Wednesday, May 20, 2009

We Need A New Movement for Justice and Equality

Fifty years ago, Black people of all walks of life - maids, factory workers, drivers, sharecroppers, teachers, hairdressers, undertakers and others took to the streets in protest of segregation and discrimination. They engaged in decades long campaigns to secure voting rights, access to education, employment opportunity and redress from discrimination. Lives were lost and many people suffered along the way, but thanks to their efforts and sacrifice Black communities made significant economic and social advances, particularly in the South. Unfortunately, the past two decades has seen the steady erosion of that hard won progress. The election of Barack Obama not withstanding, our communities are facing some critical challenges.

Unfortunately, the short term prognosis for many of our communities looks grim. Black youth unemployment in major cities is already in excess of 25%. Overall Black unemployment has long been in double digits. Recent reports have confirmed the disproportionate impact of the mortgage crisis on Black communities. Pres. Obama's economic stimulus plan will help ameliorate some of these problems, but it will take significant policy change - in education, criminal justice, employment development, housing and health to reverse the damage of decades of malign neglect.

There's little dispute about the reality of mass incarceration in the US and its impact on African-American men. Because of racially biased law enforcement, punitive drug laws and sentencing policies Black men are incarcerated at rates more than 10x higher than rates for whites engaged in the same activity. We decry the lack of responsible Black men in our communities but don't see the relationship between their absence and the zero tolerance policies we've adopted and enforced over the past three decades that have effectively created the aptly named "school-to-prison pipeline".

Where is the movement in our communities today to promote the kind of policy changes needed to reverse these trends, especially in the area of criminal justice? Do we really think we can change the trajectory of our youth by only focusing on the schools? We have to change the institutional policies and practices that create barriers to their long term success. How many of us would have the careers and lifestyles we do if our youthful mistakes were criminalized and punished the way they are for thousands of poor Black and Brown youth today? We don't protest the daily police harassment and railroading of our people - we only raise our voices when someone is seriously injured or killed - and only then if the person is perceived as an "innocent" victim. No one mourns the death or incarceration of Black men labeled as 'criminals' or 'gangbangers'.

A recent PBS documentary entitled Crips & Bloods: Made in America included the startling fact that in the gang warfare between the groups just in this small geographic area of Los Angeles, has claimed the lives of more than 15,000 people. That's more than the number of US soldiers lost in both Gulf wars. How many of us know that? How many of us care enough to do something about it? Clearly not the media, which hardly ever covers it, except to decry the violence and promote more gang suppression activities.

Did you know that in 2007 the NYPD made more than 500,000 "stop and frisks"? More than 60% of those stops were of people of color, even in neighborhoods where they are a minority of the population. Less than 1 in 10 stops led to any police action - (e.g. ticket or arrest) but the City still maintains there is insufficient evidence of racial bias. Did you know thousands of young New Yorkers (mostly Black and Latino) are arrested every year for being in a public housing building other than the one they live in - aka 'trespassing'? Did you know that since the implementation of the "zero tolerance" policing policies adopted by former Mayor Giuliani - more than 360,000 New Yorkers have been arrested, booked, detained and arraigned for possessing small amounts of marijuana? Would you be surprised to know that 85% of the arrestees are Black and Latino young men under the age of 25? Did you know that NYS decriminalized marijuana possession in 1977 to "protect young people from the stigma of arrest" for a basically victimless offense?

All these facts are known to the public, especially in African-American and Latino communities, yet there is little public outcry. Mayor Bloomberg has received scant criticism for maintaining the Giuliani policies or extending them by:
  • increasing the number of police in NYC public schools;
  • reducing availability of affordable housing;
  • limiting community control of neighborhood schools and overruling the will of the public with respect to term limits.
Right now it appears he will be reelected with significant support from Black elected officials and community leaders. While I have a great deal of personal respect and regard for many of our leaders, it does feel like they've dropped the ball with respect to these important concerns.

A notable exception is Virgina Representative Bobby Scott, sponsor of the Youth Promise Act.
This legislation if enacted would begin to address some of the root causes of gang violence by redirecting resources towards education, job training, life skills development and family strengthening. The bill has picked up a fair number of supporters in the House but it passage is far from assured. Below is a video of Rep. Scott talking about the bill.

You can support this effort -visit Hear My Votes where you can download an app that lets quickly email or telephone your Congressional representatives.

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