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Bandana to backpack: Double-edged sword of minority fear

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backpack backpack

Senior Samuel Valdez discusses his experience as a minority college student in the face of stereotypes. Valdez argues that people with minority backgrounds fear discrimination and hardship while others fear them.


Beat, beat, beat — the constant rapid heart pump in my chest. Did I just finish running? Is it my irregular heartbeat creeping up? Nah, that’s fear entering my head again. 

What is there to fear?

This is a question I’ve asked since adolescence. Twenty-one years of my life have passed, and I think I finally found my answer. Besides losing my whole sneaker collection, I know what I fear the most.

My greatest fear in life is being a victim of this abysmal justice system as a minority in the United States. I shouldn’t have to consider seeing my parents through a protective glass in prison while claiming my innocence. However, that's a real possibility in the current climate of this country. Perhaps a place of education would seem to be a sort of sanctuary for a young adult grappling with the inequities in our country. Sadly, this isn’t always the case for students of color. 

Everybody shares similar experiences in college, but not all of them share the same outcomes. Look at the differences in the Brock Turner and Albert Wilson cases. One is a free citizen, and the other one is in jail. One was convicted of a rape crime with a six-month sentence, and one was convicted of a rape crime with a 12-year sentence. One is white, and one is black. Can you guess which one is still in jail?

The purpose of this column is to seek understanding for this sort of inequity. White, male students can attend universities like the University of Kansas and seemingly get as intoxicated as they please, touch women inappropriately, use the timeworn saying, “boys will be boys,” and go about their days. Insert someone like me into this situation, a minority guy with tattoos, and the outcome is far different, including a possible prison sentence and homicide looking at me from the face down. The United States is home to nearly 5% of the world’s population and 22% of the world’s prisoners.

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Opinion writer Samuel Valdez poses with his nephew at home. Valdez discusses the social, educational and financial hardships minority populations in the United States strive to overcome.

Being a minority in the United States is like being a walking contradiction. People will argue that a minority will have the advantage over a white male within a job search or college acceptance because of affirmative action. This same argument is also used for women in the workforce, but the supporting evidence just isn’t there. According to the New York Times, there are fewer women that run large companies than males named John. 

If being a minority makes a job search easy, then why did I get interviewed for two prestigious internships this summer, showed some vulnerability about myself and ended up losing the position to white peers who weren’t as qualified? Is it because I opened up about real life issues? Did I strike fear in them when the words “drugs” and “gang members” were brought up within my application essays? Both internship programs had a total of three minority interns out of 20 interns. This an elaboration of my biggest fear in life: Am I going to be someone who I want to be or someone society has determined I be?

My roommate and I are both minorities. We both embarked on a rigorous internship hunt this past spring, applying for over 20 summer positions. We both worked this summer, but not for any of those internships. We both received zero offers from the paid positions we were seeking. Was this a coincidence, or were we shut out because of our race? Is this discouraging as we continue our job search with graduation less than a year away? Absolutely. We know we’re capable of being successful in the workforce and have the drive to keep pushing. We must continue chasing our dreams or submit to living through fear of what society has determined we are. 

If you are a minority in the United States, the odds are stacked against you the moment you enter this world. According to the New York Times, out of 10,000 boys who grew up in rich households, 1,965 white boys went on to be rich adults when only 869 black boys did the same — a 39% to 17% ratio. 1,075 black boys (21%) grew up to be poor adults compared to only 500 white boys (10%). It’s hard to believe the American Dream is for everyone when the fear of becoming a common statistic is real in America today. 

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Opinion writer Samuel Valdez poses with his family. Valdez discusses his experience combating the double-edged sword of fear living as a minority student in today's social and political climate.

To some young adults, fear is not being accepted into society. Others fear simply being able to survive in a society determined to keep them down. Fear is losing your life to the streets like so many of my childhood friends have. Fear is not making a successful transition from the blue bandana to a backpack. Fear is wondering if you will make it home after being on the block all night. Fear is feeling the need to sell drugs to help pay family medical bills. Fear is the feeling of tight roping and keeping a level head when you see flashing blue and red lights, even if no crime has been committed. Fear is being robbed at gunpoint and staring a .44 down the barrel.

Fear is sharing the same dreams as my peers but having different nightmares.

Research by criminologists in London suggests living with violence, drug use and abuse at home all lead to high levels of paranoia, anxiety and depression. Being around gang culture isn’t patriotic. However, at the end of the day, these are soldiers fighting in a different war zone — a war zone where stars never shine and credit cards are often declined. 

As life progresses, all the mistakes I have made have become some of the hardest lessons in my life. This degree isn’t just for me — this is for all the friends six feet under or behind bars. I am someone who could be stereotyped as a gang-affiliated drug dealer. However at the same time, I am a student graduating with honors.

I consider myself a double-edged sword. The sword can educate society that not all minorities need to be feared, whereas the other side of the sword continues to fight the war until the weapon is worn and useless. Time will tell as I find out if I’m living this life based on fear or if I'm galvanized to decrease the inequities that minorities face. 

Samuel Valdez is a senior from Wichita studying journalism and sports management.

He is a marketing specialist for The University Daily Kansan. Views expressed here are his own.