Letter, July 2003: Not just still alive, it’s thriving – by Reginald Alexander
America would have the rest of us believe that racism is a thing of the past and is not responsible for the disproportionate number of African Americans imprisoned in our penal system compared with the make-up of African Americans in free society. African Americans make up 13 per cent of the US population, yet 75 per cent of the prison population.
Those are many who pass this country off as a place of equal opportunity, with justice for all regardless of race, color or creed. I, a black man born and raised in one of America’s black ghettos, know firsthand that racism is as strong today as in the 1960s when white cops sprayed our parents with high-powered water hoses and sicced vicious dogs on them for holding peaceful protests and demanding to be treated as human beings. Racism may not be as conspicuous as it was then, but don’t be fooled. In this country it is still widespread.
As has always been the case, racism begins in the home and is fed and nourished in the neighborhood, schools and other social institutions until it manifests in the job market, higher educational facilities, and finally throughout the political arena, the judicial system, and the world of finance where it stands omnipotent.
In no place are the ill effects of systemic racism felt more acutely
than in the ghetto. And in no place are the consequences of oppression
more sadly evident than in America’s prisons, in the faces and
stories of black inmates. From where I write (inside a prison cell,
12 years and counting) I am not speaking of what I have read or heard.
I’m speaking of what I have experienced. Once, my wife and I and
our two children were in a grocery store in a suburban area when a young
white kid (about five years old) wandered away from his parents and
approached us. “Mister,” the kid said, “Are y’all
niggers?” Venom rose in my throat and I wanted to snap back, “Is
your mama white trash?” But I instantly reasoned that child was
incapable of formulating ignorant and racist remarks on his own accord.
The question had to come from home. It was not asked in a tone of malice,
rather it seemed the boy was curious. Perhaps he had never stood in
arm’s reach of an African American. Which is not such a wild conclusion
considering what happened next. The child’s white father walked
over and snatched the boy away from us by his arm, as if we were contagious.
Racism breaks the will of the average black man. His opportunities for advancement are limited. Before long, we realize we have been cheated. Nothing wrong with cheating in turn, and many of us end in prison. In court, trial is a formality. In my own case, of the members of the jury that found me guilty not one was from the ghetto or knew the conditions where I grew up in the ‘hood. The prosecutor put paid informants on the stand to secure conviction. White man’s justice, black man’s fate!
Inside prison racism continues. Here the inmate population is 85 per
cent black. Yet 95 per cent of what are considered favorable work details
are assigned to white inmates. Whites make parole sooner than blacks
with comparable sentences. From where I sit racism is not just still
alive, it’s thriving. Take a look inside an American prison if
you don’t believe me!