By Tyra C. Cohen
The media will have you believe the biggest post Black history month news is Martha Stewart’s departure from “Camp Cupcake” (Alderson Federal Prison Camp) after serving five months for what is coined a “white collar crime”. Alderson Federal Prison Camp has no metal fences surrounding the camp because most of the inmates are supposedly convicted of non-violent crimes. Inmates Sarah Jane Moore on September 22, 1975 and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme on August 22, 1975 tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford. Another notable inmate Jazz great Billie Holiday who in 1959 was arrested for Heroin addiction, an illness not a crime.
44% of all prisoners in the United States are black. The incarcerated populations have quadrupled since 1980 and guess what not because of violent crimes but because of the war on drugs or more particularly black drug users. African Americans are arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for drug offenses at far higher rates than whites. Blacks constitute 63 percent of all offenders admitted to state prisons. The explosion in the prison populations has largely taken place under your beloved Clinton administration. While Clinton and the Republican Congress have gutted spending for welfare and social programs, they have poured billions into hiring more police, and building more prisons and boot camps. We live in a country that holds itself out as the “land of freedom” yet incarcerates a higher percentage of its people than any other country. The absolute level of black incarceration should be cause for national concern.
African-American youth are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. Race and ethnicity are not risk factors but are risk markers that correlate with fundamental determinants of health such as poverty and limited access to quality health care. HIV/AIDS is the number one killer among African Americans ages 25-44. Don’t relax yet, the prevalence of HIV infection in people over the age of 50 years is growing. The number of AIDS cases reported in adults 50 years and over quintupled between 1990 and 2001 from 16,288 to 90,513.Yet one of the first things President Bush did after inauguration 2001 was attempt to close the Office of National AIDS Policy. HIV/AIDS epidemic is a health crisis for African Americans, yet we are blinded by the smokescreen called down-low. What is the definition of Down-Low? Does anybody know? New Jersey Governor McGreevey publicly admitted to “an adult consensual affair with another man.” J.L. King down-low poster boy and author of Living on the Down-Low says he was married and having adult consensual sex with other men. These are stories of sex, lies and just plain old cheating. It’s about dealing with critical, uncomfortable conversations about sexuality. White men are on the “down low” obviously and we live in a country that has far more white men than black men, so it stands to reason that there are far more white men on the down low. Why aren’t more white women being infected with HIV? We have a problem when we become so unconsciously entrenched in the media hype that we blame an entire epidemic on black men along with the victimization of black women. The real down low is the correlation between the rise in the prison population of African American men and the increase risk of leaving the prison with HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and or tuberculosis. Incarcerated persons have a disproportionate burden of infectious disease.
Education is the only respectable catalyst for economic and social improvement. Now 50 years after Brown versus Board of Education we are in an ample position to historically analyze just what integration has done for the education of black students. We have a problem when the number of Americans living in poverty grew from 34.5 million in 2002 to 35.8 million in 2003, while the most affluent fifth of the population received half of all household income and the poorest fifth received only 3.5 percent. Nearly 1 in 4 African Americans live in poverty.
Supreme Court Justices have the power to influence every factor of our lives with their decisions as the highest court in the United States -- from the right to privacy to the right to free speech. Supreme Court decisions affect every law in the nation, and Supreme Court Justices serve lifetime appointments. Now with that in mind understand there is an opportunity during President Bush’s tenure to appoint potentially two Supreme Court nominees. Rumor, also known as the media has it that 80 year old Chief Justice William Rehnquist and 74 year old Sandra Day O’Connor may step down off the lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. This will give Bush the opportunity to change the overall orientation of the Supreme Court. Sandra Day O’Connor is the first woman appointed to Supreme Court, O’Connor has become one the most watched justices on the Court because she is known as the swing vote. One of the short list nominees is John Roberts. John Roberts clerked for the current Chief Justice Rehnquist, and was nominated in 1992 by Senior Bush but the nomination lapsed before it could be considered. Yet John Roberts was appointed in 2003 to U.S. appeals court in Washington, DC by President G.W. Bush. John Roberts has a record of hostility to the rights of women and minorities. He supported a hard-line anti-civil rights policy that opposed affirmative action, which would have made it impossible for minorities to prove a violation of the Voting Rights Act. He also took anti-choice positions in two Supreme Court cases.
African Americans must be revolutionary enough to know what time it is in history and do something about that. It is time in our history to turn inward as strategic planners. We cannot forget that former President Bill Clinton left a legacy in the prison system during his eight years in office that was more punitive than both of his Republican predecessors Reagan and Bush. In the last two decades the rate of Black incarceration more than tripled. The Reagan Administration gave us the Contras, drug for arms scandal and the surge of crack cocaine. While the Contra’s war is barely a memory today, black America is still dealing with its poisonous side effects. Urban neighborhoods are grappling with legions of homeless crack addicts. Thousands of young black men are serving long prison sentences for selling cocaine-a drug that was virtually unobtainable in black neighborhoods before members of the CIA's army started bringing it into South-Central in the 1980s at bargain-basement prices. Cocaine, typically referred to as a white, middle-class drug, users receive lighter sentences than crack users. Crack is seen as a poor, Black drug. It takes 100 times more powdered cocaine to land you in jail than crack. Suppressing the Black vote is also achieved by disenfranchising incarcerated Black men. The best way you can destroy a people is to take away their ability to reproduce themselves. We have a problem.
African Americans must vote! We must vote because we need political rights and economic security. Out of the entire population of black-America, half of them are registered voters and 90 percent of those voted for the Democratic Party. Some African Americans have accused the Democratic Party of practicing "plantation politics." They say that although blacks repeatedly are depended on to keep the party in elected office, African Americans often are overlooked for key leadership posts. President Bush courted the Hispanic vote in the last election to the tune of an election year proposal that would grant immigrants legal status and release the threat of deportation. According to the last census report Hispanics are the largest minority. Democrats and Republicans, aware of the surge, have placed increased emphasis on attracting Hispanic voters.
Many young black voters are disenchanted with black leadership as well as the Democratic Party. Most aren't out to join the GOP, but they are more independent in their thinking and in their politics. There was a significant increase in those calling themselves independents, especially between the ages of 26 and 35. We need progressive independent political organizing that involves having goals that extend into the next millennium. Politicians are well aware of the correlation between the likelihood of voting and economic and educational background. All politics is local, so it is time that we take the necessary steps to control and fix what is going on where we live, instead of neglecting neighborhoods in order to rush to the aid of our friends across town; or worse waiting for help to come to us. Democrats take the black vote for granted and Republicans don’t need African Americans to win. Let’s join the 35% of Americans who identify as Political Independents. It’s the only way to Political Freedom.
Tyra can be reached at: Tyra_Cohen@yahoo.com