Reclaiming Columbus Day for Social Justice!

I wrote this post for the Ramapo College Women’s Center blog but I wanted to share it here too!

For most people today is Columbus Day, but not for me. After reading about the atrocities committed by Columbus and his men in James Lowen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me I can no longer acknowledge the day in good conscience.

Despite my lack of aptitude when it comes to history, for the past ten years or so I have had some awareness of the fact that Columbus Day was a really crummy holiday. I mean, thinking about it logically it is easy to understand that Columbus didn’t discover anything, he simply took over a patch of land that was already inhabited by various groups of people. With this understanding I spent many years ambivalent, not thrilled about the reasoning behind the holiday but enjoying my day off all the same. Now, however, I am outraged. This excerpt from a post on commondreams.org is lengthy, but it sums up the horrible history behind Columbus’ expedition to the “New World” very well. It is a history that I, like many of my peers, was woefully unaware of until just a few weeks ago.

“If you fly over the country of Haiti on the island of Hispaniola, the island on which Columbus landed, it looks like somebody took a blowtorch and burned away anything green. Even the ocean around the port capital of Port au Prince is choked for miles with the brown of human sewage and eroded topsoil. From the air, it looks like a lava flow spilling out into the sea. The history of this small island is, in many ways, a microcosm for what’s happening in the whole world. When Columbus first landed on Hispaniola in 1492, virtually the entire island was covered by lush forest. The Taino “Indians” who loved there had an apparently idyllic life prior to Columbus, from the reports left to us by literate members of Columbus’s crew such as Miguel Cuneo. When Columbus and his crew arrived on their second visit to Hispaniola, however, they took captive about two thousand local villagers who had come out to greet them. Cuneo wrote: “When our caravels were to leave for Spain, we gathered one thousand six hundred male and female persons of those Indians, and these we embarked in our caravels on February 17, 1495. For those who remained, we let it be known (to the Spaniards who manned the island’s fort) in the vicinity that anyone who wanted to take some of them could do so, to the amount desired, which was done.” Cuneo further notes that he himself took a beautiful teenage Carib girl as his personal slave, a gift from Columbus himself, but that when he attempted to have sex with her, she “resisted with all her strength.” So, in his own words, he “thrashed her mercilessly and raped her.” While Columbus once referred to the Taino Indians as cannibals, a story made up by Columbus – which is to this day still taught in some US schools – to help justify his slaughter and enslavement of these people. He wrote to the Spanish monarchs in 1493: “It is possible, with the name of the Holy Trinity, to sell all the slaves which it is possible to sell Here there are so many of these slaves, and also brazilwood, that although they are living things they are as good as gold.” Columbus and his men also used the Taino as sex slaves: it was a common reward for Columbus’ men for him to present them with local women to rape. As he began exporting Taino as slaves to other parts of the world, the sex-slave trade became an important part of the business, as Columbus wrote to a friend in 1500: “A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten (years old) are now in demand.”

In order to draw attention to the controversy over this “holiday” at Ramapo Professor Gorewitz planned a “campus takeover to appreciate Native Americans.” This is the schedule for the day:

9:45 – Gathering
10:00 – Greetings from representatives of the Ojibwa and Lenape Communities
10:15 to 11:30 – Trudell by Heather Rae
11:30 to 1:00 – Powwow Highway, directed by Jonathan Wacks
1:00 to 2:00 – Drum Circle
2:00 to 3:30 – Smoke Signals, directed by Chris Eyre
4:00 to 6:00 – The Business of Fancy Dancing, written and directed by Sherman Alexie

I’m in class and meetings for most of the day, but I did manage to jump back and forth between Ramapo Coming Out Day (more about that in another post) and the Drum Circle! The drum circle was lead by a Native American man* who spoke for awhile about the significance of the various instruments before leading the circle in a beat for a little while. * [Because I came in late, I missed where exactly he was from but we should all be aware that “Native American culture” is not a monolithic thing. Someone I spoke to told me the man was from Wisconsin, so I suspect he is Ojibwa based on the program and the fact that there is an Ojibwa reservation in Wisconsin. ]

