During America’s “dark years,” when segregation was the law of the land, African-Americans were often terrorized by White racists who simply could not stand the sight of them. These individuals could not turn to the justice system for help: the local sheriff was often among the group of men they feared would beat or lynch them. Law enforcement was one of many tools that were used to oppress Blacks; unfortunately, things are not much different in modern times. Instead of, while in prison, having access to the services needed to turn their lives around, Black men and women face economic exploitation.
The United States imprisons more people than any other developed nation—one person for every 100. When you drill down and look at the numbers more closely, you’ll see that 40- percent of those incarcerated in America’s jails and prisons are Black and that one in nine Black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is locked down. A lot of policies led to these race-based discrepancies, biased drug laws and mandatory jail sentences for drug users among them.
While it’s tragic that so many of our brothers and sisters end up in prison, often for low-level, non-violent drug crimes, the real tragedy is the billions of dollars private companies are making while our people rot in jail. There are over 200 privately operated prisons in this country—meaning they are not government managed—and, collectively, are raking in so much money that Wall Street considers them safe “bets.” And why wouldn’t they? The justice system has no desire to rehabilitate offenders or, most importantly, work to keep troubled individuals out of the system in the first place. No, they’d rather create a cycle of recidivism that ensures the profits keep rolling in.
We can’t, however, blame government for everything. Even though many of the facts seem to show that the justice system seems to works against African-Americans, we have to be smarter and do better. If we know criminal that criminal activity and drug use will lead us to prison, then we have to walk a straighter path. We can begin to fight back by using the education system. Even if that system isn’t in the best of shape, we can, as many have done, use what it does offer and improve our lot in life. Of course, we should—and will—continue to fight against injustices and exploitation. But we must make sure we don’t fall into the trap that has been set for us.
(Judge Greg Mathis is vice president of Rainbow PUSH and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)