We live in different worlds — still, worlds divided by color, and being divided by color, offering to those who live in them a sharply different range of options and possibilities.
For the past year or so, I have been part of a team working with local African-American parolees, trying to provide them a broader base of support and accountability as they make the transition back to life outside prison. I have come to understand during this brief experience that as a society we are sending them terribly mixed messages. We want them to “reintegrate,” to “rehabilitate,” to keep from re-offending, to get a job, to become responsible, contributing members of our communities, and yet, at the same time, the system, of which we are a part, keeps them from getting jobs, brands them as different and not like the rest of us, treats them as third-class citizens, offers them no realistic path toward reintegration or rehabilitation, not to say, reconciliation.
I read today an article in the latest issue of Christian Century, an interview by Amy Frykholm with Michelle Alexander, author of the 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Here’s a snippet of one of Ms. Alexander’s comments which pointedly illustrates the sort of world my African-American neighbors have to live in …
I believed, for example, that the explosion in our prison population could be explained primarily by poverty, poor schools and broken homes—conventional explanations offered by the media and mainstream politicians. Back then I thought that blacks were more likely to use and sell illegal drugs than whites. I thought that the War on Drugs was aimed primarily at rooting out violent offenders and drug kingpins. I also believed that although life might be difficult for people after they are released from prison, those who worked hard and had self-discipline could make it.
I came to realize that the explosion in our prison population, especially the explosion in the number of blacks in prison, is not driven by crime or crime rates. People of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at the same rates. The War on Drugs does not root out violent offenders. On the contrary, the people who come into the criminal justice system through the drug war are not violent and are arrested on relatively minor drug offenses—the same kinds of offenses that occur frequently in middle-class white communities and are largely ignored.
Those released from prison are trapped in a legal second-class status for life. Finding work is not just difficult after prison; it is downright impossible. Ex-offenders are locked out of the legal economy. They are denied access to public housing; they are denied food stamps. And to make matters worse, they are saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, fines, court costs—and often the need to pay back child support. Paying all of these fees can be a condition of parole.
I came to see that we have, yet again, created a vast new legal system for racial and social control, a penal system unprecedented in world history—a system that locks the majority of black men in many urban areas into a permanent underclass status. And yet we claim, as a nation, to be colorblind.