I recently saw a picture going around on Facebook addressing the age-old myth in The Field that there are more Black men in prison than there are in college. According to the picture (seen above), there are 824,340 Black men in prison or Jail while there are 1,444,979 Black men in college. While these numbers are very encouraging, I must play Devil’s advocate and say let’s not get carried away with celebration yet. There is still a LOT of work to be done so I will debunk the debunking of the myth.
First-off, 824,340 remains a highly disproportionate and all too steep figure. Second, one thing to note is something that took me going to a predominately white college for 4 years to notice; I was a minority within a minority. Where all of my high-school friends to me were just known as “Black” , once I got to this University, I was seemingly introduced for the first time to Nigerians, Haitians, Caribbean’s, and Black people from all walks the world. Then as I started to think back I was like “oh snap, So-and-So was Nigeeeeerian! and Whats-His-Name was Haaaatian!” This showed me how much of a narrow-minded view of our cultural diaspora I was allowed growing up in this K-12 system. It also showed me how much of an impact the legacy of Jim Crow has caused Blacks in the US.
At this Ivory-Tower institution, I found myself being asked what [ethnicity] I was and my only answer was “I’m Black.” When asked the follow-up question of “well where are your parents from?,” I reply with “LA.” When asked the follow-up question of “Oh, where are your grandparents from?” I replied with “Texas and Louisiana” all while having a confused look on my face. My confusion was with this concept of being Black in the US, yet still having ties to another place called home. We would call those like me “just-Black” or as a group, the JB’s (I guess you could see it as a homage to Jame’s Browns old band). This was when I began to refer to myself as a “lost child of Africa” in order to acknowledge the oneness of all of us no matter if we are in Haiti, Tanzania, Ghana, or anywhere else. It was also my way of acknowledging that outside of Inglewood, tracing back my heritage past the South was a lost cause unlike my friends who were waving their flags at our Caribbean parties in college. Was I supposed to wave the American flag? With all that we’ve been put through to keep up from fully being Americans, I’m sorry if I feel hesitant to do such a thing (Though it is my home and I love it as we all do).
Soon, I began to see what Black Harvard Law professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and other Black scholars reported in a New York Times article I read. Gates says that there are about 530, or 8%, Black students in Harvard’s undergraduate population, and that upwards of two-thirds were West Indian and African immigrants or their children. This left about a third, or 177/2.67% of these Black students being those directly “disadvantaged by the legacy of Jim Crow laws, segregation and decades of racism, poverty and inferior schools…”
Now before the media gets a hold of this concept, it is important to realize that, if I may quote Prof. Gates again, “I just want people to be honest enough to talk about it.” It isn’t that anyone is saying that there is a problem for these Black-immigrant students to represent these numbers, I’m sure I don’t speak only for myself when I say these numbers are fantastic. What’s important is that due to the broad definition of Blackness in US society, there is a historically disadvantaged group whose situation is being masked so-to-speak. The disparity at some schools is so bad that Sheila Adams, a former student at Harvard is quoted in the article saying that the JB’s would refer to themselves as “the descendants.” Things became much more clear to me as I began working on a senior year project, a day-long conference entitled The Imprisonment of a Race, which looked at the history of mass incarceration through a lens of race.
A different phenomenon is seen when looking at the make-up of our nation’s prisons. While I was hard-pressed to find these exact statistics, if you have been to any prison you can see the reversal of the immigrant:“slave descendent” ratio. When taking this into account, in reality there is a certain group of Blacks that indeed may be equally (if not more) represented in prison, than in college. Further, the educational and rehabilitative opportunities available to our fallen role-models are minimal, leaving them very little options beyond reverting back to their previous criminal judgments. This is why I can’t be satisfied with certain statistics, though they are indeed needed to provide inspiration and uplifting.
However, I will allude to my previous post, God, Obama, and Kool-Aid, when I say this issue exists due to the “kool-aid” we’ve been fed to pacify us. This drink came in the form of affirmative action, a much needed temporary fix that was instead used as a permanent solution. The ideal situation would have been to institute affirmative action, while laying down improvements to the fundamental framework of our communities’ educational systems:
- - Strengthening our criteria for teachers to eliminate the terms “good teachers” and “bad teachers.”
- - Expanding our variety of youth programs, centers, and mentorships in order to increase our children’s interest in education.
Before their demise at the hand of COINTELPRO, the Black Panther Party was beginning to do all of these things themselves. However, this tradition of self-reliance, self-improvement, and smart exercise of Black spending power wasn’t passed on due to the vilification of the Panthers. Media portrayals and lies would turn many of us against these “revolutionaries” when in reality, their revolutionary ideals were dedication to the community and cradling of the youth. They served as mentors and positive role models keeping them from following the yellow brick road to prison. Once they were gone, we saw the crack boom and the further destruction of our neighbor-hoods.
Affirmative action was instead put in place as a small consolation for generations of oppression. What then happened next was that these descendants would never be guided into positions in which they could take advantage of this loophole put in place. A group of people who were actively obstructed from the freedom to attend these institutions were suddenly expected to know how to get there. Now look to the other side of the situation, immigrants come here with hope’s of their children making it in the land of opportunity. The difference is, there was another group already here, with the opportunity beaten out of them. This is the place people came/come to escape persecution and seek new hope, however for “the descendents” they’d been there and done that, diseased with lowered confidence, lowered hopes, dampened dreams. I use the same logic I apply to my inability to celebrate the lowered unemployment rate in the US. While for the broadly defined American population the numbers seem low, however for Black Americans specifically, the rate is the highest it has been in almost 28 years (see CNN Money). We have to still ask why or else no one else will.
This is why joining the struggles of all Black people world-wide is a mandatory. Many immigrants come here and go through the struggle we’ve BEEN going through. We connect, we pass on our tricks of survival and those who have their eyes on the prize that is that college education, share that passion. We are all facing the same imperialisms and discriminations nation-wide and the time has come to get over Ethnic beefs and embrace the fundamental connection we all share as being children of Africa and unite to get us on equal ground.
I recommend reading this article on the Harvard and related studies here and continuing to never be satisfied with anything less than what we deserve. Let us applaud and celebrate pieces of inspiration such as the discussed picture but not let it cloud our vision of the road ahead. Check out this really good documentary on Tupac Shakur called Tupac Uncensored: The Lost Prison Tapes. Pac touches on many of these issues as well as his own vilification at the hand of misinterpretation of his Thug Life diagnosis.
Thanks for reading all my Field Peoples,