Why We Can't Wait to Address the Sleeping Giant of Mass Incarceration

On Father's Day (two months to the day after the 50th anniversary of the critically acclaimed "Letter from Birmingham Jail," written by my late fellow Morehouse College alumnus, Dr. King), I released an open letter, via Facebook, asking America to contemplate the question, "What best explains why there are so many black men and fathers missing from black households?" Or "What is the real reason behind the fact that, today, over half of all black children grow up in homes without a father?"

Today, in the wake of the events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Dr. King told the world of his "Dream," it is clear to me that this question is even more pressing now.

As I wrote in my open letter, the answer to this question is mass incarceration, where one-third of adult black men have been labeled felons for life, primarily through the now-glaringly unjust "War on Drugs." Indeed, in less than 30 years (since 1980), the penal population went from 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase (two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners).

The fact of the matter is that, in urban America, black (and increasingly brown) men are disproportionately targeted, pursued, and arrested for a "crime" (mainly simple, nonviolent possession of marijuana -- a drug less harmful than both alcohol and tobacco) that goes largely unnoticed and unpunished when committed by whites (who, multiple studies show, actually use the same drugs at similar or higher rates) on college campuses and in suburban citadels across the country.

But the discrimination is not only on the front end of drug law enforcement, it's also on the back end -- that is, once these black men are labeled felons. As Michelle Alexander's (and I agree with Joshua DuBois, who recently said that "Alexander may be this century's Harriet Beecher Stowe") eye-opening best-seller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, makes us uncomfortably aware, once labeled felons, these men are permanently relegated to second-class class citizenship. "They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era." Alexander posits that "these men are part of a growing undercaste -- not class, caste."

In my open letter, I drew upon two piercing excerpts from King's Birmingham letter to leave the reader with no uncertainty about where Dr. King would stand today with respect to the drug war. King said, "an unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself." He also said that "law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress." And, as I asked pointedly in my open letter, "Can we honestly say that disproportionately felonizing (given the aforementioned collateral consequences that come along with being branded a felon) entire communities of black men for these nonviolent 'offenses' is NOT 'block[ing] the flow of social progress'?"

I proceeded to demonstrate the "fierce urgency of now" or "why we can't wait" (the theme King adopted 50 years ago in the run-up to the March on Washington, and the title of his 1963 book) in the context of the U.S. Census Bureau's 2043 minority-majority (or "plurality nation") projections. As I stated in the letter:

[T]here are only 12.6 million African American adult men today and one-third of them have already been labeled felons for life. If nothing is done, and these trends persist, we will have created a caste system unrivaled in modern history (one that would even make South Africa's past caste system of Apartheid seem like only a footnote in the history books), and unworthy of that 2043 minority-majority milestone (it would indeed be the ultimate irony).

What I omitted in this letter, but included in my subsequent open letter to Nelson Mandela, is the fact that the U.S. already incarcerates more black men than South Africa did during the height of apartheid. But, to give readers an idea of where we're headed if this sleeping giant of injustice goes unabated, I cited a 2012 report from United for a Fair Economy (UFE) that estimates that, if trends persist (based on all years of consistent available data between 1980 and 2010), 5 percent of the black population will be incarcerated by 2042 (more than doubling the current percentage). But, as I note:

[T]his number doesn't take into account the full felon population. So if the percentage of blacks 'incarcerated' doubles, I fret at the thought of what the percentage of blacks labeled 'felons' will look like by 2042. Over half of the adult black male population? (Remember, it's already at one-third!) If this is not reason enough to act, I'm not sure what is. Remember, in light of these new Census projections, we can no longer consider this a black problem, this now concerns the very future of America.

These numbers look even more grim when you consider the fact that there are 2.7 million more black adult women than black adult men (an unparalleled gender gap of 21.4 percent), or as noted in Alexander's book, the fact that most black men "in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life (in the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80 percent)." It becomes clear, then, that mass incarceration is the single largest institutional threat to the black family.

But the fight to end mass incarceration is not only a moral imperative, it is also an economic imperative. In my open letter, I reference a 2011 report from The National Employment Law Project (NELP) that cites a survey done by the Society of Human Resources Management (the largest association of human resources personnel) in which over 90% of companies reported using criminal background checks for their hiring decisions, a statistic inextricably linked to the fact that "in 25 of the nation's largest metropolitan areas, fewer than 55 percent of working-age black males [are], in fact, employed." And, in the grand scheme of things (GDP), the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) estimates that, due to America's vast and growing ex-offender population, the American economy is already losing between $57 billion and $65 billion a year in lost output. Again, we don't want to know what these figures will look like by 2043 if mass incarceration, per the drug war, grows unabated.

Now, although last month we celebrated two major victories in the fight against mass incarceration, one in the form of an announcement from Attorney General Holder that the Department of Justice will seek to curb stiff drug sentences, the other in the form of a federal court ruling rejecting New York's stop-and-frisk policy (both of which were welcome news to the Emerging Millennials Leadership Alliance -- whose founding was inspired by my "Father's Day Letter" -- especially in light of EMLA's preceding historic partnership with an unprecedented coalition, led by Dr. Boyce Watkins and Russell Simmons, of nearly 200 celebrities, athletes, elected officials, activists, advocates, academics, thought, faith, and business leaders, formed to encourage the Obama administration to #EndTheWarOnDrugs), we still have a LONG way to go (for a snapshot of what change looks like, see EMLA's "Founding Statement"). It is encouraging, however, to see Cory Booker's (one of the prospective members of EMLA's ad hoc Board of Advisors) announcement last week on his plans for drug war/criminal justice reform.

Having attended last Saturday's "National Action to Realize the Dream" march commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and having watched the subsequent "Let Freedom Ring" ceremony where Presidents Obama, Clinton and Carter spoke commemorating the same, I was happy to see the many placards that called for an end to mass incarceration (although it was disturbing to hear that D.C. Park Police seized 200 of those placards from activists that were distributing them for free). But there wasn't enough talk about mass incarceration in the speeches at these events. As expected, there was great emphasis and repudiation (rightfully so) of the new wave of voting suppression, recently enabled by this summer's Supreme Court decision to gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But, as stated to the leading civil rights organizations, in EMLA's "Founding statement" (cited above), "we have a new caste system (mass incarceration) that has arisen out of the ashes of the last one (Jim Crow/segregation), which speaks directly to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the second-class citizenship that it aimed to eliminate." So we must speak with equal vigor to this racial retrogression. We must get President Obama to see that the drug war makes the U.S. criminal justice system the single largest purveyor of racial injustice and oppression of our time.

With that, I'll conclude the same way I did in my open letter to Nelson Mandela, by echoing Sweet Honey in the Rock, in saying, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes."