Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Al Reynolds, A Model Idiot

Well, I'm glad that's resolved.

Tea Party candidate Al Reynolds, who is seeking election in downstate Illinois' 52nd District, unleashed upon the world his theory on why African-American men are disproportionately represented in prison and underrepresented on college campuses. In a forum that was ironically sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Champaign County NAACP, Reynolds stated:

"I've been in the city and the dichotomy of the women and the men in the minorities, there is a difference in the fact that most minority women, either the single parent or coming from a poor neighborhood, are motivated more so than the minority men," Reynolds said, when asked what he would do to increase diversity at state colleges. "And it's a pretty good reason. Most of the women who are single parents have to find work to support their family. The minority men find it more lucrative to be able to do drugs or other avenues rather than do education. It's easier. We need to provide ways that are more incentive, other than just sports avenues, for the men for the minorities to want to go to college and get an education and better themselves before the women have to support them all."

Reynolds comments, although severely generalized and bigoted, do contain some hard truths that the black community has been struggling to address since the dissolution of the family unit (which has its roots in the 400 years of chattel slavery in the Americas) and the introduction of the drug culture into urban areas in the late '70's and early '80's. Consider this. Over one fourth of children in the United States lived with a single parent in 1996. Of this 25%, 84% were headed by women. In the black community, 57% of single-parent households were headed by women as opposed to 22% of white families and 33% of Latino families. There is a definite dearth of black males in our homes. We know that this is happening but why is it happening?

In the American penal system, 1,384 per 100,000 men or 1% of the male population is imprisoned in federal or state facilities. On average, 4,789 per 100,000 black men or 4% are in jail. Compare this with 736 per 100,000 white men and 1,862 per 100,000 Latino men. Of the 249,400 serving time in state prisons for drug offenses, 112,500 or 45.1% were black compared to 51,800 (20.8%) being Latino and 65,900 (26.4%) being white. Looking at these numbers at face value, which I'm sure is Mr. Reynold's forte, one would glean that African-American men chose drug sales and trafficking as their occupation of choice. However, the 800 lb gorilla in the room is the fact that, before the mandatory minimums and three strike laws and disparity in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine possession that we saw in the 1980's, black men in college outnumbered their counterparts in prison by a ratio of nearly 3 to 1. The pink elephant in that same room is the fact that in the period between the years 1985 and 2000, the amount of tax revenue spent on corrections as opposed to higher education has seen a dramatic increase. The increase in state spending on corrections was nearly double that of the increase for higher education ($20 billion versus $10.7 billion), and the total increase in spending on higher education by states was 24 percent, compared with 166 percent for corrections. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust documented that after adjusting to 2007 dollars, the increase was 127 percent for corrections compared to 21 percent in spending on higher education. Mr. Reynolds failed to report these statistics in his forum comments.

As a very good friend of mine acutely noted when we discussed this story, it's not like black men are going, "wow, I really want to go to college but selling drugs is so enticing!" I can personally attest to that not being the case. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household that, although not financially or socially stable by any stretch of the imagination, emphasized the importance of education over all other things. I grew up without my father in the household but my grandfather and his older brother played the role of the flawed, yet strong male figures in my life. I understood at a very early age that there was no future in drugs and that sports was a hobby, not an occupation. Many of my peers were not so fortunate. Their way out of our shared urban hellhole was either going to be through sports or through the streets. There was no gray area.

Education was not a viable option, especially when most of our textbooks were hand-me-downs from the 80's and many of my peers were 2-3 grade levels behind in reading, math, and science (I didn't realize how deficient I was in those areas until I got to the Honors Program at DePaul). At that point, it's not a matter of doing what's right in society's eyes but a matter of survival, pure and simple. Not everyone had the fortune of being supported by the government for the first 18 years of their life like Al, whose father was a career enlisted man. Even if my peers had the "privilege" of obtaining a college education as I did, exploding levels of student debt coupled with the current tenor of job market makes activities such as drug dealing and playing professional sports more enticing and rewarding career options compared to sitting in a cubicle at an office building typing on a blog as I am doing right now. Is this the American Dream that I was told obtaining higher education would afford me?

Mr. Reynolds' comments, though mingled with truths that even President Obama admits the African-American community needs to aggressively address, lack insight and understanding into the issues that have created the environment where black men are absent from our homes and our colleges campuses and are present in ever increasing numbers in our state and federal prisons. I am sympathetic towards the laissez faire economic policies and "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" social beliefs that color Mr. Reynold's political beliefs. However, even through a fog of Libertarian utilitarianism, I can recognize that there are some causes which elude our perception on the issue of black men in American society. There is 400 years of chattel slavery followed by 100 years of Jim Crow law that effectively curtailed opportunities for African-Americans, especially black men. There is the covert racism that took the place of the overt variety after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 where equally qualified black male candidates were passed up for white and black female candidates. There is the introduction of crack cocaine into the black community and the subsequent War on Drugs, which both increased the levels of violent gang violence and effectively criminalized and imprisoned otherwise non-violent offenders. There is the development of ESPN, MTV, VH1 and other purveyors of 24 hour sports entertainment where huge amounts of fame and fortune flowed to black faces on stage, on the court, and on the field from the majority white faces that watched in amusement. All of these revelations disproportionately affected the black male.

It all boils down to believing that you have an opportunity to do something better with your life and having the reasonable expectation that you will have the resources necessary to achieve that something better. Sadly, for black men, reasonable expectations for success have been narrowed to the myopic fields of sports/entertainment and illicit black market activities. Now, with the election of our nation's first black President, young black men have a new role model to look up to and a new career option to pursue. The election of President Obama is not the death note for underfunded, failing inner city schools. Having lofty goals is only one half of the equation. It's all about opportunity. Al Reynolds of all people should know that. Life, Liberty, Opportunity is his campaign slogan after all.

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