Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Less Respect Than A Slave

A criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights and arguably less respect than a freed slave or a black person living "free" in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow. Those released from prison on parole can be stopped and searched by the police for any reason at all and returned to prison for the most minor of infractions, such as failing to attend a meeting with a parole officer. Even when released from the system's formal control, the stigma of criminality lingers. Police supervision, monitoring, and harassment are facts of life not only for all those labeled criminals, but for all those who look like criminals. Lynch mobs may be long gone, but you still have the all white lynch mob juries, and the threat of police violence is ever present. A wallet could be mistaken for a gun. The whites only sign may be gone, but new signs have gone up, notices placed in job applications, rental agreements, loan applications, forms for welfare benefits, school applications, and petitions for licenses, informing the general public that "felons" are not wanted here.

A criminal record today authorizes precisely the forms of discrimination we supposedly left behind. Discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service. Those labeled criminals can even be denied the right to vote.
Convicts, it turns out, are the social group in America we have permission to hate. In colorblind America, criminals are the new whipping boys. They are entitled to no respect and little moral concern. Like colored or Blacks in the years following emancipation, criminals or convicts today are deemed a characterless and purposeless people, deserving of our collective scorn and contempt. When we say someone was "treated like a criminal" what we mean to say is that he or she was treated as less than human, like a shameful creature.

Hundreds of years ago, our nation put those considered less than human in shackles; less than one hundred years ago, we relegated them to the other side of town; today we put them in cages. Once released, they find that a heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon them.

Rev. Pinkney