clash,” and saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. Let’s really get to the root of what what each side is feeling, what each side is saying, and think about constructive solutions.” So, you know, there’s this scene in the book. I think you talk about going to a Toronto City Hall meeting where there’re Black Lives Matter activists and police. And you’re kind of trying to act as this bridge, saying like, “What can we do so that black people feel like the police are fighting with them, for them, not against them? What can we do so that policemen feel that they are respected, right? What are the reforms that we can, like let’s be constructive here.” And people just didn’t want to hear it, right? Um, so so I mean, I guess we should talk about that. Let’s talk about Black Lives Matter and the police. And maybe let’s first talk about, you know, your background with the police. How did you feel about the police growing up in Toronto? What was your relationship like?
JJ: Yeah. When I was 8 years old, I saw my father after a very minor car accident, taken out of his car, made to sit on the side of the street, yelled at, demeaned. It looked very much, you know, as an eight-year-old, it looked like the police are talking to my father like he would talk to me, like treating him like he was a kid, who needed to be taught something, to be corrected. And I remember that night they were frustrated with my father and they came over to me and they yelled at me, trying to I don’t even know what they’re asking me to, what questions they were asking me. I just remember their flashlight in my eyes and they’re kind of menacing presence in front of me so that stuck with me, and throughout growing up, I always just had this accumulative experience of animosity toward police officers. I even started to associate anyone who wore a uniform with that sort of authority, right? This sort of corruption, this moral rot in people abusing their authority and discriminating against you. And I I I write in the book about how that felt almost like a male rite of passage, that as a black man as you get older, feeling criminalized was a sign that you were growing up.
CH: I think Martin Luther King used to use the phrase “popping your cherry.”
JJ: Yeah. Yeah, right that that it felt like, “Okay. Well now I’m a man because I’m getting followed at the mall, right?”
JJ: Um, so I very much relate to the sentiment of the you know, this sort of concern over the abuse of police authority and also that it is rooted in sort of deeper kind of social issues that are historically influenced as well. And so a lot of people are surprised by the fact that I wouldn’t identify with a group like Black Lives Matter because I acknowledge many of the core concerns that they have. But to me, the question becomes, “Well one–what else are the police doing in your society, right?” Because I also understand what it’s like to be in a neighborhood where kids are getting shot. And the police are trying to solve crime and they’re actually a really important tool to ensuring more young men get to make it to 18 and perhaps go to college one day, right? So I think the the idea that you can define police and law enforcement generally based on that one sort of problem, but overlooked the really important role they play in solving another, that’s always been a tension for me. And I think that a lot of the narrative in news media, in academia, and activist circles is really just detached from what it’s like to suffer under, in a in a in a community where there’s no rule of law, right, where people shoot each other and no, don’t expect to suffer consequences. So that automatically puts me I think in a different starting point than a lot of the activists who concern themselves with police violence because I don’t think they’re looking at the really important value police are bringing to black communities as well. But ultimately it also comes down to are we a community who by virtue of our history and by virtue of the inequalities that we experience, are we condemned to play this sort of outsider role in our society, where we can never lead institutions, we can never fight for something better. Instead we just sentence ourselves to making noise. We are kind of the barbarians at the gate, pounding away, trying to get attention, but we never get a chance to actually go in and try to make a difference. And that’s what I think Black Lives Matter, in their style of activism and the inordinate amount of attention they get as these supposedly authentic black voices, that’s essentially what they do to our community is they are taking the power that they get by claiming to be experts on the lives of black people and then saying, “Well, if you want to be an authentic black person, this is the path to a better future you must walk.” And those of us who don’t walk that right, like one of the police officers that I profile in the book who was fighting for reforms and making community safer, but all at the same time trying to bring in a human rights perspective to push back against incentives to profile and stereotype. See someone like him. It’s like he’s now seen as a sort of cast out. Right? Like he’s not an authentic black person because he’s in the belly of the beast doing the work that needs to be done to make the world better.
JJ: And people on the outside who have the luxury of being idealists, who never have to sit there and look at a budget and say how do I prioritize one concern over another, they get to sit back and feel like they’re the virtuous ones. That’s my concern Black Lives Matter. It’s my concern of most what I would call kind of left-wing identity politics, is that I think it’s, did not designed to empower black people to become decision-makers or leaders or to wrestle with the complexity of making the world better. I think it’s trying to cast us in a certain sort of role that I’m not sure actually helps us in the aggregate if that’s the only thing we’re doing right?
CH: Yeah. Right. It is a really tough problem because you have to be able to hold two things in your mind at once. One is that every time every poll I’ve seen from Federal Reserve to Gallup shows that black people on average are more concerned about crime than white people, right? So there’s this idea that any time someone talks, uses quote-unquote “law and order” rhetoric there judged, it’s a dog whistle for white supremacy. We don’t, you know, crime is is either always a function of other problems, socioeconomics or it’s just a way for Republicans to get elected. You know at the same time that the oh, that’s not true because black people are more concerned about crime than white people, black people are also less trusting of the police. And there are clear reasons for that. Right? So, you know, you have to be able to hold those two things in your head at the same time and people seem really incapable of that at least in mainstream media. And you tell one, when it comes to Black Lives Matter certainly incapable of that I think. You tell one story that I think kind of crystallizes the problem with Black Lives Matter, which is when Lil Wayne, who was my favorite rapper growing up, he was on some mainstream news show. I forget which channel and they asked them about Black Lives Matter and he basically said, “Listen that has nothing to do with me. I you know, I have like, it’s me and like my three homies. That’s all I care about. Black Lives Matter–I don’t know about that.” He didn’t directly say it was bad. He just refused to endorse it affirmatively and he was pounced, right, pounced on. And you know, at the same time, he also gave just like a straightforward endorsement of gang-banging, right?
