By Paul Cummins
“So the question for white Americans is essentially moral: Is it right to impose on members of an entire race a lesser start in life, and then expect from them a degree of resolution that has never been demanded from your own race?”
I find this question, raised by Andrew Hacker in his book “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal,” haunting and disturbing. Often I wonder why the question does not shame all white Americans into greater resolve to correct what is now four centuries of disgraceful treatment of an entire people—treatment based solely on skin color. Day after day we read in newspapers and journals about the unequal treatment of black America. In fact, I believe we are so used to the accounts that they wash off us just as rain washes off windows.
As the Hacker quote reminds us, the power structure of America sets up the playing field extraordinarily uneven, rigs the game, imposes penalties and punishments upon certain players, and then blames and holds them accountable for the results. It has been going on in this country since the first slave ship arrived off our shores in 1619, and it has continued generation after generation, century after century, decade after decade to this very day.
The inequities imposed upon African-Americans by the white powers that be are now so legion that it is easy, for some—perhaps for many—to become oblivious to their deleterious effects in society and their cruel impacts upon individual lives. To illustrate, I started cutting out random articles and statistics recently from newspapers and journals. Here are but a few:
For one, let’s consider our notorious prison system. Two recent books received an excellent review, “The American Prison Nightmare,” in the April 12 issue of The New York Review of Books. The author, Jason DeParle, not only shows how prisoners’ lives are damaged or ruined by prison itself but how the families, children and communities of the incarcerated men also are destroyed. “Black men in their early thirties,” DeParle writes, “are imprisoned at seven times the rate of whites in the same age group ... by the time they reach their mid-thirties, a full 60 percent of black high school dropouts are now prisoners or ex-cons.”
Bruce Western, the writer of “Punishment and Inequality in America,” one of the books reviewed by DeParle, argues that prison is not just a byproduct of poverty; through mass incarceration, he says, “the poor are made poorer and have fewer prospects.”
Black men are incarcerated unequally—that is, at a far higher rate than whites for the same crimes, and then black America is criticized (often subtly and obliquely) for its lack of intact families. Black children growing up without fathers, without two breadwinners in the family, without models of high school or college graduates, are then expected to do as well as their white, Asian or even Hispanic counterparts. It simply isn’t fair.
To quote from DeParle again: “From 1980 to 2000, the number of children with fathers behind bars rose sixfold to 2.1 million. Among white kids, just over 1 percent has incarcerated fathers, while among black children the figure approaches 10 percent.”
Here are a few more recent newspaper clips:
From The New York Times (Bob Herbert), March 15, 2007: “For black males who left high school without a diploma, the real jobless rate at various times over the past few years has ranged from 59 percent to a breathtaking 72 percent.” Of course, the disastrous impact of this upon families and children, schools and neighborhoods is equally breathtaking.
And in Education Week (Feb. 14, 2007) a report from the University of Chicago states, “More than half, or 54 percent, of African-Americans ages 15-25 believe they received a poorer education than their white counterparts.” Having been directly involved in predominantly white public and private schools and predominantly black public schools, I can verify that this belief is true.
And the beat goes on: poorer education with consequent higher dropouts, fewer job opportunities, disproportionate incarceration rates, poorer healthcare and overall governmental neglect of inner cities. As Michael Thomas shows us in his first novel, “Man Gone Down,” things are set up to keep the “Other” poor in their place. It’s about time to address this issue head-on—with compassion and real action. I believe it is long overdue to launch a Marshall Plan for Black America.