The drama of the November 7th elections further revealed the extent of Black exclusion from U.S. society at the turn of the century. Local officials, poll managers and attendants, police and the Supreme Court all played an active role in stripping Black people of the right to vote. This latest outrage is but part of a broader, on-going attack on the gains of previous progressive, labor and radical movements, and an assault on our communities.
The parallels between the end of the 20th Century and the end of the 19th Century are striking. Following the Civil War, Black people led a Reconstruction in which they asserted their rights to full citizenship. White elites responded by reasserting (“redeeming”) white supremacist rule. If the Civil Rights Movement represented a “Second Reconstruction,” then the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years definitely have constituted a “Second Redemption.” The Bush Part II years promise no less. If we assess the 2000 elections against issues of healthcare, stable employment and livable wages, welfare “reform,” education, and the criminal justice system, it is evident that in the post- Civil Rights era Black people are being forced back into the shadows of U.S. political, social and economic life.
The Second Redemption: An Erosion of Civil and Social Rights
In essence, Blacks are struggling, as we have in the past, to maintain and improve basic civil and social rights—the right to health care and shelter, the right to vote, the right to public education, the right to work for decent pay and job security. The privatization of public space, amenities and entitlements is segregating Black people from these rights and quality of life conditions. Predominantly, white communities are privatizing common space by “gating” public roads in an attempt to prevent Black and brown people from entering their cities and neighborhoods. Racial profiling by police and private security is used to target Black mall shoppers, drivers, and pedestrians who may venture into public spaces where they are not wanted. In Chicago, Detroit, New York, St. Louis and elsewhere, affordable public housing is being destroyed—disproportionately displacing Black low- income families to make space for businesses and private dwellings for middle-income and upper income whites.
Black families experience isolation and the loss of civil and social rights in other forms. Fifty percent of Black children in the U.S. live in poverty. Yet, TANF policies are removing low-income parents and their children from public assistance—leaving them vulnerable to unemployment and private sector wages insufficient to meet shelter, clothing, food and healthcare needs. The public foster care system too is removing itself from the care of its wards, one- half of whom are Black. Increasingly, private agencies are monitoring these children, and their well-being is subject not only to the profit margins of private enterprise but also corruption.
As more Black people are pushed from welfare rolls and Black people find it increasingly difficult to find living wage employment, they are disproportionately finding themselves incarcerated in a private, for- profit prison industrial complex. Corporations contract with local, state, and federal governments to build and operate facilities and to provide food, clothing, and other services to an institutionalized population whose increasing numbers only serve to fuel private profits. What are the statistics? Approximately 50 percent of prison inmates are Black and almost 1 in 3 Black men aged 20-29 is under some type of correctional control – incarceration, probation, or parole. Moreover, Black men have a 29 percent chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives. Black women fare little better. They are the fastest growing prison population and over one-half of them are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. Overall, juvenile offenders are increasingly being treated as adults. Thus, they are subject to harsher punishments. Racial disparities persist here as well. Sixty-seven percent of juvenile defendants prosecuted as adults are Black. And, while Black youth are less likely than their white counterparts to use drugs, 75 percent of juvenile defendants charged with a drug offense in an adult court are Black. Relative to men, incarcerated women and children are more likely to experience violence and sexual abuse behind prison walls. Once released, many ex-offenders experience further loss of civil rights and isolation—they are often disenfranchised and lose the right to fully participate in the political process. Additionally, they are often unable to gain suitable employment, housing, or higher education.
While more and more tax dollars are spent on the incarceration of Black people, predominantly Black public schools are often unable to meet the academic needs of student bodies. They are disproportionately located in poor and low-income communities. They struggle annually to provide up-to-date books, computers and science laboratories. Relative to middle-income white school districts, those of color are more likely to hire low-paid uncertified teachers for the classroom. They are less able to offer college preparatory courses and other services that would enhance children’s access to higher education. The right to quality public education is further threatened by charter schools and voucher system efforts that will only serve to further strip tax dollars from public schools already in economic dire straits. The majority of children of color will not benefit from either charter or private school voucher systems. Nor will they benefit from continued use of curriculums and teaching methods that do not address their unique experiences.
The erosion of civil and social rights are reinforced by state repression and police violence in the form of racial profiling, police brutality and murder, and the public assault on workers rights’ to maintain and improve job pay, benefits, and security. Likewise, the killing of Amadou Diallo illustrates not only racial profiling but also the lengths the state is willing to go to maintain control over Black people. Further, workers have been struggling against massive layoffs, a decline in real wages, corporate downsizing, and attacks on unions.
The Tasks Ahead
The Black Radical Congress’ newly launched national campaign (“Education Not Incarceration! Fight the Police State!”) is well timed and clearly challenges this trend towards privatization, state violence and repression, and the loss of civil and social rights. The campaign has five related Parts. Part I is a petition to make police brutality and misconduct a federal crime. We are aiming to gather 100,000 signatures for this petition. Part II of the campaign involves supporting defense work on behalf of the “Charleston Five,” five South Carolina longshore workers facing imprisonment for their role in a planned picket against a union-busting shipping line. The criminal charges they face stem from a police-instigated confrontation with workers. Part III of the BRC’s national campaign centers around a boycott of the multinational Sodexho Marriott Services, a major investor in private, for-profit prisons in the United States. Part IV of the campaign is our opposition to the privatization of public education, in the form of vouchers and similar methods of corporate control. Finally, Part V of this campaign aims to generate attention (and remedies) to the ways in which Black women fall prey to state violence—for instance, the lack of alternative sentencing for women convicted of drug offenses; the anti-family policies of prison facilities; and sexual abuse by guards.
A Plan of Action
Common to all of these components is a recognition that police violence and repression, and mounting incarceration rates, are the lynchpin of racial exclusion, gender oppression, and the declining economic conditions of working people. Although the various aspects of the campaign fit together, our campaign is potentially unwieldy for a young coalition with limited resources. Though each element of the campaign is equally important we cannot feasibly work on Parts I through V at the same time. Our Plan of Action then, is to begin with Parts I and II, “The Petition” and the “Charleston Five,” both of which emphasize our direct challenge to state repression and the steady erosion of our civil and social rights. One of the indicators of our success will be the extent to which we fortify our existing Local Organizing Committees and build new ones, and cement relationships with other coalitions. We ask other organizations to join us in this struggle. As the landscape grows bleaker, it is at least clear that “Education Not Incarceration! Fight the Police State!” is a campaign we do not have the luxury of forfeiting.