JJ: Yeah. He he raised his red bandana and said I’m a gang-banger.
CH: He said, “I’m a gangbanger.” Like “I don’t know about Black Lives Matter. I’m a gangbanger.” And the response to this, was to absolutely just at least metaphorically flog him publicly until he apologized for not endorsing Black Lives Matter. Yeah, but it’s fine that he’s a gangbanger. Right? No one forced him to apologize for giving a straightforward endorsement of a criminal lifestyle, but he had to apologize because he wasn’t completely on board with Black Lives Matter, right? I think that crystallizes the problem, which is we are so focused on everyone falling into line behind Black Lives Matter that were actually not having an honest conversation about crime, which is a huge problem that black people disproportionately face, right?
JJ: Well, what you’re getting at too is I think a lot of people see someone like Lil Wayne, you know, raise his bandana, and they perceive that and when I say a lot of people really what we’re talking about are people who shape mainstream narratives, right, so people in politics, people in academia, people in news media, they’ve gotten used to frankly seeing black men who participate in crime in what I consider to be a very dehumanizing, sort of animalistic way, where they see us as simply the by-product of circumstance. So they see Lil Wayne and they don’t get offended by him glorifying gangbangers in a country where thousands and thousands of young black men die every year off of that sort of glorification. Because they look at these young black men and say, “Well, they’re poor. They don’t go to a good school. They don’t have jobs in their community. They’re supposed to have these problems.” They look at it as if we are destined to suffer and they really don’t acknowledge our humanity because if they did they would look at someone like Lil Wayne and say, “You know, you’re better than that. You’re capable of better than that.” Just as I would get mad at Donald Trump for saying something immoral on television, I should get mad at Lil Wayne the same exact way because morality is supposed to be greater than how much money you have or what you look like. And yet they see Lil Wayne in this sense and it’s almost like this sort of what he’s he is be-, his behavior is just like they would say a squirrel running around and up a tree, right? It’s like this is what he’s been programmed to do. And that’s what’s become so frustrating to me in the work I do, when young men are sort of seen in this in this way that just completely removes any sort of self-agency, any sort of
inner power to be greater than your circumstances. And and it’s a reserved for this very few people. Right? I mean it’s reserved for black men in many cases. It’s not reserved the same way for the white guy who becomes a white supremacist and, or the white guy who shoots up his school. I think people are quicker to one-individualize that person’s circumstances…
JJ: …and say, “Well you could have done better, right? You why are you hating?…”
JJ: “Why are you hating people? Why are you being violent? Why are you a misogynist?” But when it comes to us, it’s like we’re we’re treated like subhuman. And it’s people who claim to be our friend and our ally who are doing that, right? It’s people who pat themselves on the back for saying and they say, “Well, I’m not a racist because I’m not a Republican and I’m a progressive and I want universal healthcare.” And they say all these things and they think that somehow justifies the way they perceive our community. And it breaks my heart because it it just, it is a kind of racism that I encounter more than almost any other form, and yet is the hardest re- to have people talk about.
CH: Right because the moment you open the door to black people having just as much agency as every other race of people, then it’s possible for a black person to really be responsible to be blameworthy for themselves. Right? I don’t, you talk about one of your friends who ended up in prison. And it was, it seemed like he was kind of one of your best friends at a period in your life, maybe late teens or early twenties…
CH: …maybe. And he ended up in prison. You didn’t. You kind of admired him and he admired you in some ways, but you were, you were sort of going more mainstream route after getting very close to to having a life of crime. And there’s this one point where um he’s kind of making excuses for why he’s in prison, right? It’s it’s the world’s fault. It’s not his. And you, trying to kind of, suggest that “Listen man. Like you ended up here. Like you didn’t have to end up here. You made choices.” And that was a really powerful moment. You know, I I have one family member who is in prison as well, and you know has this habit of constantly blaming the rest of the family for why he’s in prison. Right? And there’s this, there’s a sense in which you don’t want to take responsibility, and there’s a sense in which there’s a narrative on the left that will cater to that delusion. You know, there are some cases in which people are behind bars not of their own fault and it really, society really is to blame. But I don’t think that’s the majority of cases. And I don’t think that’s the, that’s I don’t think it’s useful to train people to think of themselves as kind of weather vanes being blown left and right by societal forces. I think that’s very disempowering. And you make a good point that we don’t do this for for anyone else. We don’t do this for white supremacists, I mean some some people do it actually, you know, some people will excuse even the most racist, vile, alt-right person because I don’t know globalization took away their…
JJ: Economic anxiety.
JJ: That a term that gets used a lot.
CH: Actually. I’m like… So it does happen, but it’s not taken that seriously. It is it is a mainstream at least in academia, it’s kind of a mainstream way of thinking about black criminals. Yeah for example.
JJ: And it’s important to note this is not a way of saying there are not forces in society that predispose one person from committing crime perhaps more than another, right? Like if you grew up in a neighborhood where there are gangs everywhere, you’re more likely to be part of a gang then if you grow, grow up in a neighborhood where you’re not. The the diff-, the distinction that I think we’re both making though is that it doesn’t mean that you say to the young man who’s growing up in a neighborhood where there are gangs that it’s more acceptable for you to do that, right? It’s you can you can acknowledge there’re obstacles. You can support him. You can try to correct the disadvantages around his life. And I write about that a lot because it’s something I spend a lot of my time trying to do. But you still have to say to him, “Well, you’re still a human being. Right? And you still get to decide how you respond to the circumstances around you. And the minute I deny you that dignity, I’m taking something far greater from you than what ah your school could or could not offer, or what your neighborhood could or could not offer.”