In addition to the film festival, there has also been a petition going around to change Ramapo’s name for the day to it’s Native American spelling, Ramapough. This is the part of the event that resonates with me most, since so few people on this campus realize that there is a Native American tripe, the Ramapough Lenape people, living not twenty minutes from Ramapo’s campus. Even fewer people realize that the Ramapough Lenape people’s health and livlihood has been compromised for years now, at the hands of Ford Motors:

In 1983, the Ramapough homeland was declared an EPA-monitored Superfund site by the federal government. After 7,000 cubic yards and 727 tons of paint sludge and 61 drums of toxic waste was removed from the Upper Ringwood, New Jersey site from 1987 to 1990, and in 1994, the EPA delisted the site and declared it safe. In 2006, after many complaints by the Ramapough, Upper Ringwood was the first site in history re-declared a Superfund site and today the EPA admits that 80 percent of the toxins were missed in the original cleanup.

Continue reading

Breast Cancer Awareness Isn’t Just for Women

This piece is a follow-up of sorts to a post I wrote awhile back for Not Your Average Feminism, on a similar topic, called It’s About People, Not Breasts.

Showing off my tie-dyed bra after a few hours of tabling!

This past weekend I helped to bring Octoberbreast to my college’s Octoberfest celebrations. For three hours I stood behind a table with some friends, in a black dress and a bright tie-dyed sports bra, encouraging other women to tie-dye their own bras while we spoke with them about the various Breast Cancer Awareness Month events we had coming up around campus. The table was met with a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement… we ran out of bras long before the event ran out of time!

In executing this table we did A LOT of things right. The idea was fun and catchy. We had a range of sizes wide enough that we did not have to tell anyone that we didn’t have a bra big enough for them (though we did run out of smaller sizes much quicker than anticipated.) We managed to educate a number of people through conversations and pamphlets given out alongside their bras – sharing information about breast cancer in general as well as the events we have less to come.

Still, there was one thing about this event that made me feel just a bit disappointed in us: we had forgotten the men.

Breast cancer awareness is important, yes, but with “I <3 Boobies” bracelets on so many arms, and NEW! pink products coming out all the time… most people are pretty aware of breast cancer, well, at least the 51% of them that identify as female are. The other half of the population is still at risk because somewhere along the line the conversation about men & breast cancer often seems to get lost. In fact, I have to wonder if all of these campaigns that focus so much on boobs make men even less aware of breast cancer, since they are trained to associate it with “boobies” and women in general.

If this is true, as I suspect, then these campaigns actually could be costing male breast-cancer patients valuable time as they are less likely to be on the lookout for breast cancer symptoms.That time could be the difference between life and death.

In August many media outlets were reporting on a South Carolina man, Raymond Johnson, who was denied  coverage for his breast cancer… simply because he was not born female. Johnson makes too much money to be considered for Medicaid, but not enough to afford insurance that would cover his treatments, as a result of this his doctors encouraged him to apply for help under The Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention and Treatment Act. Johnson met all of the requirements for coverage under this act except for one: he wasn’t a woman. Johnson isn’t the only man who has been denied by this fund for the same reasons.

Equally horrifying (at least to me) is the fact that Johnson didn’t even know he could GET breast cancer. For all of the awareness campaigns out there he, like many men, was left in the dark until his diagnosis was brought to light:

“I didn’t even know men could get breast cancer,” says Johnson, who was diagnosed after he went to a local emergency room for chest pain treatment. “I’m young. I didn’t think anything bad could really happen to me.” [Source]

While it is true that breast cancer is MUCH more rare in men [there are just under 2,000 new cases of breast cancer in men in the U.S. per year, and just under 400 deaths, while almost 40,000 women die of breast cancer each year] that does not mean that raising awareness in men is not important. Like all cancers, a patient’s chances of survival are MUCH higher

For an event like ours, I would suggest providing white tank tops for men (and women who don’t want sports-bras) to tie-dye in order to help draw in a more mixed crowd. Overall, when it comes to Breast Cancer Awareness, I continue to advocate for a less “boobies”-centric view… what I mean by this, is that campaigns should focus more on the people who are fighting this disease, and less on the “boobies” themselves.

