Friday, April 1, 2011

Linn Washington: Black leadership ignores racist mass incarceration

Written by Linn Washington Jr.

Herman Garner doesn’t dispute the drug charge that slammed him in prison for nine years.

Garner does dispute the damning circumstance that doing the time for his crime still leaves him penalized despite his being free from the penal system.

Garner carries the former felon stain, a status that slams employment doors shut in his face despite his having a MBA degree and two years of law school.

“I’ve applied for jobs at thousands of places in person and on the internet but I’m unable to get a job,” said Garner, a Cleveland, Ohio resident who recently published a book about his prison/life experiences entitled “Wavering Between Extremes.”

Last Friday Garner joined hundreds of people attending a day-long conference at Princeton University entitled “Imprisonment of a Race” that featured presentations by scholars and experts on the devastating impact of mass incarceration in America.

America imprisons more people per capita than any country on earth — accounting for 25 percent of the world’s prisoners despite having just five percent of the world’s population.

More than 60 percent of the two-million-plus people in American prisons are racial and ethnic minorities.
“The U.S. imprisons more than South Africa did under Apartheid. A nation that promotes democracy has a racial caste in its prisons. We must break that caste system,” said the special guest speaker at the “Imprisonment” conference, Pa. death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, who telephoned from prison.

Racism is written all over the economically/socially debilitating practice of mass incarceration.

African Americans are 13 percent of America’s population and 14 percent of the nation’s drug users, but are 37 percent of persons arrested for drugs and 56 percent of the people in state prisons for drug offenses noted the 2009 congressional testimony of Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project and a conference panelist.

A University of Wisconsin study found that 17 percent of white ex-cons job seekers received interviews compared to only five percent of Black ex-con job seekers — a race-based disparity impacting people like Garner.

Michelle Alexander
Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander, featured speaker at that Princeton conference streamed live on the Internet, said a major reason why imprisonment rates soared during the past four decades despite decreases in crime rates is anti-crime policies craftily manipulated by conservative Republicans for political purposes.

Pennsylvania’s prison population, for example, soared from 8,243 in 1980 to 51,487 in 2010 stated a report released in January 2011 by Pa.’s Auditor General that noted Pa. now spends $32,059 annually to imprison one person — a cost that exceeds the annual $20,074 tuition for the MBA degree program at Penn State University.

Harsh anti-crimes policies were largely a “punitive backlash” to advances of the Civil Rights Movement said Alexander, author of the hugely popular 2010 book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

America’s corrosive War on Drugs — that basically ignores drug kingpins — has devastated Black families, Alexander said.

“A Black child today is less likely to be raised in a two parent household than during slavery,” she said.
“In major urban areas almost one-half of Black men have criminal records thus they face a lifetime of legalized discrimination” — encompassing exclusions from employment and financial assistance required to secure a viable quality of life.
Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr

Interestingly both Herman Garner and Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of Princeton’s Center for African American Studies, which facilitated the conference, expressed similar views on the impacts of mass incarceration.
Dr. Glaude said mass incarceration is a “moral crisis with political and social consequences for America’s future” during his opening remarks at the conference.

Garner, in an interview, described the prison system as the “biggest problem” in the Black community.
While politicians pushing punitive policies help drive mass incarceration its budget busting persistence implicates the blind-eye of society said one conference panelist, history professor Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the new director of the fabled Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.

“Middle-class whites and Blacks in the U.S. are a new kind of ‘Silent Majority’ regarding mass incarceration,” Dr. Muhammad said. “This ‘Silent Majority’ supports unjust policies of increased law enforcement and incarceration as the only way to address crime” ignoring proven approaches like “jobs, education and ending societal inequities.”

Dr. Cornell West
Famed Princeton professor Dr. Cornell West criticized both the Black middle class and Black leadership for inaction on mass incarceration which consumes over $50-billion annually across America — money better spent on creating jobs and improving education.

“The new Black middle class and Black leadership are not attuned to the suffering in poor Black communities,” West said during the conference’s Keynote Conversation between him and Professor Alexander.

“We need more middle class people with genuine respect for the poor. This is more than serving as role model mentors.”

Author Alexander said ending the “mind boggling scale” of mass incarceration requires “a major social movement.”
Daryl Mikell Brooks

One who attended the conference, Daryl Mikell Brooks, an activist in Trenton, N.J. who operates the popular “Today’s News N.J.” blog, backs Alexander’s suggestion.

“To fix this problem we need mass boycotts. America only understands money and violence. We need to shutdown businesses like during the 60s,” said Brooks, who spent three-years in prison for a conviction he says was false, aimed at crushing his activism.

“Blacks leaders allowed this incarceration to happen by doing too little to challenge this repression.”

Linn Washington Jr. is an award-winning writer who and a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship.

No comments: