Inconvenient Truth

When I first started into the world of investigative journalism, I believed I was joining a secret guild of reporters and I thought it was an honor.  Throughout this journey I’ve pissed off a lot of people over the last several months, many of whom will end up reading this article.  But I think that’s what good reporting does.  It ruffles feathers.

Covering the unrest throughout various cities in Wisconsin, I consider my First Story, because I never wrote anything or covered events until now that really mattered.  To a lot of people it mattered in a scary way.  I’m not going to take anything back, make nice, stop ruffling feathers in an attempt to get back the things I’ve lost, because I thought I was doing my job.  I thought my job was to tell the public the truth.  The facts, pretty or not and let the publishing of those facts make a difference in how people look at things, at themselves, at what they stand for.  If the truth is inconvenient, if it doesn’t fit, they don’t believe it.  Is that who we are as a society?  People who judge others by their image and not their hearts, who trust gossip over fact, reputation over reality?  God help us all if that’s the country we live in.  So let’s get into more truth and ruffle some feathers.

Racism is built into the DNA of America and as long as we turn a blind eye to the pain of those suffering under its oppression, we will never escape those origins.  The only safeguard people of color have is the right to a defense and we won’t even give them that.  Which means that the promise of civil rights has never been fulfilled, due to the failure of our justice system and the institutional systems we have in place.  With our public defense system in particular, Jim Crow is alive & kicking.  The words Jim Crow often conjure images of 1960’s era.  But racial discrimination is alive and well in many American neighborhoods half a century later in less visible, more insidious forms. 

Laws that made it illegal for blacks and whites to be buried in the same cemetery which still goes on today.  Most of these cemeteries separated blacks from whites with simply a fence or a sign.  Some have been paved over or sit at the bottom of a lake.  Cemeteries clearly shown to have one side well-kept and maintained, while the other side is overgrown with weeds and brush.  Federal lawsuits have been filed over these still segregated cemeteries. 

Laws that punished a black person for seeking medical attention in a white hospital.   To this day black people are simply not receiving the same quality of health care that their white counterparts receive, and this second rate health care is shortening their lives, even when insurance status, income, age, and severity of conditions are comparable.  People of color are less likely to be given appropriate care to receive kidney dialysis or transplants, and to receive the best treatments for stroke, cancer or AIDS and are more likely to die from cancer, heart disease and diabetes simply because of their race or ethnicity, not just because they lack access to health care.  Algorithms widely used in US hospitals to allocate health care to patients have been systematically discriminating against black people.  The algorithm was less likely to refer black people than white people who were equally sick to programs that aim to improve care for patients with complex medical needs.  These algorithms are used to care for about 200 million people in the United States each year.

While the Fair Housing Act of 1968 Civil Rights Legislation signed by Lyndon B. Johnson, prohibits inequitable treatment on the basis of race and other factors, it has been found as recent as 2019 that Real Estate Agents steer white clients towards predominantly white neighborhoods and people of color toward neighborhoods with higher minority populations and lower incomes.  While racial steering and predatory lending play a big problem in housing, crime free ordinances seem to be an equally harmful form of discrimination that’s perfectly legal.  Crime free housing ordinances are either overlooked or defended as justified on the grounds that they only affect those who have previously committed criminal offenses.

There’s a long history of using the narrative of black criminality as justification for segregation.  The myth of the black criminal was used to justify many of the Jim Crow laws.  Far too many people have bought into these narratives which makes it easier for policymakers to justify exclusions.  But the rhetoric continues to drive mass incarceration and its impact on black people and black communities.  By allowing and in some cases requiring landlords to make housing decisions on the basis of tenants’ contacts with the legal system, these policies treat applicants and tenants as suspects, blurring the line between housing and policing.  By perpetuating narratives of black criminality, white community members who are suspicious or resentful of people of color enforce their racism by weaponizing the police, causing a spike in police officers responding to complaints about black people.  The increased police contact causes a range of risks for black people.  When crime free ordinances are in place these police contacts can be used to exclude black tenants from white communities resulting in legal segregation.  These ordinances should not encourage landlords to exclude people with a conviction regardless of how old the conviction is, the nature of the underlying conduct, or the individual’s post-conviction record.