The bottom line is that breast cancer doesn’t discriminate based on sex, and neither should breast cancer awareness programs or treatment funds.

To end this on a positive note, is one awesome Breast Cancer Awareness campaign that speaks to men as well as women:

“Peter Criss, drummer and founding member of the rock band KISS, recently went public with his battle against breast cancer. People don’t associate men with the disease, but men have breast tissue, too, and they are susceptible to breast cancer. Keep reading and then encourage your loved ones — male and female — to get screened for the potentially deadly disease. “ Read more here!

What do you think? Do you know of any effective awareness campaigns that target women AND men? As always, feel free to share in the comments!

It All Comes Back to Love

What can I even say?

I didn’t know anything about Troy Davis’ plight or his case until last night, when his life was taken by the state.

I am angry, sad, confused, lost… its crap like this that leaves me feeling hopeless, unable to escape from a culture that would murder a man who had so much reasonable doubt tied to his conviction that he probably shouldn’t even be in jail, let alone dead right now.

I feel complicit in all of this hate. No matter how much I read, no matter how many worthy causes I advocate for there are always going to be things that I miss. Like Troy Davis. I want so badly to do my part in advocating against racism, but I don’t even know where to begin in my community.  I want to advocate against the death penalty. I want to do something that would help to stop this from happening ever again. Yet I can’t seem to get past this feeling that my one voice doesn’t mean a single. damn. thing. I mean, if the voices of the thousands who did protest meant nothing to America’s government, why would mine?

How do you pick up and keep going when the country you’ve been raised to love violates its own principles so blatantly?

How do you accept the fact the the cries of so many Americans, calling out for justice for Troy, were so soundly ignored?

Tonight I watched a room full of Republicans boo a f*cking soldier, risking his life in Iraq for a country that doesn’t even recognize him as an equal citizen. So much for, ‘support our troops.’ Earlier this week I saw headlines telling the story of Jamey Rodemeyer, a fourteen year old boy who was pushed to suicide at the hands of bullying.

Where do you go when you dread opening your computer, turning on the TV, even opening your eyes in the morning… for fear of witnessing something else you can’t bear to comprehend?

What could I ever say, or hear, that could make this better? There’s the old standard: life goes on. And that’s true, life will go on and before long Troy Davis and Jamey Rodemeyer will be forgotten by most of us, overshadowed by a million other injustices, annoyances… and good things, too.

If anything, that makes me feel worse. For me, and for so many other life goes on. For Troy and Jamey it ends abruptly, senselessly, without justice.

Its human nature to look for connections, even when there are none. This time, there is a connection: it’s hate.

We’re trained, from an early age, to fear one another, to hate one another. White kids taught to hate kids with skin darker than their own by parents who weave elaborate lies about entitlement (welfare, affirmative action) and danger (muggings, crime). I should know, even my own progressive family feeds right into this BS from time to time. Children who aren’t white taught to hate themselves by a society that tells them you are not good enough, not deserving even of the things you have earned, a society where history has no meaning and everyone’s circumstance is something that they have earned rather than something determined by centuries of history, stretching back long before their birth. Is it any wonder Troy Davis is dead despite the overwhelming doubt surrounding his conviction?

When straight kids are taught to fear queer kids, as preachers teach that love can be a sin, teachers turn a blind eye to bullying and parents try to steer their kids in the “right direction.” When those queer kids are taught to hate themselves, to want to change because as they are love is something dangerous, not something that every human being deserves. A country where just being openly gay is enough to get a soldier booed. Is it any wonder that Jamey Rodemeyer killed himself just this week?

