“In order to understand white supremacy, we must dismiss the fallacious notion that white people can give anybody their freedom.” – Kwame Ture (formerly Stokley Carmichael)
Have you ever been convicted of a felony?
This question is asked when applying for public assistance, student aid and in some states, even while registering to vote. A daunting question that limits and controls access to needed resources and services to communities of color who have historically been oppressed and intentionally placed in circumstances where they now are obligated to circle, “Yes.” The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, making up five percent of the entire world’s population. African-Americans account for 40.2 percent of United States’ prison population. It does not require a doctorate degree in statistics to be able to acknowledge the significance of these disparities. If your likelihood of being incarcerated is 1 in 3 as an African-American male, you are essentially being positioned to fail. Positioned, unfortunately by systems born of ideologies that created and sustained white supremacy and systematic racism.
We cannot engage in collective conversations about effectively reducing crime rates and increasing inclusivity without addressing the trauma and injustices that communities of color have faced; pioneered by white supremacy. African-Americans have been systematically treated and portrayed as criminals for centuries. Less than 200 years ago slavery was “abolished.” Yet, alternative manifestations of white supremacy continued to present themselves through wrongful criminalization and villainization towards people of color including erasure of their stories as human beings; in essence, continuing to treat them as slaves, using the 13th Amendment as punishment for a crime.
How can we expect the same outcomes and behaviors from individuals who have been historically pried from basic human rights? Politicians have been ambivalent attempting to create real change. Mandatory sentencing guidelines have placed exorbitant power on prosecutors who are seen to be primarily concentrated among one demographic group; white. Excessive authority used to continue marginalizing and criminalizing African-Americans is extremely damaging to our society.
Children continue to live in a vicious cycle stemmed by racism and the continuous negative portrayal of their community in the media. Currently, in our nation there are thousands of African-Americans facing the consequences of these policies, including life without parole. Life without any possibility or opportunity for growth and positively contributing to their families and communities. Thousands of prisons monetize from this prohibition of hope. By refusing livable conditions, opportunity and recovery, those condemned are destined to continue serving the industry upheld by white supremacy. If we genuinely want to create change and see communities of color succeed, we need to continue eliminating barriers such as limited access to education, housing and professional development. This type of systematic change requires active involvement of individuals who have experienced these barriers firsthand, and who subsequently, identify as people of color. In order to adequately address crime in the United States we must begin to strive to ensure that communities of color have a significant place at the table … the table where policies and laws have been created and continue to be introduced without the dismantling of the continued existence of white supremacy and privilege.
Pamela Mercado Michelli, born and raised in the island of Puerto Rico, is a graduate student at Metropolitan State University pursuing her Master’s in Advocacy & Political Leadership.