February 10, 2010

Journey Between Milestones

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After over 20 hours of travel, I finally reached a point in my journey where I could catch up on sleep. I was on my way to Ormoz, a small town in Slovenia, to participate in an international debate tournament. The final stretch was a four-hour train ride. The exhausting voyage had taken its toll on me and as soon as I placed my luggage down in one of the cabins, I began to nod off and fall asleep. An hour or so into the train ride, one of my debate peers nudged me awake.

“Are we there yet?” I asked her.

“Where is there?” she replied.

Still groggy, and confused by her answer, I turned away and looked out the window, catching glimpses of scenery which came and went as the train traversed across the countryside. My eyes were red and bruised by the lack of sleep, but even with my weary vision it was clear that we had been swallowed up by rural Slovenia. The quaint architecture of the horse farms grabbed my attention, but it was the vast hills surrounding them that prompted me to stay awake for the rest of the train ride. The panorama was majestic; I witnessed the Slovenian Alps nest a setting sun, a sun which bled so vibrantly that it shaped powerful glowing silhouettes around the horses below.

When traveling, how disengaged do we become simply because we are waiting to arrive at the destination? Too often do we fail to recognize the journey between milestones.

The journey of Black America is honored during the month of February, and I pose the same questions: Are we there yet? Where is there?

There would be a post racial America, an era where neither ethnicity nor color plays a role in the judgment of character, or in pre-determining your outcome in legal institutions. Let’s look back about 50 years ago: it wasn’t until May 17, 1954, that the Supreme Court unanimously outlawed segregation in public schools in Brown v. Board of Education. Ten years later, on July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 banned segregation in the workplace and public accommodations. Fast forward to Jan. 20, 2009, when an African-American president took office, did we finally enter post racial times? Sadly, no, progress has been made between the 60s and today, but 50 years after the civil rights movement, institutional injustices stemming from race and ethnicity remain.

The rise of the prison industrial complex is one of the many modern structural barriers that with fervor and spite restrain the progress and potential of the African American, Latino and other minority communities.

The statistics between population and inmate demographics nationwide reveal the U.S. criminal justice system as not only racially biased but predatory.

Let’s look at data from the last census performed in 2000. African Americans make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population and Caucasians about 75.1 percent. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 70 percent of drug users in America are white, 14 percent are African American and 13 percent are Hispanic/other. The percentages of drug users are relatively proportionate to their population demographic. This means five times as many Caucasians use drugs as African Americans, but through the magic of the U.S. criminal justice system, 62 percent of prisoners incarcerated for drug charges are African American.

For the last 30 years, all states except four — Hawaii, Idaho, Maine and New Hampshire — have been disproportionally incarcerating African Americans and Latinos. The figures are nauseating: Wisconsin’s African American population is 6 percent, yet 48 percent of its prisoner population is African American. Twenty-eight percent of Maryland’s citizens are African American, yet 77 percent of its prisoners are African American. The sums of money that states have been budgeting towards prisons, rather than education, are equally disturbing.

Between 1980 and 2000, a dangerous pattern across the United States emerged where state spending in higher education only rose 24 percent, compared with a 166-percent increase in funding for correctional facilities. The impacts of investing in prisons rather than higher education during this 20-year span were devastating: 38 states and the federal system added more African American men to their prison systems than they added to their higher education programs.

In California, with an African American population that is only 7 percent, African Americans make up about a third of the inmates. California is rated number three among the states for incarcerating drug offenders, and ranks 18th in prison spending, yet when it comes to education, California lags almost at the very bottom at 45th.

America is prioritizing crime policy and believing it is a suitable substitute for socially progressive public policy. Today about 10 percent of the African American population is streamlined into prisons. The harms that arise from the prison industrial complex are felt across the entire community; inmates become convicted felons which severely handicaps their work opportunities, leaving families shattered and without income. At a national level, the existing legal system is slowly disenfranchising minorities from political participation. Currently in nine states, one in four black men can never vote again, and if the trends continue, in a dozen states, 30 to 40 percent of the next generation of black men will permanently lose the right to vote. These trends are more than disconcerting, they are dangerous and unacceptable, and we have an uphill battle ahead of us to correct them.

With a few hours still remaining in the train ride, I am glad I awoke; if I hadn’t, the opportunity of observing nature suspended in such grandeur would have passed me by unnoticed.

Institutional suffering targeted disproportionally at certain communities puts the entire society at risk, and we shouldn’t wait until we finally reach a post racial era to stand united against today’s injustices.

Vicente Gonzalez is a junior in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at vgonzalez@cornellsun.com. Color Between the Lines appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Vicente Gonzalez