Years ago, Richard Pryor made a bitter joke: when you go to court for justice, that’s what you find: just us [referring to Black people].
Listening to some of the responses to the protests against the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder, you see the problem: if you cite statistics, you are accused of manipulating numbers; if you tell personal stories, you are accused of relying on anecdote.
But, taking a leaf from the tprs notebook, I will tell of couple of stories and they may help non Blacks understand that the lens Af-Am look at society through were crafted by circumstances Whites may not experience.
Changing identities to obscure some personal details, let me start with one young man I was (and continue to be almost 50 years later) intimately involved with. During the 60s, he took advantage of the opening up of racial divides to live with some friends near a university campus. Like so many young people then, he dabbled in selling drugs to friends. Pills were really big back then uppers, downers, etc. and he got into a deal where the pills were stored at the apartment he shared with his friends. When the “bust went down”, he was arrested along with them. All of a sudden, he was the only one being charged and bore the brunt of the whole case. His “friends”, who were White, were able to shift the blame to the Black guy and get off. If it hadn’t been for a couple of relatives with the money and the know-how, he would have gone to prison having taken the rap for a deal that he was marginal to.
Why? Because the Whites all could get lawyers and the prosecutor would have to fight for a conviction; but the Black guy? Easy target for a prosecutor looking to notch his belt. In this case, we put up a fight and they let him off. The charges weren’t that substantial anyway.
In another case, again one where I was intimately involved, five or six kids, some not minors, got involved with some drug deal that did not turn out well. A kid was beaten up bad enough to be hospitalized. Charges were pressed and the boys were charged with the crime. The boys were cousins but one had been raised in a middle-class, mixed race suburb while the others had been raised in what was then called the ghetto. When the one boy opened his mouth, he was dismissed. His mother came to pick him up and when she inquired about the other boys, her relatives, she was told that if she asked more questions, charges would be refiled against her son. The reason her son was let go was, again, b/c they knew he could fight back. These cases are not as clear-cut as some on the right would make them out to be. The kid who got beaten up was part of the whole deal.
The first kid spent 30 years working for HP and retired with an in-house degree in engineering. The other kid became a teacher. Neither could have led these productive lives with the criminal record and prison time prosecutors would have meted out had they been without legal representation. It’s not that they did nothing wrong but that White youngsters committing the same acts are “diverted” into counseling programs, lesser charges, etc., in part b/c they often have access to lawyers. While this may not be race-based, it is a situation that disproportionately affects Af-Am youth, blighting their lives.
What stands in the way of correcting this situation? Listen to Fox News. Conservatives and Republicans will deny responsibility for this situation, but it is clear that any attempt to correct the imbalances in the criminal justice system are vigorously opposed by them. Their base believes that man is born evil and only stringent punishment will correct bad behavior.
Once in the prison system, it turns out the convicts generally regulate themselves, but a lot depends on the state they are in. In AZ, the convicts separate themselves by ethnicity, but get along reasonably well, negotiating protocols so that they can socialize, play games, etc., while maintaining segregation in eating, etc. The guards are experienced and control the yard and the cells to prevent violence and victimization. In CA, OTOH, ethnic divisions are much more pronounced, to the point that one cannot walk across the yard without protection. In a well-run system, any violence is very carefully measured, controlled, and sanctioned by prison leaders who have a vested interest in not seeing things get out of hand. The guards cooperate in this. But in private systems, the guards are inexperienced and funds go to the administrators and investors so that prisoners are on their own and the rate of violence is much highter; private prisons are very dangerous places, which is exactly what the conservatives want.
I put this under the Basics category because what happens in prisons is a microcosm of the larger society. Prisoners do what all members of society do.