After seeing a TomDispatch book review in the spring of 2010, on Michelle Alexander's then-new book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and spending that summer digging a little deeper, while serving as research assistant to Harvard Law Professor and Criminal Justice Institute director Ronald Sullivan Jr., I knew that I wanted to embark upon a sabbatical of sorts after finishing at Morehouse College, before pursuing law school and a likely career in public service (to ensure that I was pursuing a life of meaningfulness instead of mere happiness). I wanted to do what the legendary Rev. Gardner C. Taylor describes as "brooding" and "sitting silent before God," in order to fully digest Alexander's book (after reading it from cover to cover). I also wanted to study the other pressing issues and challenges that face our nation, so as to arrive at how we might ultimately address them in earnest.
Therefore, after reading Alexander's book, undergoing a deeply spiritual experience upon watching a Democracy Now! MLK Day special on The New Jim Crow (which serendipitously coincided with the completion of my reading), and having a very inspiring encounter with Alexander at Howard University's Rankin Chapel (just days later -- also serendipitous), I sought to do the best I could to honor the legacies of my late fellow Morehouse alumnus, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, and Bayard Rustin, by breaking the silence, writing, and strategizing, respectively, to awaken my community (and hopefully, by extension, the nation) to the fact that a new caste system (The New Jim Crow/Mass Incarceration) had arisen out of the ashes of the last one (Jim Crow/Segregation). I wanted them to know that this was and is the most pressing racial justice issue of our time, particularly because millions of people of color had been and are being disproportionately targeted and relegated to a permanent second-class status -- where they are legally denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits as a result of being arrested and criminalized, primarily through our nation's racially biased drug war -- a phenomenon that speaks directly to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the second-class citizenship it aimed to eliminate.
So, using my limited means, I released "A Father's Day Letter to America" (via Facebook), which inspired the soft-launch of the Emerging Millennials Leadership Alliance (EMLA), an experimental social justice startup (which aims to advance a more egalitarian society, as part think tank and part PAC). I then became the youngest member of the historic, nearly-200 member all-star coalition (a la The March on Washington's "celebrity delegation") that encouraged President Obama and Attorney General Holder to do all in the administration's power to #EndMassIncarceration (and recently penned a 5-part update on behalf of the coalition). I strategically participated in behind-the-scenes deliberations, public panels and marches. I penned an open-letter to Nelson Mandela while he was on his sick bed, which was later re-published to KultureKritic.com (a subsidiary of YourBlackWorld.net, a network that reaches 250,000 readers daily) and ultimately led to an invaluable invitation and opportunity to attend Nelson Mandela's private funeral in his hometown of Qunu (in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province), and also led to this column with The Huffington Post (the most popular news site in the country).
But this didn't start until June of 2013. I'd planned on releasing something a few months earlier, but I was utterly confounded by a powerful revelation that came to me on October 29, 2012. My mentor, Professor Sullivan, can attest to the fact that I was planning to release an open-letter on race and mass incarceration on October 30, 2012, to symbolically mark what was the midpoint between August 28 and January 1, to highlight the then-imminent 2013 fiftieth and one-hundred-fiftieth anniversaries of the 1963 March on Washington/"I Have A Dream" speech and 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. But even he doesn't know about the course-shifting revelation that ensued.
For fear of being perceived as a naive or quirky, hyper-mystical quack, I'd hitherto believed that I just had to keep this divine and sobering revelation to myself. But then I came across a few words that yanked that rug from under my feet: Jesus said, per the non-canonical Gospel of St. Thomas (saying number 70), "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." So here it is...
The Perfect Storm: A Symbolic Convergence Reveals Why We Really Can't Wait
Two days before the revelation came to me, news broke that an AP poll found that a slight majority (51%) now express explicit anti-black attitudes, and that even more (56%) harbor implicit bias, marking a rise in racial prejudice since a similar 2008 survey, when the nation elected its first black president. (Just days later, in a move that harkened back to the nation's ugly antebellum period, residents in at least 19 states -- mostly falling along the same confederate geographic lines of old -- petitioned the federal government seeking the right to secede from the rest of the country, after the nation's re-election of its first black president. And, months later, a post-Trayvon, Newsweek/Daily Beast poll found that an overwhelming majority of the nation believes the country is divided by race.)
