As we celebrate Black History Month, we need to recognize that our country’s progress on issues of racial justice is misleading.
Yes, we should acknowledge the accomplishments and contributions of blacks. And for my part, I recognize I’m a beneficiary of the strides made during the civil rights movement. I have benefitted from affirmative action. I have substantially assimilated into mainstream society.
However, I am painfully aware that many blacks remain marginalized and caught up in the vicious cycle of poverty, crime and educational underachievement.
For the past year and a half I have served on a task force to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system in Dane County, Wis. Dane County has the dubious distinction of having one of the highest disparities in the country. In a county that has a black population of about 6 percent, almost 50 percent of our young black males are either in jail or prison, or on probation or extended supervision.
Our task force identified more than 80 recommendations that could have a positive impact on reducing the overwhelming racial disparities in our local criminal justice system.
The first and most important recommendation is for the leaders of the community to engage in a call to action to recognize that the disparities exist and then commit collectively and collaboratively with the community at large to dismantle them.
There is a distinct similarity between the incarceration of large segments of blacks and the disenfranchisement that blacks experienced during the Jim Crow years.
As during Jim Crow, the marginalization of blacks today is woven into every fabric of society and becomes acceptable on either a conscious or subconscious level by too many of us.
And as during Jim Crow, policies reinforce prejudice.
For example, in Wisconsin you can get your driver’s license suspended for failure to pay child support or for certain other offenses. This policy, which seems innocuous on its face, impacts one’s ability to access a job, pursue an education and ultimately support a family.
The city of Madison is considering a parental responsibility law. The proposal would fine parents of “troublemakers.” That is often code for kids of color, and this proposal is another instance of creating social policy to control them, while criminalizing family members who may be working two jobs or who may be experiencing any myriad of issues that result in their inability to control the behavior of their children.
We don’t need more policies that adversely affect black families. We need to break the cycle of poverty and jail, not speed it along.
To do so, we’ve got to take a stand and summon the courage to address poverty and racism directly.
At the cornerstone of our systems and institutions should be an ethic of respect for life — politically, economically and socially. Without it, poverty and powerlessness leave too many without a sense of self-worth or any real stake in society.
We can change our programming, we can change our policies, but I am more than ever convinced that we must first change our hearts.
Celia Jackson is secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Registration and Licensing. The views she expresses here are hers alone and not those of the department. The task force report can be accessed here. She can be reached at email@example.com.