Sunday, June 21, 2015

Who are the Underprivileged in America?

In a discussion about white privilege and the importance of education and its influence on closing the achievement and economic gap between races, I believe it integral to define who are the underprivileged in America. A further clarification, I believe, will better illustrate the problem of race in this country and give voice to those who, because of a lack of education, will be disenfranchised for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, Michelle Alexander has done a great deal of work in her book The New Jim Crow in illustrating the issues that face people of color in the current moment. It is from this book and from her theories that I argue that the underprivileged Americans are people of color, and that these people urgently need laws and policies to undermine the racist elements that keep them disenfranchised. Some of these policies may include affirmative action but at the very least must provide a clarification and better perspective on the illusion of reverse discrimination.  “One recent study indicates that the elimination of race-based admissions policies would lead to a 63 percent decline in black matriculants at all law schools and a 90 percent decline at elite law schools. Sociologist Stephen Steinberg describes the black reality this way: “Insofar as this black middle class is an artifact of affirmative action policy, it cannot be said to be the result of autonomous workings of market forces. In other words, the black middle class does not reflect a lowering of racist barriers in occupations so much as the opposite: racism is so entrenched that without government intervention there would be little ‘progress’ to boast about (246). Affirmative action would, without a question, expand and increase the black middle class, however there are other issues that inhibit economic progress in the black community and they include: the war on drugs, the black working class, institutional racism, Jim Crow policies, the expansion of prisons rather than colleges for young people of color, racial profiling, and the prison industrial complex. So without further ado, lets get it in.   

War on Drugs

The stereotypical representation of the typical drug dealer is the black male thug. This thug totes a glock, sells weed on the nearest street corner, and could care less about an education. He can also be found in such household video games as Grand Theft Auto. His success however does not come from a lack of policing “between 1980 and 1984, FBI antidrug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million. Department of Defense antidrug allocations increased from $33 million in 1981 to $1,026 million, and FBI antidrug allocations grew from $38 to $181 million.” But may come from a lack of options “funding for agencies responsible for drug treatment, prevention, and education was dramatically reduced. The budget of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, for example, was reduced from $274 million to $57 million from 1981-1984, and antidrug funds allocated to the Department of Education were cut from $14 million to $3 million. (50) So it would seem that policies surrounding the war on drugs gave little options for black male youth outside of selling drugs, and even this option could easily buy them a ticket straight to prison. It would seem like their backs were to the wall, and in this condition no one can be certain what they outcome may be.

Another misperception is that black people consume drugs at a rate much larger then whites however “One study published in 2000 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that white students use cocaine at seven times at the rate of black students, use crack cocaine at eight times the rate of black students, and use heroin at seven times the rate of black students.” And at the height of President Reagan’s War on Drugs “the House passed legislation that allocated $2 billion to the antidrug crusade, required the participation of the military in narcotics control efforts, allowed the death penalty for some drug related crimes, and authorized the admission of some illegally obtained evidence in drug trials.” (53) Instead of building schools and building an infrastructure that promotes learning and education the federal government saw the War on Drugs as an opportunity to imprison young black males and shut the door to their future.

It would be a matter of time before the prisons were filled with pseudo black  criminals guilty for simply selling, consuming, and possessing drugs. “Drug offenses alone account for two thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000. Approximately a half million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, compared to an estimated 41,100 in 1980—an increase of 1,100 percent. Drug arrests have tripled since 1980. As a result more than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began. (60) It is not like these criminals were committing violent crimes it just seemed like it could be a better way to control them through the penal system rather than opening their minds in a classroom and teaching them about the multitude of economic options that come with a formal education. The War on Drugs seemed to be a policy for “What they hell are we going to do with this ‘angry’ black mass?” And instead of looking towards education as being the key to personal salvation and community development it would become a tool only the privilege had access to.   

In addition to this racial disparity between those whom were educated and those whom were not, drug laws were also slanted to particularly criminalize people of color. “Under the new law, it takes 28 grams of crack cocaine to net a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, while it still takes selling 500 grams of cocaine to net the same sentence. (139)” Although crack cocaine had not yet hit the streets when the War on Drugs was declared in 1982, its appearance a few years later created the perfect opportunity for the Reagan administration to build support for its new war. (105) The War On Drugs is the vehicle through which extraordinary numbers of black men are forced into the cage. (185) Never allowed to fully come out.

