Benjamin Jealous, a civil and human rights leader and former President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), spoke about the effects of mass incarceration on the educational system in the United States at Fountain Street Church, Feb. 17. Jealous was a part of the 21st Diversity Lecture Series hosted by Grand Rapids Community College.
Jealous addressed the current problems with the amount of money spent on incarceration and the number of people incarcerated, noting that the problem with our correctional system isn’t a racial one. According to Jealous, it’s a fight for people of all races, and the system itself is inundated with corruption.
Jealous, 43, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. At a young age, Jealous found his passion in activism.
At a friend’s 21st birthday party, Jealous saw one of the guys pour some of his drink out in memory of friends lost through death or prison.
“To try and turn the mood around, another friend threw his glass up and toasted the fact that one more brother had survived to 21,” Jealous said. “The notion cut me like a knife. The notion that somebody thought that it was an accomplishment for a member of any group in this, the world’s wealthiest and greatest democracy, let alone from their culture, let alone from my culture, to have just breathed past their 21st birthday.”
Feeling conflicted after this incident, Jealous sought advice from his grandmother, 99, a granddaughter of slaves.
“Our generation of the so-called ‘children of the dream,’ well we’ve come of age just in time to find ourselves the most murdered in the country, and the most incarcerated,” Jealous said. “What happened?”
Jealous said his grandmother told him, “‘We got what we fought for, but lost what we had,”’ and that our generation has lost sight of what we should be fighting for.
After hearing this, Jealous made a list of things that made him angry. He was indecisive on his bus ride back to New York from New Jersey, so after drawing a circle in the middle of the page randomly, he happened to pick injustice in the justice system.
“America doesn’t just have the most black or brown people incarcerated on the planet,” Jealous said. “We have the most incarcerated white people on the planet too.”
Between 2000 and 2010, white people were significantly more likely to get incarcerated than they were before, and the likelihood keeps increasing, Jealous said.
“It’s because we took the tactics of the war on crack and applied them to the war on meth and we left the incentives that were in place the same,” Jealous said.
Jealous said the problem used to be that the police would go to poor black neighborhoods, rounding up people who could be found quickly, and picked them up, rather than taking the time to find the supplier.
In contrast with the war on meth, he said the police are now seeking out the poor, white neighborhoods to quickly find meth users to incarcerate. This, according to Jealous, explained the increase in the population of white people now being put behind bars.
Jealous provided statistics of the funding of correctional facilities versus the funding of public universities in 1973 and 2010.
While the amount of funding that correctional facilities received in 2010 from our nation’s budget is at 11 percent, compared to 3 percent in the early seventies, universities only see 6.5-7 percent of the budget now, where before, they saw 11 percent.
Jealous called our country a “failed empire,” and said there are two things that can destabilize an empire historically, the overinvestment of endless wars overseas and overincarceration.
“Something happens when you really commit yourself to winning a battle for something before you die,” said Jealous. “A little light goes on inside you.”
Jealous traveled to Mississippi to protest the state’s decision to replace a university with a penitentiary.
“This just wasn’t anti-blacks or anti-civil rights, or the ideas of a wayward republican,” Jealous said. “This was un-American.”
While in a restaurant where he and his colleagues were the only black men, Jealous met an unlikely ally, a white liberal man who at first glance he assumed could be harmful. In conversation, the man offered his services and support to help fight with Jealous for his cause.
“From that day forward, we would talk to anybody, everybody who would listen to us, as if we knew that they were inclined to be our ally from the beginning, with the optimism and conviction that we spoke with at the black church, the white church, or even to a different crowd,” Jealous said.
Jealous concluded his speech by speaking about persuading people to try and bring liberals and conservatives together to agree on this issue. Then Jealous referenced a quote from his grandfather.
“Literally, when there are 10 points on a paper, and there’s only two points of disagreement, there’s eight points of agreement,” Jealous said. “We would be fools to let the perfect get in the way of the good, and let the two overshadow the eight. Knock out the eight, we can bicker about the other two.”