We’re taught to fear everyone who is not just like us, fear that can turn to hate in the blink of an eye.

A system that executes people for their crimes teaches us that killing, violence, and hate are the answer.

A government that refuses to grant basic rights (like marriage, or job protection) to vulnerable members of its population is one that teachers discrimination is okay.

… and we’re all complicit. Every single on of us has had a moment where we stayed silent, watched hate unfold before our eyes but sat paralyzed and unable to act. Maybe it was a friend calling a stupid movie gay or a grandmother making a ridiculous comment about Mexican students going to school for free. I’ll just let this one slide, we think. We’re having a nice time and I don’t want to be the downer.

I almost stopped blogging just a few weeks after starting, because the passage of Prop 8 in California left me feeling so gutted, so hopeless, that I just didn’t see the point. Just as I did then, I find myself returning to the idea of love as the only thing that matters, the only thing powerful enough to change our world into one that doesn’t hurt so much to inhabit. I don’t meant this in a wishy-washy metaphorical sense though. I mean we have to love each other enough to be honest. Love ourselves and the people around us enough to confront the hate, head on, to call it out even when it is masquerading as humor. We need to love our country enough to demand better. To write letters, and protest, and vote, and campaign until America lives up to the values it was founded upon. We need to love even the most hate-filled people, love them enough to push the hate from their hearts and help them to transform. We have to love even when all we want to do is close out the world because the hate simply hurts too much to bear.

It won’t ever be easy, but it will be worth it. That’s what I’ve learned, at least, in twenty one years of muddling through this all, and personally I will never stop trying to prove that love is stronger, for Troy Davis and Jamey Rodemeyer and the million other voices silenced all too soon by the simple power of hate.

My Problem With “The Help”

I started reading The Help for a few reasons: because it was sitting in the living room when I came home for the summer, because Emma Stone is in the upcoming movie adaption, and (more importantly) because I had noticed quite a bit of criticism being written and linked to regarding The Help on some of my favorite blogs. I don’t like reading pop-culture critiques without an understanding of the source material if I can help it (as evidenced by the fact that I plowed through all four Twilight novels a few years ago), so I read the novel.

The Help is a well executed book from a marketing standpoint. It is nicely paced, wonderfully dramatic, and it features a classic (but always satisfying) struggle of good vs. evil. If we lived in a nice little whitewashed vacuum where this was just a good story, where real women’s lives were not being used as fictional fodder, where the privilege that the fictional white characters possessed never really existed and didn’t still exist… if that was the world that this novel was published in, then this one “guilty pleasure” book wouldn’t be such a big deal.

We don’t live in that world.

There are plenty of things about this book that are just plain offensive. Most glaring, to me at least, is the very affected “accent” that Minny and Aibileen’s sections of the book are written in, while Skeeter’s parts are devoid of even a hint of a southern accent. This sets the two main black characters in this novel off as “other” from the very beginning, which is off-putting. Additionally, Aibileen’s comparison of her own skin color to a cockroach (among many other comments the character makes against her own skin color) is appalling. As are the historical errors in terms of incorporating Medgar Ever’s death into the novel (claiming he was bludgeoned to death, rather than shot) which just show a lack of respect for the topic she was writing about.  The stereotypes – from absentee or abusive black men to sassy or saintly black women don’t help anyone either. I could go on, but these points and many others were already made beautifully here.

Still, the book is quick and easy to read. The conclusion of the book provides a nice, neat, ending sure to make any white person who finds themselves identifying with Skeeter feel good. I can understand why so many people were quick to jump to this books defense because, quite frankly, I’d feel quite a bit better if I could be one of them. 

It would be much easier, much less uncomfortable to close my eyes to the privilege of constantly seeing a variety characters who look like me in the media, enough that I am sure to identify with one… a privilege  that allows me to decide whether or not to be unsettled by another stereotypically written black character because I’m not being discriminated against and, thus, that punched-in-the-stomach feeling that goes with subtle discrimination is missing.

