Friday, February 29, 2008

The Other Side of Prison

Have we become the Loc Em Up States of America? According to a recent study released by the Pew Center on the States, one in every 100 adults is in jail or prison, making America the world’s No. 1 incarcerator.

The report says 2,319,258 Americans were in jail or prison at the start of 2008. Locking people up comes with a cost. The 50 states spent more than $49 billion on corrections last year, up from less than $11 billion 20 years earlier. The rate of increase for prison cost was six times greater than for higher education spending.

No one should be shocked that the incarceration numbers are worse for people of color. While one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, for black males in that age group the figure is one in nine. One in every 355 white women aged 35 to 39 is behind bars, compared with nine of every 100 black women in that same age group.

What is causing this rapid increase? Is this what Bill Clinton had in mind when he pressed the “three-strikes” law that resulted in longer prison stays? With all the talk about getting tough on crime, have we become so consumed with getting the bad guys off the streets that we have created a monster that is controlling us more than we are managing its actions?

It would be easy to blame all of this on something in the air that is making criminals out of Americans. How else can we explain having more people in prison than China, despite their massive population? Sure, go ahead and say it’s the fault of Hip-Hop culture, violence in the media and the evil usage of the N-word. What is it that is driving our nation to violence?

I’m one that believes every reaction is instigated by an action. Otherwise, we’d have to conclude there is something floating in American water that is contaminating the souls of those in the good ole USA. I refuse to accept that the culture of America preconditions people to embrace the life of crime. I reject the notion that we, by virtue of influences within popular culture, have promoted the hard life as a legitimate expression of life in America.

No, it’s not the water, and it’s not our evil music and other cultural variants that have caused this crisis. Rather, it is a series of public policy decisions that have advanced a greater divide between those with the resources and those without. The life of crime, for many, has become more than a chose they make. Sadly, due to the impact of public policy decisions, too many of those behind bars are there because, in their mind, they had no other option.

Many of my readers are prepared to throw stones at me after that line of reasoning. If you don’t believe me, talk to a person weeks after being released from prison. Talk to them about the challenges they face after being released. That felon label sticks with them. America, when it comes to those who have been behind bars, isn’t a forgiving nation. This is especially true when drugs are involved.

A close friend of mine has a son who was released from prison last week. After six long years of serving time for selling drugs, he is back in the real world hoping to pull his life together. Before going to prison, he completed two years of college. Academics were never a problem. Like many who end up in prison, he now has to contend with the variety of assumptions made about those who have served time.

It doesn’t help that he is a black man. He has gone on interviews over the past week. He has a list of certifications to prove his worth: heating and air conditioning and electrician. He has not wasted time while in prison. He wants to go back to college to complete that degree. In the meantime, he just wants a job. Any job to help begin his new life after serving time.

He has the support of a loving family. His mother and sister are in his corner. His brother is there to help keep him on the straight and narrow. Grandmother provides her witty wisdom. This is not a story of a bad dude from an out of control family. Rather, this is a good man who made a mistake, wishes he could change it all and prove his worth to those he has let down.

The excitement he feels is fragile. When on interviews he has noticed a few things. People aren’t concerned when he tells the truth about his criminal record. They’ll say, “You served time? No problem. That is until he says it was drug related. Then they deflate the part of him that has prayed for this day to come. He fights back the rage related to watching those who did worse crimes find work because drugs are not on their rap sheet. The double standard caused by those polices we create make it hard for those who get out to stay out.

How many of those locked up have been there before? Why are they back again? Could it be because we are more enamored with keeping them away from us than we are in helping them, the best we can, to stay out of trouble?

Something is wrong with America. It’s not the water and it’s not because we are preconditioned to be criminals. Our policies are harming the progress of far too many. Each of us can help. This is the first step. Anyone have a job for a young man who is trying to do the right thing? If so, call me at (919) 321-1379. If you know someone else looking for work, call me.

The Rev-elution is committed to making a difference. It takes each of us working together. Hollla at your boy!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bowser Runs, Again

With all that drama that comes with the upcoming presidential election, it is easy to forget that residents in Durham County are facing an important local election. The past few years have been drama free due to the leadership on both the School Board and County Commission. The potential is there for a shift back to the crazy days that made Durham the brunt of jokes across the state.

Gone are the days of vicious attacks at school board meetings. The race card hasn’t been played since a few key members were ousted during the last election and replaced with sound minded, consensus builders. The Board of County Commission has been spared of the shoot em up politics of old. The elected officials in Durham County have functioned well of late. This election could move us back to those bad ole days.

Steve Schewel is stepping down as a member of the school board. All seems safe so far with the school board. The same can’t be said of the County Commission. A critic of consensus has risen from the ashes to run again. The last we heard of Joe Bowser he was being chided by the national leadership of the NAACP for inappropriately using his role to endorse a candidate for office.