CH: Yeah, and I think, um you know, it gets back to the men seeking status thing. Men seek status. And if if school doesn’t seem like the type of thing that gets you status, then it makes perfect sense from a young man’s point of view to get involved in the life of crime where that does seem like a way, you know. There’s a deep sense in which none of this is anyone’s fault, right? Like myself born in different circumstances could easily have ended up like my family member who who was in prison because you know, I had options open to me. You know, my uncle did not in the same way, so… And there’s another side of this too, which is I think a thread running through your book. I think you have one sentence in there, that’s something like, “No one reacts well to being stereotyped.”
CH: And that is such a simple and obvious thing to say. And it still seems to me like most people in the media are not getting this point, right? Like the the times I’ve been stereotyped as a black person, you know, like I I was in a a grocery store a few weeks ago, and my girlfriend, who’s Pakistani, another Pakistani dude came up to him and was like speaking in Urdu: “Is this dude like okay? Like are you okay?” And she was like: “Yeah. This is my boyfriend or whatever.” Pissed me off. You know, like I’m a very cool-headed person. I go in front of Congress and people are yelling at me and I’m like okay, but that pissed me off, you know. Just like deeply insulting that I would be judged that way just because I’m a black person not doing anything wrong. I might be a danger to like whatever. I hate that right. And everyone hates it. And that is precisely what is sometimes done to, say you’re a white guy who opposes affirmative action, it’s very easy in 2019 to stereotype you as a racist. And I totally get why that would anger someone, right. The idea that stereotyping is something only black people face, certainly black people face it and you know, it’s a big problem in terms of trust with the police. That’s a a big barrier to to actually solving crime because there’s a lot of soft kind of skills involved in being a police officer where trust is crucial. Like, who are you talking to in your community? Do you have, are you on good terms with most of the people that can tell you who who to watch out for, right? And if if there’s a community of black people because of policies like stop-and-frisk that have just felt constantly stereotyped, they’re going to say, “Fuck you!” And they’re not you know, I can totally understand that sentiment. I think I think there should be a general norm in the journalism world, in academia not to stereotype people, right?
JJ: I agree. Unfortunately a lot less (chuckling) writing would get produced, right? I mean, the there’re very few times where people try to undermine my arguments based on the fact that I’m half white. So it doesn’t come up very often. My mother’s white.
JJ: She’s Irish Scottish descent.
JJ: And, but one of the times it comes up is when I try to explain why a white person might not react well to being told that because of their race they’re privileged. Right.
JJ: Whether someone agrees with that terminology or not is secondary to recognizing how it functions in the world. I think right. And so I often make the case of like, you know, when you walk around saying, “Well white people are privileged, and males are privileged,” if you if you speak like that, you’re building resistance to whatever you’re trying to get across I think. And then sometimes I have you know, people try to say, “Well that’s you know, maybe because you’re light-skinned, you’re have more proximity to whiteness. That’s the worst…
CH: Proximity to…(chuckles)
JJ: …a proximity to whiteness. That’s the worst term I’ve ever heard. (chuckles) And it’s the only time it comes up because I think people like who use that way of arguing really want to pin my concern over stereotyping of white people on the fact that I have a white mother, and not on the fact that maybe as you’ve said just stereotyping generally is not good. Like it doesn’t matter who we’re talking about.
CH: It sucks.
JJ: Yeah, it’s not helpful.
CH: It hurts.
JJ: Yeah, and and and not more than that, but being empathetic with the reality that someone may not react well to that, that should be so easy, right? Like it should be easy for us to acknowledge when someone says, “Hey, it doesn’t make me feel good when you make assumptions about me based on what I look like…”
JJ: …or where my parents come from or whatever the case. And yet too often that seems to be hard for us to grant that to everyone right, that that that that understanding that “yeah, I get why you would feel that way. That makes total sense.”
CH: Mmhm. Yes. So and that that was one of the big things that you talk about in the book in terms of the conflict between the quote-unquote “Islam versus the West” clash, which is the second big narrative of clash that you take on. So maybe talk about how you became interested in the topic of jihadism and you know Islamist radicals. Ah, you know, how did you get into that issue?
JJL Well this whole framing of “Islam and the West,” I I was introduced to it very young through Malcolm X, right. Because he as a as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam introduced a certain function that Islam could play in our domestic politics that by identifying with this religion that was seen as foreign to America, it could align Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad and ah later on Louis Farrakhan’s worldview with some sort of larger population and say, “Well we are opposing America and we’re not alone in doing so because look at all these Muslim-majority countries that also oppose American foreign policy and American economic power and things like that.” I was introduced to that through the Nation of Islam, but eventually sort of moved away from that and didn’t think about it again until after the Paris attacks in November 2015 where you know 500 people in the Paris area were killed or injured by ISIS. And I was just reading about the young men from Belgium who organized that and they just sounded like very normal guys to me.
