Revolution#125, April 6, 2008

What Have We Achieved?

In Part II of our response to Barack Obama’s March 19, 2008 “speech on race,” we will address his claim that the legacy of the 1960s is “divisive.” Including responding to Obama’s argument that “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country—a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land …[W]hat we know—what we have seen is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope—the audacity to hope—for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

Obviously, there has been change since the ’60s; but the character of that change has not been some sort of linear progress for Black people as a people, but a polarization in which, as a result of the people’s struggle, some opportunities have been opened up to a small slice of African Americans, while conditions have become much worse, in truly nightmarish ways, for a much broader section. As one indication of this, a recent study revealed that between 1980, as the inner cities were being systematically emptied of jobs and social services, and 1997, the number of people imprisoned in the U.S. for nonviolent offenses tripled. The number of people incarcerated for drug offenses increased elevenfold.

The study painted a stark picture of how this has been concentrated in incarceration rates for Black people: “The extent of racial disparity in imprisonment rates is greater than in any other major arena of American social life: At eight to one, the black-white ratio of incarceration rates dwarfs the two-to-one ratio of unemployment rates…the two-to-one ratio of infant-mortality rates, and one-to-five ratio of net worth. While three out of 200 young white men were incarcerated in 2000, the rate for young black males was one in nine. A black male resident of the state of California is more likely to go to a state prison than a state college.” (All statistics from “Why Are So Many Americans in Prison? Race and the Transformation of Criminal Justice,” Boston Review, July/August 2007.)

Think about these numbers for a moment. In the year 2000, Black people faced twice the unemployment rate of whites. The rate of death for Black babies was twice that of white babies. And eight times as many Black people went to jail compared to whites (as compared to their percentage of the total population). And the vastly disproportionate number of Black people in jail was in the context of a massive increase in the prison population overall—the number of people jailed for drugs increased by more than 1000% over the 17 years from 1980 to 1997.

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