From segregation to incarceration

By Mujaddid R. Muhammad, Prisoner of the Drug War

"What will we middle-class Black folks -- the most privileged people of African Ancestry on earth -- do during our watch to help our sisters and brothers struggling along the margins? . . . Let's not confuse the few symbols of the dream - material things that buy our silence -- for the dream itself. We must fight until all of us have keys that open the door to the future. Economic and social justice, shared progress; these are the goals." -- Essence Magazine, April 1999

The above admonition was sounded by our extraordinarily spiritually intuitive sister, Susan Taylor. Her attunement to the pervasive apathy, complacency and indifference in black middle-class America is understated, but nonetheless real and observable. Historically speaking (or prophetically) Isaiah the prophet identified a people (56:10,11) who were also warned of a condition which had become endemic to that era.

Just as sure as history is cyclical in nature, s/he who fails to learn the lesson(s) of history are doomed to repeat it. And so, as the prophesy goes, "His watchmen are blind; they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs; they cannot bark; sleeping lying down, loving to slumber. Yea, they are greedy dogs which can never have enough, and they are shepherds that cannot understand; they all look to their own way, everyone for his gain, from his quarters."

If this scripture bears any resemblance to any person(s) you may know, I would venture to say that it's probably because Prophet Isaiah was really sharing with us a premonition about what you are about to read. Though he attempted to warn, well in advance, that we might remain vigilant; the truth of the matter is the "abundance" (i.e., wealth, prosperity, status, pseudo-equality, etc.) accorded black people following the "civil rights struggles" resulted in "individualism," which, ultimately, bred the troublesome twins complacency and apathy.
My dear family, the purpose of this article is to appeal to the jury of reason in your minds, in hopes that, thereby, we may revive the spirit of collective agitation and struggle reminiscent of the Black Liberation Movement.

I say this fully cognitive of the fact that the impetus for American slavery (i.e., profit, social control, exploitation, etc.) has not changed, only the modus operandi has been modernized to conform to the times. As such, the degree of agitation, struggle, political activism and economic empowerment must, in the least, be in proportion to the protest and opposition movements of yesterday. Anything less, to paraphrase Prophet Isaiah, is tantamount to an attack dog without teeth. At any rate, after reviewing this letter in its entirety, I ask that you seriously ponder the notion of whether the "shepherds" (i.e., the religious leaders, political leaders, civil & human rights activists, the black media, etc.) in pursuit of the "dream", have abandoned the vigilance necessary to ensure that all enjoy economic fairness, social justice and shared progress.

In his thought-provoking narrative, "Somebody's Trying To Kill You," author/psychologist Dr. Harry X. Davidson hypothesized that, "Suppose you came home one day and found bullet holes in your window. Later that night, you found a rattlesnake in your bed; the next morning you discovered a tarantula in your bathtub, and rat poison in the sugar. What if you then went to your car and discovered a bomb under the hood, and turned around to face a semi-truck bearing down on you? How long would it take you to realize that somebody was trying to kill you?" This line of reasoning is appropriate here to illustrate how, in the last 30 years, the black community has undergone a smooth transition from "segregation to incarceration" right before the very eyes of our shepherds. Is this to imply that we are prone to criminality. I would have to say emphatically not! But how long will it take for us to realize, particularly with respect to the black male, that conditions and circumstances have been fostered to supplant segregation with incarceration?

Since 1960 there has been an 8,000 percent increase in the number of black elected officials. However, this rise in the number of black elected officials has done little to impede the exponential growth of blacks in the criminal justice system, poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, and the great divide between the haves and the have-nots. To illustrate, in 1987 there were only 41,000 federal prisoners. Today, in 1999, in the federal system alone, there are a staggering 130,000 prisoners, with thousands more awaiting bed space. Nearly one in three (32.2%) African American males in the age group 20-29 (827,4400) is under criminal justice supervision on any given day (in prison or jail, on probation or parole). While African Americans constitute 13% of all monthly drug users, we represent 35% of arrests for drug possession, 55% of convictions and 74% of prison sentences.