Joe Bowser is a man with vision. There is no doubting his insight and passion for the poor. He has been a champion for those often left out of the discussion related to human service delivery. The problem with Bowser isn’t his ability to process issues, but his inability to hear criticism and to move forward in a way that best serves the community.

I understand this first hand. Close to two years ago, I wrote a piece in the Independent Weekly that questioned Browser’s judgment. What I did in that instance was no different than what I have done with others in leadership. My role, as a social commentator, is to delve into the political lives of those we elect to office. No one is safe. This is the reason I stray away from endorsing a candidate or an agenda.

I attacked Bowser for what appeared to be a conflict of interest. I questioned his misuse of power as the local head of the NAACP, and how he twisted the arm of the staff of county government while serving on the County Commission. Everything I wrote was documented. Of course, there is always room for discussion, and any good politician will use criticism as a door for understanding rather than a reason for discord.

I received two vicious letters. One was an attack from Bowser, and the other came from his wife. In these letters I was warned never to contact him again. I was told not to approach him in public. I was questioned for my leadership as a pastor, and condemned for being a womanizing, false prophet. He resorted to an attack of me using rumor as the basis for his assault.

His response was sent to others. This followed my attempt to explain the nature of my work. It didn’t matter. I was told that I was wrong, as a black man, for questioning the leadership of another black man. This assail reminded me of the conversation I had with Curtis Gatewood back in the day when Durham was searching for a new Superintendent. The school board was close to promoting Ted Drain, the interim superintendent, to the position. I wrote a column in the Herald-Sun after Gatewood called Drain an “uncle Tom”. We met at Dillards the following week. I was told it is never appropriate to criticize black leadership.

I was startled by that claim. “So, it is okay for you to do it, but not for anyone to do it to you.” Some leaders assume a free pass. I got the same reaction from Lavonia Allison after writing a column that attacked her for being a slumlord. It was shortly after she took the reigns of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. The Housing Committee of the Durham Committee had worked tirelessly to construct a plan to enforce housing codes. Allison’s first order of business was to dismantle the agenda of her predecessor, Ken Spaaulding. She ended conversations with the Friends of Durham to create a “Memorandum of Understanding “ involving race. Then she ended the work of the housing committee. I wasn’t shocked. She’s a slumlord.

Allison came to my office with her pastor, Leonzo Lynch, who had his share of front-page clippings for being a slumlord. I was asked to recant. I was told that I had an obligation not to attack black leadership. It disturbed me that a slumlord brought a slumlord to my office to address an article about slumlords.

Bowser’s attack of me speaks to his leadership style. Implied is the presupposition that he stands above criticism, and, if it comes, the impression that the problem is with the person who bears the news. If I’m wrong, I will recant my claims. If you prove me wrong, I will say so with a spirit of humility, but if I’m told I’m not worth the space that occupies your shadow, there is nothing left for me to do.

If this is how he operates as a member of the County Commission, I grieve for all who walked on eggshells while serving with him.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

I Did Not Have Sex With that Woman!

I didn’t have sex with that woman. Here we go again. John McCain and his devoted wife stood before the world and proclaimed his innocence. This is the fault of the zealous, liberal press. His record speaks for itself. That’s what he wants us to believe

It didn’t take long for Rush Limbaugh to come to McCain’s defense. No one knows like ole Rush the venom of the liberal press. When his addiction to prescription drugs was uncovered he blamed those devils who write for a living for digging into his dirty laundry.

It’s interesting how the press becomes the bad guy when conservatives get caught with their pants down. When Bill Clinton was doing his thing in the oval office the press was credited for exposing the jerk for taking special liberties with an intern. A few good leads led to the exposure of his Clinton’s secret passions: cigars, young women and hanky panky in his office.

Shame on Bill Clinton for destroying our trust in the highest office in the land. Many liberal minded would say it’s only sex, and that what happens between two consenting adults is their own business. They contend that was a matter between Bill and Hillary, and we, the meddling American public, should stay out of their bedroom. They’ll go a step further by assuming everyone does the same thing.

That’s water under the ole bridge. What McCain’s possible indiscretion exposes are the dangers that come with having all that power. The problem isn’t the sex that may have occurred between he and Vicki Iseman, a Washington lobbyist. We shouldn’t be irked that the New York Times exposed all of this eight years after John Weaver, a longtime McCain aide, met with McCain and Iseman to urge her to stay away from McCain.

People in the McCain camp felt there was a serious conflict of interest that needed to be checked. Iseman had business before the Senate Commerce Committee on which McCain served. The Times story alleges that McCain wrote letters and pushed legislation involving television station ownership that would have benefited Iseman’s clients.

