June 19, 2015
My brothers and sisters, we’re at a very serious crossroads in our history as Black people in America and specifically in our urban core where nearly 75 percent of all Black people live. BREAKING NEWS!! BLACKS ARE MORE SEGREGATED THAN EVER BEFORE. Out of nearly 50,000 cities in America, most Blacks reside in approximately 50 majority minority cities like Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Detroit, Newark, etc. What we do or don’t do will determine the future of the Black community for the next several generations to come. Some social scientists state that if we want real and meaningful change to occur, it will take the coordination and efforts of three generations to have the desired outcome for the fourth generation. Restated, if we are able to organize our elders, those in their prime, and our young adults, we can create a better life for the teenagers and younger generation. If you think the problems facing the Black community are bad now—if nothing serious is done with fidelity and speed—the future of Black people will worsen.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time studying the problems we face from a very simple and layman’s perspective. I don’t have a Ph.D. in Black studies, nor do I have advanced degrees in research, but what I do have is a great desire to see progress for Black people and to turn around the negative trajectory that the Black community is now involved in. While I’m no academic scholar, I am an experienced businessman with nearly 40 years of experience in starting, running, and expanding business opportunities primarily in the Black community. I’ve worked in the Black community on a number of fronts, specifically in real estate development; neighborhood strategic and master planning; K-12 education; early childhood education; social and supportive services; small business lending; and behavioral health.
I’ve developed, organized, started, implemented, and managed several large-scale operations (mini-movements) that were aimed at mobilizing and organizing the Black community on issues of fairness, equal rights, education, etc. During my business and organizing career, I’ve experienced a number of hard business and life like lessons resulting from taking risks in business. In business you come to truly understand terms like “nothing ventured, nothing gained” and “no risk, no reward”. During my career I’ve learned some very tough and meaningful life lessons. While losses and failures are never welcomed, these lessons that I’ve learned have laid the foundation for the many successes I’ve enjoyed in business and have equipped me with the knowledge, experience, and wisdom that I employ as I embark on the utilization of scarce resources (financial and human) to get traction on building an infrastructure to carry the load of establishing a working model on how to rebuild the Black community.
Today, I’m merging my business network and infrastructure; tremendous experiences and lessons learned in business; the ability to move from difficult concepts into reality (dust to industry); my in depth in the study of the structural and psychological conditions facing the Black community; vast communication and organization skills and expertise; coupled with my extreme personal desire to help Black people into building the Milwaukee Community of Leaders (MCOL). I, like many of you, have a real desire to see our people do better, but have come to realize that the problems that we face are real and near permanent. I said near permanent and not permanent. I use the term “near” to signal a sense of urgency and unless we act NOW, the “near” will disappear and the issues and problems facing the Black community will become forever permanent. We must do all we can to avoid this outcome for future generations of Black people.
What do I mean when I speak of this permanency? When we examine the very serious demographics that the Black community faces today, for the most part, we’re only looking at half of the problem because we only focus on the outcomes. Yes, the outcomes are very extreme and damaging and, in many cases, represent a CRISIS that is getting very little response from the Black community. It appears that the Black leadership suffers from an acute level of paralysis that has crippled the movement.
Let me give you just a few examples that should alarm every Black person: 1) Black men are approximately 1.5 million and 60 percent of the prison population; if parity was achieved, nearly 1.3 million Black men would be home contributing to the Black family and the Black community; 2) 80 percent of all Black families are now headed by single-parent heads-of-household; if we parity was achieved, nearly four million Black families would have two parents versus one parent; 3) Black male unemployment, specifically between the ages of 18 and 35 in urban areas range between the low of 30 percent to the high of 55 percent; if parity was achieved, nearly two million more men would be employed; and 4) Black income has exceeded $1 trillion annually and ownership of America’s wealth (est. $110 Trillion) is near zero; if parity was achieved, Black income would be approximately $4 trillion and Black wealth would increase by nearly $14 trillion. Brother and sisters these numbers are INSANE and what’s more insane is that these numbers have become ACCEPTABLE BY BLACK PEOPLE.
