I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
-The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Our justice system, and society in general, needs to adopt a greater sense of fairness. Improving upon the progress we have already made will make us freer as a society and strengthen our nation. Our leaders need to understand other people’s backgrounds and socioeconomic circumstances, and recognize the reality that no “one size fits all” approach to success exists.
It is crucial that America reexamines the conservative definition of personal responsibility, and realizes that circumstances matter. Perhaps rampant unemployment, poverty, and rising dropout rates aren’t due to a lack of “personal responsibility,” but rather a lack of shared opportunity between low-income minority and middle class communities.
Our leaders can start by recognizing that certain policies disproportionately affect minorities. Take, for example, the mandatory minimum sentencing policies for crack cocaine (stereotyped as a “Black” drug) and powder cocaine (stereotyped as a “White” drug): from 1986 to 2010, possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years, while 500 grams of powder cocaine carried the same penalty. This was referred to as the 100:1 ratio, until the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the sentencing disparity to an 18:1 ratio. Although more Whites than Blacks use illicit drugs on the whole, and nearly two out of three crack users are White or Hispanic, roughly 80% of federal crack convictions have been handed down to African Americans.
In fact, problems surrounding the general conduct of the justice system overwhelmingly affect minorities (although the poor, regardless of race, have trouble with the system). Black defendants receive much harsher sentences than White defendants on average, including a disproportionately greater number of death sentences. It is hard to deny that a racial component is at work in our justice system, which raises the question of whether there is actually justice for all. To address these issues, we must take a systematic look at our justice system, distinguish the specific ways in which minorities are treated differently, and, most importantly, identify ways to change these circumstances.
In the same vein, our leaders must realize that the American correction systems’ lack of focus on inmate rehabilitation contributes to a high rate of recidivism. Greater access to education, job skills training, and therapy for inmates would all be promising steps towards breaking the cycle of crime that turns first time prisoners into repeat offenders. Ex-convicts with few job skills, other than those related to crime, present a major challenge in the crime issue. If they were skilled in a trade, then they would be more likely to find work after prison, rather than go back to the streets. In addition, employment laws related to criminal offenders need to be changed to allow greater opportunity for certain inmates with a desire to re-enter society, build a new life, and contribute to their communities.
Addressing chronic unemployment in minority communities is essential to improving quality of life in America. The United States now suffers from an 8.6% unemployment rate, a harsh reality of a stagnant economy. However, things are much worse for African American and Latino workers: Latinos face an 11.4% unemployment rate, and unemployment in the Black community sits at a staggering 15.5%. By comparison, Whites are unemployed at less than half the rate of Blacks, at 7.6%.
It is hard to look at this data and say that the bad economy doesn’t disproportionately affect minorities. Due to long-term unemployment and lack of sustainable income, unemployed African Americans and Latinos will be unable to pay for their basic needs. Weak job growth only perpetuates unemployment, depleting minority communities’ wealth and asset retention. Economic depression worsens crime and violent crime that plague inner-city communities. Without addressing these problems, minorities living in the inter-city and other low income areas, will be stuck in economic limbo, without the security of a good job or benefits that could improve their lives.
There are ways for America to improve the employment situation for minorities. The American manufacturing sector has experienced decades of job losses, a large percentage of which belonged to African American men. Conversely, a new clean energy manufacturing industry is growing quickly. This presents the United States with a great opportunity to invest in new technologies and companies that will create thousands, if not millions, of new manufacturing jobs in the next decade. America should invest heavily in job training for unemployed manufacturing workers to transition into this new era of clean energy manufacturing.
Unemployment insurance must be extended, as minorities (and Americans as a whole) are increasingly likely to be unemployed long-term. Many have exhausted their unemployment benefits and, with no income, can’t contribute to the national economy or provide for their basic needs. Unemployment insurance certainly isn’t enough to support oneself for long, but it eases the pain of unemployment and helps spur growth in the national economy. Taken together, these strategies provide a starting point to meet the long-term economic needs of minority communities in the United States.
Finally, and most importantly, a quality education should be the birthright of every American child; yet a federal school system attached to the status quo, and a federal government unwilling to pursue real reforms and investments in education, are leaving far too many children—particularly minorities—behind.
Now is the time to improve the educational crisis in America. Bad schools and chronic poverty hinder many underprivileged kids’ chances to advance academically. Unlike many public school children, some impoverished youth have to deal with economic hardship and hunger in their personal lives, on top of their studies. Moreover, schools in poor communities are often in horrible condition, and unable to hire quality teachers who can help implement innovative education strategies that help kids learn. Public schools can help address other problems of student poverty by providing meals that help nourish impoverished kids, and afterschool programs that keep them off the streets and help them avoid a life of crime.
The government needs not only to increase education spending, but also to aggressively improve the way they spend money. Additionally, we need to loosen the grip of the teachers unions standing in the way of education reform. We need the best teachers that America can offer, teachers who are able to teach creative curriculums that spur student interest and put them on a path to college. It should be a top national priority to send more young people to college this year—and every year—than the year before. The irrationally high price of higher education in the United States is one of the greatest threats to our future success. It is holding far too many young people back, and sending the high skilled jobs, that are the future of the global economy, overseas.
Despite these tremendous problems, it is in the United States’ capacity to ensure the American Dream is achievable for all people once again. Our path forward can best be summed up by Robert F. Kennedy, “Our lives on this planet are too short, the work to be done is too great. But we can perhaps remember, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life that they seek as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, surely this bond of common fate, this bond of common roles can begin to teach us something, that we can begin to work a little harder, to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”