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Friday, December 23, 2011

Skin


I recently listened to an interview with attorney Michelle Alexander on Sherry Linkon’s local NPR  program. I couldn’t make Alexander’s talk “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” but I can’t stop thinking about the interview. You can listen to it here.

We all know the high rates of incarceration for black men, but I didn’t know drug laws specifically targeted the black community. I don’t mean unintended consequences: there’s a paper trail, and that was the plan. Alexander explains that the rates of drug use are the same in all segments of society. But blacks are pursued by increasing police intrusion, and laws are skewed so that blacks have a higher penalty rate. Furthermore, it’s nearly impossible for a released felon to be re-integrated into society. We all break the law, Alexander points out – under-age drinking, speeding, smoking pot. But most of us go on to be productive citizens. However one segment of us is singled out, and forced to pay for those mistakes for the rest of their lives.

I get some insights from my students; YSU is one of the most integrated settings in Youngstown. One of my black students wrote that her father and all of her uncles have been to prison. She is struggling to conceptualize family and her expectation of a future partner and co-parent.

During one of our discussions, a white student commented that instead of government assistance, people should “get a job.” A few black students spoke about how they’ve tried for years. The jobs are in the suburbs, and employers pick people who went to their high school or who are kids of their friends. That’s just human nature, right?

Sure, except that when you add up all the factors, it’s devastating. I live in a neighborhood built in the 1920s. Gorgeous, sturdy houses with lots of brick and beautiful arches and wide porches. These areas were sold off by whites in the 1950s in white flight to the suburbs. The blacks who bought them took wonderful care of them – there were plenty of good paying jobs, and these old houses are money pits. But when the steel mills went down and we lost half our population, the blacks were disproportionately affected. And that was before the predatory lending/mortgage crisis. Falling real estate values and massive cuts to education on all levels leaves city schools with the lowest paid teachers and a high turnover. Our students at YSU are sometimes the first in their family to attend college. Many arrive without skills or context, and have a high dropout rate. And those who succeed and want to start a business in the black neighborhoods have a harder time getting loans and support. If they move into a neighborhood with good schools so their kids have a better chance, they are harassed. One of my students, in the nursing program, saved and saved to move into a white neighborhood so her son could have a good education. She and her visitors were pulled over by police so often, she felt more afraid, and moved back.

One of my white students wrote about his black roommate this semester. He admitted that when he learned his roommate was black, he was really angry. He was from a small town and had heard a lot of things. But although he’d already realized his roommate was a good guy, he was surprised to learn through the interview that they had a lot in common.

I teared up when I read the paper. But let’s be clear: that’s one small step for man, but no giant leap for mankind. My black students were thrilled when Obama was elected, but they feel betrayed, and why wouldn’t they? Obama can’t even talk about race. And Obama is genetically half white and culturally all white, so even the way we talk about his race doesn’t parse. What is our problem? We’ve been living together 400 years. And let’s not forget the ancestors of many blacks came in chains. The Germans are on their knees over their ancestors’ treatment of the Jews. My student’s great-grandfather, who was a slave, kept running away, so his foot was cut off. We’re not on our knees over any of it – rather we blame people for being in the trap we made for them. My father once explained to me, “Well, honey, you have to understand: people like to live near other people who are like them.” He was a kind man, and certainly a product of his time, but that so neatly explains away any of our responsibility. And the fact that for-profit prisons mean that some individuals are becoming incredibly wealthy, and some struggling communities rely on prisons to off-set shuttered business and falling wages, adds more dark and complicated elements.

 We use the national rhetoric of freedom and equality. We should strive to live up to that. We are the most diverse nation on earth. We should be so proud of that.

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