The issues above are just the tip of the iceberg because most, if not all of the issues are the same people, the same group. When you add academic, health, income, and other social disparities, coupled with a culture of abnormal behavior being accepted as normal, the patient (the Black community) is very, very sick and by all accounts is on life support. Stay with me because I’m trying to make the argument that these issues (our sickness) will become permanent meaning that every Black child born into this world going forward will be inflicted by this illness—and while a few individuals will get treatment, the majority will suffer from this disease. I use the term permanent because if we examine the outcomes, while alarming, they represent only half of the problem (outcomes); what we must also be examining with the same vigor is the continuum (pipeline) that is producing these staggering and alarming outcomes for Black people. When we only focus on the outcomes and the “backend” we will never be able to determine whether the outcomes will change (i.e. improve, stay the same, worsen); there has to be “frontend” approach. Most, if not all, of the current Black infrastructure is built around the backend solutions versus the frontend solutions which further speaks to the permanency of the Black sickness.
When you examine the continuums that produce the alarming outcomes that threaten the Black community, you begin to look at the systems and how they are organized to maintain the status quo. You must begin to study the number of institutions that represent the continuum and how they operate based on existing laws, rules and regulations, and the overarching policies that have been crafted by politicians and are being implemented by bureaucrats with most, if not all of this, is shaped by public opinion. How the public thinks and behaves is essential to the key question: “Who is the public?” When the Black community fails to vote or organize its voice and is silent on the issues that impact them, then they give their voice to others that many times work totally against them (vocal minority); as a result, legislation is crafted and passed that handicaps even further an institution’s ability to be effective and support a real solution for the Black community and/or budgets are adopted in many cases that reduce the resources being allocated to the system. All of these and more impact how these systems interact and work for or against people at every level. The people are influenced at every level from entering the system to the exiting of the system. This is how defined the continuum (pipeline) is.
Let’s take a look at the criminal justice system, which is made up of several institutions, specifically the criminal justice system that deals with upholding laws, protecting citizens and prosecuting those who break the law. There are three main areas in the criminal justice system: law enforcement, judicial, and corrections.
Law enforcement involves all levels of the police force (e.g. local police, sheriffs, state police, specialized criminal task forces, etc.). The law enforcement function is perhaps the most visible because the police are typically the first contact an individual has with the criminal justice system. Police patrol communities to help prevent crimes, investigate incidences of crime, and have the power to arrest people that are suspected of committing crimes. When this aspect of the judicial is flawed and/or challenged, the input into the judicial system becomes skewed. There are a number of conflicts that exist between the police and the Black community and in many cases many parts of the Black community live in a police state.
“Police state” is a term that denotes when a majority group (government) exercises abusive power arbitrarily through the use of the police on a minority group. Many Black citizens living in urban communities are victims of a police state and live in a state of fear experiencing restrictions of their civil liberties through a number of methods including failed and abusive strategies like stop and frisk (i.e. restricted mobility, aggressive search and seizure policies, extremely loose conspiracy interpretations, etc.). While many of these practices resemble times of national emergency or war, in essence, they have become levels of police harassment which have become a daily experience for many Black youth today that have severely strained the relationship between police and the community. There are structural deficiencies within the law enforcement system that are very alarming and have produced a cemented climate of abuse and oppression by the police against the Black community, especially young Black males that reside in urban America. Once a person is arrested, they enter the courts system. TO CHANGE THE MASS INCRCERATION OF BLACK MALES REQUIRES A CHANGE IN LAW ENFORCEMENT.
