Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Disenfranchized: Race, Class, and "Equal" Rights

I heard a very interesting interview on the radio yesterday about racial inequality as it currently exists in the U.S. This topic has obviously come to the forefront of popular attention recently as a result of the shooting death of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, for which the shooter has not (yet) been charged. In the wake of this death, people of color have been talking about how their communities have to teach young people, especially boys, how to behave with police and other authority figures to lessen the perception of threat, at the same time that we're all working to break or change cultural stereotypes that perpetuate fear.

However, the interview I heard yesterday highlights the much more systemic and insidious nature of institutional discrimination on the basis of race (and, I would add, class) arising out of our legal system. The interview was given by Michelle Alexander, discussing her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Her argument is that people of color are incarcerated at much higher rates that Caucasians for all sorts of crime, but she particularly highlights the discrepancy of arrests and convictions on drug charges. While plenty of young white people use marijuana and other illegal substances, they are much less likely to be arrested and convicted, while people of color all too often end up with felony convictions.

And here is the kicker: anyone with a felony conviction is systematically and permanently disenfranchised in our society. They are ineligible to vote in many states, are excluded from many jobs, can't get student loans, food stamps, or housing assistance. In other words, no matter how much they want to improve their lives, they are unable to do so: they can't get entry-level jobs in a competitive economy, they can't educate themselves for a career, and they can't get government assistance to meet even the basic needs for food and shelter when they have no income. What alternatives does someone have in this position? Keep applying for jobs hoping to get lucky, and/or work illegally - off the books, if they're lucky, or dealing drugs, etc., if they're not as lucky.

This disenfranchisement is real. I have seen it affect the lives of many clients. It is also largely racial, since there is stark inequality in the rate of people of color who are arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced. However, I think it's also worth mentioning the role of social/economic class. There is always a lot of overlap between racism and classism, since racism has resulted in a disproportionate number of people of color experiencing poverty; however, this overlap is not complete, and poverty continues to affect a wide range of people of all races. Poverty obviously has a significant impact on environment and opportunities, including opportunities to obtain education and work experience that are necessary to change one's environment. People living in poverty are often surrounded by crime and drugs. Crime because people either have no other way to meet their basic needs, or feel they don't owe anything to a society that has given them nothing, and drugs because people want an escape from their circumstances, and as a way to make money without education or work experience. Without opportunities to change one's environment, it's very hard for young people to avoid at least experimenting with drugs and/or crime, particularly during the hopelessness that accompanies initial awareness of inequality and lack of opportunity. Experimentation obviously opens the door for arrests, and the disenfranchisement discussed above.

We like to see prison as a form of "rehabilitation;" however, if we permanently deny rights and opportunities following release from prison, how can any form of rehabilitation be maintained (assuming that there was something "wrong" with the person to begin with, rather than the societal problems I'm discussing)? As a therapist who has worked in the inner city, it's incredibly disheartening to sit with someone and know that there are so many things that can't change for the better for a client, just because he or she has a record. I urge you, as you place your vote in this year's primaries and election, or even as you go to work in the morning, to think about the people who will never have those opportunities. Our system is broken, and if we believe we're a society of equality, we're more than colorblind. What should we as social workers be doing to fix it?

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