January 16, 2012

The Racial Opportunity Gap

It is Martin Luther King Day, a day to ponder the gains from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. Front and center is the first black president of the United States, Barak Obama. There has been a racial backlash against this in some quarters, but nonetheless Obama's election was truly a how-far-we've-come moment. Oprah Winfrey owns her own TV network. African American millionaires abound. Yet, there is also a civil rights gap. Across age, gender, and education level, unemployment rates for blacks are twice that of whites. African American boys are consistently ranked at the bottom, when it comes to most education measures.

I would like to put this racial achievement gap under the same microscope that the Occupy Movement has used to examine the income gap in our country. It is easy to see how buying political power to remove business regulation, reducing taxes on the rich, and slashing social services for the poor has generated an ever widening wealth and income gap. The Occupy Movement has done a brilliant job exposing this. Let's look further to see that the same mix of corporate and political interests has contributed to a racial opportunity gap.

Significant analysis exists concerning the racial achievement gap. Some say that overt racism simply went underground after the great successes of the Civil Rights Movement. Others say that humans have a tendency to rely on stereotypes when making decisions, regardless of their conscious intentions. And historians would add that the historical roots of inequality are not so easily overcome.

So why do we need to analyze this further? Because there is more at play. After the Civil War, when slavery was officially abolished, why didn't African Americans in the South achieve any kind of economic parity? A couple of years ago, I read the book, Slavery by Another Name: the Re-enslavement of Black people in America from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas Blackmon and was blown away by some history that I knew nothing about. Essentially, the legal system sold convicts to large commercial and industrial interests. What was even more egregious about the practice was that the crimes usually consisted of vagrancy or being without employment, and enforcement was targeted almost exclusively against African American men. The result was forced labor under abhorrent conditions in iron and coal mines or on large and small plantations.

The same question needs to be asked again today. Since the Civil Rights Movement, why has the racial achievement gap persisted? In a January 13 Democracy Now! interview, Amy Goodman, Randall Robinson, and Michelle Alexander discuss the disproportional imprisonment of African Americans as well as the idea that the War on Drugs was really a political counterrevolution against the Civil Rights Movement. Four out of five people who are in prison today are there as a result of the War on Drugs and the "Get Tough" movement starting in the 1980's. And the racial component of these statistics are more than eyebrow raising. Today, a million people are employed within the criminal justice system, so this is Big Business. NPR highlighted the corporate interests involved in the for-profit prison system back in November. Remember Arizona's tough immigation law, requiring police to lock up anyone they stopped who couldn't show they were there legally? For-profit prison companies foresaw millions of dollars in profit with this change in the law.

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, is a corporate sponsored group that lets large corporations help write legislation that is then provided to state legislators across the country. ALEC has drafted model prison laws as well as immigration laws. The Nation exposes ALEC's role in the use of prison labor by the private sector, privatizing the parole process, and privatizing prisons themselves. Private prison corporations that fund ALEC helped write model laws that have led to a massive increase in the U.S. prison population. Harsher laws, tougher sentences, and private prisons have resulted in great profit for for-profit prisons. Yesterday, The Raw Story reported that here in Florida, the Senate is pushing a bill to privatize prisons in 18 counties. This story is still unfolding.

Today, on Martin Luther King Day, consider this statistic. According to Michelle Alexander, in large urban areas, half or more than half of working-age African-American men now have criminal records. That's a staggering number. Their future is likely one of second-class citizenship, with a reduction in just those civil rights won by the Civil Rights Movement - an equal opportunity to vote, to gain employment, to find housing, and to obtain an education. Statistics tell us that the racial opportunity gap is widening. Although there may be a variety of reasons for this, corporate influence in our policital process is part of the problem.

Sources: January 13 Democracy Now! interview, NPR: Who Benefits When A Private Prison Comes To Town?, NPR: Prison Economics Help Drive Ariz. Immigration Law, The Nation: The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor, The Raw Story: Florida Senate pushes to privatize prisons in 18 counties

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