Wednesday, July 03, 2013

We Celebrate The 4th Of July & Juneteenth, But We're Not Really Free

Juneteenth, The 4th of July And Black “Free”dom

As many of us know, Juneteenth reached its 148th anniversary two weeks ago, celebrating the freedom of those that were enslaved. Juneteenth is widely recognized by African Americans as the day the union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas in 1865 and received word that they were now free. The importance of this date in history is that the news of their freedom came two years AFTER President Lincoln had already issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Juneteenth is celebrated by many African Americans all over the world, as it has become a longstanding tradition. And then we have Independence Day, commonly known as the 4th of July, a federal holiday that commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in which the U.S. declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain; another holiday also celebrated by many African Americans. These two nationally recognized days deal with freedom, but with our current times, and the current state of black America, one has to wonder, what are we really celebrating and just how free are we?

Mass Incarceration

Michelle Alexander enlightened us about the state of African Americans and prisons by saying, "Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. There are millions of African-Americans now cycling in and out of prisons and jails or under correctional control. In major American cities today, more than half of working-age African-American men are either under correctional control or branded felons and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives."

But what has led to so many African Americans being under correctional control? The simple answer, the ‘War on Drugs’. The more complex answer is racial profiling and mandatory minimum sentences.

War on Drugs

African American make up a mere 13% of the US population and 13% of drug users, however, they make up 38 percent of those arrested for drug law violations and 59% of those convicted of drug law violation.

When it comes to the war on drugs, there is significant racial bias when police are making arrests. The ACLU has found that, despite roughly equal usage rates, blacks are nearly 4 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana. Last month the New York Times pointed out that there are federal programs in place that are providing incentives to law enforcement for racial profiling. Federal dollars are literally being awarded to states or precincts that produce the “right” numbers.

Zero-Tolerance Policies

In schools, our children’s freedom is challenged by zero-tolerance policies that restrict our students from making mistakes in a learning environment. A prime example of this is 16 year old Kiera Wilmot who was arrested and charged with two felonies and expelled from school after a science project that went wrong, in which no one was harmed and no damage occurred.

The implementations of zero-tolerance policies have had a negative and disproportionate impact on black students. A 2008 study in Florida found that Black students were two and half more times likely to be referred to the judicial system. Those studies also found Black students more likely than whites to be suspended, expelled and sentenced to jail time for infractions that take place on school grounds.

These types of harsher disciplinary actions have been linked to a higher rate of high school dropouts who, in turn, are more likely to become incarcerated. Black students only make up 16% of the nation’s population but account for 45% of juvenile arrests.

School Closings

This year has dealt a devastating blow to public education as we have watched mass school closings hit Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia. 28 schools are now closed in Chicago, 23 are closing in Philly and 26 are to be closed in NYC. It should be no surprise that blacks students were the impacted most as 43% of all Chicago students are black, 58% of all Philly students are black and 30% of all NYC students are black.
What happens when public schools close in poor neighborhoods of color? Students are forced to cross gang territories to get to their news schools and relationships and rapport between students and their teachers are broken, often times causing disruption to their learning process.
Voting Rights Act
Last week the Supreme Court struck down a key section, section 4, of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Section 4 deals with a coverage formula to determine which jurisdictions will be subject to pre-clearance requirements in section 5. Pre-clearance mean that certain jurisdictions (mainly those in southern states) must receive federal permission before changing any law related to voting. The reason for this is due to the racial discrimination that black voters received in the past. In the 60’s, poll taxes and literary tests were put in place to deter and bar black citizens from voting. While we no longer have poll taxes and literary tests, we still have political groups creating various voter ID laws and suppression tactics to silence our vote, and the Supreme Court’s decision to strike section 4 means that these southern states can now enact new laws to make it difficult for our voices to be heard at the polls. Since the decision has been passed, both Texas and North Carolina have wasted no time implementing new voter ID laws and ending long standing voting practices that have been popular with black voters.
Are we truly “free”?
Physically, yes, most of us are free. So, celebrate your freedom; your ability to move around, purchase what you want, live where you want etc, but remember the systems in place (mass incarceration, the war on drugs, zero tolerance policies, the plight of public education) that are still keeping us bound.
Having more African Americans under correctional control now than were enslaved in the 1850’s is NOT freedom. African Americans being nearly 4 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession is NOT freedom. Dismantling public education on the backs of poor black students is NOT freedom. Eliminating section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, a key part of the civil rights movement, is NOT freedom.
The truth is we are not as free as we’d like to believe as long as our civil rights are constantly being infringed upon and challenged.
If we believe that our humanity and well-being is intertwined with one another, then none of us can truly be free unless all of us are free.

Twitter: @SoulRevision