In the days after Ferguson, and just before the Garner decision, I spoke with a group of high school students about race and the criminal justice system. A young black teen in the audience asked a devastating question: “How come we [the black community] always have to be the ones fatally shot?”
I was stunned and silenced by his question. He seemed to take for granted that black people would be shot by the police. And that all he could hope for was a world where black people would not be shot dead.
His question dripped with hopelessness — a thick, sticky hopelessness that felt near impossible to penetrate.
We can talk all we want about provocation and perception. About chokeholds and grand juries. About the militarization of the police.
But I want to talk about hopelessness. Particularly hopelessness in the criminal justice system.
Black communities have been ravaged by a criminal justice system that has had a far-reaching disparate impact on people of color. Just look at the numbers. 1 in 10 black men in their thirties is in prison or jail. That means 10 percent adult black men may face the heavy collateral consequences of those convictions: bans from federal public housing, reduced employment prospects, disenfranchisement, and ineligibility from poverty programs designed to provide a safety net and which, in their absence, only reinforce poverty and deprivation.
Prisons themselves are places of despair. They are full of filth, noise and violence, with limited access to health care and almost no educational programs or structural opportunities for self-improvement. Time passes, but the men and women inside are frozen in time. There is little room for personal growth and transformation. Prisons are places where people fester. And where hope goes to die.
The criminal justice system is broken, and broken in a way that has harmed communities of color much more than other communities.
But, as I said recently, it does not have to be this way.
When schools were formally segregated, and blacks were forced to attend dilapidated, under-funded, barely functioning schools, the situation must have felt hopeless to the thousands of black students and their families who were being systemically denied access to quality education. But in the face of that hopelessness, the United States Supreme Court intervened. And, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Court said loudly that segregation was wrong. And that it needed to be stopped. Immediately.
That was message of hope. That was a call for change. That was a rallying cry for action and an articulated vision of what is possible.
Today there is once again anger and hopelessness. But there are also small glimmers of change on the horizon. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced his “Smart on Crime” initiative, designed to reduce prison populations, address racial disparities, and help men and women reenter society after serving their time behind bars. The federal government and some states are experimenting with reentry courts, designed to help the very people – formerly incarcerated individuals – who were put in prison by those same federal and state government agencies. New Jersey voted to amend its Constitution to reform its bail practices in ways that help the poor. California reclassified a number of felony offenses to misdemeanors. And states around the country are considering new policies that will help dramatically reduce prison populations.
These are good initial, steps for change.
But in the wake of Ferguson and Garner, where two unarmed black men died and neither white officer was indicted, we need more. We need desperately to build a broader consensus about race and justice.
And that is where I see the greatest spark of hope. Ferguson and Garner, despite their tragic dimensions, are generating a broader national consciousness. Wherever you turn, people are talking about race, often in thoughtful and heartbreaking ways that will reverberate for years to come. People who have not been part of the dialogue are now, sometimes for the first time, talking about these issues. People who have not been paying attention are now sitting up and paying attention, are now expressing concern that something is fundamentally not right.
To heal, we need hope. Hope that is born of an honest dialogue between whites and blacks, between communities and police departments, between policy makers and the constituents they are tasked to serve. Hope that seeks to remedy the harm caused by systems that simply do not work, that cause more poverty, and that create more distrust.
It may be too soon for this message of hope. Emotions may be too raw, pain may be too deep. But I am putting it out there now. Because hope is aspirational. And I do not think that we, as a society, can survive in a place without it.