Black Working Class

Unlike the black middle class the black working class, despite all their efforts, could not seem to crack the glass ceiling above those whom are born too poor to avoid criminal activity. Their economic class tied into their lack of proper education yielded an unfortunate circumstance for illegal activity. “Two thirds of people detained in jails report annual incomes under $12,000 prior to arrest. (155)
People of color, because of the history of racial subjugation and exclusion, often experience success and failure vicariously through the few who achieve positions of power, fame, and fortune. (251) So that the clear examples of black economic and political progress in figures such as Barak Obama, Thurgoood Marshall, and Condeleeza Rice overshadow the many poor and disenfranchised voices that will never bust their economic bubble.  This group makes up what Alexander calls the “underclass” (a group so estranged from mainstream society that it is no longer in reach of the mythical ladder of opportunity. (12)

It seems like this underclass cannot get away from an inevitable(?) future of imprisonment. “Fully 70 percent between the ages of eighteen and forty-five in the impoverished and overwhelmingly black North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side are ex-offenders, saddles for life with a criminal record. (196)

In New York City, one study found that 70 percent of the city’s poor black and Latino residents live in high-poverty neighborhoods, whereas 70 percent of the city’s poor whites live in non-poverty neighborhoods—communities that have significant resources, including jobs, schools, banks, and grocery stores. (196)

And even those members of the black working class who seem to want to do the right thing have to meet insurmountable obstacles that white people simply do not have to deal with. Some offenders, like Ora Lee Hurley, find themselves trapped by fees and fines in prison. Hurley was a prisoner held at the Gateway Diversion Center in Atlanta in 2006. She was imprisoned because she owed a $705 fine. As part of the diversion program, Hurley was permitted to work during the day and return to the center at night. “Five days a week she worked fulltime at a restaurant earning $6.50 an hour, and after taxes, net about $700 a month. Room and board at the diversion center was $600, and her monthly transportation cost $52. Miscellaneous other expenses, including clothes, shoes, and personal items such as toothpaste, quickly exhausted what was left. Hurley’s attorney decried the trap she was in: “This is a situation where if this woman was able to write a check for the amount of the fine, she would be out of there. And because she can’t, she’s still in custody. The harsh reality harks back to the days after the civil war (like sharecropping). (156)
Institutional Racism

What makes this problem so hard to describe and dismantle is that it is entrenched in the political system that governs this country. Certain laws and political leaders have such racist leanings that discrimination becomes commonplace. “During Clinton’s tenure, Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent), effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor. (57)” Now the question becomes how did this get slashed? Who voted on this budget cut? What congressional committees oversaw the line item vetoes? The problem because so complex that the lay civil activist has a hard time finding the source and when found has the wherewithal to make a change.  This makes the problem institutional or inherent of our political democratic(?) system.

Jim Crow

So are these policies like the “War on Drugs” by Ronald Reagan an echo of Jim Crow laws following the Civil War? In major cities wracked by drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. (7) Is this reminiscent of the poll taxes and ridiculous civil exams given to those down south who simply wanted to vote. Or is it just a coincidence that the majority of people in prison are also those of people of color?

65 million people have criminal records, including tens of millions of Americans who have been arrested but never convicted of any offense, or convicted only of minor misdemeanors, and they too are routinely excluded from public housing. (147) So you are busted for smoking a joint after a concert, does that mean that you should not be able to get housing for the rest of your life? This seems ridiculous.