JJ: Like I always had this kind of thought in my mind that you know, if you were jihadist, you’re probably from some other part of the world and you’re bringing politics from wherever country your dad might come from to the west and that’s what motivates your political Islam, but those guys are like guys I could have grown up with, like they were born in Europe. I was born in Canada. Same age as me. They were very culturally dis-, you know disconnected from where their parents were from. They didn’t I mean in those those guys’ cases, their parents were from Africa like my father was. But they didn’t grow up African and they didn’t know anything about Africa. They um, Islam was not something that was part of their life other than on a very superficial level like in their name or as part of their identity, but they didn’t know anything about it. They were drawn to petty crime as teenagers, got incarcerated for stealing a car. One of them wound up starting a bar that served as a front for illegal activity. These are guys that I could have grown up with and so I thought like, “Well, what is the appeal of ISIS to a guy like that,…
JJ: right? And that’s where the kind of interest in in jihadists came from because I had this sort of thinking of, “Well, if those guys are similar to guys I grew up with, could interventions that help one group of young men help the other, right?” And I wanted to go and see that myself. So I went to Europe for a few months after the Paris attacks and actually during the Brussels bombing um in March 2016. And I just observed just the conditions on the ground that make the message of ISIS relevant.
JJ: But also what were people doing on the ground to counter that. Like how you know, if ISIS sets up shop in your neighborhood, how do you stop that? How do you offer an alternative message? So, that’s where the interest in the you know, what Samuel Huntington calls the “the clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. That’s where the that really became very relevant to me and became more salient than just this sort of geopolitical narrative that I think it means for most people.
CH: Do you know this show Ramy?
JJ: I do not. No.
CH: So the show Ra- you you have to watch the show. It’s it’s a centered around this guy growing up in New Jersey. Both his parents are from Egypt. He’s born here. And he’s kind of struggling to reconcile the culture and religion of his parents. He’s Muslim and trying to stay devout, but really grew up in like secular American culture. And it’s really well done. But there’s this one scene that I think is so interesting in in terms of a recruitment of young men perspective, right? There’s a scene he has this kind of dream where Osama Bin Laden comes into his dream and basically gives him a pitch for jihadism. And the pitch goes something like this. He essentially says, “Do you ever feel alienated Ramy? Do you ever feel like you don’t belong here? You can even hear it in your name, right? You don’t have the same names as the other kids. This country wasn’t built for people like you. There’s a reason you feel alienated. You don’t belong here. You belong in Egypt.” Right? And it’s this very powerful message because he does have alienation, right. His skin color it, if you’re a Muslim growing up in Belgium, you know, the vast majority of people don’t look like you. The people you see on TV don’t look like you. You don’t see that much representation. Uh. You’re probably poor. You’re probably stereotyped by cops, you know. You have enough stories to feel that sense of humiliation. And it could true that growing up in Belgium is vastly better than where your parents came from, which is probably why they came. So relatively speaking, you’re you’re much better off than you might have been. You have much far more opportunities. But there is this sense of alienation. And more than that, there is kind of an inherent sense of alienation to being a young person that could have nothing to do with any of those things. Right?
CH: There are Belgians, with you know white Belgians with all the opportunities open to them in the world, who might have that same sense of alienation just from this kind of existential crisis that life can can be sometimes. So someone comes into your life and says, “You know that that feeling you feel, of a kind of that kind of vague wordless alienation you feel, I have the explanation for that.”
CH: “I have the reason why and here it is.” That’s very powerful.
JJ: Incredibly. And and in that offer right, in that offer to not just explain your alienation, but they are also offering you a path to relevance. Right? They’re saying, “You don’t feel like you matter here. You don’t belong here. But now look. You could be part of this epic conflict for the future of our planet. Right? Like you could join your brothers in arms and you can fight against the West.” Or in the case of white supremacists, “You can join your brothers in arms and fight against Islam, or fight against immigrants or these other parts of the world.” And you wind up in this situation where you you very quickly go from feeling like you don’t matter at all to all of a sudden, you are on the frontlines of this like incredibly important conflict. It taps into this like creative imagination that I think a lot of young people have. And in frankly in the secular world, it does just doesn’t get tapped into very easily. It’s also what you know, what hip-hop does for people. It’s what gangbangers do in their kind of presentation of this Scarface-like lifestyle, right? It’s this sort of, it’s this sense of, out of the 7 billion people almost–I think I don’t know. Are we at seven yet?
CH: I think we are.
JJ: I think yeah. So out of the 7 billion people some odd on the planet ,you go from being someone who just is a part of the herd to all of a sudden being this sort of proph- prophetic character, right? And it’s it’s just, it’s it’s a hard thing to compete with. Like if you’re at a school and your and your (chuckles) you’re competing with that, with a with the offer of do your math homework homework,…
JJ: …and maybe even go to college one day, right? It’s a, it’s hard to to match that intensity. And I think that the people who are able to compete with those narratives are people who recognize there’s something deeper here than just the material ah idea of access to power and wealth and prestige and and and women or whatever it might be. But it’s also about how you feel about yourself. It’s about your self-esteem, about your identity, about giving you a place in the world. Right? It’s sort of this emotional resonance that I think more often than not, the bad guys understand that better than the good guys.
JJ: And that’s a tragedy I think.
CH: Yeah. And you know, you talk to a lot of young men in, particularly in Molenbeek, right?
JJ: Yeah. That’s the neighborhood. Yeah. That’s a neighborhood in Brussels where the ISIS has established it’s most effective terror cell.
CH: Right. And that’s where the Paris attackers came from.
CH: And the Brussels attackers came from.
CH: And so you talked to a lot of young men in that neighborhood. And one of the common threads is that they’re all very concerned about how Muslims are represented or, from their point of view, misrepresented in the media, right? And they feel as if only the bad parts of Islam are being broadcast and none of the good parts. And you know, it it’s a tricky issue because just like we said before, nobody nobody reacts well to being stereotyped, right? It’s as close to a human human universal as I could think of. And so so so understandable. But then you talk to another person, who I think was an African immigrant and maybe a Christian African immigrant.
JJ: Yeah, she’s Congolese.
