“We Have Found the Enemy, and They Are Us” – Finding Cures for Racist Outcomes in the 21st Century

20130430tu-joseph-hazelwood-exxon-valdez-alaskan-oil-spill-alaska-greenpeace-advertisementIn the days following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Greenpeace came out with an unusual advertising campaign about the spill.

Their ad featured a picture of Joseph Hazelwood, the man who had been navigating the ship when it crashed.

The caption read, “It wasn’t his driving that caused the Alaskan oil spill. It was yours.”

It was a transcendent moment of silence for many activists at that time, including me:

“Greenpeace is my ally. I’m a supporter. How could they be blaming me for an Alaskan oil spill thousands of miles away?”

For an initial brief moment, I was perplexed and offended by their ad. Of course, I and others quickly realized the genius of what they were proposing.

A transcendence and mind-shift took place among many activists who realized, there really is no “Us” and “Them.” There’s just “Us” all of us together as one. Whatever solutions may be out there, they can’t simply involve “us” protesting “them.” The answers must be found in collaborative solutions that everyone can be a part of and support.

In the new era of transcendent activism, protests gave way to those offering solutions.

One example of many is Jake Harriman who served over seven years as a platoon commander in both the Infantry and an elite unit of Marines called Force Recon. Jake decided he wanted to get serious about fighting terrorism, so he formed a non-profit organization called Nuru to fight extreme poverty which Jake believes is the cause of terrorism. [source]

Today we face a problem of monumental racist outcomes that are most glaringly apparent in the justice system in the United States where an incarceration crisis has resulted in the U.S. having the world’s highest rate of incarceration, and among those incarcerated “African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners.”[1, 2, 3]

The natural inclination is to blame the police, or judges, or someone else. “Blame anyone but us!,” seems to be the rally cry.

The racist outcomes we see in the justice system today are really just symptoms of problems that exist far upstream from the criminal justice system.

“It’s highly unlikely that there is a nation-wide conspiracy to disproportionately arrest people of color and treat them unfairly. What’s more plausible is that we’ve created (or permitted) a racially biased and unfair social, economic, and political structure where people of color are discriminated against at foundational levels of education, employment, and opportunity — then, we act surprised when some of these disenfranchised, marginalized, and oppressed people grow up, break some laws, and get arrested. Anyone coming from a difficult background, with limited means, is going to have less access to legal services, outside support, and bail money. This will, of course, make their situation worse.”  ~ Greg Johnson [source]

When people are denied quality education and then denied employment and other opportunities, this creates an understandable sense of ostracism, oppression, desperation and hopelessness. When people grow up immersed in a context of poverty, without an abundance of successful roll models, and only examples of others who’ve found it difficult to rise above these circumstances, then those growing up in such circumstances begin to have little hope of anything different in their own life. It’s not surprising that people turn to drugs to find both an escape and source of revenue.

The following commentary is from Bob Thompson, a jail alternatives advocate:

“I like Neff’s terminology ‘racist outcomes’ better than ‘institutional racism.’ I can’t find any evidence of deliberate racist intent in policing or prosecution. Of course I can’t follow everyone in the criminal justice system around all day or peer into their minds, but it appears to be circumstantial. There’s more crime in a particular area, so there’s more policing, which leads to police finding more people breaking the law in that particular area. As for what happens after arrest, I had an exchange with an attorney on the CJCC at the forum about that. The most likely explanation for disproportionate pretrial release of Blacks is simply that they statistically lack resources to make bail. As for delays in Blacks’ cases moving through the system, that gets more complex, but Lyness has looked into the underlying causes, and those appear circumstantial as well. The problem is that there’s no alternative to having money to stay out of jail. And the correlation between criminogenic tendencies and poverty is obvious, and not contingent on race at all. If there’s anyone to blame, it’s all of us.” ~ Bob Thompson [4, 5]

For these reasons, it is even more imperative to provide alternatives to arrest and incarceration. It’s also important to limit the rapid population flow into incarceration institutions because of the connection between incarceration and recidivism that has been identified in studies like “Is Prison Increasing Crime?” – a 60-page report by Martin H. Pritikin published in the Wisconsin Law Review. [PDF]

Solutions to racist outcomes will be found at every level where we can offer education, employment and opportunities for people who might otherwise not have them.

__________

Footnotes

  1. The term racist outcomes was most recently popularized by John Neff of JCO-Justice.com.
  2. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. [source]
  3. The statistic regarding racial disparity is from the NAACP. [source]
  4. “Neff’s terminology” refers to John Neff and his research website JCO-Justice.com
  5. Lyness refers to Janet Lyness the County Attorney for Johnson County, Iowa.

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