Why Do I Always Fit The Description In The Era Of Mass Incarceration?

Prison Cell Bars - Black and White
Prison Cell Bars - Black and White

Last week I had the privilege to be a panelist at an NYU event. We were discussing the "Mass Incarceration" of colored people in America. It is a topic that I have significant personal and professional expertise; it is a topic that I feel represents one of the greatest social justice issues not only in America, but that of the world.

Listening to my fellow panelists, and patiently waiting my turn to speak, I scanned the audience to discern what I believed to be their level of receptivity towards the subject matter; I had long since learned that just because people show up for an event, it didn't mean they wanted to hear the truth; thus accessing the audience was something I tend to do when discussing charged euphemisms such as "mass incarceration" and "recidivism".

My fellow panelists were bringing the house down; there was no mincing of words, or playing coy not to offend. The smiles and sporadic applause told me that the audience appreciated the candid honesty towards the subject matter; however, I noticed a middle age black gentleman sitting in the front row. He too appeared to be moved by the passionate words of these warriors for justice. He was wearing baggy blue jeans, brand name sneakers, and a black hoody zipped open revealing a tee shirt that made me take pause.

His tee shirt read: "Why do I always fit the description?"

I meditated on the question till my turn arrived to speak. "You fit the description, because the description was made to fit you!" I said this to not only to the gentle man in the front row at NYU, but I am saying this to every person of color in America who is experiencing injustice, perpetrating under the guise of "criminal justice".

George Jackson, one of my greatest teachers, once said that every black man in the belly of the beast is a "political prisoner" -- It took me years to reconcile, and even understand the implications of such a statement, but I get it now! How could I not?

Wasn't I not myself set up incarcerated and sentenced to "7 to Life" at 18 years old? Are not our prisons filled with black and Latino men? Are not women of color the fastest growing prison population? Are our laws (see Black codes; Convict leasing System; 3-Strikes; Mandatory Minimums; Stop & Frisk; Mandatory Deportations etc.) not designed to further disenfranchise people who were never franchised to begin with?

I must apologize for my lack of urgency in trying to intellectualize an issue worthy of action. But the time is NOW! This is not a left-brain activity; we will not spend countless hours theorizing about reentry or preventive programs that don't discuss historical and systematic poverty; that doesn't discuss the innumerable oppression and trauma that has, and is being perpetuated against people of color in America. We won't be controlled and divided by funding opportunities; and certainly, your Obama "Post-Racial America" rhetoric won't assuage us.

Some of us, white and Black, know how great a price has already been paid to bring into existence a new consciousness, a new people, an unprecedented nation. If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name

-- James Baldwin

The time is NOW!