It would be much easier to ignore the privilege of being considered “default” in my whiteness, of knowing that people will not assume that I hold my opinions simply because of the color of my skin. A privilege that comes with knowing I have a much better chance of having my words taken seriously by the mainstream media, especially when talking about marginalized groups, than an actual member of that group.

I would be so easy to indignantly insist that I deserve to be listened to because I work hard on my blog posts (which I do), ignoring the fact that plenty of less-privileged people also worked damn hard on their writing, writing that is often ignored because it lacks “mainstream appeal” meaning, it is not white enough to be lifted up by mainstream feminist blogs.

But I can’t, because that is what The Help is. A whitewashed, declawed version of history that simultaneously manages to condemn racism and absolve the white people who let it continue or who do “enough” to help the cause, by offering up Skeeter as the “good” anti-racist white woman we can all identify with.

READ THE REST AT PERSEPHONE MAGAZINE!

Other Great Related Pieces:

(This is one of my favorite posts from the entire blog dedicated to analyzing this novel.)

Who’s Allowed to Tell the Tale? (And Which Tales Should They Tell?)

Affirmative Action… on the Basketball Court?

Zaneta (from Not Your Average Feminist!) posted this video on facebook wondering what people thought about it. I started to respond in a comment, which quickly grew far too long for facebook’s word count… and so here we are.

If you don’t want to watch the video, this comment from the youtube page for the video more or less sums up the director’s main (ill conceived) point:

None of these “future leaders” don’t seem to understand affirmative action. It’s all right to cheat a student who worked hard for 12 years to achieve high grades to loose an education to a student with lower grades, but don’t weaken their basketball team.

This is partially true, the people that they interviewed don’t fully understand how affirmative action works… but neither do the filmmakers.

The Basics of Affirmative Action

First, lets get a major misconception out of the way: quotas are illegal. Schools do not have a certain number or percentage of students from various minority groups that they must admit. Instead, schools  and employers set goals for inclusion based on what groups are not being represented, and then they set a time frame during which those goals should be met. However, they face no retribution of for whatever reason these goals are not met. [Source]

In this framework, affirmative action is not a plot to screw more qualified white students out of “their” place in an institution, but rather to keep the concept of diversity firmly in mind when creating a student body or a group of employees. To meet these goals some organizations employ a “points system” whereby being a part of an underrepresented group gets you a certain number of points… but so do your SAT scores, grades, references, your community involvement, and so on. Within this system being a member of an underrepresented group does not get you a free pass into a college or place of employment based on your race, but rather, it affords you a few extra points in light of the fact that (more likely than not) you have faced some amount of race or gender based discrimination in your life that has hindered your ability to get stellar references/grades/whatever.

Basically, affirmative action comes down to two major concepts: generating diversity AND acknowledging the uneven playing field that exists, and taking that into account when making decisions about people. [Click to learn the truth behind some more myths about affirmative action!]

So Why Shouldn’t We Apply Affirmative Action to Basketball Teams?

Basically, if we lived in a world free of race and gender based discrimination, where everyone was afforded comparable resources and opportunities to succeed then, yes, affirmative action would be silly. But that is not the world we live in. In order to apply the concept of affirmative action to basketball, we’d have to make a compelling argument that white people are facing some sort of systemic discrimination that hinders them from achieving in basketball.

Or, as the filmmaker so eloquently put it…

“How is like, academic ability really different from athletic ability. […] I mean athletics is the same thing as academic ability.”

Although none of the people in the interviews made the final cut of this short film could answer the question, I can! Academic success is largely influenced by a student’s environment. While raw academic ability can provide students with an edge, ultimately they need a strong and supportive background in which that ability can be nurtured to succeed. Children who grow up in poverty tend to lack that background: they don’t go to schools with funding for fantastic teachers and up to date equipment and textbooks, they often go to school hungry and return to homes where . It just so happens, due to the social structures in place due (in part) to the United State’s history of slavery and race-based discrimination against immigrants, that people of color tend to be disproportionately impacted by the cycle* of poverty.

