Political leaders, such as Donald Trump, make it really easy for people such as me, a 21-year-old surrounded by liberals, to overgeneralize the Republican party as either racist, or racially insensitive. Certainly the fact that the prison system is warehousing black men, as Michelle Alexander has pointed out in her book, The New Jim Crow, isn’t usually at the list of Republican concerns.
But Rep French Hill, a deep-dyed conservative from Arkansas, changed my stereotypes about this issue.
This Southern right-winger has actually sponsored an innovative bill to turn the jail experience from a dead end into a possible second door that opens into education and opportunity for African-Americans leaving the prison systems. bill proposes that we create educational programs for former inmates, funded through grants to Historically Black Colleges and universities.
Last July, Rep. Hill proposed a bill called the “Shift Back to Society Act of 2016”. This bill was written to help the lives of prisoners by creating educational programs for them to enroll in when they are released, or about to be released. I have already written before about how inmate education helps to increase former prisoner’s chances of success once they reenter society, and therefor also reduces recidivism and saves money for everyone.
But Rep. Hill’s bill goes above and beyond mere education. The same money that will go to funding these educational programs will also help strengthen the infrastructure of communities of color; his bill proposes providing grants for these programs to historically black colleges and universities.
Historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, “have historically received less funding and inequitable program offering compared to the states’ predominantly White institutions,” according to Diverse Education. This underfunding is just one example of the systemic racism that keeps graduation rates low for people of color, thus providing them with fewer economical advancement opportunities than white people.
Keeping education limited in these communities also disempowers people of color in the political system. After all, individuals who have received a college education are far more likely to vote, and the vast majority of elected officials also have college degrees. When we neglect to fund HBCUs properly, we are reinforcing the systems that silence the voices of people of color in politics.
But education and political engagement are not the only categories of citizenship that have been rigged against black communities by systemic barriers. Fighting recidivism by funding HBCUs is especially important because people of color make up 60 percent of the incarcerated population, even though they only account for half as much of the overall population of the United States. In fact, one in every three black men will be in prison at some point in their life.
When I asked Rep. Hill about this legislation, he told me this:
Working to address the struggles of our inner-cities is an interest that transcends partisan boundaries. In Central Arkansas, I started a non-partisan Community Empowerment Initiative (CEI) because I wanted to hear from all of our local leaders about ways we can positively affect parts of our area that have been, at times, neglected by their leaders in government.
The sincerity, and listenership of French Hill is what makes him a noble and honorable politician; he truly does represent the voices of the people of Arkansas. He added:
In the current political climate, the perception is that Congress is too divided to get anything done, but I fundamentally believe there are so many areas where Democrats and Republicans can find consensus to make a positive impact on the lives of our citizens.
More politicians should follow the movement that Representative French Hill is leading: he is less worried about the agenda of his political party, and more worried about the wellbeing of all of the people in the United States, not just the wellbeing of white America.
Is Hill going to be my best friend? Is he a latte-drinking millennial, and socialist leaning intersectional feminist like me? Hardly. Representative Hill was a commercial banker, before he became a Congressman: and before that he was served on the administration of President George H. W. Bush. Not someone who travels in my circles. But on this prison issue, we are allies.
French Hill, with this bill, has shown me the value of issue-based, rather than party-centric, politics. Imagine how quickly we, as a nation, could move legislation forward if we asked ourselves how we felt about specific issues, and not how we feel about the political rights or lefts. I would urge all of my friends who care about the issue of recidivism, or systematic racism, to support Hill’s bill, no matter how they choose to identify politically.