A true united front

By Dr. Boyce Watkins, BASN Contributor
Updated: December 30, 2010

NEW YORK (BASN) — Anyone following the worlds of sports and politics heard about President Obama’s decision to congratulate the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles for giving the embattled Michael Vick another chance to shine. The president called Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie to tell him that he condemns the crimes for which Vick has been convicted, but believes that those who’ve paid debts for their crimes deserve a second chance to contribute to society. The symbolism of this moment can’t be missed. Here we have an African American male going out of his way to express support for another black male coming out of the criminal justice system. While none of us knows Obama’s true intentions, his public support for Michael Vick reminds us of the intricate connections that exist between many black males from all walks of life. Al Sharpton and I discussed this very same issue Monday with regard to the arrest of the father of NBA star O.J. Mayo — educated black politicians/doctors/lawyers who love sports have a great deal in common with athletes, who in turn have something in common with men in the criminal justice system, hip hop, etc. It’s all connected at the end of the day (notice the close friendships between men like LeBron James and the rapper Jay-Z and the fact that many artists have friends who deal drugs). The reasons for these deep and compelling connections of black men from all walks of life stem from the pervasive and incredibly destructive nature of our criminal justice system. One of out of every three black boys born this decade is expected to spend time in state or federal prison during his lifetime. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, black males are incarcerated at a rate that is over six times greater than white men. In fact, most African Americans have a friend or relative who has spent time in the criminal justice system. Therefore, unlike the rest of America, who sees Michael Vick as an animal, President Obama likely understands that he is a human being and an American who simply made a mistake. All the while, those who care so much about the dogs that were harmed by Vick could care less about the real human beings whose human rights are being stripped by a criminal justice system that profits from the “slavery loophole” provided by the 13th Amendment (stating that anyone labeled to be a convict can be made into a slave). While its easy to chalk up the glaring imbalance in incarceration rates to differences in culture and choices, it’s not nearly that simple. Much of the disparity is due to differences in the rate at which black men are searched, arrested, convicted and sentenced relative to whites, even when they commit the same crimes. Also, economic inequality plays a role, since many black males go to prison because they were pressured into taking plea bargains by overworked and underpaid public defenders. Making matters worse is the fact that even after they’ve paid their debt to society, many of these men are not allowed to vote or work, making it nearly impossible for them to provide for their families. So, rather than having a system that is tough on crime, we have a system that simply creates more criminals, making the world more dangerous for us all.
President Obama’s statements in support of Michael Vick’s right to redemption are symbolic for the other 1.4 million African American males who are disenfranchised as a result of felony convictions. We must stop presuming that the life of a felon is worthless and stop falling victim to the mindset of a society that has taught us that black men are animals who do not deserve access to equal rights. Instead, a system that is focused on justice, fairness and rehabilitation would open the door for those who want to contribute to society to have the opportunity to do so. If we were to throw away Vick’s life the way we have millions of other men and women, we would never know how great he could be as an athlete. I am hopeful that the President can expand the logic he’s used to defend Michael Vick to the other hundreds of thousands of black men who are victimized by the modern day slavery of the prison system. The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any country in the world. I was hoping that President Obama, Eric Holder, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus would use the recent Georgia prison strike as an opportunity to re-examine whether it makes sense to allow our country to lead the world in such blatant human rights violations like prison rape, denial of rehabilitation and corporate profiteering from slave labor. Our nation has a consistent and storied habit of vilifying black men, which is why both President Obama and Michael Vick have been attacked by lynch mobs who’ve set out to destroy them. If we don’t work together to change the collective reality of our world, we are all going to be affected by the very same inequality that has poisoned our nation for the last 400 years. President Obama will hopefully find opportunities to speak up for other felons and not just Michael Vick. Their lives are not worthless and their families need them.

We can’t keep giving up on America.