Change Starts With You

Written by Michael Henderson

April 20, 2017

“How am I racist? I’m Black!”

Racism is something I never gave much thought to for most of my life, I just didn’t ascribe to the unconscious practice even before I began waking up. My opening quandary is an actual, honest-to-God exchange between an inmate and a corrections officer. The officer was white, the inmate black and they were joking each other; mostly. But it brought clarity to something I had been feeling for a long time during my incarceration but wasn’t able to identify. Racism, directed toward me!

When I heard this statement, it dawned on me, there are actually some people who truly don’t know what racism is. The American Heritage Dictionary defines racism as 1) the belief that a particular race is superior to others, and 2) Discrimination or prejudice based on race. I think it’s important to note that although the numbers are balancing out some, the prison population is predominantly black. Debating the reasons behind this fact is not my goal here. Reaching out to my brothers in blues (Fla D.O.C. has blue uniforms for inmates), is my goal, to let them know that I can feel racially discriminated against too. Not just by my fellow inmates who believe their conversations overheard are their right, but also by the direct use of some of the terms like white boy, cracker and other disparaging words intended to hurt and propel one race over another. And by the staff who have to be hyper vigilant in not committing any professional or political snafus by making any kind of a disparaging comment because of the ignorance that white people don’t or can’t feel discriminated against. How do we fix it?

I have to admit that after my last question, I felt a little overwhelmed at the enormity of the vastness of that query and had to put my pen down, not to return for a week. My pulling away from the subject felt like a real dilemma as to whether or not I could continue without an answer as how to make things “right” after so many years of static thinking from the two primary races that make up America. I should also mention that in 2015, the Spanish population outgrew the black population to claim the dubious title of the largest minority in the U.S. But the Spanish prison population is still third place.

Most people perceive prisons to be some sort of separate entity; a body of its own, distinct from the “it won’t happen to me” crowd. That mistake in thinking has left most people without any concrete ideas about prisons, prisoners, and race relations in prison. Prison is essentially a microcosm of what our society has become, not a representation of the people that make it up but for the ideals that have been propagated by an idealistic group of a few people with a vision that is actually limited in scope and context.

I have concluded that the problem with race relations is not a problem of a few, but of epic proportions plaguing the human race. Maybe I’m showing my own worldly ignorance, speaking out of place for cultures I’ve had minimal experience with, but when millions of people have to seek refuge from their homes because of internal strife, and then have to deal with not being able to find a safe place because of the ability of a few demagogues, spewing poisonous rhetoric to the masses, creates a false sense of separateness…and there’s nothing tenable about human suffering…nothing. Ah, but I digress on a global scale.

Let me scale back a bit. Ethnically speaking, it’s up to prisoners themselves to make their lives better; more equitable. How can they do this when there is absolutely no model for selfless thinking; inside or outside these fences.

Say your two year old hits another child like kids sometimes do. Do you then hit your child as punishment and hope they learn it’s not okay to hit? Some do! How counterproductive is that. It’s not a mixed message you’re sending. It’s Unequivocal…it’s okay to hurt people, period. We as thinking beings, cognizant and emotional, are in a state of shock about how we treat each other and the excuses we make to do it are as numerous and tenuous as the differences we think give us the right to be prejudicially racist. Greed, as opposed to need, is no different in prison than it is outside of prison. Somehow we have convinced entire generations that they need to be materially superior in order to have a sense of self. We spend endless resources and energy on teaching self esteem in a society full of ego maniacal, undereducated and dissociative people who have no understanding what it means to treat each other with equality. So maybe my dilemma is not so remote as it relates to prisoners, but there has to be a starting point for everything, even the beginning of the end of something as destructive as racism. No matter who it is against or who it’s from. How much more evident could it be that our method of dealing with what we consider our criminal element just doesn’t work. Is it our goal to perpetuate our children hitting each other? Because the message we’re sending by taking all human dignity from someone we perceive as having done harm to our fellow beings is doing just that.

A couple of modern prison systems who got this message loud and clear are two relatively unlikely to be thought of as progressive, Germany and Norway. The message they are sending to those who infringe on the dignity and security of their fellow citizens is a simple one. There is another way.

Through wonderful folks and organizations like AI, we too can stop the proverbial hitting of our kids. But it has to come from the top down. I’m not saying we need to rid ourselves of the justice system, but if we want it to reflect our goals of justice and equality so our citizens can treat each other without prejudice due to anyone’s race, the American prison system is a great place to start.

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