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Education Not Incarceration for Young Men of Color

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When people hear the name "Lil Wayne," music of resistance and social criticism is not what comes to mind. However, I was sitting in L.A. traffic last week when my friend played a song I had never heard before. It was Lil Wayne's "Misunderstood" from Tha Carter III album, and it resurrects an ugly monster that haunts boys and men of color across the country, and certainly here in Los Angeles.

Around minute three into the song, Wayne drops the facts about this monster, the Prison Industrial Complex. According to the song, the fact of the matter is "You see, 1 in every 100 Americans are locked up, 1 in every 9 Black Americans are locked up." Lil Wayne is not the first person to speak about the fact that we have chosen to deal with social problems through incarceration.

In the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, Michelle Alexander writes that "More African-American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began."

Statistics and celebrities can only go so far to raise some eyebrows on this issue, but in Los Angeles a bold new initiative, Brothers Sons Selves, has been set in motion to re-imagine a California where everyone has the opportunity to thrive and succeed.

On March 2, the personal stories of youth from the Los Angeles Boys and Men of Color Coalition reverberated throughout the room at the California Assembly Hearing on the Status of Boys and Men of Color. More than just hearing youth's stories, legislators felt their power.

Video excerpts of the young men's testimonies can be seen here.

Jose Gallegos, a tattooed 23-year-old man, shared that for his 18th birthday, instead of "walking on stage receiving a diploma, I was walking across the Los Angeles County Jail Inmate Reception Center receiving a booking number." Jose had never been to Juvenile Hall or a detention center. He was put in prison for drug sale.

Many would dwell blame on Jose and his parents. But what he needs now isn't scorn, but a pathway and pipeline towards success. He is now involved with the Labor/Community Strategy Center trying to rebuild his life, and told the crowd with exuberant passion and resilience that, "I refused to accept the justice system's plan to make me a permanent member of the Prison Industrial Complex." Towards the end of his testimony, Jose urged Sacramento decision-makers to create alternative sentencing programs for young men and not just punitive harsh prison punishment.

The war on drugs is nothing but a war on young men of color. Kim McGill, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition made it very clear that "We have as many probation camps as we have community colleges." She went on to say that less than 1 in 100 black or brown men in South Central Los Angeles will graduate with a Bachelors degree, but 1 in 3 are incarcerated.

The future of California depends on the brainpower of the next generation. We cannot march victorious into the future without our young men. It is time to turn the page.

Perhaps it is time to not just buy the next Lil Wayne album and rock it in the car. Maybe this time we can listen to his words. It costs less to send a young stud to college, than the money spent sending him to prison.