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Dr. Boyce Watkins

Dr. Boyce Watkins

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Racial Injustice Causes Real Pain in the Lives of Black Americans

Posted: 05/16/11 01:01 PM ET

I was on the radio yesterday morning with Rev. Jesse Jackson. Other guests on the show included Dr. Marc Lamont Hill of Columbia University, Ohio State University professor and criminal justice expert Michelle Alexander, Tavis Smiley and Congressional Black Caucus chairman Emanuel Cleaver, among others. The topic of conversation, at least for a while, was on what I called "The Great Black Disconnect" from President Obama that may occur in the 2012 elections if the administration is not careful. The disconnect reflects upon how the stunning socioeconomic trauma being experienced by black Americans may renew a reign of hopelessness that keeps black voters from taking time off work to go to the polls next year. Black people will never stop loving President Obama, but being mindful of their own suffering, they may not be inspired to vote for anyone.

During our Sunday morning conversation, my mind was teetering between the interview and another dark place within my psyche. I thought about the graduation I'd attended the day before at Kentucky State University, celebrating the success of many promising young black students. But I also thought about how, on the same day, I met a man who spent 12 years in prison, with five children who never graduated from high school. I then thought about a conversation I had later that night with one of my mentees, who told me about a three-year-old relative who was shot in the head after being caught by a stray bullet in a dispute that ended in gunfire.

My reflections that morning were on the persistent truth that when it comes to black life in America, neglecting our impetus for policy reform has a real consequence on the lives of real people. I thought about the man whose children didn't graduate from high school. I wondered how their lives have been altered because their father was part of the wave of mass incarceration that has served to destroy the black family. I wondered how many of his sons might end up in prison like their dad, and whether the father himself might go back to prison after not being allowed to find a reasonable job or vote for the remainder of his years on this earth.

I thought about the three-year-old boy who was shot in the head, who now lies in critical condition with doctors giving him a grim prognosis for survival. I wondered how his life might have been modified if we had different gun laws that might have kept another young man from spraying bullets directly into a house full of kids. While these incidents don't seem to happen as much in non-black neighborhoods, a large percentage of black teens confront the homicide of an associate before the age of 18.

I thought about the young man who shot the three-year-old in the head. I thought about how he was probably never given a quality education, may not have had a father in the home and most likely didn't have a job. I don't profess to know much about the man who did the shooting, but I am certain that he himself didn't grow up in a life without pain. The traumatic confusion which lies in the soul of the man who pulled the trigger now manifests itself in the swollen brain of the three-year-old lying in the hospital. As author Terrie Williams says in her book, Black Pain, "Hurt people, hurt people." On this day, two young black men lost their lives, and I weep internally for the both of them.

Incidents such as these are being replicated across the country every single day of the year, in a nation that has pretended like these nightmares don't exist. We focus on silly issues like birth certificates and White House poetry readings, while children are dying in the street and the genocide on the futures of young black children continues to gain momentum.

If Attorney General Eric Holder has no desire to speak on such atrocities that call for reform of the criminal justice system, then I personally have little reason to care about his political success. If we as a nation continue to sign death warrants on black youth all across America, we jeopardize decades of progress on civil rights and have almost no moral authority to judge human rights violations occurring all around the world. How we treat black Americans is a cold reminder that we are not the country that we profess to be, and having a black president changes almost nothing. That's systematic American racism 101.

 

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