Then it happened: Hurricane Sandy. Just as I was knee-deep in writing, preparing to release my open-letter to America (drawing on both Lincoln the Emancipator and King the Dreamer, with the working-title, "A House [Still] Divided: Why Dr. King Turns in His Grave"), it was as if God himself figuratively snatched the pen right out of my hand, to corroborate my central thesis (that we simply can't afford to be a divided nation any longer) in a way that only he could. Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Mid-Atlantic region on the night of October 29, 2012, culminating on October 30, with the coastal states of New York and New Jersey being the central points of impact and damage.
You'll recall that October 30, 2012 was the midpoint between (63 days after and before) August 28 (the date of the 1963 March on Washington and "I Have a Dream" speech) and January 1 (the date of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation), and that the year of 2013 marked the semicentennial and sesquicentennial of those historic dates. But the symbolism doesn't stop there. Not only was October 30 the midpoint between the two most monumental dates in American history that forced the nation to confront its racial inequality, but it's now clear that Hurricane Sandy was systemically caused by global warming (the first phenomenon in human history -- save nuclear proliferation -- that poses a threat to the very survival of the human species, irrespective of race), and, as Mark Hertsgaard pointed out in The Nation, the name Sandy is short for Cassandra -- as in the Greek mythological figure who symbolizes tragedy. "The gods gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy...she could [see] the future. But with this gift also came a curse: Cassandra's warnings about future disasters were fated to be ignored" (I'll allow you to draw your own conclusions there). Furthermore, New York (ground zero of the storm's damage) could also very well be called ground zero for (neo-)racial (at the city and state level) and extreme economic inequality.
Now, I'm not sure what your take is on this symbolic convergence, but a quote from Tocqueville comes to mind:
God does not need to speak for himself in order for us to discover definitive signs of his will; it is enough to examine the normal course of nature and the consistent tendency of events. I know without needing to hear the voice of the Creator that the stars trace out in space the orbits which his hand has drawn.
Indeed, it was as if God was using this symbolic convergence to tell us:
That, as Lincoln the Emancipator reminded us over 150 years ago, "A house divided against itself cannot stand"...
That, as King the Dreamer told us over 50 years ago, "We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools." Especially in light of (1) the preview of worsening climate change that we've not only seen in Sandy, but also in Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 (the strongest storm ever recorded at landfall, and the deadliest in the history of the Philippines, having killed at least 6,300 and displaced over 600,000); (2) the new data on economic inequality brought to light by epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson (which shows that for each of 11 different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries); and (3) the new data on race in America (that the average African-American has 24% of white or European ancestry, and about 4%, or nearly 8 million white Americans have at least 1% or more of black or African ancestry -- news that a white supremacist found hard to accept; that race is, to use the words of leading scientists and anthropologists, "a social construct"; and that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, our nation will become a "plurality nation" by 2043, more diverse than ever before, with no racial group in the majority)...
That racial (and extreme economic) inequality is now, more than ever before, simply unsustainable...
That racial division is distracting us from the more grown-up challenges that face us all, irrespective of race (like global warming, extreme economic inequality, and campaign finance laws)...
That our commonalities and common interests are greater than our differences.
Where We Went Wrong: Why Dr. King Turns in His Grave
Now, it may be possible that this was not a divine revelation, but rather a mere coincidence. Even so, it should give us pause. Indeed, in his 1963 book Why We Can't Wait, King said:
The milestone of the centennial of emancipation gave the [African-American] a reason to act -- a reason so simple and obvious that he almost had to step back to see it.
Simple logic made it painfully clear that if this centennial were to be meaningful, it must be observed not as a celebration, but rather a commemoration of the one moment in the country's history when a bold, brave start had been made, and a rededication to the obvious fact that urgent business was at hand...
This is why I argue that Dr. King is turning in his grave. Because, while we've moved forward as a nation in many regards, on the more substantive issues we've actually gone backwards. As aforementioned, we've gone from dismantling the old caste system of Jim Crow by passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to erecting a new caste system of Mass Incarceration or "The New Jim Crow." We've gone from protecting the voting rights of people of color by passing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, to suppressing their vote (whether through draconian voter ID requirements, early-voting changes, literally blocking the voter registrations of thousands, purging thousands and threatening to purge millions from voter rolls via the Interstate Crosscheck program, and disenfranchising nearly 6 million felons even after they've served their time) -- as if gerrymandering and winner-take-all elections hadn't already tipped the scales enough.
