Showing posts with label Michelle Alexander. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michelle Alexander. Show all posts

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Prisons, tents and all of us

I'm a white boy from Cleveland.

Because of that lucky demographic, my father happened to be an attorney. I am an educator. I have never even stepped foot into a state penitentiary.

But I have taught in and examined lower socioeconomic communities and was completely moved, changed and inspired by Michelle Alexander's 2010 enormously important book "The New Jim Crow."

No matter how it is spun, the United States is facing a societal crisis when it comes to the prison system. A systemic problem persists with heavily incarcerating poorer Americans, and especially Americans of color. The prison system certainly is a way of systemic control and is indeed the new Jim Crow.

It turns out that the United States is the most incarcerated society per capita in the history of civilization. We have 2.3 million prisoners in the country, and that would be the fourth largest city in the country.

1. New York City — 8.5 million
2. Los Angeles — 3.9 million
3. Chicago — 2.7 million
4. U.S. Prison System — 2.3 million
5. Houston — 2.2 million

These statistics help break down what is happening. One-fifth of prisoners are there for non-violent drug offenses. Approximately 39 percent of prisoners are black, while only 13 percent of the population is black. For a lot of us, this is old news, but why does this persist? And why in the world is a discussion the prison system difficult or frequently nonexistent?
I certainly do not have many answers on how to reform our prisons, but I do know that understanding the skewed statistics, understanding that we spend $32,000 each year on each prisoner and understanding that change is absolutely necessary is a start.

The elephant in the room is economics — lack of economic opportunity for people of color in the prison system and Americans in general. The homeless population continues to rise as well, and I say the statistics on that is sketchy.

We have 565,000 counted as homeless in America, but some estimate that the number could actually be 10 million if we take into account people not owning or renting their own homes. Regardless, even if we take that number, the homeless population would constitute the 32nd biggest city in America.

29. Portland — 583,776
30. Las Vegas — 583,756
31. Oklahoma City — 579,999
32. The Homeless — 565,000
33. Albuquerque — 545,852

I find it interesting that we look at prisoners and the homeless as individual problems as opposed to societal problems. I believe some have the thinking: "I bust my ass, working 40 hours a week at a job I hate. Why can't they?"
Well, understanding the full social context of someone who is homeless or in prison helps. It also helps to understand the lack of affordable housing in many cities as well as the lack of skills and abilities to get, and maintain, jobs.

The economic system, and lack of reasonable opportunities, is the top reason why the numbers are so high and why these issues are so major. But perhaps the secondary reason is education.

In many professions, as we all know, education is connected to employment. Nationwide, the graduation rate for high school is 83 percent. That's actually higher than it's ever been.

However, the real problem could be the curriculum in schools and some cliche narratives being overly repeated. If the schools are a steppingstone to a job, or career, then why don't more courses in both high school and college reflect that? (As a side note: I do not personally see education as a steppingstone to a job/career. I see it as education for education sake for the improvement of humanity, and I highly recommend Fareed Zakaria's "In Defense of a Liberal Education.")

Is it truly possible for everyone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? What if that person's father was in prison for life? What if that person spent ages 18-21 in prison for a nonviolent drug charge? What if that person is a child who is homeless?

I certainly don't have many answers, but I do have questions. The one thing I do know is we are connected. We are connected to our incarcerated brethren and our homeless brethren. Brothers and sisters, we all are.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Ignorance is a choice

I heard an idea on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" the other day that affected me. The idea is this: Ignorance is a choice.

The rapper/activist Killer Mike was on the show, and he was asked if the events this year in Ferguson, Baltimore and North Charleston raised awareness among white people about systemic racism in America.

"If white people are just now discovering that it's bad for black or working class people in America, they're a lot more blind than I thought," Killer Mike said. "They're a lot more choosing to be ignorant than I thought."

In Killer Mike's interview with Colbert, he mentioned the Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes Experiment conducted by Jane Elliott as something that white people can watch to try to understand racism better. Feel free to google that, or click on the video below to watch it.

Jane Elliott echoes the idea that ignorance is a choice. "White people's number one freedom in the United States of America is the freedom to be totally ignorant about those who are other than white," Elliott said. "We don't have to learn about those who are not white. And our No. 2 freedom is the freedom to deny that we are ignorant."

As we are in the midst of Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, I am sick and tired of having this holiday as what the British call a mere "bank holiday" — just a day off. Or, if anything happens on MLK Day, it likely will be a celebration of Dr. King's accomplishments. While I have absolute respect for Dr. King and his accomplishments, I believe he would much rather have his holiday be a day of education.

In that vain, I believe Black History Month needs to change to be, indeed, Black History Month. As it stands now, Black History Month is actually Black Celebration Month. Of course, MLK Day as it stands and our current Black Celebration Month are better than nothing, but in 2016, white America must be educated on how systemic racism continues today. I'm not just talking about ignorant, hateful individual racism. I'm talking about systemic racism.

The worst thing I have seen with MLK Day and Black History Month is the attitude that all is OK now. "Way to go America! See, we overcame racism. See what can happen if we all just work together! MLK was great. The president is even black. We did it!" ... Please, don't make me puke.
Here are simply three things I'd like to impart today that everyone — especially white people — needs to know.

1) Jim Crow laws were in effect in the United States until 1965. In other words, blacks officially were second-class citizens by law until 50 years ago.  Officially. The Jim Crow mantra of "separate but equal" means "not equal."

Before the members of the Snooze Button Generation were born, there was official systemic racism in the U.S. Now, that has been transformed into unofficial systemic racism.

2) The new Jim Crow is the prison system, and this needs to be reformed ASAP. The United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Our present society is the most incarcerated society in the history of any civilization. The numbers are so staggering against minorities that it is fair to call this "official systemic racism."

People of color account for 60 percent of our prison system, while they comprise just 30 percent of the U.S. population. One in every 15 African-American men are incarcerated as opposed to one in every 106 white men.

According to Bureau of Justice statistics, one in three black males can expect to go to prison in his lifetime. Let's repeat that: One in three black males will go to prison in his lifetime. 

And y'know what often happens: You go into prison on a nonviolent drug crime, then you come out as a career criminal. Beware. Once you go to prison, you may stay in prison.

Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" came out in 2010, and no true progress in the prison system has happened since then. Most white people have not heard of the book.
3) White people must revisit their stock answers. Jane Elliott points out how harmful it is when white people say: 1) I'm not racist. Some of my best friends are black, and 2) When I see you, I don't see a black person. I don't see color.

I see white people cringe if I ever bring up a racial issue with them — and I'm white myself. White people most likely will disregard this blog and continue to choose ignorance. But for anyone who does not accept this, what can they do?

Go ahead, and check out the video below. Perhaps act like your children — it's practically certain that they're less racist than you.

But more important, remember that MLK Day is not just a "bank holiday." This is an opportunity to reflect. Is America on the path we want it? Do I ever think actually consider others? Do I ever think about the prison system?

In 2016, please ask yourself: Is this the America I want?

Considering where America is today, I think of Fyodor Dostoevsky, who said, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."