One in Nine: Conservatism’s Strange Fruit

One in 100 is bad enough. One in nine is a full-blown national tragedy — one aided and abetted by conservative ideology.

You know, if you’ve read today’s headlines, that the “one in 100” figure represents the percentage of American adults now serving time in prison, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States. That figure confirms America’s position as the world’s No. 1 jailer.

But set aside that figure for a moment. The real number that should shock and appall us is the one in nine figure, as in one in every nine African-American men between the ages of 18 and 34 are in prison.

Let that sink in. Perhaps think of where you live, and think of the young men who are working everywhere from fast-food restaurants to law offices, or who are crowding college campuses. Think of the men working out in the gym or playing on the football field or basketball court. Then imagine what would happen if you snapped your fingers and, suddenly, one in every nine of them disappeared. Think of the disruption to families and communities that would result. Think of the lost talent and the missed opportunities that would inevitably follow.

Take Back America: New Power, New Vision for Social Justice

Join the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Roger Wilkins and Taylor Branch at Take Back America 2008 as they discuss how to bridge the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the challenges of today.

That is what has been happening in the African-American community for years, and the conservative movement has only had three responses: ever-more punitive and racist sentencing practices, cuts in programs that would help change the social and economic climate in African-American communities, and sanctimonious finger-wagging.

It is time the conservative movement was called to account for this.

The nation today faces a situation in which, as the National Urban League stated in a report last year, “African-American men are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as white males and make only 75 percent as much a year.” Further, one on three young African-American males grows up in poverty; only one in 10 young white males do.

This is essentially no different than was the case 35 years ago, when the Nixon administration was implementing the “benign neglect” theory of addressing racial disparities: ignore them and they will go away, at least in the “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” sort of way.

After all, it was conservative ideology, going back to the Nixon years, that reacted against the movement toward racial justice and equality that peaked during the Johnson years by pushing a combination of harsh anti-crime measures and by trying to put the brakes on some of the “Great Society” initiatives born during that period. That effort came to full fruition in the Reagan years, when a burgeoning crack cocaine epidemic in poor communities coincided with an assault on public spending on the underlying social conditions that helped breed the addiction and crime.

Conservatives say now what they’ve been saying for decades: that spending money on the kinds of programs that will steer young people away from the vortex that will suck them into prison — from after-school education programs to recreation centers to inner-city economic development — “doesn’t work.” Budget hawks in every conservative White House for the past 30 years have put social programs targeted at inner-city communities under unforgiving magnifying glasses, but applauded every ever-growing dollar spent on imposing harsher sentences and building bigger prisons, no matter how ill-thought-out.

Meanwhile, we hear from conservative leaders the refrain that if African-American families weren’t so dysfunctional, and in particular if men stayed home and raised their kids, there would be less crime. When the issue of economic disparities in the African-American community and the percentage of African-American men in jails came up at a Republican presidential debate several months ago, the answer that every candidate immediately jumped to was, as they put it, the broken family structure in African-American communities.

Yet families and communities don’t break in a vacuum. And any breakage in the fabric of African-American families and communities is deeply tied only only to America’s racist past but to to a continuing series of policies that have resulted in inadequate educational opportunities, a lack of public resources and a continuing drought of economic opportunity.

A real discussion of these issues as they directly relate to the African-American community and their impact on the rest of the country has never been more than lightly touched in the presidential debate this year, even with the presence of an American-American presidential candidate who knows these problems first-hand. Perhaps it is because politicians are being schooled to “move beyond race,” as if all of the aftereffects of slavery, segregation, lynchings and massive resistance have finally been erased. Of course, they have not, and our attempts to “move beyond” them only allow these aftereffects to create the kind of waste of both public dollars on “corrections” systems (that ultimately “correct” nothing) and human potential that we are experiencing.

The Take Back America conference this year is an opportunity to change the debate about racial justice in this country, to make it something that we face head-on, not with the folded arms and blame-the-victim rhetoric of conservatism but with a bold agenda for revitalizing communities and creating environments where children and families can see themselves prospering.


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