What exactly attracted thousands of demonstrators to the small Louisiana town? While for some it was a simple case of righting a grievous local injustice, and for others an opportunity to relive the civil rights era, for most the real motive was a long overdue cry of outrage at the use of the prison system as a means of controlling young black men.
America has more than two million citizens behind bars, the highest absolute and per capita rate of incarceration in the world. Black Americans, a mere 13 percent of the population, constitute half of this country’s prisoners. A tenth of all black men between ages 20 and 35 are in jail or prison; blacks are incarcerated at over eight times the white rate.
The effect on black communities is catastrophic: one in three male African-Americans in their 30s now has a prison record, as do nearly two-thirds of all black male high school dropouts. These numbers and rates are incomparably greater than anything achieved at the height of the Jim Crow era. What’s odd is how long it has taken the African-American community to address in a forceful and thoughtful way this racially biased and utterly counterproductive situation.
How, after decades of undeniable racial progress, did we end up with this virtual gulag of racial incarceration?
Patterson offers explanatory examples of pathological black culture, including the case of New York Knicks owner Isiah Thomas' practice of calling a former black female Knicks executive a "bitch" and a "ho," the beating of black evangelical minister Juanita Bynum by her estranged husband, and O.J. Simpson's recent run-in with the law:
These events all point to something that has been swept under the rug for too long in black America: the crisis in relations between men and women of all classes and, as a result, the catastrophic state of black family life, especially among the poor. Isiah Thomas’s outrageous double standard shocked many blacks in New York only because he had the nerve to say out loud what is a fact of life for too many black women who must daily confront indignity and abuse in hip-hop misogyny and everyday conversation.
What is done with words is merely the verbal end of a continuum of abuse that too often ends with beatings and spousal homicide. Black relationships and families fail at high rates because women increasingly refuse to put up with this abuse. The resulting absence of fathers — some 70 percent of black babies are born to single mothers — is undoubtedly a major cause of youth delinquency.
The circumstances that far too many African-Americans face — the lack of paternal support and discipline; the requirement that single mothers work regardless of the effect on their children’s care; the hypocritical refusal of conservative politicians to put their money where their mouths are on family values; the recourse by male youths to gangs as parental substitutes; the ghetto-fabulous culture of the streets; the lack of skills among black men for the jobs and pay they want; the hypersegregation of blacks into impoverished inner-city neighborhoods — all interact perversely with the prison system that simply makes hardened criminals of nonviolent drug offenders and spits out angry men who are unemployable, unreformable and unmarriageable, closing the vicious circle.
Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and other leaders of the Jena demonstration who view events there, and the racial horror of our prisons, as solely the result of white racism are living not just in the past but in a state of denial. Even after removing racial bias in our judicial and prison system — as we should and must do — disproportionate numbers of young black men will continue to be incarcerated.
Until we view this social calamity in its entirety — by also acknowledging the central role of unstable relations among the sexes and within poor families, by placing a far higher priority on moral and social reform within troubled black communities, and by greatly expanding social services for infants and children — it will persist.
I have made parallel arguments in my posts on black America. In one recent entry I argued:
Blacks do not need more policies of redistribution amid the endless cries of "institutional racism." We've seen enough of that. It's been 43 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the political system, the educational establishment, and the corporate sector have made historic efforts to promote full inclusion for African-Americans in mainstream life. The key agenda for the GOP should be to promote black independence and uplift through policies focusing on greater individual and family responsibility, excellence in educational achievement, the rebuilding of the black family structure, and opportunity-oriented economic policies, focusing on entrepreneurship and ownership.
The current crisis presents a phenomenal opportunity for the GOP to provide crucial leadership on race, and smarts too!
At least one top Democrat has already demonstrated an astounding ignorance of diversity of black America today:We need reform of the black family in America, and we need frank discussion about the crisis of the black lower third in this presidential campaign. Democratic Party pandering on race to young, left-leaning MTV crowds represents just more of the same old victims' strategy of grievance mobilization. Blacks need high expectations, not condescension. A freedom and opportunity agenda, one the GOP is best situated to champion, offers a powerful direction for the future of black progress.