Don’t Blame the System?

The Daily Wire quotes Denzel Washington as saying, “Don’t blame the system for black incarceration. It starts at home.”

No doubt, Denzel makes a good point. The thing is, he doesn’t take if far enough. Actually, he may take it far enough, but his views as they are presented by the Daily Wire do not take it far enough. It leaves out the fact that the system is to blame for how much more difficult it is for African American men to get a job. It leaves out how much more difficult it is for African American men to keep a job. It leaves out how much stress it causes a family when the father is unemployed. It leaves out how much friction it causes between the father and mother. How much shame it causes him. It leaves out how much more likely a divorce is when that sort of friction and shame exists. It leaves out the way Stop & Frisk affects black men at far higher rates than white men, and how much more likely black men are to be arrested.

Nineteen percent of white Americans use drugs while only 16% of black Americans do; moreover, whites and blacks sell drugs at just about exactly the same rates, yet black Americans are three times more likely to be arrested for drugs and nearly seven times more likely to do time for drugs. One in three African American men will end up going through the so-called justice system in this country at some point during his life, while only one in seventeen white men will have that experience.

Clearly there is racism at every level of our so-called justice system, from the cops on the beat to the prosecutors to the judges. And once a person has a record, his ability to land a job is severely compromised. And once he has a record, his chances of getting re-arrested are far higher.

Washington is also quoted as saying: “I grew up with guys who did decades [in prison], and it had as much to do with their fathers not being in their lives as it did to do with any system.”

No doubt. And like I said above, it causes a lot of friction between a husband and wife when a man loses a job and can’t find another one. And that is far more likely to happen to an African American man than a white man. And African American men are also far more likely to go to jail for the same crime for which a white man would go free. So, yeah, the system is among the top reasons that African American kids grow up without a father.

Denzel went on: “Now I was doing just as much [crime] as they were, but they went further. I just didn’t get caught, but they kept going down that road and then they were in the hands of the system.”

In other words, Mr. Washington was lucky. And he was smart. People who escape from dangerous childhoods often tend to feel that they escaped on their own. But often, as Denzel admits to be the case with him, there was luck involved. And often there was someone–a teacher, a clergyman, a therapist, a neighbor, a coach–who was there for the kid and that made all of the difference.

On this point, the two of us agree: “But it’s about the formative years. You’re not born a criminal.”

And, yes, I realize I’m just another cracker who’s claiming to know how it was when the reality is I don’t. Not from my own experience, at least. I only know it through the experience of the students I taught on Rikers Island, incarcerated 16 to 18 year olds. They told me a lot of stories and they wrote a lot of personal narrative essays about the way they came up. But, I have to admit, that’s not the same as living it the way they did and the way Denzel did.

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