The court system involves all levels of the judicial courts (e.g. municipal, appellate, and state supreme courts); the volumes and volumes of laws and precedent that are operated and performed by attorneys (e.g. district attorneys, defense attorneys, judges, etc.); and the use of private citizens in the form of juries (e.g. grand juries, and juries, etc.). The general position of the courts is that everyone is to be viewed as innocent until the court proves them guilty. In the courts, the guilt or innocence of the suspect is determined. After the evidence is presented and weighed, and after the suspect, now the defendant, is offered the opportunity to confront his accusers, he is either released or is found to have committed the alleged crimes.
The U.S. court system is divided into two administratively separate systems: the federal and the state, each of which is independent of the executive (i.e. President) and legislative branches of government (i.e. Congress). The federal district court system has at least one bench in each of the 50 states, as well as one each in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. There are up to 20 judges in each district, and, as with most federal jurists, district court judges are appointed by the President and serve for life. Cases handled by the federal district courts include those relating to alleged violations of the Constitution or other federal laws, maritime disputes, cases directly involving a state or the federal government, and cases in which foreign governments, citizens of foreign countries, and citizens of two or more different states are involved, and federally designated crimes.
The state court system has a hierarchical system of organization, which includes general courts along with a group of special courts with the lowest level of courts being magistrate court, municipal court, justice of the peace court, police court, traffic court, and county court. These courts handle both civil and criminal cases. More serious offenses are heard in superior court, also known as state district court, circuit court, and by a variety of other names. The superior courts, usually organized by counties, hear appeals from the lower courts and have original jurisdiction over major civil suits and serious crimes. The highest state court is the state supreme court which generally hears appeals from the state superior courts. All of the judges on the state courts (lower and supreme court) are elected which means that many of them are both judges and politicians. This is very troubling for poor Black males especially when there is an air of punishment that prevails in public opinion and judges are influence by public opinion versus their knowledge and expertise of the problems.
Both courts are guided by thousands and thousands of laws that have been enacted by legislators. In addition, the courts are also guided by precedent and generally accepted interpretations of the laws. Due process is the cornerstone of the law that is supposed to govern the legal process. While the courts are supposed to be colorblind, poverty and race play a huge role in whether or not you are treated fairly, a clear violation of the due process cornerstone. Bail hearings are a function of legal representation; if you have it, the likelihood that you can get a reasonable bail is good but if you’re poor and without any resources, you have thousands of people who are incarcerated for months until their cases are tried because they are unable to pay a $100-bail.
There is a significant disparity between those who have resources versus those who don’t. Also, the disparities are magnified when an overwhelming number of defendants are Black males that are poor and are fast-tracked through the convictions and sentence process into jail. Nearly 95 percent of all cases tried in criminal court involve poor Black participants that result in plea-bargains. This is because they lack the resources to adequately defend themselves and a general perception that they are guilty even before they are tried. Once a person either pleads guilty or is found to be guilty, they receive a sentence, or punishment, based on criteria set by the judge and by statutes. There are structural deficiencies within the court system that also produce alarming lopsided outcomes for young Black males. After the defendant is sentenced, he is turned over to the corrections system. TO CHANGE THE MASS INCRCERATION OF BLACK MALES WILL REQUIRE CHANGES IN THE COURTS.
The corrections system incorporates all forms of sentencing and punishment. It includes incarceration, probation, and parole. A convicted criminal is the responsibility of corrections until his full sentence is served or commuted. Corrections include prisons, jails and probation and community control officers. The American criminal justice system is the largest in the world and imprisons the largest minority in the world.
In part two of this article, I will further elaborate on the criminal justice system, specifically corrections, and discuss how a number of other challenges threaten to increase and/or maintain the high level of Black incarcerated males. Finally, I will re-focus the discussion to further examine the unfavorable outcomes Black people must rise above to develop an informed response. THE BLACK COMMUNIY IS AT A CROSSROADS.
Rahim Islam is a National Speaker and Writer, Convener of Philadelphia Community of Leaders, and President/CEO of Universal Companies, a community development and education management company headquartered in Philadelphia, PA. Follow Rahim Islam on Facebook (Rahim Islam) & Twitter (@RahimIslamUC).