‘I Can’t Be Boxed In’ [Video]

By Kai Wright Jun 26, 2014

Just about everybody pursuing opportunity in the United States agrees on at least one thing: Our own, individual ability to succeed, whatever the odds. This simple truth is often drowned out by the partisan divide between those who believe in so-called personal responsibility and those who recognize profound institutional barriers to success. But race, gender and political identity all set to the side, nobody wants to believe their dreams are held captive by insurmountable, institutional forces. And that’s the overwhelming sentiment filmmaker André Robert Lee encountered when he went asking young, black men in Philadelphia about their efforts to find work and build careers. I can do it, they said, The System be damned.

Throughout 2014, Colorlines is examining the ways in which inequity shapes the lives of black men. Each month, we’re exploring a new life stage or event in which the evidence shows unique inequities in black male lives. And each month, André is asking men to share their own experiences. In May, we began the series by exploring implicit bias inside schools. This month, we turn our attention to early adulthood and the effort to enter the workforce.

Black unemployment continues to far outpace the rest of the nation, and that trend is particularly striking when looking at younger, black men. Widespread research reveals that this disparity has little to do with personal responsibility, however. Even when controlling for factors like dropping out of high school, taking drugs and getting locked up, white men with similar class backgrounds are finding far more opportunity in the workplace than their peers. I explore the reasons for this trend in the lead article for this month’s series installment, "Why Young, Black Men Can’t Work."

Here, however, André turns his camera on men who are wrestling emotionally with the job market’s unforgiving reality. Many of them have looked at the inequity and reached for the only answer that seems attainable–that we, as black men must simply do better, in every way; that if we pull up our proverbial pants, we can outsmart the systemic barriers in front of us. Hear what the men have to say in the video above, and join @Colorlines on Twitter, Monday, June 30 at 1:30 p.m. to offer your own thoughts and experiences. 

And if you missed it, here’s our first video in the series, in which a group of high school students in Oakland describe what it feels like to be tracked as a problem from the moment they walk into a classroom.