UNited States

Black Leadership and Black Mass Incarceration

By Bruce Dixon

America’s undeclared but universal policies of racially selective policing, prosecution and mass incarceration of its Black citizens have imposed unprecedented strains on the social and economic viability of Black families and communities—of the entire African American polity. This malevolent social policy demands a political response from Black leadership, just as Jim Crow and lynching did in our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ day. Why is the current crop of Black leaders unable to rise to the crisis of this generation—the fact of racially selective mass incarceration? And if they did, what would such a response look like?

—Bruce Dixon

The dismal stats are familiar to us all. America leads the world in numbers of prisons and prisoners, and African Americans, though only one eighth of its population, make up nearly half the locked down. One out of three Black men in their twenties are out on bail, probation, court supervision, community service or parole—or behind bars. And the fastest growing demographic of the incarcerated, aside from immigration prisoners, are Black women.

America’s malevolent social policy of racially selective mass incarceration is so ubiquitous, so thoroughly part of its statutes, courts, its law enforcement apparatus and traditions, that it’s hard to believe it was enacted in a single generation, since the ending, about 1970 of the Black Freedom Movement. But as late as the 1960s whites, not Blacks were the majority of the nation’s prisoners. Since 1970 the U.S. prison population has multiplied about sevenfold, with neither a causative or accompanying increase in crime, and without a public perception that we are somehow seven times safer.

The present level of mass incarceration and its deleterious effects for decades to come upon the Black work force, on economic and health outcomes, on culture and family formation are facts of African American life that seem to demand a political response, a concerted and long-term effort to change these awful public policies, much like that called forth by lynching and legal segregation. But what passes for today’s African American leadership is simply not up to the challenge.

It doesn’t take a social scientist, let alone a rocket scientist to spot some key differences between Black leadership fifty and sixty years ago and the current crop of supposed African American leaders.

Throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s, being identified as an active member of the NAACP in the South could cost your livelihood and home, your freedom, even your life. Many whose names nobody remembers served, and quite a few paid that price.

Today’s NAACP officials, like their counterparts in corporate America, fly and dine first class. They hobnob with celebrities and CEOs, and they depend on Disney, Chrysler, Bank of America and Fox TV to broadcast its annual Image Awards, which are handed out to other celebrities and Black officials of whichever administration is in power. The NAACP has in the recent past even chosen its CEO from the ranks of Black execs at telecommunications corporations that digitally redline African American neighborhoods.

A significant portion of the Black leadership in those days was responsible to Black communities alone. They crafted political responses to the public policy crises of that era which they pursued both inside and outside America’s legal system, responses aimed at changing public policies that harmed African American communities. Attorneys Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall crisscrossed the continent defending Black prisoners on death row and filing cases to overturn legal segregation. It was due to years of these efforts that Thurgood Marshall, in the 1940s became known as “Mr. Civil Rights.”

By contrast, a current Black elected official like Atlanta’s Kasim Reed, whose legal practice consists of defending corporate employers from civil rights and discrimination lawsuits, represents himself with a straight face as a “civil rights lawyer.” Presidential candidate Barack Obama too, is widely credited with being a “civil rights lawyer,” despite having tried few or no significant civil rights cases in any court of law.

And of course our parents and grandparents’ generation did not confine their challenges to Jim Crow to the boundaries of the law. Visionaries like James Foreman, Kwame Toure, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, E.B. Nixon and Martin Luther King crafted strategies around mass mobilizations in African American communities, and deliberately, creatively violated the law in order to change the nation’s misguided public policies. It was common practice, for instance, in towns and cities where the 1960s Freedom Movement was in high gear, to turn out a city’s colleges and high schools for days on end.

Can you imagine the Black leadership in your town even talking to high school students, let alone calling them out in the street to accomplish a change in public policy? Can you envision today’s celebrity and business-oriented Black leadership trying to mobilize Black America for anything more radical than watching their TV shows, buying their books, or volunteering and voting in their campaigns for political office. It is hard to construct a scenario in which today’s Black leaders might be induced to stand up to the crime control industry, to become persistent, forceful advocates of revolutionary reforms which can appeal broadly to the African American community like:

-Sunsetting all two and three strikes laws, and ending indeterminate sentencing.

-Ending the trial and sentencing of children as adults.

-Requiring an ethnic impact statement before the passage of any new sentencing legislation.

-Unconditional restoration of voting rights for all persons who have served their sentences.

-Restoration of Pell Grants and student financial aid to persons convicted of felonies.

Though many of the visionary leaders of that earlier generation were young people it would be a mistake to compare today’s youth unfavorably to them. Young would-be movement activists in the 1940s, the 50s, all the way until the early 1970s had at least one key advantage today’s aspiring young movement activists do not. They had Black news, written in Black newspapers. They had Black news broadcast on Black radio, and with these, this by itself created what media sociologists call a “public sphere,” a space in which we could bring our individual and family crises and situations and compare them with those of others, and speculate on the nature of collective efforts to solve what would otherwise be individual problems.

Corporate media has, in the ensuing decades, privatized and commercialized what used to be public space, by virtually eliminating broadcast news on Black radio. The Black print press confines most of its “reporting” to government and celebrity press releases. Black TV is worse than useless. Activists in earlier eras could find out about each other’s affairs on Black radio and in the Black press. Now that space is reserved only for commercial “entertainment.”

Radical shifts in public policy have never arisen from the pronouncements of public officials, bankers and celebrities. They don’t come from the good will of real estate and marketing professionals, or from enlightened decisions on the bench or sermons in the pulpit. They come from widespread discussion and exchange in the public sphere. They come from mass movements which exists outside of and sometimes in spite of the law, and which are able to capture the risk-taking energy and spirit of youth.

Whenever we do see the beginnings of a mass movement to challenge our nation’s misguided policy of Black mass incarceration, one that unites our young and our old, our churches and our unions and the people on our street corners it won’t be led by the folks we think of as Black leaders today. And until the policy of mass incarceration is transformed into an explicitly political issue and directly challenged, Black youth have little reason to listen to those leaders.

Black leadership has yet to rise to the challenge of the current generation of Black youth—ending our nation’s public policy of mass imprisonment. And until they do, there will be no resumption of a mass movement, and little or no real progress.

Bruce Dixon is Black Agenda Report (BAR) managing editor., May 23, 2007