CH: Congolese. And she said something along the lines of you know, you: “We African Christians in in ah ah Belgium are facing all the same discrimination, poverty that they’re facing. And yet you don’t see bombers ,you you you don’t see terrorists coming out of our community.” And it strikes me that you know, she’s from what I know, she’s clearly right on the facts of the matter and that’s very threatening. If you know if I were a young Muslim, I would I would be very afraid of points like that because even if I had no no bone in my body that was likely to become a terrorist, I would say, “You know, they’re going to use this against us.” Right? And maybe there is a unique problem
here. Right? There’s there’s, it’s not just being oppressed by society. It is that, but it’s also a specific ideology that is uniquely powerful that explains your alienation. And when those things come togethe–the oppression and the ideology–it seems to be uniquely ah ah ah powerful in terms of creating young male terrorists. So like I guess there’s this long going dispute between: “Did we cause ISIS because of oppression?” or “Is it just an outgrowth of religion?” Right? And I’ve always thought that it was a false dichotomy, that it could be both. But you know, where do you stand on that on that issue as someone who’s really talked to you know dozens if not more of people who are in the prime recruitment pool?
JJ: The difference between those situations is rooted in recognizing, well who has something to gain by trying to build a violent movement within one community relative to another, right? So what you had in Europe’s Muslim populations is a group that had something to gain by exploiting those frustrations, exploiting inequality, exploiting the lack of representation, the higher incarceration rates, the the higher school dropout rates. Just like in some neighborhoods you have, you know, criminal networks that are incentivized to exploit those exact same circumstances. In some communities where you might find the exact same sort of oppression or the same sort of inequalities, you just might not find the same opportunity to take advantage of it, right? There might not be the same well-organized machine that’s saying: “Oh! Well maybe I can make some more money if I rally a bunch of young men around their frustrations and their discontent.” So, you know, yes, I think that even in the context of the United States, there are very poor white communities that don’t wind up producing the same gang problems that you might find in a poor black neighborhood. Is that because they were not susceptible to it? Perhaps in some senses. But I think also it comes down to–well, where’s there an opportunity to take advantage? And I think that where where there’s those conditions of oppression, frustration, resentment and then you also have a well-organized machine that can thrive on that, that’s where you wind up with the biggest explosions of violence and chaos and and and death, right? So the Congolese lady that I quote in Belgium, I think she’s right to point out that the environmental circumstances might be completely identical, but the difference is there is no International Congolese Terror Network searching out the frustrated Congolese men of Belgium to weaponize them, and to preach violence in their direction. But you do have that in the case of the young Muslim men. And that’s also what you find I think in terms of you know, one of the big questions that gets pose-, gets posed to me all the time is: “Why is it that in some communities, you know, you could have in one neighborhood hundreds of thousands of young people growing up in the same circumstances, yet yet a fraction of 1% of them winds up becoming violent? If circumstances are relevant, well, why don’t why don’t all of them become violent?
JJ: Right? And I think that’s, the reality is that a lot of it, there’s not um, there’s not a business model, frankly, to create that would be able to engage that many people. These business models of crime, of violence, of propaganda are created with the idea that you are reaching a small number of people who are going to make outsized noise.
JJ: And figuring out expertly communicate with those, that kind of minority of a minority population.
CH: Yeah, and you kind of had some experience with this when you were involved with the Nation of Islam or what’s the called The Five Percenters, which is a kind of offshoot of the Nation of Islam. You talk in the book about being on online forums, kind of getting involved in this in this world that is you know similar in some ways, it’s structurally similar to the kind of, the way one gets, one might get radicalized into a group like ISIS, right? You’re talking to like-minded people from around the world. You’re getting deep into this kind of ideology. You’re you know, you’re reading the, Elijah Muhammad’s book, which your mom I think threw in the trash.
JJ: Yeah. (chuckles)
CH: She has a really, really touching moment. Maybe talk about what it was like, what it felt like to go down the rabbit hole in that way.
JJ: Yeah. The starting point for me was Malcolm X, and then kind of deviating from him toward just random stuff on the internet at a time–this is before Facebook and Twitter and Instagram–this is when like AOL instant messenger and like message boards and things like that were the core of of Internet infrastructure, right, for for communicating about these sort of ideas. And so yeah. I came across a lot of that sort of like anti-western propaganda, which meshed incredibly well with this growing narrative online of you know, 9/11 being an inside job. And George Bush orchestrating this conspiracy to get the United States into war in Iraq. And it all sort of meshed very powerfully together of there being this almost Illuminati-like force, right, in the world that was trying to make pawns out of us to accept the truth that they passed down and hide the reality of why why why we’re experiencing the inequalities and frustrations that we are. There’s something very appealing right, of saying, of being like: “Well, I can point to some sort of like enemy for why I’m unhappy.” It’s it’s it’s hard to accept that it could be really complicated why life isn’t what you wish it was. And so when people on the internet offer you a simple explanation: “Well, oh yeah, the reason why you’re unhappy is because um, you know, the elites of the world, many of whom are you know, kind of Western wealthy people, many of whom are white people, they are purposely trying to hold you back.” And so that you you buy into this and then every news story you see online just reinforcing that narrative because you’re like: “Yeah. Well, that’s why we’re in Iraq. And that’s why you know, George Bush’s lying. And that’s why Colin Powell resigns.” Right? And it’s just like becomes this like this this growing narrative. So that’s what the rabbit hole is like. It was, you just get this grain of of truth, right? That that make, the grain of truth being–maybe the war in Iraq wasn’t handled honestly and effectively–
JJ: And then from that every sort of conspiracy becomes possible. I use the language that I borrow from my friend, JD Vance, of the guardians of truth, right, that there are these traditional guardians of truth–the journalists, the newspapers, the academics, the people who shape the narrative that you’re supposed to buy into–and when they lose power, when they lose relevance in your life, it flattens the playing field…
JJ: ..and the guy you find on AOL Instant Messenger who is sitting in you know, his mom’s basement, you know writing conspiracy theories is as credible as you know, Jake Tapper, right?
