I have decided, that I am way overdue to get back into the swing of things with my political commentary and writings on issues affecting our nation right here in the States. For a while, my attention was focused on other important movements abroad. However, in a time such as this, there calls for voices that are willing to upset the status quo, challenge and resist the tyranny of the majority/group-think, to be a part of propelling us towards a more perfect union.

My first discussion to take on is the recent visit by a select group of prominent black pastors to the White House to engage in a discussion with President Donald J. Trump about prison reform. The meeting took place on August 1st, 2018, and as seen in the video below, Trump followed the standard protocol he engages in with almost every group he has invited so far. He invites each group member to introduce themselves and say a few words. After which, he has the media exit the meeting, to further discuss, confidentially, with the group about policy-related matters, among other issues directly affecting their constituents. Almost categorically, every group that has visited have engaged in some pleasantries, and some even affirm their approval of the President and his specific actions they believe are positive and helpful to their communities.

I have no clue what is driving the current administration’s push towards prison reform. I do suspect, however, that a big part of the drive has to do with the incarceration of Jared Kushner’s father, Charles Kushner, Trump’s in-law, who in 2005, was convicted of illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering, and served a 14-month federal prison sentence. He was released in 2006.

By all news accounts, Jared Kushner was traumatized by the incarceration of his father and visited his father almost every weekend while his father was in prison. Therefore, for me, it follows, logically, that the issue of prison reform is a personal one for Jared, who leads the project under the Trump administration.

But for Jared Kushner’s experiences, will prison reform be a top priority for Trump? I highly doubt it. This is especially so because it appears Trump remains at odds with his own Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, and the Department of Justice who, from alleged leaked internal memos, do not want the prison reforms proposed.

Now, drilling this down to a personal level, first, and as a warning, the entire trajectory of my life has never been one that goes with the flow. On the contrary. If I believe something is right, I stand firm in that conviction and feel quite comfortable in being the lone voice with a different take and view on a matter. My DNA is wired that way and it is incredibly hard to be anything but my authentic self, so I don’t try.

Second, I have had the chance in my career as a lawyer, and specifically once upon a time, a criminal defense lawyer, to represent criminal defendants. I had a different approach for the most part, from others, as to how I practiced. I did not just visit the prison and jail systems where some of my clients were housed. I routinely visited their homes and neighborhoods to talk to their loved ones, friends, and neighbors, because it was very important for me to get first hand their lived experiences, and be able to communicate, through courtroom advocacy, their humanity to get them the fairest results possible.

All of my experiences, including my observations, made me conclude there was a need for criminal justice reform, including in our prison systems. Moved by some of what I saw, including the disproportionate and adverse impact of the incarceration of black and brown people, I began writing on these issues. Of course, as you can imagine, it was not a politically correct move and really shook a lot of tables in powerful places.

My personal experiences aside, statements and research studies from groups like the Congressional Black Caucus further support my conclusion about the need for criminal justice reform, in this case prison reform. The Congressional Black Caucus’ website has the following relevant statement:

“Fighting the New Jim Crow”

The United States incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners even though it accounts for five percent of the world’s population. The burden of this nation’s prison industrial complex overwhelmingly falls on African-American communities. African-American men are incarcerated at more than six times the rate of White men, and African-American women are incarcerated at more than double the rate of White women. America spends $80 billion on incarceration every year, taxpayer money that would be better spent on preventing crimes in the first place by getting youth on the right track and keeping them on the right track…”

A 2013 article titled ‘Breaking Out of the Prison Cycle’ and published on HarvardPolitics.com, the author, Tom Silver, had the following relevant information to share:

“Costs of Incarceration Rising in US.” The headline is familiar and unremarkable. It could be from the last decade or last week, from a local tabloid or a national newspaper. The article will review the usual statistics—the United States has the largest prison population in the world, recidivism rates continue to climb—and will conclude that the American prison system needs substantial reforms. Few disagree with this honest assessment, but even fewer are inspired to act. In national conversations about budgets and national debt, incarceration is rarely considered, and comprehensive changes are rarely proposed. Meanwhile, current imprisonment practices are inflicting multigenerational damages on the United States economy. Given the immediate costs of the prison industry, the socioeconomic effects of imprisonment on the individual, and the long-term economic consequences of incarceration, Americans must demand prison reform now.”

In addressing marginalization upon release, and specifically addressing black incarceration, Silver had this to say:

“Lastly, racial discrimination is amplified at all stages of the incarceration process. Numerous studies show that African-American males are arrested, convicted, and then denied employment opportunities at disproportionately high rates. Nobel Laureate in Economics and Columbia professor Joseph Stiglitz explained to the HPR that “discrimination against incarcerated blacks is much worse over their lifetime” as compared to other groups…”

Against the above backdrop and realities for a highly vulnerable and marginalized group, can someone tell me what the exact crime is that was committed by the black pastors who visited the White House for a roundtable discussion on prison reform with the President? These pastors whose communities are directly affected are now being crucified, ironically, by their own. Many have called them “coons”, “sellouts”, “Uncle Toms” and some even threatened to “beat (them) mercilessly.” What’s really bizarre is that the basis for the attacks is simply that as black pastors they should not have met with Trump because Trump is racist.

Let me get this straight. There is a highly disproportionate amount of black men and women serving time in prison systems across America. And when Trump calls for a dialogue to listen and possibly implement rules/policy that will positively affect them, black leaders should refuse to meet with them because why…?

When Trump says let’s talk about what happens upon their release and how they can be better integrated into the community, they should refuse to meet because…?

If we accept that these black pastors/leaders should not meet with Trump, who suffers? You who says they shouldn’t meet, or those serving time? What about their loved ones and their community?

1. Does our prison system need reform? If the answer is, “yes it does,” then why for God’s sake should the leaders in a community that is highly adversely affected by the status quo not meet with their nation’s president, at his invitation?

2. Why should black leaders or blacks be the only group to engage exclusively in group-think, and refuse to have their voices heard at the table because somebody, somewhere, believes that by virtue of the color of their skin, they should all think, talk and act the same way i.e. hate Trump and refuse to meet with him?

I’ve said this and will say it again. BLACK PEOPLE ARE NOT MONOLITHIC! It is racist to think or advance this theory. And it effectively continues to marginalize them. Other groups should not be afforded diversity of thoughts, party affiliations etc. except blacks. Who makes these ridiculous rules? Also, tolerance of a different viewpoint a person may have is not an endorsement of that person or their personal/political philosophies. We should all practice more tolerance, including dialoguing with people who we do not agree with, especially where it serves a common good.

The fact is our prison systems need reform, and quickly, especially when it comes to people of color. Regardless of what the political agenda of Trump is, he invited these pastors to the White House to speak on prison reform which seriously and adversely affects their communities. If they are operating with the interest of the community at the forefront, then they absolutely, and unequivocally SHOULD and did the right thing to meet with him. These are their communities. These are their children or the children of members of their congregation, and historically, the black church and pastors have played a major role in the advancement of the civil rights of black people.

I am filled with much annoyance over this.

If a racist president is going to make racist decisions that will detrimentally affect the black community, multi-generationally, especially the most vulnerable within its community, why shouldn’t its leaders have a seat at the table where the decision will be made, to advocate for their own?

(By the way isn’t it ironic that slaves built the White House, and their descendants are being told they can’t visit the same house, to engage with a white president about eliminating/reforming what has been termed the “New Jim Crow”?)

Leave your comment.

~Ms. Uduak

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