In recent months, I have marched in the streets with young people who have carried signs saying what shouldn’t have to be said: Black Lives Matter. The words are urgent and necessary as we struggle to comprehend how our criminal justice system could deliver so little that looks or feels anything like justice for poor people and people of color, especially for young Black men.
But are these words relevant only as we think of our criminal justice system? I think not. If we pause for a moment and consider the deep meaning and significance of the words — Black Lives Matter — it quickly becomes evident that the words need to be spoken more broadly, far beyond the confines of debates about police practices or criminal justice reform.
Over the past several years, I have traveled from coast-to-coast visiting communities that are struggling to survive in the era of mass incarceration and meeting with people who, having been branded criminals or felons at early ages, are denied basic civil and human rights for life, treated as disposable — as though their lives simply don’t matter. I have been encouraged by some of the criminal justice reforms that have been adopted, and the willingness of some elected leaders to admit the failure of the drug war as well as the necessity of downsizing our prison system. But I remain deeply disturbed by the national debates surrounding communities of color, as there is little honest discussion about why some communities in this country are thriving while others are considered to be war zones. We remain reluctant to acknowledge the racial dimensions of our policymaking and our politics. We want to imagine that the differences between “good” and “bad” neighborhoods can be explained simply by who lives there. But, of course, the glaring inequities have nothing to do with the DNA of the individuals who reside in ghettoized communities or any natural proclivity to violence. Instead the racial divides that persist — and in some cases are growing — are traceable to a choice we, as a nation, have made.
I have traveled from coast-to-coast visiting communities that are struggling to survive in the era of mass incarceration and meeting with people who, having been branded criminals or felons at early ages, are denied basic civil and human rights for life, treated as disposable — as though their lives simply don’t matter.
We could have taken a different path. When faced with the economic collapse of inner city communities, we could have responded with care, compassion and concern. For example, as late as the 1970s, more than 70% of African Americans in Chicago worked in blue-collar jobs. By 1987, due to de-industrialization and jobs moving overseas, hundreds of thousands of African Americans nationwide (a majority of them men) found themselves suddenly jobless. By 1987, the industrial employment of Black males in Chicago had fallen to 28%. Staggering numbers of Black men across the country found themselves suddenly trapped in racially segregated, jobless communities struggling for survival. The economic collapse of inner cities happened almost overnight.
We had a choice. We could have responded to this extraordinary crisis as though Black lives mattered. Stimulus packages and economic development programs could have been adopted. And we could have invested heavily in education so that young people in these communities would have some hope of successfully transitioning from an industrial-based economy to a service-based economy — a new world in which not only a high school diploma is required but quite likely a college education. But instead of following the trail blazed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and countless others who dared to dream of an America that provides equal opportunity for all, we ended the war on poverty and launched a war on drugs. Rather than expanding job opportunities, we expanded our jails; rather than high tech schools we built high tech prisons.
The Schott Foundation declines to wonder aloud what might be wrong with the least advantaged in our communities, and instead asks the deeper, more profound question, “What is wrong with the system?”
Black men, in particular, have been treated as being disposable, no longer necessary to the economy or to building the country. We label them and their communities as irredeemable and hopelessly violent, when in fact when you control for the variable of joblessness, regardless of race, it becomes clear that men of all races who are chronically unemployed are more likely to be violent. Of course, joblessness is not an excuse for violence, but we cannot put our heads in the sand and pretend that we do not know that creating and maintaining conditions of extreme deprivation and joblessness contributes to violence. Rather than asking repeatedly, “What’s wrong with them?”, we would be better off asking ourselves, “What is wrong with us?” Why have we allowed so much unnecessary suffering to occur on our watch?
I am pleased to say that Schott is asking and answering the right questions. In Black Lives Matter: Schott’s 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males, Schott declines to wonder aloud what might be wrong with the least advantaged in our communities, and instead asks the deeper, more profound question, “What is wrong with the system?” Through this report, Schott boldly proclaims that Black lives do matter. They matter to our families, our communities, our democracy, our houses of worship, and they matter to the success of our nation as a whole. And because Black lives matter, what we choose to do about educational inequity matters. It matters that we provide quality education and employment opportunities. It matters that we give our young people good reason to dream. If we truly believe that Black lives matter we must prove it, by accepting the challenge offered by this report and getting to work building a country that affords dignity and opportunity to us all.
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