By Ameer Hasan Loggins
On July 19th 2013, I witnessed a Presidential speech that was foreign to my ears and eyes. I witnessed a President of the United States personally identify with the wrongful death of a Black male murdered in America, when President Barack Obama said, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” In that moment he informed the world of his personal pain and connection to Trayvon- he publically stood his ground on a highly controversial, racialized hot button issue. But there was another moment of identification that was put on the table served as an alien acknowledgment; President Barack Obama made the idea/reality of, “Black pain,” a topic to be openly discussed. In that moment, Obama moved beyond his personal pain associated with the isolated killing of an unarmed teenage Black male, and spoke of the post racially taboo truth of “Black pain.” In this speech President Obama spoke as if he were (what many of the Black folks that stood in lines for hours to vote for him) speaking on behalf of Black America. Think about these Barack Obama quotes:
If Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened, and if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.
And let’s not forget when President Obama said:
We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys…There are a lot of kids out there that need help, that get a lot of negative reinforcement, and is there more that we can do to give them a sense that their country cares about them, and values them, and is willing to invest in them.
These were not the words of a civil rights activist, a Black Nationalist, an educator in a Black Studies Department, or Black folks in a predominantly Black neighborhood- These were the words of the 44th President of the United States of America.
On July 31st 2013, President Obama put his words into action. According to Politico.com, President Barack Obama told House Democrats that his administration was “looking at measures to help at-risk children, particularly minority youth — a move that comes in light of the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case.” Politico.com goes on to report that President Obama told Rep. Elijah Cummings that Obama told Cummings, “that it was a ‘good time’ to examine disparities in the criminal justice system, and efforts to help black, Asian, and Hispanic men and boys. The President added that officials need to look at what can be done to aid at-risk youth in general.” This made me think about the quote from his speech when he spoke about how letting the “at-risk-youth” know that “their country cares about them, and values them, and is willing to invest in them.” I began to think about America being “their” (Trayvon Martin compatible “at-risk youth”) country and what is the norm when it comes to investing in “at-risk youth” and conjointly how is “value” placed upon the Trayvon Martin’s of America. Instead of hearing President Obama say, “African-American boys…get a lot of negative reinforcement,” I began to hear “reinforcement” sound more like law enforcement. I unfortunately began to look past the words of the 44th President of the United States of America and I began to remember the reality of being a Black male in capitalist America.
With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population, over 90 percent of inmates are male, and while 12 percent of the U.S. population is Black, over 40 percent of prisoners with sentences longer than one year are African American. Black Folks are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of their white counterparts, and are sent to prison at ten times the rate of whites. Since 2002, over 4 million New Yorkers have been stopped and frisked in NYC. In 2011, 87 percent of those stop-and-frisked were Black and Latino, and nine out of ten were completely innocent, according to NYPD’s own reports. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three Black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. Sadly, many of us are somewhat familiar with these statistics about the disproportionate amount of Trayvon Martin-like males in America, but are we as well versed in the amount of money being generated off of the storage of Black bodies in the penal system?
The privatization of prisons has become big business for capitalist America. The onset of private prisons began during the Regan era and continued to flourish throughout the Clinton years. Specifically, after Clinton drastically cut the federal workforce, the Justice Departments began to search for and contract private prison corporations for the incarceration of particular populations of inmates such as undocumented workers and high-security inmates (globalresearch.org). It is no secret that private prisons prosper in proportion to the number of prisoners they house, which may lead one to ask if that may be a catalyst to the mass incarceration nation that America has become. The ACLU report, Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarcerations, indicated that the “rise of the for-profit prison companies that has capitalized on the nation’s addiction to incarceration (2.4-million behind bars) will achieve gigantic profits.” Alone, the two largest private prison corporations earned roughly $3 billion in revenue in 2010 (ACLU, 2011). Think about this, within the privatization of prisons in America, there has even been a push for the privatization of phone calls made by prisoners. Inmate collect calls are a “$1 billion dollar market” with prison collect-calling services charging “as much as four times the standard rate for collect calls” (CNNMoney.com). This practice is common in prisons all over the United States, for example, according to Prison Legal News, New York prisons alone generated $200 million in prison cell phone call fee kickback payments from 1996 to 2007. Prison Legal continues by stating that:
Prison phone service kickbacks average 42% nationwide among states that accept commissions, and in some cases reach 60% or more. Put into simple terms, up to 60% of what prisoners’ families pay to receive phone calls from their incarcerated loved ones has absolutely nothing to do with the cost of the phone service provided.
“In many state prison systems, what on the outside would be a 10-cent call costs $9” (Elsner, Alan: 2006). Again, we are just talking about the amount of potential money that can be generated from collect calls made in prisons, this does not include the amounts of money being generated by the exploitation of prison labor by Fortune 500 companies including but not limited to IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and Victoria’s Secret. So when President Obama says that the Trayvon Martins of America need to know, “that their country cares about them, and values them, and is willing to invest in them,” sadly many of them are already aware of the fact that Capitalist America “cares about them, and values them,” as neo-slave laborers. They are aware that Capitalist America, “is willing to invest in them” as Black men in America, not as human beings experiencing “Black pain” in need of “positive reinforcement,” but as commodities, assisting in positive economic returns, under the watchful eye of law enforcement.