It’s not the sex; it’s the appearance of a serious conflict of interest that is at the heart of this discussion. McCain claims a squeaky clean record, while somehow avoiding the controversy of being accused of trying to influence banking regulations on behalf of Charles Keating two decades ago. Keating was later convicted of securities fraud. The Senate Ethics Committee decided that McCain had used poor judgment but his action were not improper and warranted no penalty.

McCain claims that incident spurred his desire to change campaign finance laws in an attempt to reduce the influence of money in politics. This issue is important due to how his come to Jesus moment has validated his drive for the presidency. Sniff, sniff. I did wrong, but I have been converted and promise to preach the good news of what needs to be changed. Can we believe that now?

The day before this story leaked, McCain chided Barack Obama for reneging on his promise to accept public financing rather than using the massive war chest he’s built over the past year. Of course, Obama had no way of knowing he would raise twice as much as his republican counterpart. He knows he will need every penny he has raised to get his “We Can” message across. Obama’s flip/flop is an issue of concern when placed within the context of campaign finance.

It’s not the liberal press that calculatingly came after an innocent man. The people at the Times had to make a tough decision. Should this story be printed, or should they turn their backs on the claims of high-ranking officials in the McCain camp? The press has an obligation to bring to the public information that may influence the way they think about those we elect. This is especially pertinent when the actions are in conflict with the agenda promoted by those we vote for.

This isn’t about sex this time. It’s not about the evils of the liberal press. This time it’s about real change in government. We need to know the truth.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Another Urban Legend: Obama and the KKK

Oh, how I wish it were true. Of all the urban legends circulating the Internet, this one takes the prize as the most ridiculous assertion of them all.

It came to me from four different senders. I had to fight the tears after reading the first few lines the first time. Then it hit me. No way that one is true. Experience has taught me to check the sources before moving on a lead. Over the years, I have been bitten by listening to the wrong people, and had to admit that I moved too soon in writing a column. The voice of my former journalism professor could be heard-“check your sources, check your sources, check your sources.”

“Imperial Wizard, Ronald Edwards, has stated that ‘anything is better than Hillary Clinton,'” the email read. “White Christian Supremacist group the Klu Klux Klan has endorsed Barack Obama to be the next President of the United States of America”

For a brief second I felt the presence of those who had fought for freedom. I felt Martin and Fannie Lou, Fredrick Douglas and Marcus Garvey with me to celebrate this monumental moment in American history. I felt the force of countless marches and the drive of the words uttered in times of frustration-“We shall overcome, someday.” Could this be the end of it all? Could this be the end of the ignorance of racial hatred in this country?

It is beginning to feel that way, with Barack Obama winning in states where few black people reside. It is significant that race seems to matter less now, and that America is willing to consider the possibility of being led by a person who isn’t a white man. The recent rise of Obama over Clinton raises another interesting issue-is America’s sexism more of a burden than its racism?

“This is the first time in Klan history that any member of the KKK has ever publicly supported an African American candidate for the presidency,” the email continued. “KKK lodges all over America have been gathering and holding rallies supporting the black presidential candidate.”

I read the email intrigued by the implications of it all. If it were true, if in fact a member of the KKK could move past their indifference toward black people and endorse a black man for the highest office in the land, it would signal the realization of King’s dream. If that could happen it would mean so much. It would mean the end of it all. What stunned me most about the email wasn’t the assertion made. It was that, for a brief moment, I believed it to be true.

It shocked me that I was willing to trust the claim. Not only that, others, who are all black, thought the same thing. They sent me the email believing it was possible for a leader of the KKK to be converted. I then took a look at the beginning of the email. “White Christian Supremacist group” was used to describe the organization. That one word caught my attention-Christian. There is nothing about the KKK that compares to the Christianity I proclaim. Yes, the burning of the cross reminds me of the logo of the United Methodist Church (I wish they would change that image), but nothing they teach, nothing they do speaks to the message of the Jesus I follow.

Those who sent the email may have been thinking the same thing that crossed my mind when I first read the message-that God has touched them. That the nation is enduring a revival that has impacted even members of the KKK. How I wish it were true.

What a difference it would all make. We could celebrate the end of it all. But it’s not true. It never happened. We’re left with a few truths that still hinder the progress of our nation. For some, a woman isn’t worthy to lead us, and a black man isn’t smart enough to do the job.

The double standards still pop up from time to time. Obama lacks substance some have said. Is that true, or is it another way of saying a black man doesn’t have the brains to do the job? There may be problems with Clinton, but at least we have her husband to keep her in check. Shucks, everyone knows who the real President will be.

For a few moments I celebrated a new day. Oh, I wish it were true, but race and sex continue to drive the agendas of far too many people in this country. The good news is we can see the end of the tunnel. I believed it for a moment. Keep praying. Before long, it may become a reality.