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.