JJ: Like that that that’s that’s the space you wind up in. And that’s a dangerous place because there’s no quality control at that point. You could believe anything. And in some ways you just wind up believing whatever you want to believe, whatever is most exciting or satisfying to you.
JJ: Yeah, so I want to talk a little bit more about your life. So you, there were kind of two points in your story as told in the book where…you kind of could’ve, could have gone down one route but chose another. One was sort of the petty crime route, right? And there’s this point in the book where you’re about to purchase a gun. You take the initial steps to purchase a gun. And then at the last second, you kind of fold and and you don’t. You don’t do it. Um…What what was that moment like for you? Like what mindset were you in at that time? How did you come out of it?
JJ: Well at the time, it was this, sort of, it was this moment that I had, it had been kind of building toward for a while where I had been telling myself I was going to be a gangster. I’d been mimicking the gangsters that idolized. And I had friends who were in and out of jail and getting into trouble. Well because they were living out those same values. And I had this feeling in my mind of you know, if I’m going to have a life, that’s the path for me. I was declared illiterate in school. I I hated high school. I knew that, I took that as a sign of “never gonna be smart enough to get an education.” I’m never gonna do well enough to get a good job. So if I ever wanted to make money, if I ever wanted to be someone important, then the path for me was going to be following my friends, who were living this very kind of Hollywood lifestyle. They were getting into trouble, fighting with people, running from cops. It just seemed very exciting to me. But I was a younger guy, and I thought they didn’t see me as one of them. They didn’t see me as at their level. So I started to get desperate, thinking, “Okay high school’s going to be done in the next year. I don’t know what I’m going to do after high school. How do I send the guys a signal that I’m serious? How do I show them? All right, let’s let’s do this.” And also bring my friends into that same sort of sense of urgency because I wanted them to to do this gangster thing with me. And so I came I I I approached a guy who could get a gun and I asked him if he could get one for me. And you know, he’s searched it out and he said, you know: “Make sure you’re serious.” He located one. I went home to get the cash to pay for it, thinking I was going to go back to school the next day and get this gun, and I just sort of had this meltdown, which at the time I was so ashamed of that I didn’t think about it much…
JJ: I just sort of you know, I I I cried that night and I thought I’m going to ruin my life. Owning a gun is a slippery slope that becomes, you know, you own a gun, you have problems with people that have guns, carry a gun to keep yourself safe and feel comfortable ,and your odds of getting caught with a gun are enormous. Like it just becomes this sort of, it’s a big step to take, and I was scared of taking that step. I thought my mom would lose her faith in me. I thought she’d kick me out of her house. It became, it it it it, I didn’t realize how big of a moment it was going to feel until I was the right there at the edge. It’s like playing a game of chicken, right? And eventually I just sort of said: “Okay. I’m not going to get the gun.” But I also lost almost all my friends in that same moment where I was like they’re going to think I’m a chicken or more vulgar words than that…
JJ: …and I’m not going to be able to be around them without feeling like a coward…
JJ: And so…I didn’t get a gun and I wound up, you know kind of going through the rest of high school as a bit of a loner. Um and that was a huge blessing cuz it forced me to change my peer group. And I eventually got out of high school with very low grades but grades that were passing at least. And yeah, so that was, that that’s how I felt at the time. Looking back on it, I also feel like there was a, there were things that were ingrained in me that I didn’t fully appreciate, right, at the time, like having a mother around, for instance who despite us not having a good relationship, still cared about me, like having someone that I could disappoint in my life,…
JJ: …someone who thought I could be a better person than I I knew I could be at the time. That was incredibly important because it meant that in a moment like that, I I had some sort of competing value system in my mind, even if, even if it was’t her directly saying, “Hey don’t get the gun.” It just felt like, “Oh man. Like what my mom think about this?” Right? So that that I that that’s sort of what I think we’ll look looking back was really important to me. And that goes back to what we were talking about earlier of. That whole, you know, what are your expectations of a young man? Right? Like if you’re expecting them to be gangsters because they they don’t have dads, and they’re poor, and their friends are in and out of jail, then there, there’s not that voice in around them, right? But when you have that that, in my case that mother or you have someone in your life who’s saying: “Well despite your disadvantages, despite the fact that you’re declared illiterate in school, and despite the fact that getting a gun is as easy as snapping your fingers in your neighborhood, doesn’t mean that you should still do that.” Right? There’s still, there’s a greater version of yourself that you should be aspiring to. That was critical I think to my my life trajectory because it helped me avoid a mistake that I think would have potentially made everything I’ve done since then much harder.
CH: Yeah, and then your story is really interesting because you ended up at Yale Law School, which you would not have predicted based on any of your…exploits as a young man. Right? And the way you ended up at Yale, the way you ended up applying to Yale was was it, was it a professor that just that saw you speak and just told you to apply?
JJ: Yeah. It was a Yale history professor. I had, I had, you know, I went from illiterate at 16 to, or supposedly illiterate…
JJ: …at 16 to having the highest grades in my community college in like a year and a half.
JJ: It was a very quick and overwhelming transformation.
