Tag Archives: mass incarceration

The Injustice of Incarceration

Jail Bars

It wasn’t until after I learned the capitals of all fifty states.  After I had been lectured on the triumphs of American independence and the basic principles of my country’s foundations of freedom and liberty and pursuit of happiness.  I even learned of the abolishment of slavery and the progressive narrative of the Civil Rights movement of the 1970’s, before I found out that the United States still had prisons.

I clearly remember standing at the window of my father’s downtown office, looking down at the courtyard of the old Allegheny County Jail, watching uniformed black men play basketball, wondering why they were surrounded by large walls and barbed wire.  Before this point, I was fully convinced that prisons were storybook structures, and jail time was a punishment that fell out of practice sometime between the middle ages and whenever Les Miserables took place (my older sister was an avid fan).

Let me be the first to admit that this delayed comprehension of the American Justice System was only made possible by the fact that I was born into stable middle class white family.   I didn’t live in a neighborhood that was policed heavily, my parents never faced trouble with the law, and I grew up under the infinite protections of white privilege.  I was never suspected of thievery, or pulled over or patted down by police because of my race.  I never had my father dragged out of my home for petty crimes, and I wasn’t raised by a struggling single mother who had to choose between working a second job and reading to her children.

I say all of this, primarily, because I’m certain that if I were born with a different color skin, that I would have learned about the harsh realities of mass incarceration long before I actually did.  That I would have been racially profiled, perhaps patted down and pulled over because of my skin, and maybe even dragged behind bars for something as trivial as marijuana possession.

Far too many Americans hide behind the façade of post-racialism, and refuse to acknowledge that systemic racism is alive and well, operating within the mass-incarcerating machine known as the American Justice System.  The notion that everyone holds equal rights and faces equal punishment is a myth.  People of all races commit crimes, and our current system relies on that fact to target and heavily police minorities to perpetuate a myth of inferiority. Once thrown in jail, young black men are stripped of their rights, removed from the voting population, and denied access to education.  These so-called “correctional facilities” are nothing but modern day slave cells.

I’ve written frequently about how hip-hop addresses racial profiling and mass incarceration on this blog.  How black men often lament that they’re lucky to reach the age of 25 without being incarcerated or dying. On the tragedy that jail-time and death have become a forced rite of passage for rappers, and on how it’s problematic that these rappers gain authenticity through punishment and fatality.

And yet we wonder why so-called “family values” have deteriorated in urban neighborhoods.  We ask why these children aren’t being read to, aren’t being fed properly, and aren’t forced to attend school.  What do we expect when police these neighborhoods heavily, thrown their parents in jail, and wonder why they can’t get a job that will properly support their children.

Go ahead, ban Donald Sterling from the NBA.  Boycott Justin Bieber and Paula Deen for their racist remarks.  Whatever convinces you that you don’t perpetuate racism enough to fall asleep.  None of this will fix the fact that white children can go through a large part of their lives without even knowing that prisons still exist, meanwhile black youth are targeted by police and introduced to the perils of incarceration from birth.

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Fraudulent Fireworks: Trayvon Martin, Racial Profiling, and America’s Broken Justice System


We at war.  We at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all, we at war with ourselves

I didn’t get a chance to see the July 4th fireworks this year. I got out of work 20 minutes after the downtown celebration, but I thought it’d be nice to take an evening stroll through the packed streets of Pittsburgh.  Maybe soak up a little independence and raise a toast to liberty.  Halfway through my loop around the downtown triangle, police sirens sounded off from around the corner, and a large group of black teenagers began sprinting down the streets.  Girls and boys, ages 12 to 20, ran with fearful eyes, looking back only to make sure they didn’t leave their friends behind.  I remember vividly, a boy sitting on the sidewalk after he had run for a couple blocks, gasping for breath, checking every corner to make sure he was out of sight from the police.  For a brief moment, he was safe from being the next young black man behind bars.

These kids hadn’t done anything wrong.  What I witnessed was an ingrained, burning fear of police sirens; a trained reaction to run from law enforcement no matter the occasion. And I just stood there, nauseated with my white privilege.  This is liberty?  This is freedom?

They don’t want peace, they want a nigga deceased/So he’ll cease to be a problem, and by the way they perform/It seems the Klan gave the white police another uniform

Perhaps, for people blessed to have grown up in a small town setting, it’s difficult to understand why young black Americans hold a life-long hatred of law enforcement.  The inner city has a much more tenuous relationship with the justice system.  Police officers aren’t the neighborhood’s friendly guardian.  They’re the anonymous white man who knocks down your door to take your father away; the flashing lights that follow your every move, waiting for you to make a mistake that merits handcuffs;   the street patrol that stops you on your walk home to pat you down head-to-toe because you look “suspicious.”

The death of Trayvon Martin  isn’t an isolated incident, and George Zimmerman isn’t America’s only monster.  Martin’s death is just another tragic example of how black men are viewed, profiled, and treated in a so called “post-racial” America.  What advice would you have given Trayvon Martin that night?  If anyone approaches you, run for your life?  Don’t wear that hoody, put on a bright yellow American eagle shirt to make you less threatening?  Don’t go to the store to get skittles in the first place?

‘Son do you know why I’m stopping you for?’ Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low?

Telling a young black man that the only thing preventing his imprisonment or death is to avoid the streets at all costs, as ridiculous as this might sound, is good advice.  Zimmerman decided to leave his car and pursue Trayvon Martin.  Zimmerman pulled the trigger that killed an innocent black teenager.  But we can’t label Zimmerman a racist monster and pretend like his actions were out of the ordinary.  That would be a lazy excuse to avoid dealing with a problem deeply ingrained in our country’s race relations.  We pay police officers every day to detain young black men because they look suspicious.  We make the laws that justify Zimmerman’s actions, enable stop and frisks, and allow for the mass incarceration of black men through mandatory minimum sentencing and double standards that target minorities every day.

This is to the memory of Danroy Henry.  Too much enemy fire to catch a friendly

It’s time we take a look at our society’s broader problems with racism.  Listen to one hip-hop song, and you might understand how it feels to be profiled and patrolled from birth because the of the color of your skin.  George Zimmerman made the news because he took the law into his own hands, but there are plenty of cases that don’t make national news because the so-called “monster” was in a police uniform.

Trayvon Martin is dead.  George Zimmerman is a free man.  Sure, we can protest for justice for Trayvon.  But why not take a stand for justice for the entire black community?  Why not fight against the war on drugs, racial profiling, and the inevitable mass incarceration of young black men? Until then, those July fourth fireworks will only be a façade of liberty, a revolting distraction from the police sirens that terrorize our country’s minorities.

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