Fri Jul 26, 2013, 02:50 PM
RainDog (27,393 posts)
Ross Gay: Some Thoughts On Mercy
This is from a wonderful writer worth reading. Ross is the author of two books of poetry and, simply, a great human being. The friend, Don Belton, that he mentions in this essay was murdered in what was considered a hate crime - not because he was black, but because he was homosexual. Don, too, was simply a great human being.
I've included a few paragraphs, but the essay ranges across many issues, not just the one I've included here.
AS ABOLITION became a real possibility in the nineteenth century, a mythology about black-male criminality was crafted by proponents of slavery, and that myth was then amplified after emancipation. Our current prison system, and the “drug war” that is responsible for that system’s status as the largest in the world, actively cultivates the same story of a unique criminal blackness. I put “drug war” in quotes, because, as Michelle Alexander points out in her brilliant book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, if there were a true War on Drugs, then “people of all colors, . . . who use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates,” would be incarcerated at very nearly the same rate. But that’s not the case.
Alexander’s book is an incisive analysis of how the drug war has specifically targeted African American men, saddling huge numbers with ex-felon status, which makes employment, voting, housing, education, and more nearly impossible: in other words, effectively reinstating Jim Crow. Among her most striking observations is that in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan declared that he was “running up a battle flag” in the War on Drugs, fewer than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation. That figure jumped to 64 percent in 1989, thanks largely to a sensational (and racist) media campaign. She also points out that the police could make numerous drug arrests by raiding the fraternities and sororities at colleges, but for the most part they don’t, because those students are not viewed as criminals: they’re just kids who use drugs.
A few years back I was teaching a summer enrichment class for public-school students in Philadelphia who were almost all black, and I had a discussion about drug use with them. One outspoken child told me, and the class, “Mr. Ross, my name’s not Sally; my name’s Takeisha. I smoke weed.” God bless this child and her weed. But what she didn’t know, and won’t until she makes some white friends or goes off to college, is that Sally probably smokes just as much weed as she does, or takes OxyContin, or snorts Ritalin, or uses cocaine or Adderall. Takeisha believed that she was different from white people in her habits. She believed she was a criminal, whereas her white counterparts were, well, white. I wish Takeisha and everyone else knew that people of all races use drugs. It’s just that if you’re black or brown, like the people in Takeisha’s neighborhood, your drug use is more often policed and punished. But the fantasy of black criminality continues. This, to a large extent, is what the drug war is about: making Takeisha — along with her teachers, her local shop owners, her neighbors, her city’s police, her prosecutors — believe she’s a criminal. It is, perhaps, the only war the U.S. has won in the last thirty years.
I shudder at the emotional and psychic burden we’ve laid on the young black and brown New Yorkers — so many of them children — being profiled in that city’s “stop-and-frisk” program. One man featured in a New York Times video speaks with courage and dignity about having been stopped as a teenager “at least sixty to seventy times.” Another, in a video made by The Nation, talks about having been roughed up for “looking suspicious” and called a “mutt.” Eighty-seven percent of stop-and-frisk targets are black or Latino, though blacks and Latinos constitute only about half of New York City’s population. How, when their city believes them to be criminal, do these young people escape believing the same of themselves?
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