This same argument can be applied to basketball. Players who can afford great coaches, nourishing food, the time to practice, and so on will have an edge over other players. Are white basketball players somehow systemically being denied these resources? If anything, given what we know about who tends to be impacted by the cycle of poverty, the opposite can be argued in terms of the big picture. White people are more likely to have access to these resources… so why, again, should they get a leg up when trying out for a basketball team?

All of this said, I think the affirmative action model could use some improvement… luckily I am not alone in that belief!

In this modern day and age many institutions and politicians are considering and experimenting with shifting to a model that focuses more on socioeconomic status. This makes tons of sense to me since people with money tend to have access to better resources (like homes in good public school districts, money for private schools, money for SAT tutors, the freedom to take an unpaid internship, and so on) not to mention the fact that they also have their basic needs (food, shelter, clothing) met, thus freeing their minds to focus on getting ahead rather than just surviving. Although people of color disproportionately tend to be  forced into this cycle, systems that looks primarily at socioeconomic status are a viable way of ensuring that all people living in poverty get assistance in breaking the cycle.

At the end of the day, if affirmative action was simply about giving certain groups of people a leg up for no discernible reason, the video’s argument would make  perfect sense. Its not though. I’d challenge the directors of this film to point to the social structures that keep white kids from excelling at basketball (while subsequently putting black children in a position to excel at it.) If someone can convince institutions that the basketball field isn’t equally accessible, then it would make sense to look at ways of leveling it… but until that argument can be made, affirmative action on the basketball court just doesn’t make sense.

*********

* Why is it called a cycle? I mean think about it, if your parents are poor they are not going to be able to provide you with the food you need to focus in school, a home in a well-off school district, tutors when you fall behind, etc. Thus, you are more likely to not make it to college and not go on to get a better job than your parents, thus setting your children up for a disadvantage. This is why it is called a cycle – its not to say that people don’t break out every day, its just acknowledging that the odds are stacked against them. Affirmative action is one way of evening out those odds.

New York is the Place for Love Tonight!

Today is a great day for love.

I don’t have much to say aside from, I LOVE New York!

Seriously though, this decision was a long time coming.

Now, when’s the rest of the country going to get on board?!

For that matter, I think its about time we started to pass laws protecting the rights of trans people. This victory is beyond fabulous, yes, but it is so important to remember that many trans people, some even living in the states with marriage equality, still don’t have vital things like job protection and this is so not okay. The DSM still lists being transgender as a mental illness, under “gender identity disorder” which is also, not okay. I am so, so happy that marriage equality laws passed in New York but the battle for LGBT equality is far from won.

Join In My Anti-Racist Activist Education!

This post will be cross posted at Persephone Magazine tomorrow – be sure to check out the discussion there!

I have no time for a huge introspective post right now, thanks to the two classes that I decided to take this summer. Fortunately, both of those classes are helping to inform my activism, feminism, and blogging! I am taking Advanced Topics in Black Psychology and Film Representations of Race, Class, and Gender because they both could towards my degree and they both help to fill the MAJOR gap in my activist knowledge surrounding issues of race and ethnicity.

I don’t have time for long blog posts at the moment, but I DO have time to share some of what I’ve been reading in and out of class so that we can learn together!

I didn’t know much at all about the Tuskegee Syphilis studies until last week, but I’m glad to have learned. What happened to the men involved in this study (and their families) was terrible. Essentially, over 400 black men with syphilis were recruited for a study on the effects that the disease has on the body (especially the heart, brain, and spinal cord.) These men were promised free healthcare and money for a burial in return for their participation… which is where we run into our first ethical mistake. Technically these men couldn’t consent because, at the time, black people could not purchase life insurance and most could not afford health care, this creates a power imbalance that makes honest consent more or less impossible.

One of the doctors involved with the study, injecting a participant.

