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I Was a Black Boy Scout. The BSA Needs to Face Its Racist History.

The Boy Scouts of America may believe Black Lives Matter — but making Black Scouts feel welcome is a merit badge they’ve never earned

In response to the ongoing national conversation about racial injustice, the Boy Scouts of America has done what it always does: created a new merit badge. This “specific diversity and inclusion merit badge” will be required to attain the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest honor a scout can achieve.

Naturally, it also came with a statement — via a letter addressed to scouting families — about the Boy Scouts of America’s commitment to Black Lives Matter. “We stand with Black families and the Black community because we believe that Black Lives Matter,” it stated conclusively. “This is not a political issue; it is a human rights issue and one we all have a duty to address.” Moreover, it outlined the organization’s own self-critique: “We realize we have not been as brave as we should have been because, as scouts, we must always stand for what is right and take action when the situation demands it.”

I want to believe that’s true, but pretty much until now — you know, the moment when it’s convenient — there’s been very little bravery, very little action and very little standing for what is right on behalf of Black Scouts.

Case in point: The Boy Scouts didn’t fully integrate its Southern troops until 1974, a full 20 years after Brown v. the Board of Education required desegregation in schools. And even up until then, many Boy Scout troops in the South that did allow Black Scouts to join wouldn’t allow them to wear the uniform. As NPR noted in 2013, “Boy Scout officials in Richmond, Virginia, once even threatened to stage a public burning of scout uniforms if Black boys were permitted to wear them.” 

Nonetheless, Black men and boys always saw the value of the BSA. Martin Luther King Jr., Hank Aaron and Colin Powell were all Boy Scouts. And so was I.

Despite being the only Black kid in my scout troop, I absolutely loved being a Boy Scout. I loved learning how to orienteer and track game. I loved going fishing and fossil collecting. I loved learning how to camp in the wild, to pitch a tent and start a fire with nothing but what I could gather in the woods. I loved earning all my merit badges and acquiring all sorts of new skills.

But alas, I couldn’t stay. Although I joined a Boy Scout troop in a college town in Northern California, I left it because of the excused racism from the parents and some of the other boys. I couldn’t bear the constant shame, the bigoted belittling by other boys’ dads, the niggling reminders that I was seen as less-than by my scout leaders and fellow scouts. I never felt fully welcome; if anything, I was made to know that I was lucky to be accepted at all. 

This was never more clear than at a troop meeting when I was in seventh grade, right at that age (12) when boys are beginning to imagine the men they will soon become. I was standing up, all alone, in a Boy Scout lodge, and everyone was looking at me. It was an actual log cabin. It had been used by Boy Scouts in my hometown since 1927, which, in California, is ancient history. It was the same log cabin where some of the boys’ great grandfathers were once Boy Scouts.

I’d been accused of breaking the Boy Scout Code of Conduct and the lodge rules. I was told that I didn’t seem cut out to be a Boy Scout, that I didn’t have the right stuff to wear the camp shorts. I stood there nervously fumbling with my Swiss Army knife, as I tried not to show how upset I was. My transgression: selling candy to other Boy Scouts before the meeting. I was treated like a drug dealer, a thug. Even then, I knew it wasn’t really about the candy. It was the same reason some of the other boys’ dads joked about me and whispered among themselves. 

The point is: I didn’t belong. I wasn’t Boy Scout material. So I left.

In the Boy Scouts, while access hasn’t been denied, scouts who are Black haven’t ever really been encouraged either. There was a “Negro Boy Scout” troop as far back as 1911, just one year after the founding of the BSA, and, in 1927, the BSA created its Inter-racial Committee and launched a new initiative called “Program Outreach,” designed to connect Boy Scouts who were Black with other scouts, often from rural areas, to form mixed troops. Such aims sound well-intentioned, but in practice, they were an insult. The program grouped together scouts who were deemed “feeble-minded” with boys who came from “delinquency areas, orphanages and settlements.” I’ll give you one guess which boys came from “delinquency areas.” (The same ones who, presently, are referred to as “inner-city youth” by the president.) These “Special Scouts” were treated exactly as you’d imagine.

And again, in 1954, when schools in the U.S. were desegregated, the BSA only had one integrated Boy Scout troop in the Deep South. Existing in such conditions, Boy Scouts who were Black faced additional obstacles, such as in Richmond, where Black boys weren’t allowed to swim in the pool at the YMCA, which meant they were denied the chance to earn their swimming merit badges. 

Up north, there were far more integrated Boy Scout troops. But still, as Frank Giles, from the Vermont Council of the BSA, recalled for the Washington Post in 1989, “when he attended the 1964 [annual Boy Scout] Jamboree, he was the only Black Scout from the Chicago area.” (According to census data, in 1960, there were nearly 3.6 million Black Chicagoans.

In the BSA’s current Diversity & Inclusion Strategic Plan, the organization stated its goals to meet the current moment and to “foster an inclusive positive culture and enhance cultural understanding and acceptance.” In particular, it vows to “grow ethnic membership diversity by 2 percent (based on the demographic profile of the designated market area).” To achieve that aim, the BSA plans to “conduct qualitative and quantitative research to assess the needs and appeal of a multicultural audience in order to create culturally relevant marketing and recruitment materials.” 

This all sounds really good for consultants and people who write studies and reports, but I doubt it’ll do much for Black boys who might enjoy being a Scout. I mean, these are kids we’re talking about. It’s not hard to find a bunch of them who want to go out into nature and learn how to do cool shit. But it helps if you don’t split them up into “regular kids” and those who come from “a multicultural audience.” 

Maybe, just maybe, they could all simply be considered Boy Scouts.