23 February 2015

Clear of a Black Planet

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“It serves you right, listening to all that Public Enemy during senior year,” a friend laughed at me when I told him about my first arrest.  On game days at my private high school, I used to wear a green plaid field hockey kilt carry a Gap bookbag while I held one of those boxy, yellow, waterproof Sony Sports Walkman’s with a cassette of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet inside to psych myself up.  I always thought that Flavor Flav’s line in the song Don’t Believe the Hype – “Yo, Chuck they must be on the pipe, right?” – referred to older people, the AARP crowd, misunderstanding the world because of their age, relaxing with professor-ly pipes filled with tobacco.

It was only when I entered the Capital-S System that I learned what the pipe was and that 911 was, indeed, a joke in my town. I also learned that the Systems we create show us who we really are.

imageI don’t know anyone who would admit that she is a racist – “I have black friends!” – but the way that skin color spreads out in criminal justice shows us that we are lying when we deny our racism. When 34% of women in prison are black but only 6.7% of the entire United States population is African-American – men and women combined – per a 2009 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, a few someone’s in the System are racist.

Many people try to explain the out-of-whackedness of minority over-representation in prisons by concluding that more women of color commit crimes than white women do. This might even be true.

imageIf it is true, then it might be because black women lead in convictions for what the Capital-S System calls Capital-S “Survival crimes” – check forgery, minor embezzlement, snatching purses from unmanned shopping carts – crimes that produce a few bucks to get their perps through the day. Eighty percent of black women in prison were the primary caretakers of their minor children.  They had to be: one of nine – over 10% – black men aged 24-35 is incarcerated.

imageA majority of people in a prison do not appear to be racist, though. Within any inmate population, ignorance always takes strong hold but overt displays of racism are rare, at least in my experience. When racial tension colors conversations, it’s usually spread by – I hate to stereotype here – upper middle-class white women who have not completed college. When I moved into a cell with one, Willow from West Hartford who had sent up a white flag at both Syracuse and UCONN, failing out at both, she glowed and hugged me.

“I’m sooo glad you’re not a B.B.B.” she gushed.

“What the hell is a B.B.B.?” I asked.

“Big Black Bunkie,” Willow whispered and laughed like we agreed.

“Nope, I’m small and white” I admitted …and hopefully moving out in ten minutes because you’re an A.A.A. – angry Anglo-Saxon asshole, I thought and wondered what would have happened if I were small B.B. moving into that cell. The sentiment against me would reveal itself only behind closed doors. Racism is back-of-the-bus stuff.

Andy Warhol’s “Race Riot”

Maybe everyone here keeps their racism under wraps. Except for one who outrightly calls black inmates “illiterate N-words,” most of the guards are not blatantly racist, at least not in front of me. The racial spats I’ve witnessed usually make them bigot busters if anything.

In fact, when Willow was moved over to the minimum security side into one of the dorms, she almost incited a full-scale race riot by calling her black neighbors “porch monkeys.” A black lieutenant and several guards dragged Willow to restricted housing to punish her and to prevent her from being packed into a B.B.B.B. – Big Black Body Bag.  The African-American inmates all over the compound were irate at what she had done and how they were denied the chance to beat the brakes off her.

“Yo, yo, let that bitch come out here and I’ll show her ass a monkey!” one told a white guard who looked like a Jeff Foxworthy punchline.

“If I could, I would. That’s bullshit. Calling people niggers and shit,” he replied. Guards are not allowed to talk about one inmate with another but in the days following Willow’s race kerfuffle, I heard many staff members sympathize and empathize with the one third of the inmates who had one meaningless cosmetic feature determine the rest of their lives.

Although we never saw, I bet Name Caller looked worse than this after Scrawny Waterbury finished with her.

I always sensed that the sympathy was real but I knew for sure when one white woman muttered the N-word under her breath at a scrawny, scarred black woman from Waterbury. Plucky, a white man, a good officer who would eventually be tossed and end up as a guard in a Southern state, overheard all of it as he toured the floor in a security check.  We knew he heard. He stopped and grabbed his radio.

“We’re gonna lock up now,” I told my sister through the receiver as I sat under the phone bank watching all of it, anticipating Plucky’s locking us up to prevent a fight.

Instead, Plucky walked to Scrawny Waterbury, cocked his head at Name Caller and went on his way. Scrawny Waterbury dragged Name Caller to the shower stall and pounded the shit out of her. Everyone knew it was happening, even the man charged with the duty of keeping us safe, but we all just let it happen. I wanted to make sure that Name Caller didn’t die and I felt morally remiss for not doing something. But, to be frank, I was scared that my human concern that Scrawny Waterbury not bang Name Caller’s brain against the shower tiles would be interpreted as sympathy for the racist. I had no idea how to teach  everyone that this fleeting instance of violence was wrong on a blackboard that listed the history of wrongs committed against the Scrawny Waterbury’s of the United States.

Martin Luther King, Jr. taking a collar.

I was horrified at what happened to Name Caller but, like it has to so many other people, racism arrested my conscience into accepting what was happening. I just chalked the whole thing up to jail justice. The rules are different in here; everything – not just the facility’s facial composition – is off-kilter. The prison world is so jumbled that I have accepted violence as approved behavior. I have also accepted the paradox that a system may be racist but the individuals who run it (at least a majority) are not openly so. History and the process of institutionalization make the system as racist as it is.


Malcolm X’s mug shot.

Every February I have been here at York (this is my sixth) I  walked by posters in the school commemorating Black History Month. The faces of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X appear, reminding us how they advanced the civil rights movement, how they exposed the racism inlaid in our daily lives, how they posed questions that forced us to confront why we see certain people the way we do. Maybe most memorably, each of these faces of black history was arrested and jailed at one point or another before they hung on the walls of York CI. We don’t know King from his letter from a Birmingham motel or Parks because someone just shot her a dirty look when she didn’t change seats. Black History Month celebrates an anniversary of one of our longest-lasting marriages: race and incarceration.

Even if we are not overtly hostile to black men and women, very few of us can divorce this race-prison pairing in our minds. This inability to separate race and crime is prejudice in and of itself and is what has allowed the System to skew so much toward racial inequality. Something very subtle and invidious causes the disproportionate number of African-American inmates, a phenomenon so cagey that no one inside or outside the system can trap it. It’s a true public enemy.



From New York Daily News: Rudy Giuliani Continues to Question Obama’s Patriotism, saying Obama does not love the United States


Would Rudy Giuliani get away with saying a white president didn't love the United States?

  • No. From the Trump and the birth certificate issue to Sununu accusing Colin Powell of playing the race card in endorsing Obama, all of these personal attacks on Obama are permitted by race. (57%, 4 Votes)
  • Sure. Rudy will say anything the year before an election. (29%, 2 Votes)
  • I don't know. I don't listen to anything Giuliani says about anyone. (14%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 7

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Posted February 23, 2015 by chandra in category "Orange is Black?

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