Having checked civil rights and voting rights off the legislative list, Dr. King had turned his attention to economic rights before he was killed, bringing Americans from all corners and races together under one banner for a "Poor People's Campaign," which set in order a protest encampment, called "Resurrection City," housing about 7,000 on the National Mall -- the original "Occupy" movement. He was collaborating with then-leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Robert F. Kennedy and planning to call for an economic bill of rights, while interracial demonstrations took place across the country. In other words, he was planning to really move the country forward. So, I'm sure he never thought that there'd be a(nother) backlash that would lay the foundation for a virtual reversal of the work he'd sacrificed his life advancing.
But a scripture from the book of Proverbs comes to mind, "Where there is no vision, the people perish..." Well, the visionaries, Dr. King and Senator Kennedy, were killed before the aforementioned plans could really take root, and Nixon seized the day with his sinister "Southern Strategy." Falling to the old "divide and conquer" strategy, Southern white Democrats deflected to the Republican Party in droves. And ever since, we've essentially been on a backwards trek. Since the 1970s, the CEO-to-worker pay ratio went from 20-to-1 to 273-to-1 today; real wages for most have stagnated and the minimum wage is lower today than its peak inflation-adjusted value in 1968, although the economy's productivity (or worker output) has more than doubled, and low-wage workers are far more educated; average tax rates for the highest earners have been just about slashed in half; the share of the workforce represented by unions have declined from nearly 27% to about 13% (and fewer than 7% in the private sector); Pell Grants for students from poor families went from covering more than 70% of tuition and fees to about a third; and tuition at public universities went from averaging about 4% of median family income (about 20% for private universities) to nearly 25% today (nearly 70% for private universities). And here we are, still largely pawns in their "divide and conquer" game.
Author Ian Haney Lopez spoke brilliantly to this phenomenon, while talking about his new book, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class, as a Democracy Now! guest:
[T]he point of this sort of analysis is not to say, "Hey, there's a lot of racism against minorities." Yes, that's a problem, but what's core here is that this sort of racism is being used to fool a lot of whites into voting for Republicans whose main allegiance is to corporate interests...And so, I really want to emphasize this point: This is about race, but this is about race as it affects all of us; this is about race as it wrecks the whole middle class.
President Lyndon B. Johnson chose to use more blunt terms, "If you can convince the lowest white man that he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket."
Here's the stark reality of the matter: As two of the most respected political scholars (known for their "nonideological independence of mind") put it, "the Republicans are the problem." Their policies don't benefit the 99%, and egalitarians MUST work through and transform the Democratic Party in order to achieve lasting change. If there is any humor to be derived from this reality, it is that Republicans and their plutocrat handlers know this and they fear what we'll actually do once the veil is lifted from our eyes -- which explains why they spend billions every election to suppress, confuse, and even buy our votes. As Dr. King wrote in his last book, Where Do We Go from Here, "What is most needed is a coalition of [blacks] and liberal whites that will work to make both major parties truly responsive to the needs of the poor." He added that, "The only answer to the delay, double-dealing, tokenism and racism that we still confront is through mass nonviolent action and the ballot." And later in the book he said:
[The Republican Party's] 1964 disaster with [its presidential nominee Barry Goldwater], in which fewer than 6 percent of [blacks] voted Republican, indicates that the illustrious ghost of Abraham Lincoln is not sufficient for winning [black] confidence, not so long as the party fails to shrink the influence of its ultra-right wing.
It's amazing how applicable these words are to the political situation today.
That said, I don't know what will come of today's midterm election. But I hope that my generation, millennials, are paying attention to the issues: campaign finance reform, global warming and renewable energy, extreme economic/wealth/income inequality (and its solutions -- implementing a living wage and pegging it to inflation, investing in education and ameliorating student loan debt, strengthening unions, passing a robust jobs/infrastructure bill, and paying for these investments with higher taxes on the wealthy, for starters), mass incarceration, voting rights, and comprehensive immigration reform. I hope they understand that it's not Republicans or Democrats, but actually nonvoters or apathetic citizens (the largest party in sheer numbers) that are this country's biggest problem. And I hope they understand that their votes actually do count. These are my hopes because I see that Dr. King's prescient admonition is now more relevant than ever before:
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity...This may well be mankind's last chance to choose between chaos or community.