As the world has paused to analyze the deficiencies of police departments, it is not enough.  We have to examine all areas of systemic injustice.  That includes schools which now have an opportunity to rise to the occasion and improve.  Where students live determines the quality of education students will receive.  Schools that are predominantly black are underfunded and have a higher rate of inexperienced and unlicensed teachers.  School funding and resources are linked to state and local resources.  The lack of school resources are an indication of how racially biased policies underserve certain communities.  Schools that are predominantly white have lower rates of BIPOC teachers. How do black and brown children stand a chance to succeed when the ones responsible for educating them view black and brown students through the lens of bias and stereotypes?  Negative stereotypes about black and brown students are exacerbated through the media.  There are often clips that portray BIPOC as violent or aggressive.  The problem is magnified by school curricula.  Halfhearted attempts at cultural celebrations by white teachers are insufficient.  Having made progress to reduce intensely segregated schools in the 1960s, legislation in the 1990s released hundreds of US school districts from court-enforced integration.  Law Enforcement is being called into schools to discipline black students on school grounds at rapid rates leading to a phenomenon that has become known as the school to prison pipeline because it’s channeling student’s right into the criminal justice system.  Racial bias in school leaders and teachers affects how they engage with students.  Learned negative stereotypes dictate how we engage with different racial groups.  School Boards, faculty and community members all over the country have been fighting against implementing anti-racism policies and education as we have seen recently in Burlington WI.  We have seen the damage that school bullying has done over the years with the teen suicide rate increasing, why is there debate over implementing anti-racism policies?  Students across the country are engaging in racial hate while faculty turns a blind eye.  When did we get away from the times where school leaders were responsible for creating a safe learning environment for all students so they thrive?

Some may claim that slavery has ended, but tell that to the inmates who are kept in cages and told that they don’t have any rights at all, who are relegated to a subclass of human existence in our prisons.  There is no alternative to justice.  There is no other option.  Choosing to line the pockets of prison owners over providing basic defense for the people who line them.  Is that the America that we really want to live in?  Where money is more important than humanity?  Where criminality is confused with mental health.  The 6th Amendment was ratified in 1791.  It’s been 229 years since then.  Let’s finally guarantee its right to all of our citizens.

As kids, we’re taught that there’s good and evil.  And the good guys are the heroes that save the day and the bad guys are the criminals behind bars.  But that’s just not reality.  Being a convict doesn’t mean that you’re bad.  When you visit a prison, you learn that the so called criminals are just people who have been put through hell.  Most will say that criminals don’t deserve a second chance because they are morally deficient, dangerous and unworthy.  This is true even when people have not been convicted of a crime, and especially true when those people are black.  But what successful person in life has not been given a second chance?  Even the most vilified people in our society can turn their lives around.  They just need help.  When you don’t give people a chance to get better then you rob them of their families, their futures, and any ounce of hope.  Once you lose hope, you lose your will to live.  This isn’t just about prisoners.  It’s about families.  Wives, husbands and children, suffer immensely when a loved one is locked away.  Think about all the young girls & boys who have never done a bad thing in their lives and lose a parent to an unjust system.  And not only are they likely to fall below the poverty line but the trauma that they suffer wreaks havoc on them for the rest of their lives.

Reuniting families is the first step to building a better society.  The problem is that most people believe that these criminals don’t deserve help.  Instead it’s go to jail, pay your debt and get a fresh start.  But there’s no such thing as get a fresh start when you’ve been inside the system.  It becomes all that you are remembered for.  It’s like quicksand.  It sucks you in.  We all need to work harder to see the good in people instead of the bad.  And that’s for all of us no matter what mistakes we make.  To just have the ability to be better.  And we continue to have voices that are still not being heard.  We need to stop blaming the defendants and start blaming ourselves for a system that tears apart families by incarcerating every man of color that steps foot in a courtroom and then we scold them for not raising their children right.  When does the cycle end?  It seems no matter how far or how high people of color climb, the system will find a way to pull them back down.