Why this story matters: By almost any measure, black boys in America are under pressure. They lag in school achievement, they are frequently victims of violent crime, and they face a high probability of arrest. On Jan. 21 — Martin Luther King Day — WBTV News reporter Dedrick Russell will examine what can be done in Charlotte — and what is already being done — to address these pressing issues.
Crime hurts us all in different ways. But for those of us who work in news media, it also presents an opportunity to examine, even explain.
On Jan. 21 — Martin Luther King Day — WBTV will broadcast a one-hour show that examines violent crime in Charlotte and the forces that propel young, black males to play an outsized role in the commission of those crimes. More important, the show also will explore what can be done to steer more black boys away from the criminal justice system.
Moderated by reporter Dedrick Russell, the show is titled “Black Boys and the Promised Land.” It will air on Channel 3 starting at 7 p.m.
Here is my Q&A with Russell, who also is the show’s executive producer.
What inspired you to produce this program?
Russell: This conversation about the state of our black boys started last summer, when I moderated a program. Then, the Butler High School shooting happened, where a 16-year-old black boy shot and killed another 16-year-old black boy. So here we have a black boy who is shot and killed and we have another black boy who is now introduced to the judicial system.
This past summer, there was a (Harding University High School) football player and his friend. They were inside the home and heard a sound. They went downstairs and they had a gun, and they passed the gun back and forth and the gun went off and shot and killed (one of them).
And just last week, we had a 16-year-old boy getting off a CMS school bus and he gets shot . From all of this, I wanted to say, “What is happening to our young black boys here in Charlotte? How are they getting their hands on guns?”
So, we wanted to pause and we wanted to make sure that the community is aware of what is going on.
Some viewers might ask, Why focus on the negative? Why not celebrate the many black students who are doing well?
I don’t think this report is focusing on the negative; I think this is tackling an issue the community needs to be aware of. Hopefully this community conversation will encourage more black boys to go to college — that’s what needs to happen. I would like this conversation to give our black boys more hope to believe they can do anything and they know the community is 110 percent behind them.
What can viewers expect?
They will experience a candid and raw conversation with people who are in the thick of it… I talked to several black boys, and they tell me what they’re dealing with. They tell me what they need from the community, and they tell me why black boys do what they do.
We also talk to some black men here at WBTV, and we ask the question, “What is the difference between when (you) grew up and when these 16-year-olds are growing up?”
WBTV News reporter Dedrick Russell talks with a grieving mother whose son, Jamie Bright, was shot and killed by his friend in her home. She talks about the message black boys need to hear and her perspective of what’s going on with our black boys. Photo credit: WBTV News
We also talk to a grieving mother. You will hear from a grieving mother who says that she did all she could. She made sure that her son went to school. She made sure that her son was involved in activities to make sure he did not hang around the wrong people, but yet and still, his life was taken away because of a gun.
We’re going to also get some solutions. We’re going to figure out what the community can do. And we’re also going to find out why everybody should care about this issue. You may not have a black son. You may not have a black nephew, but you should care about what’s happening to our black boys here in Charlotte.
Elaborate on that…why the larger community should care.
We are raising the people who may be your neighbor, and also we are raising somebody who may help you in the long run. This is the person who could be a teacher, could be a police officer, could be the chef at your restaurant. These are the people who you are going to come into contact with every single day.
This is a diverse community. If we don’t learn how to come together and help each other, then this world will be going backwards instead of forward.
What did you learn while working on this project?
I learned that in 2017, there were 232 16-year-old black boys who were arrested. We’re talking about assault and battery charges, assault with a deadly weapon. We’re talking about attempted larceny, attempted robbery, breaking and entering into a building, carrying a concealed gun, communicating threats. These are alleged crimes committed by 16-year-olds.
WBTV News reporter Dedrick Russell talks with a single mother raising an 8-year-old son. They talk about the challenges she faces and the impact it has with the father not present in her son’s life. Photo credit: WBTV News
Aside from the number, did you gain insights?
These 16-year-olds are misguided; they’re crying out for help. They don’t know what to do. And we as a community, we have to be more aggressive to try to figure out why they are resorting to crime. What is it that they’re missing?
Educators say that if a person does not know how to read by the third grade, then they’re going to have trouble trying to survive in life. Only 22 percent of black boys in Mecklenburg County — only 22 percent — read on grade level by the time they are in fourth grade. So that means that 78 percent of them are not reading on grade level, and that’s a problem.
This is not a Charlotte issue. It’s not in North Carolina issue. This is a national issue. What’s the solution?
Yes, there are solutions. There are more than 40 organizations here in Charlotte that have programs geared towards black boys. We all need to come together instead of working in silos. This is a community issue, and we all need to come together…to give our young people an outlet to hear from them, so we don’t tell them what they need to do, but we need to hear what they need from us. We need teachers who can engage our African-American boys. We talked to the police chief and the sheriff. They have programs in place that can help divert our black boys from crime.
WBTV News reporter Dedrick Russell talks with a group of men about how times have changed for boys growing up in Charlotte. Photo credit: WBTV News
Why air this show on the King holiday?
We know that Dr. King… not only did he identify problems, but he also identified solutions. And that is what we want to do; we want to identify some solutions. The Promised Land…that’s what sticks out to me. The Promised Land is were you have good education, you should have economic mobility, and you should live in a land where you can be able to be prosperous and thrive, but we have to give you the tools in order to make that happen.
Did you come away from this project more encouraged or more discouraged?
I came away knowing that there’s still more work to do. I did come away a little bit more encouraged, because there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I believe that it can happen. In talking to those 16-year-old African-American boys…some of them, they want to do the right thing. And I’m encouraged because they said that they want to reach back and help another black boy to get their lives together. So I am encouraged because there are more people who want to help than not help. So I’m encouraged by that. People do want to help this matter and not run away from it.