Thursday, September 13, 2007

104. American dream not for everyone

32 percent of African-American males, essentially one in three, will spend time in jail during their lives. It is one of those statistics that does not lie; one that makes you realize that there is a societal issue, beyond excuses and stereotypes, which needs to be addressed. Incarceration at such an alarming rate is a reflection of the quality of education, scope of opportunity and sense of value that exists within this culture. The problem is so intense and so costly- both financially and socially- that the blame can be found in every segment of American society. From political representation and socioeconomic influence to the number of positive role models, African-Americans are clearly handicapped in succeeding in American society. It is difficult to live the "American Dream," when, statistically, the odds as an African American, are such that you, your father, or your brother will spend time in jail (for comparison, 5.9% of white males will spend time in jail). As a society, the problem is unacceptable.

Is racism a factor? Consider the following report from the Drug Policy Alliance:

"Although African Americans comprise only 12.2 percent of the population and 13 percent of drug users, they make up 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 59 percent of those convicted of drug offenses causing critics to call the war on drugs the "New Jim Crow." The higher arrest rates for African Americans and Latinos do not reflect a higher abuse rate in these communities but rather a law enforcement emphasis on inner city areas where drug use and sales are more likely to take place in open-air drug markets where treatment resources are scarce."

Certainly, as this research might indicate, racism is still a factor, but I do not think that it tells the whole story. The story includes a reflection of history, opportunity and the current culture.

I recently visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. The museum detailed both the drudgery and immorality of slavery, and the path to freedom. African-American history is difficult to completely comprehend, as the details are nearly unbearable to consider. The center had a slave pen, which was used as a holding cell in the transportation of slaves to auction blocks.

Slavery, for white Americans, was as much an economic institute as it was a racist issue. In addition to the slave labor which made plantation owners wealthy, the slave trade was a very profitable industry. The slave pen was owned by Captain John Anderson, who kept detailed financial records of the slaves that were purchased and sold. In today's money, he made around $800,000 per year selling men, women and children into slavery. The men were chained to the second floor of the building until the market conditions dictated the walk to Mississippi or Louisiana. The journey was made shoeless across the treacherous terrain with their hands and feet in shackles.

Unfortunately the journey out of slavery, and shackles, now leads to prison bars for many African-Americans. Racism is a factor, but so are opportunity and aspiration. One of the museum tour guides, who was engaged with a young African-American group, emphasized the need for responsibility. He outlined the road to success, emphatically suggesting that goals and expectations include educational achievement such as Harvard Law School or an MBA from the Wharton School of Business.

Opportunity needs to include a well-funded high school education and preparation for secondary education. Families need decent wages, fair hiring and promotions, and continuous employment. They also need financial literacy and to delay starting a family until there is a measure of financial security. Finally there needs to be pride and respect within their neighborhoods. African-American role models must communicate realistic goals and proven methods for success. To simply say that "anything is possible" is misleading when everyone wants to be a professional athlete or entertainer. The message should be to follow your dream, but have a backup plan or two. The path may be difficult, and one can accept that challenge by being prepared "for anything."

Society and African-American culture are both equally responsible for creating and taking advantage of the opportunities afforded to all Americans. Aspiration and opportunity must converge at a point that furthers the economic and social advancement of African-Americans. If nearly one-third of any demographic is going to prison, then there needs to be an assessment of both that population, and the society in which it dwells. The emancipation proclamation did not free all the slaves (the Thirteenth Amendment did), and it certainly did not create all people equal. The racism that ensued denied equal rights and opportunity to African-Americans until, essentially, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, even today, freedom is a struggle.

It is time to move forward toward a complete and fair assimilation. We need to understand the problem and work ourselves backward toward a solution. Because, ultimately, it is not an African-American problem, it is an American problem.