Ban the Box, End the Discrimination, Part I

You’re holding me hostage to a crime that I committed almost twenty years ago. – Edward King, returning citizen

Am I to ever gain the status of a citizen? – Antoine Ali-Moore, returning citizen

“My own philosophy is that if you have served your time… [then] you have paid your debt to society and that debt… shouldn’t follow you throughout your career,” said Marion Barry, Ward 8 councilmember and former D.C. mayor. “We know that the criminal justice system is not as just as it ought to be. We know that drug laws are disproportionately falling on black and Hispanic people.”

“The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature,” writes Michelle Alexander in “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” “No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.”

City Paper’s Rend Smith reported that in D.C. – which has “more per capita marijuana arrests… than in any other jurisdiction in the country” – black residents use marijuana only slightly more often than white residents. But, Smith writes, “even with a high arrest rate, some people in D.C. can probably safely get high without worrying that the cops are coming. Those people are white people. In 2007, 91 percent of those arrested for marijuana were black. In a city whose population demographics are steadily evening out, that’s odd. In fact, adjusting for population, African Americans are eight times as likely to be arrested for weed as white smokers.”

For too many (mostly darker skinned) people in this country, being arrested can amount to a de facto life sentence. “Twenty years ago, I paroled from a California correctional institution and know firsthand the challenges of reintegration,” testified Rodney Mitchell, former director of the D.C. Office of Ex-Offender Affairs, at a hearing of the Committee on Aging and Community Affairs, chaired by Councilmember Barry.

“Today, March 11, 2011, I am sad to report that tens of thousands of my fellow citizens, your constituents, our neighbors and families, suffer in silence daily as second class citizens… As citizens with criminal histories, our human and civil rights are greatly diminished upon incarceration and never fully restored, even after completion of our sentences. In such a state, we are literally reduced to an underclass, socially, politically and economically. We contend with a similar brand of discrimination, scorn and bigotry that is reminiscent of times passed in American history.”

Alexander writes, “What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.

“Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

Edward King is a member of the Phelps Stokes Homecomers Academy, as well as a returning citizen (or ex-offender). In testimony before Councilmember Barry last Friday, King said, “It seems to be that as long as you volunteer [for an organization], you’re fine. But when you start asking for employment to take care of your bare necessities – like providing a roof over your head, grocery shop, things of this nature, possibly even pay your child support if you have any – it’s a problem… [Y]ou’re holding people hostage. Namely, you’re holding me hostage to a crime that I committed almost twenty years ago.”

Antoine Ali-Moore, an intake specialist with Project Empowerment and a student at Catholic University, also testified. “No one is able to tell by my demeanor that I am an ex-offender, a label that I shun because of its negative and often dehumanizing connotations… What separates me from some of my colleagues is the fact that I have this title stuck to my name that I have to wear like a badge of dishonor… There is no escaping the reality of the loneliness that accompanies this label of ex-offender. Am I to ever gain the status of a citizen?”

“Ban the Box, End the Discrimination, Part II” will focus on the “Ban the Box” effort.

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