Thursday, March 8, 2012

Why The National Urban League Missed The Mark With The 2012 SOBA

This week the National Urban League released it's 2012 State of Black America Report and with it hosted a forum at Howard University to discuss the findings.

The event, featuring the who's who of "black leadership" sought to discuss the findings of the report and focus on how to work through key African American "issues," specifically THE key African American issue which they have found to be voter suppression.

In light of the recent attacks on voter rights throughout the country, which specifically target poor and elderly people and in the wake of comments from Republican Gov.Tom Corbett (R-PA) who said we need to keep the Philadelphia vote under 50% as well as that reoccurring sentiment, I can see the need to increase awareness and action surrounding this issue, however I humbly submit that these findings are painfully flawed.

One of the main discussions at Thursday’s event was centered around the 2012 elections in contrast to 2008 in which the youth vote and black women's vote were the key constituencies which ensured President Barack Obama’s dramatic and historic victory. Clearly there is an urgent need to ensure this vote is maintained for 2012 and that the next generation of young people, many of which will be voting for the first time this year, are in fact doing so. We have much depending on the re-election of Obama, particularly within the African American community, however voter turnout is not the number one issue that needs to be addressed.

As with events in which dignified, black leadership is at the forefront and leading the discussion, it is usually directed toward a particular class of black people and unfortunately many of the real issues facing the down trodden of the black community go virtually unaddressed. The working and middle class blacks right on up to the upper middle class and rich black folks are the ones dictating what issues should be on the top of the black agenda and yet many of them are unfortunately out of touch with “Pookie and them,” from up the block. But as black leadership, “Pookie and them” and the issues they are facing SHOULD be at the top of the agenda, because unfortunately there are not enough blacks living under adequate conditions, successful and/or productive for us to focus primarily on what the "black elite" thinks is important.

If there is one issue that should be at the forefront of the black agenda here in America and which we should be focusing on everyday and in almost every facet of organizing, activism and public discourse, it is mass incarceration of black people; black men in particular.

We did a series almost 2 years ago on the Prison Industrial Complex, citing some extremely disturbing statistics on the rate at which black men are being incarcerated for non-violent offenses as well as the big corporations who are profiting tremendously from these atrocities. Without delving too deep into what the post discussed (I encourage everyone to go back and read the series), I will say that America has the largest prison population in the world and a freakishly huge portion of that population are men of color, mainly black men, even though statistics show that whites commit just as much of the same types of crimes.

There are many reasons for why this is the case and because this is a topic that I feel passionately about and can speak on for long periods of time, I will not start discussing them at this time in an effort to keep focus on the point of this post.

One of the worst aspects of this prison system and it's focus on black men is the fact that even after an offender has done their time, they spend their life still incarcerated on many levels. Some are not allowed to vote, not allowed to obtain government assistance, denied employment because of their criminal record and stigmatized by society at large, for life. This creates a bigger set of problems which stretch even beyond the original incarceration, because it usually leads to a second incarceration and then a third and so on and so forth. I wish I had time to get into the history of all of this, which we are learning more and more is not a conspiracy theory thanks to people like Michelle Alexander and her amazing book The New Jim Crow. We are learning that there is a caste system in place here in America, which systematically targets the black community to ensure we are kept "in our place."

If there is any issue that the National Urban League should be actively focusing on, it should be mass incarceration. Black leadership spent years working to maintain affirmative action rights, in school and in the workplace but forgot about the black underclass which makes up the majority of our population, many of which wouldn't have the means or inclination to seek after higher education. The black underclass are the ones who cannot afford proper legal council when facing trumped up charges. They are the ones who are affected most by the failing education system and are the first to lose employment opportunities in times like today, when the economy is at a terribly low point.

I truly enjoyed the Urban League's forum on Wednesday. I enjoyed hearing the discourse which ensued and was impressed with the turnout and participation. I have a huge amount of respect for the Urban League and will continue to support their efforts. In the 1980's they realized that mass incarceration was quickly becoming problematic in the black community and described it as that year's key issues for the State of Black America. Somewhere along the way they, like many others lost site of what was happening to black men in America and the true plight became diluted amidst bureaucracy and even apathy, no matter how unintentional. Somehow the attitude toward the lower, unconscious population of black people became one of apathy. These black people became “disposable.”

The problem of mass incarceration is real and if it is not addressed properly, if it does not become the primary focus of the African American plight and continues to be ignored we will soon be living in a country that is closer to conditions reminiscent of slavery at it's peak, instead of one in which we have a black president.
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