JJ: I credit a lot of that to the mentorship I received by my professors. And also to just kind of growing up and just taking more control over my life, right, and learning to not make excuses for for my poor effort. And then I go into university and and I struggled a little bit, but eventually found my way because I had profs who helped me see my academic work as being relevant to my community work, right? That if you wanted to be useful to your community, you had to you know, you had to do well in school. You had to try. Um…So I did this presentation at a history conference about about Marcus Garvey in Canada and the work that he had done in Canada. And the Yale history prof was there. And at the time, I was, you know coming to the end of of university. I, my whole life up to that point had pretty much been off of one street in Toronto, called Steeles Avenue West, where like my mom’s house, my community college, and my university were all on this one street. So my world is very small. And I meet this guy. And he hear’s my presentation at this history conference. And he says, Yyou should apply to Yale.” And at the time, I’m thinking, “This guy’s teaching at a university that I had only like heard about in like Saved by the Bell…
JJ: (chuckles) …or something, you know. It’s just like this is not a place that I ever thought of myself ever going. But I just thought, “Well, this guy’s like a superhero. So like, if he thinks I could go there, then that must count for something.” So yeah, he’s the reason I wound up applying and thankfully got enough like a scholarship support and financial aid that I could attend. And yeah, I um, and he’s a big part of how my life kind of left Steeles Avenue West.
CH: I think that’s, I think that is an extremely deep point about the causes of success in a person’s life, right? My mother used to say–she was the first person in her family to go to college and she was brilliant. She got into Stuyvesant from the South Bronx, extreme poverty when the South Bronx was synonymous with complete decay. Um… She uses, she didn’t apply to college. Why? She didn’t know anyone who had been to college. It was that simple, right? The this is why I I say that although role mode sounds like a Hallmark card point, it’s a very deep point. If that Yale history professor had not seen you that day, which is totally arbitrary, right,…
JJ: Oh yeah. Totally.
CH: …would you have ever thought to apply to Yale?
JJ: Not at all.
CH: Why? Because no one in your life, right like, you’re you’re…it, the point is about the the range of possibilities you see as as realistic for someone like you, whatever that means, right? For me, it was obvious that I was going to go to college because both my parents went to college. So you can take for granted that something’s in your realm of possibility because the adults around you fit that mold. If no one around you goes to college, why would it occur to you that someone like you could go to college, right? That’s a very deep point and I guess it’s it it leads, it could lead to either optimism or pessimism because you can realize how big of an effect you can have in someone’s life merely by suggesting something to them. Like, “Did you realize that someone like you can do ‘X’?” “Huh? No, I hadn’t.” So that’s a reason for optimism. A reason for pessimism I I guess is how random it can be, right? Like, if that guy had been sick that day, who knows? You would have never expanded the realm of what you thought was possible for you. At at least it’s possible that you would not have have have done that. And who knows, you might have not written this book, or or might have not been able to get it published if you didn’t have Yale on, who knows, right? So I think it’s a very deep point about how much of an impact you can have just by expanding a person’s sense of what someone like them could do.
JJ: Absolutely. And of course, although in my kind of my life story, Yale plays this really kind of meaningful role in giving me a whole new kind of path of social mobility, right? But, you know Yale’s Law School takes in like 200 people a year. That can’t be what we rely on to to be that equalizer for people or to be that source of empowerment. And that again comes back to you know, when you say that is it is it pessimism. To me, it’s also a reminder of just the power that everybody has right like to be encouraging, to be a believer in other people, to to say positive things to one another. Like what he did, he didn’t need a Yale degree to do right? I mean it of all the ways he imagined impacting the world being a Yale Professor didn’t necessitate, it was not necessary for him to be able to say that to me, right?
JJ: I mean anyone can say that. Certainly it helps if you, if people perceive you to be someone who knows what they’re talking about. But there is something really valuable to encouragement in and of itself.
CH: I think though that, you know, words can be a little cheap sometimes. We’re all kind of, in our social lives trying to suss out who is full of shit and who’s, who’s real, right? If someone comes to you with an investment opportunity–“I can triple your money.” If you’re smart, you’re skeptical brain is on. What is this person’s track record? What is the evidence from their life? Do they have fancy, do they have a mansion? Okay. Well, maybe they know what they’re talking about. You know, so you’re looking for things that can’t be faked, signals that can’t be faked, right? Yale degree can’t be faked. When I think you know, why did I start writing for Quillette? Because one of my best friends, Christian Gonzales, had published a piece in Quillette. And he was like me in the relevant sense of being my age, a student at Columbia. I would never have thought to write for Quillette. I know I was kind of writing for myself, for nobody, for a long time, but the fact that he did that was an honest signal that I could do it too. If he had been someone who had never written and had said, “You should write for Quillette,” it might have gone in one ear and out the other, which is not to say that it’s not valuable. It’s only to say that there is something you know, I think I think when we talk about why growing up in poverty is a disadvantage. Clearly, it is a disadvantage. The question is why? Is it just because you lack material things? I don’t think, I mean in in in developed countries when we’re talking about quote-unquote “poor people,” we’re talking about people who usually have like televisions and stuff. It’s not just that you don’t have stuff. I think the much bigger thing is your sense of what your life can be, and the people in your life that are serving as role model in terms of, you know, your social network. You know to be wealthy is almost by definition to have a social network that advertises possibilities to you for your life that involve high status, that involve very healthy lifestyles. To be poor is often regardless of what your material circumstances are. You may not be struggling meal, you may know what your next meal is. You may have an iPhone. But it’s to have a social network in many cases that doesn’t advertise possibilities of achievement.