Reliable estimates of the number of innocent people currently in prison tend to range from 2 percent to 5 percent. While those numbers may sound small (and probably are underestimates), they translate into thousands of innocent people who are locked up, some of whom will die in prison. (89)

And to top it off, it seems that there is a disparity between those who get put to death and those whom are able to keep their lives. In “Georgia prosecutors seemed largely to blame for the disparity; they sought the death penalty in 70 percent of cases involving black defendants and white victims, but only 19 percent of cases involving white defendants and black victims. (110)”

It is worthy of note, however, that the exclusion of black voters from polling booths is not the only way in which black political power has been suppressed. Another dimension of disenfranchisement echoes not so much Jim Crow as slavery. Under the usual-residence rule, the Census Bureau counts imprisoned individuals as residents of the jurisdiction in which they are incarcerated. Because most new prison construction occurs in predominately white, rural areas, white communities benefit from inflated population totals at the expense of the urban, overwhelmingly minority communities from which the prisoners come. This has enormous consequences for the redistricting process. White rural communities that house prisons wind up with more people in state legislatures representing them, while poor communities of color lose representatives because it appears their population has declined. This policy is disturbingly reminiscent of the three-fifths clause in the original constitution, which enhanced the political clout of slaveholding states by including 60 percent of slaves in the population base for calculating Congressional seats and electoral votes, even though they could not vote.” (193)

Prisons v. College

One major topic that is talked about again and again is the disparity between the construction of prisons rather than the establishment of universities. As of June 2001, there were nearly 20,000 more black men in the Illinois state prison system than enrolled in the state’s public universities.  (190) African American youth account for 16 percent of all youth, 28 percent of all juvenile arrests, 35 percent of the youth waived to adult criminal court, and 58 percent of youth admitted to state adult prison. (118) Another alarming statistic is the relationship to those whom are imprisoned and the amount of education they received. About 70 percent of offenders and ex-offenders are high school dropouts, and according to at least one study, about half are functionally illiterate. (150) And finally the harsh reality that white youth are more involved in the drug game than their black counterparts.
The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported in 2000 that white youth aged 12-17 are more than a third more likely to have sold illegal drugs than African American youth. (99)

Racial Profiling

Because of the disproportionate representation of people of color in prison vs. their percentage of the total population in society law enforcement tends to be quicker in their assessment of black civilian as criminal than a black civilian as Rhodes Scholar. In studies from Maryland African Americans comprised only 17 percent of drivers along a stretch of I-95 outside of Baltimore, yet they were 70 percent of those who were stopped and searched. Only 21 percent of all drivers along the stretch of highway were racial minorities (Latinos, Asians, and African Americans), yet those groups comprised nearly 80 percent of those pulled over and searched. (133)
In New Jersey, the data showed that only 15 percent of all drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike were racial minorities, yet 42 percent of all stops and 73 percent of all arrests were of black motorists—despite the fact that blacks and whites violated traffic laws at almost exactly the same rate. By 2008, the NYPD was stopping 545,000 in a single year, and 80 percent of the people stopped were African Americans and Latinos. Whites comprised a mere 8 percent of people frisked by the NYPD, while African Americans accounted for 85 percent of all frisks. (135)

Prison Industrial Complex

Lastly is the prison industrial complex which basically states that our treatment of people of color, or minorities, is far worse than the rest of the world. The impact of the drug war has been astounding. In less than thirty years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. (6)

The rate of increase of the prison population is reaching all time highs and we as a country must ask ourselves what are the root causes. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails soared from roughly 300,000 to more than 2 million. By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans—or one in every 31 adults were behind bars, on probation, or on parole. (60) As of 2008, there were approximately 2.3 million people in prisons and jails, and a staggering 5.1 million people under “community correctional supervision”—i.e., on probation or parole.


People of color are without a doubt the underprivileged in America and the numbers of those in prison along with those whom are racially profiled by far outnumber those whom are white. The perception of people of color is also warped. People in society still believe in dangerous stereotypes which create a volatile society. One study suggests that the standard crime news “script” is so prevalent and so thoroughly racialized that viewers imagine a black perpetrator even when none exists. In that study, 60 percent of viewers who saw a story with no image falsely recalled seeing one, and 70 percent of those viewers believed the perpetrator to be African American. (106) In terms of affirmative action and education, it seems like a no brainer that even day in 2015, unfortunately, we still need race based admission policies to ameliorate the years of racial discrimination and the rectify the current attitude in society with regards to race. We are not even close to a race-neutral society and are creating more harm by believing that color blindness exists. It is time to face reality head on and put all arms on deck for its rectification.