If present rates continue it is projected that by the year 2020, 4.5 million black men will be incarcerated. Indeed, it is a dramatic statement about the dire condition of black America that it took an 8,000 percent increase in blacks elected to public office to keep blacks where we had always been; committed to producing wealth and comfort for white America.
Further, if we want to understand why the prison population is rising, disproportionately, with African American men and women, even as crime declines, two factors stand out.

First, consistent with the protocols of American slavery, it was noted in the "Psychological Legacy of Slavery" that, "Slavery does away with fathers, as it does away with families. Slavery has no use for either fathers or families, and its laws did not recognize their existence in the social arrangement of the plantation. When they do exist, they are not the outgrowth of slavery, but are antagonistic to that system."

Although this sentiment is reflective of American slavery, today its impact can be seen and felt across the board (i.e., affecting blacks, Hispanics, whites, Asians, etc.). However, as is characteristic of American racism, when America catches a simple cold, given the same circumstances, black America will be exposed to life threatening pneumonia.

Second, ever since the so-called abolition of slavery, through the Emancipation Proclamation, America (i.e., the political and economic forces) has incessantly pursued ingenious ways to maintain and continue the economic exploitation of the African American community. We must not forget that Africans were brought to this land during a period in America's history when she needed slave labor to harvest cotton, tobacco, and other crops. Many people, both black and white, feel that this area of history is not an acceptable topic for discussion anywhere, especially across racial lines. It's as if we believe that, if we ignore the facts of racism, they will not exist.

In order to understand and reconcile the slavery of yesteryear, stealthily creeping back under the guise of imprisonment, it is imperative that you have a comprehensive knowledge that allows you to spot the nature of oppression and exploitation.

It is not coincidental that the growth of prisons has been followed by a dramatic increase in the use of prison labor by private companies. It is not coincidental that yesterday's punitive system of "Black-Codes" is today disguised under euphemisms like "Truth in Sentencing," "Zero Tolerance," "Crack-Cocaine vs. Powder", "100:1 Sentencing Disparity," "Three-Strikes" and you're in for life, etc. It is not coincidental that the system of "Meritorious Manumission" (the legal act, once recognized by National Public Policy, of freeing slaves for acts like saving the life of the white master or "snitching" on fellow slaves) first instituted in Virginia in 1710, is now perpetrated under the guise of 5K1; otherwise known as "substantial assistance" or "snitching".

These examples undeniably illustrate that forces are forever present to keep us susceptible to exploitation and imprisonment. Then, as now, the black prison population performed an economic and political function for the benefit of the white ruling class. The active partners in this contemporary style slavery are the politicians using fear of crime to garner votes, low-income rural areas clawing for new prisons to spawn economic development, and private companies angling to share in the lucrative $2.35 billion a year prison industry.

Investment houses, private prisons, construction companies, architects, support services such as food, medical, transportation and furniture, like human vultures, all stand poised to profit from the ignorance and suffering taking place in the black community.

The pressing question is, how long will it take for black leaders and blacks in general to realize that, as a result of our lack of vigilance, we as a people are skillfully being moved back to a position of servitude and exploitation. It has been said that if you place a frog in hot water he will immediately jump out, however, if you place him in warm water and gradually turn up the fire he will become comfortable, complacent and, thereby, cook to death. Again, the pressing question is: how long?

In conclusion, several months ago I received a letter, in response to a prison/sentencing reform agenda I proposed to The November Coalition, from Mr. TNC, the Associate Director of TNC. He made the following observation: "Clearly the huge percentage of African American men and women in our prisons is a monstrous perversion of any notion of justice and fairness, and it cannot be tolerated. From our perspective, however, advocacy groups for the African American community have been notoriously silent on these issues. Many, in fact, have been ardent supporters of get-tough drug policies."

It is shamefully deplorable that a middle-class white man feels compelled to remind us of our duty and obligation to one another. The "perspective" from which he makes this assertion is premised on an alliance TNC has formed with numerous other reform organizations. Currently, there are but a very few African American led advocacy groups among them, despite the fact that we are overwhelmingly represented in the criminal justice system.

I implore you, fellow prisoners, family members, black community; get involved with the growing opposition to Americas' inhumane and racist policies, before it's to late to jump out of the boiling water. Remember, Power concedes nothing without a demand, especially a corrupt and wicked Power. Peace be with you all,