"I have a dream!" he said.
"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'"
You may say Dr. King was a dreamer, but he's not the only one. We dream, too, don't we? We dream of the day when, yet, "Justice shall roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everlasting stream." Dr. King's dream is still alive.
Some time ago, a friend and I were lamenting inequity in justice and race issues in America when she mused, "If someone offered you 20 million dollars to become Black, would you do it?" Most Caucasians I know would offer an immediate, "No." Why? Because we know our society is racially biased.
In her New York Times bestselling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander argues that Jim Crow is alive and thriving in and through America's criminal justice system.
Tragically, 1 of 3 African-American males born today will serve jail time if current trends hold, (1) and in our nation's capital, 3 of 4. (2) In some states Black men are sentenced to jail for drug offenses at a rate of 20-50 times greater than White males. (3)
Are stereotyping and racial profiling factors in this horror? All Americans should lament and protest the de facto offense, "Driving while Black." What about the War on Drugs? Research shows that White and Black selling and use of drugs occur at similar rates. Yet, 49% of African-American males will be arrested by the age of 23. (4) Alexander observes, "The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid." (5) Ouch!
We cannot let Dr. King's Dream die. Alas, in some places the pulse is weak.
• Among children born from 1955-1970 (ages 45-59 today) 4% of Whites, but 62% of Blacks were raised in poor neighborhoods. (6)
• On average White households today are worth 20% more than Black households. (7)
• In some major cities where the drug war is strongest as many as 80% of young African-American men have criminal records. (8)
• Reports show Whites using illegal drugs 5 times more than Blacks (14 million Whites, 2.6 million Blacks), yet Blacks are imprisoned 10 times more often for drugs. (9)
• 80% of crack cocaine sentences are handed down to Blacks, although 2/3rds of crack cocaine users are White/Hispanic. (10)
• Black drug offense sentencing is nearly as long as White sentencing for violent crime (58.7 months compared to 61.7 months). (11)
• Overall, Blacks are jailed 6 times the rate of Whites. (12)
• Our prison numbers have jumped from 300,000 to over 2 million is 30 years since President Reagan declared a War on Drugs. We imprison more citizens than oppressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. (13)
• On average, Blacks receive prison sentences 10 times longer than Whites committing the same crime. (14)
Do we in America have a criminal justice problem, or a racial justice problem? What do Ferguson and New York suggest?
Alexander argues that mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow. Why? Because "once you're labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination -- employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity... and exclusion from jury service -- are suddenly legal." (15)
Do we have legalized discrimination in our Land? Are there not more creative, hopefully more transformational ways to respond to drug violations? We can do better.
You may say Dr. King was a Dreamer, but he's not the only one. Do we not dream of a just society, too? Do we not dream of a day of better opportunity, full equality, and hope for all?
I dream of Yale over jail, education over incarceration, for all Americans. I dream of community service and rehabilitation over the lack of imagination in sentencing our people.
I dream of a "Three strikes and you're out" rule on former prisoners' voting privileges. That is, after a first, even second incarceration, rights to work and to vote would be retained. Let there be a second chance to make good. Yes, let's give persons a second chance, even a third chance. And why not? What's the alternative? Aren't we suffering it?
Is drug use a criminal issue, jobs issue, poverty issue, health issue, or some combination? The question, both fair and complex, begs conversation. Can we not find a reasonable path forward together?
Like others, I dream of quality education, jobs, food, and homes for all Americans. But I also dream of overhauling our system of arrests, sentencing, and societal re-entry. Isn't it time for a better way in America?
In our country today, we no longer have a poll tax, literacy tests, nor the KKK to prevent African-Americans from voting. Instead, we have legalized discrimination in our stereotyping, profiling, arrests, sentencing, and debilitating societal re-entry. This is wrong and it must stop! Dreamers, where art thou?
Victor Hugo said, "There's nothing like a dream to create the future."
Then let's Dream!
As The Inspirational Dreamer accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace, on Dec. 10, 1964, he exclaimed:
"Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace... I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history... I still believe that we shall overcome."
You may say Dr. King was a Dreamer, but he's not the only one. The Dream lives!
1. NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. www.naacp.org
2. Donald Braman, Doing Time on the Outside: Incarceration and Family Life in Urban America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 3, citing D.C. Department of Corrections Data for 2000.
3. Human Rights Watch, Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs, HRW Reports, vol. 12, no 2 (New Yoork, 2000).
4. USA Today, January 20, 2014. www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/01/20/nearly-half-arrested/4669225/
5. Donald Braman, Doing Time on the Outside: Incarceration and Family Life in Urban America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 3.
6. The Atlantic, June 2014, p. 60.
7. Ibid. (The Atlantic, June 2014, p. 60.)
8. Paul Street, The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs, and Community in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation (Chicago: Chicago Urban League, Department of Research and Planning, 2002).
9. NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. www.naacp.org
10. Ibid. (NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. www.naacp.org)
11. Ibid. (NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. www.naacp.org)
12. Pew Research Center. www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/07/18/chart-of-the-week
13. PEW Center on the States, One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008 (Washington DC: PEW Charitable Trusts, 2008), 5.
15. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012), 3.