We’ve all heard the statistics about Black males and education. According to the 2005 US Census Bureau less than 8 percent of Black men graduated from college. This number is less than twice the number of white men (17.3%) and four times less the rate of Asian men (34.7%). We’ve also been beat over the head repeatedly with the statistics involving Black men and prison. The same census had 10.1 percent of Black men between the ages of 18-29 in prison while the numbers for Whites (1.5%) and Hispanics (3.6%) are far less. Do I believe that social conditioning and arbitrary laws that target young Black males play a role in the stark contrast of these statistics? Absolutely. Do I believe that personal accountability has to play a role as well? Most certainly. This is not the point of today’s post.
I want to discuss what happens to a subset of Black men when they are incarcerated. They end up exactly where society tells them they would arrive since they were young. They could easily accept their lives as a complete failure and relegate themselves to behave as animals that they are chained and caged. For a portion of Black men when faced with the harsh reality of being imprisoned they become enlightened. It would be hard to imagine that would happen considering that the behavior that landed them in prison is the type of behavior which lacks abstract and critical thinking skills.
I think the most famous case would be Stanley Tookie Williams, the founder of the Crips street gang. Williams was sentenced to the death penalty after being convicted of robbing and murdering four people. While on death row Williams wrote children books that were aimed at keeping children out of gangs. He was eventually nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It doesn’t negate the fact that he committed heinous crimes but one can’t help but imagine what Williams could have been if someone stopped his path towards self-destruction. If someone cultured the capacity to learn and free their mind from mental and cultural slavery. There are many Tookie Williams in almost every prison across the country.
On the another note you have Eddie Ellis who spent 25 years in prison, during which he earned a bachelor’s degree from Marist College and a master’s degree from the New York Theological Seminary. Today he is president of the Community Justice Center in Harlem, which helps ex-offenders find jobs and housing. Imagine how many more people he could have helped if he didn’t spend 25 years behind bars.
Outside of obtaining degrees and improving themselves intellectually a lot of Black men who enter prison embrace Islam. I don’t know the individual reasons for inmates who choose to become Muslim but if I had to guess I would would go with the implementation of discipline, Black nationalism and forethought might be amongst the top reasons. I’m not Muslim but I do respect the discipline that it takes to follow that faith. There are many reasons why a lot of inmates choose to embrace Islam versus Christianity but I won’t go into those reasons today (saving that for a different post).
The circumstances in which these men end up in prison does not make them animals incapable of critical thought nor does it relegate them to men who are incapable of improving themselves. If only these men had found the encouragement and inclination to improve themselves before they seemingly threw their lives away perhaps the statistics of black men in prison wouldn’t be as distorted.