Friday, January 22, 2016

Van Jones on Mass Incarceration

Why don't I know more about Van Jones? I vaguely remember him being in the Obama administration early on and resigning for some reason.

I recently heard him speaking on NPR, along with others I admire (Ai-Jen Poo, Kristina Vanden Heuvel, and Robert Reich). But from the parts of the discussion I heard as I popped in and out of the car, it was Jones who stood out the most.

The general topic was income and wealth inequality. The panel was held back in November at an event commemorating the 100th anniversary of The Nation magazine. At one point, the moderator asked what each person's most important action to end income inequality would be in the first 100 days if, somehow, they were elected president.

Van Jones had this to say:

Ending mass incarceration is the most important thing that could be done to make it possible for 40 million African Americans to even have a shot. You hear over and over again, we have 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. And those are disproportionately African American, Latino, Native American, underrepresented minorities, and almost all poor. It is now better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent in this country.

But those numbers do not tell the full story. One out of every four African American men now is predicted to have a prison record by the time that they’re an adult. That is a repeat of the dehumanization of the enslavement, of the dehumanization of Jim Crow. And the idea that this could be happening in our country and we continue to act like it’s OK or normal is something I think that we’ve got to dial up opposition to. There are safe smart ways to roll back mass incarceration, they’re happening in some places, but not enough.

But this has become — and I want to be very clear — this has become the signature defining issue for the African American community. And you’re talking about a population — if you’re a Democrat — you have a political party that needs near unanimous support from our community. And we have to climb over obstacle after obstacle after obstacle just to vote. You see African Americans standing in long lines in the rain just to vote. And we elected, until very recently, a party that wouldn’t break its breath talking about this issue and in fact was on the wrong side of this issue for way too long.

So I want to say very clearly: The Latino community has a thousand problems, but for them, immigration is number one. Progressive women, choice is number one. The African American community has a thousand, if not a thousand and one problems, but for us, mass incarceration — where you stand on on locking up an entire generation of African Americans for stuff that we know kids are doing on college campuses right now is the number one issue. And anybody — I don’t care what you did in 1963, or 2009, or yesterday — if you grab a microphone and say you’re a progressive and you don’t speak about this issue with some passion and some heart and some concern, as if it were your children under this level of threat, you cannot and should not count on the quiet support of African Americans.

The Obama era of Black silence is over.

Look, I feel horrible — we failed for years to challenge the Democrats to stop chasing fear-mongering and racism and scoring political points off of our community’s backs. And that is why you’re going to see more, not less, more African American militancy on these questions. More African American scholarship on these questions. And if you hear somebody on a thread or anything saying, What are these people doing, they’re ungrateful, they’re uppity, they need to sit down, shut up and be part of this. Never again. We are not going to go quietly. This is getting worse, not better and we need the support of all our allies.

The African American community has been there on immigrant rights. It would have been very easy for Black folks to come out and say, These damn immigrants are stealing our jobs. You have not heard that. The Black community could have been very easily moved to be against the LGBT movement. Our churches are not in the right place on this. But you have not seen any prominent African American leadership attacking lesbians and gays in 10 years because Black leadership got behind it. They said, Shut up, these people are part of our coalition. African Americans have supported the environmental agenda more than the white community. The entire Black Congressional Caucus voted for cap and trade, that’s better than the Progressive Caucus. The greenest caucus in the House is the Black Caucus.

We have been there for every constituency down the line. And we insist that people be there for us this time.

Keep that in mind for the 2016 election.

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