JJ: So the, I’m with you. So the challenge then becomes how do you offer someone in a situation where they don’t see those possibilities an identity that can be as expansive as possible.
JJ: Right? Or they can see themselves in as many people as possible so they can visualize their success in a variety of different ways.
JJ: This is something that a lot of church communities I think do very effectively, which is, I mean I’m simplifying of course, but the narrative active being, “You’re a child of God. That is your primary identity. And God the the Creator right, the source of wisdom understanding has a plan for you. He believes in you. You are his child. He wants the best for you.” And when you look at yourself in that light you start to think well, there is a univers-, to the extent possible, sort of universal identity there right? Where you’re saying, “Well as a human being, there’s a, look at all the things that God has allowed humans beings to accomplish. Look at the blessings He bestows on people. I can see myself in that. I can see myself in the stories of great men in scripture and and the and in Christ.” And you start to develop I think an identity that opens up a lot more possibility in how you think about yourself then you might otherwise. And certainly Christianity is not the only way to do that, but it is a way to do that. And it’s something that I have not, I did not appreciate as much as I do since the book has come out and I’ve spent time with a lot of churches because they are often with the young men who need the most help, right, the young men that I think about like when I say like: “Well, why did you write this book?” Because I was hoping to move the world in a direction even a little bit more favorably toward the young men who I think suffer the most in our societies and often that’s where you find churches. And and seeing what they’re able to offer people has just opened my eyes up more to how how much power we have in choosing what we identify with. Right? That if you’re this person who’s growing up in this sort of…shrunken section of the world where you you only ride one bus, you don’t know anything outside of your bus route. Um, you’ve got one parent. So your family network is half of what it could be for a lot of other people. Because you’re black and you don’t have money, you perceive yourself as being limited and people are not on your side. They don’t want to welcome you into the world. You don’t feel confident stepping into the world. You can have this, such a shrunken section of the planet is what you feel, is what you’re entitled to. That’s your section of the world. Right? And if you can offer people a way to see themselves as being far more than that, I think that is incredibly powerful. And it’s it’s something that I I try my best to do in my interactions with young men in these circumstances, especially because offering them some sort of bigger identity I think is so critical to overcoming so many of the issues that we’ve been talking about.
CH: Mmhm. Yeah. It’s interesting, you know. Even with religious movements that have some seriously problematic beliefs like the Nation of Islam, you kind of, kind of go through their you know, their catechism, you know, we’re talking about black separatism, white people were created on an island type thing, white dev-. So there’s a lot of stuff to to really hate there, but Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X used to brag about getting people off of drugs, and men in particular. And I think a lot of their bragging points were true in the sense that they actually did get people off of drugs, on the straight and narrow and there is something about religion having this overarching meta-narrative that can look at the daily kind of concerns that you have and say none of that matters compared to our lodestar, which is God. And He knows you personally, He has a plan for you. That can be a very powerful thing for a young person and for a young man, slide, who has the potential to slide into a life of crime. So I guess you know, you’ve been touring this book a lot. I think trying to target communities most, who would most benefit from it. What can we do? Like, is there, what have you learned? What can we do? Is it a matter of public policy? If so, what policies can we support? Is it a matter of kind of local voluntary organization? And if so, do you have, are are there models that are doing it right that we can look to and try to replicate? What have you learned?
JJ: So I think local action is is the source of the biggest transformation in the in the positive direction. I think the issues that I write about, you know, become these sort of global meta-narratives, but to respond to them, I think you really need to to focus on the grassroots level. So public policy that recognizes the need for malleable public institutions I think is very important. So, you know, I talk about charter schools is an example of that, community policing is an example of that, ways that you can allocate public resources that say, “Well, what are the specific needs of the young people in this neighbor? And can we respond in real-time to those needs?” So if you see an uptake of gang recruitment, or if propagandists are reaching your young people, can you actually respond to that? Or is it going to take a 10-year consultation period before you figure out how a school or a police department could react differently, right? So so that’s a really important piece to this and that means putting I think more control and decision-making power in local leadership. It also means being humble about what the limits of government are. And I know people want, you know, wish that there is a some sort of legislative response to everything…
JJ: ….but so much of what we’ve been talking about, like role models, for example, there’s only so much I think that government can do to affect that. Can you stop taking so many dads away from their kids and throwing them in jail? Yeah. And that would be a really good idea and I think criminal justice reform is really important for that among many other reasons. But you also need to have a cultural shift where it’s normal for men to feel a responsibility to be with their children, where it’s normal for men to see that as an economy undermines the way we have traditionally provided for our families meaning we’ve always earned more money or we’ve always had the more reliable job, though, that’s changing. And it’s only going to change more rapidly as AI technology takes the jobs that disproportionately have been held by men away–truck driving, manual labor. So we need to think about contributing to our families in different ways. And that means actually spending time with kids and being there for kids and role modeling for them. So much of the fatherlessness problem that I described is a community issue as much as it’s a household issue. That even if you have a father in the house, but you live in a neighborhood where no one else does, it it produces different disadvantages for you, right? So, yeah, so those would be some of the cultural and policy things that I think are important and I would say, you know, if I could leave with one major thing, I would say: Getting us to a point where talking about the needs of young men is normal…
JJ: …and comfortable and not controversial is also a key part of this. You know, the UN holds a massive gender conference every year. Men are not talked about once. And however, you think of it whether you think that men need to be understood as a gender for the benefit of women, in addition to the benefit of men, I mean whatever angle you come from, I think there’s a lot of people who need to start to recognize that talking about men as a group that has some unique needs and some unique challenges is important.
CH: Beautiful. Thank you so much Jamil.
JJ: Thanks Coleman.