The study went on for years, with the men receiving nothing more than pink aspirin and an annual checkup… although they were told they were being treated. Some dangerous treatments (like arsenic) were experimented with and given out for free, but the men in this study were carefully tracked and kept away from any potential treatments. This is ethical mistake number two: deception is permissible only when it is the only option, and its not okay in cases where extreme damage will be done to a participant without their knowledge or consent.

After it was discovered that Penicillin cured the disease the scientists involved with this study decided to continue anyway… keeping the men in this study away from life saving treatment, for no good reason. The scientists wanted bodies to autopsy and study, and they were determined to get them even at the expense of real human lives that could have easily been saved. This can’t even be called an ethical mistake… its just flat-out inhumane.

The kicker of it all is that we didn’t even learn anything new. According to my professor, Syphilis had been studied many times before this. We already knew what it did to the body, the researchers just wanted to see the process in action, and they were willing to essentially kill innocent people in order to get what they wanted.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the United States conducted a similar study in Guatemala around this time. In order to test the effectiveness of penicillin in treating the disease, US scientists purposefully infected people (by paying infected sex workers, or just putting the disease right into the body using medical techniques) and then gave some treatment, and some nothing at all.

When did this all happen? The Tuskegee study started in 1933 and didn’t end until 1972, just 39 years ago. The Guatemalan study took place from 1946-1948, 64 years ago.

[Sources: Tuskegee, Guatemala.]

What strikes me most, I think, is that things have not gotten much better when it comes to our societal structures and racism. While I doubt scientists would dare attempt to violate human rights in as blatant of a manner in the present (in the United States, at least… part of me feels like we’re probably still engaging in some sketchy things abroad), there are still plenty of systemic injustices that place the black population in a vulnerable position.

For example: I found this article, Fourteen examples of systemic racism in the U.S. criminal justice system, on Tumblr instead of in class, but it is still incredibly relevant and powerful to a lot of what I have learned in a formal setting so far.

Eight. The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported in March 2010 that in the federal system black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for the same crimes. Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project reports African Americans are 21% more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than white defendants and 20% more like to be sentenced to prison than white drug defendants.

[…]

Thirteen. Remember that the US leads the world in putting our own people into jail and prison. The New York Times reported in 2008 that the US has five percent of the world’s population but a quarter of the world’s prisoners, over 2.3 million people behind bars, dwarfing other nations. The US rate of incarceration is five to eight times higher than other highly developed countries and black males are the largest percentage of inmates according to ABC News.

Fourteen. Even when released from prison, race continues to dominate. A study by Professor Devah Pager of the University of Wisconsin found that 17% of white job applicants with criminal records received call backs from employers while only 5% of black job applicants with criminal records received call backs. Race is so prominent in that study that whites with criminal records actually received better treatment than blacks without criminal records!

[…]

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness sees these facts as evidence of the new way the US has decided to control African Americans – a racialized system of social control. The stigma of criminality functions in much the same way as Jim Crow – creating legal boundaries between them and us, allowing legal discrimination against them, removing the right to vote from millions, and essentially warehousing a disposable population of unwanted people. She calls it a new caste system.

Poor whites and people of other ethnicity are also subjected to this system of social control. Because if poor whites or others get out of line, they will be given the worst possible treatment, they will be treated just like poor blacks.

I pulled out a few examples that really struck me, but you really should just go read the whole thing. Aside from explaining the problem of the Prison Industrial Complex in easily understandable terms, this piece makes suggestions as to how we can begin to mend a broken system and highlights organizations doing the work.

I have to go do a paper now, so I don’t have the time to formulate a thoughtful response to all of this reading yet. Plus, to be honest, I’m a little overwhelmed with information at the moment… kind of the same way I felt when I first started reading about queer and gender studies. Just like then, reading and talking and repeating is the best way (for me at least) to get past my own ignorance and move into a place where I can start to contribute to the solution. I hope some of you learn in the same was as I do and can benefit from this as well! So, lets help each other grow?

I’d love to have a conversation with people about this though so please, share your thoughts in the comments!