The outrage swirling around the killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford on Feb. 26 has touched off a firestorm that threatens to engulf the status quo of race relations.
And well it should.
Two reasons: Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson.
Ms. Alexander, a law professor at The Ohio State University, wote the seminal The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This newspaper published a Page One comment on Jan. 19 regarding this book and some of her findings. They include the fact that more black male adults are now in prison or otherwise in “correctional control” than there were in 1850.
Ms. Alexander is getting greater attention now during the social postmortem of Trayvon’s killing. Increasingly, too, is Mr. Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). He gained national attention in March when he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that sentencing a child to life without possibility of parole violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unjust punishment. He says that such a sentence has been imposed on 73 children 14 years of age or younger, nearly two-thirds of them “children of color.” The court previously ruled as unconstitutional imposing the death sentence on juveniles but left open the door to sending them to prison for the rest of their lives.
Mr. Stevenson also says nearly 42 percent of the 3,300 people on death row nationwide are blacks and a defendant is more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white. He has also found from a two-year study of eight Southern states, including Florida, widespread bias preventing blacks from serving on juries.
A lot more information is available from the EJI and, put alongside Professor Alexander’s findings, they point to a Black America in grave peril. These are the prophets, if you will, shouting to us to pay heed. For instance, Mr. Stevenson notes that the prison and jail population has soared from 200,000 in 1970 to about 2.3 million today, adding, “One-third of black males born today likely will spend at least some part of their lives behind bars; nearly one-tenth of black males in their 20s already live in prison; and almost one out of three black males in their 20s currently remains in jail, prison, on parole or otherwise under criminal justice control. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites and Latinos at nearly double the rate.”
Professor Alexander attributes such statistics to the “War on Drugs” that President Richard Nixon first mentioned and President Ronald Reagan implemented in 1982. It has never been, she says, about curbing crime but about rewarding law enforcement for arrests. “In this way, a new racial underclass has been created in an astonishingly short period of time — a new Jim Cow system. Millions of people of color are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for.”
This grim state of affairs is being put in sharp relief with Trayvon’s death and became even more vivid when America on Wednesday marked the 44th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. It was about “reclaiming the dream,” as a Miami observance put it. Professor Alexander reminds us in her book: “African Americans are doing no better than they were when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and uprisings swept inner cities across America. The black child poverty rate is actually higher than it was then. Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in Third World countries. And that is with affirmative action. When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our ‘colorblind’ society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political and economic structure: the structure of racial caste. The entrance into this new caste system can be found at the prison gate. This is not Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. This is not the promised land.”
It is not where Black America should be. We must not let this moment pass without ensuring that we seize control of our destiny and move to the real promised land.