Honoring Black History by Fighting for Today's Second-Class Citizens

Feb 21, 2012May Mgbolu

prison-wall-150Ex-felons -- who are disproportionately African American -- still struggle to find jobs and obtain equal justice.

Every year, Black History Month celebrates the contributions of African Americans that have broken down barriers and made great strides. The civil rights movement in particular has become a large focus, with people reminiscing about civil disobedience, acts of non-violence, and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But many have a distorted image of the progression of African Americans, assuming that civil rights struggles are a thing of the past. Though African Americans have struggled to gain access to full rights as American citizens, a new generation of second-class citizenship has developed. What was once a category based on race has now transformed into a classification associated with those who hold criminal records. And the biggest barrier they face is the ability to get a job after being released.

In the 1960s, the civil rights movement was the largest full-scale response to decades of Jim Crow laws that limited African American participation as citizens. This system of segregation was designed to ensure that black people would continue to be oppressed after the end of slavery and was reinforced through fear, skewed policies, and force. Although these archaic laws have been removed from the books, today's policies have resulted in a new system of mass incarceration that is replicating the second-class citizenry of the Jim Crow era.

Just as Jim Crow once directly targeted African Americans, mass incarceration continues to fall disproportionately on communities of color. Those arrested and incarcerated due to drug offenses are overwhelming African American. As a result, Africans Americans and other minorities are sentenced to incarceration at rates significantly disproportionate to whites. However, this system doesn't just focus on ethnic background -- it also affects low-income communities across the nation at a similar rate.

Although white-only signs and lynch mobs may no longer strike fear into black communities, these Americans with criminal records are faced with the daily fear of being stopped and frisked by officers and the anxiety that the prison door can re-open repeatedly -- not for committing a crime, but for simply missing an appointment with a parole officer or the failure to pay a court fee. While Jim Crow deliberately disenfranchised blacks through literacy tests, today we openly deny ex-felons the right to participate in the democratic process. Voting rights have yet to be formerly restored for all second-class citizens in America.

But the greatest struggle this oppressed community continues to face is the inability to obtain legitimate work due to the negative stigma of criminal records.

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With our prison population nearly 2.3 million, the number of Americans with criminal records is large and on the rise. A criminal record eliminates someone's access to jobs, housing, education, social services, and voting rights. Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, explains that mass incarceration operates as the Jim Crow South once did, creating tightly networked systems of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that reinforce a subordinate status. The civil rights movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act were once signifiers of the advancement of equal opportunity for everyone, no matter race or national origin. Yet today individuals with criminal records continue to live in a state of segregation from the rest of society.

I spoke with a friend of mine who falls into this category and has been turned away from job after job after serving seven months in prison for a drug-related felony. He participated in one of Arizona's rehabilitation programs that help inmates prepare to find a job after being released from prison. Yet he struggles daily with looking for a job, being unable to qualify for basic necessities such as food stamps, and the constant fear of harassment from officers, all due to his drug felony.

He explained that after applying to six jobs last week, he was hired as a chef. He was ecstatic to have finally found a job. But the next day the company told him that corporate said they could not hire him.

Our policies suppress all individuals with criminal records through one application question: Have you ever been arrested or convicted? While most Americans have the privilege of overlooking this question, it creates barriers for all individuals with criminal histories, particularly with no federal law prohibiting employers for discriminating against individuals with criminal records. Instead, the question allows employers to immediately disregard an application for merely answering yes. KG explained that employers "try to tell you that this won't affect you, but I know it does." Therefore the "first thing I look at on an application is if it asks for a felony or something. If yes, I won't bother because I don't get called back." Experiences like KG's have become normalized, promoting unequal social standards.

This month, Americans across the nation will celebrate the progress of African Americans in the United States. But we can't neglect the caste system that continues to disproportionately affect this community. Mass incarceration has diminished the gains accomplished during the civil rights movement and expanded second-class citizenship to 2.3 million people confined in prisons and millions labeled as criminals, ex-offenders, and convicts. As we remain certain about the great strides of the civil rights movement, we must understand that a new subordinate group has been constructed. Policies and social standards once explicitly targeted African Americans on the basis of skin color; today they creates barriers to employment, education, social services, and voting due to criminal histories.

May Mgbolu is the Senior Fellow for Equal Justice at the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a senior at the University of Arizona.

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