For many African Americans, Juneteenth is known as Independence Day, in commemoration of the first day of freedom for the last slaves held in Texas. The day, celebrated June 19, symbolizes liberation from bondage, but 150 years after the first Juneteenth celebration, policy continues to be written in a manner that attempts to steal the futures of African Americans – begetting the question of what democracy means for blacks.

Jeff Sessions in one memo rolled back seven years of moderately progressive criminal justice procedure by mandating that prosecutors pursue the harshest punishments possible when bringing charges against drug-related crimes.

This policy will result in the increased incarceration of men of color.

Previous attorney generals, including Eric Holder and Sally Yates, ordered prosecutors to avoid charges that exacerbated the mass prison industrial complex and to cease using private prisons to house federal prisoners. These changes were implemented in response to a better understanding of how incarceration affects the life chances of offenders, their families, and their communities, and a shift in social attitudes towards marijuana. Session’s policy initiative signals to Americans that race-based policies intended to restrict the freedom of blacks to be a priority for the attorney general’s agenda.

There is an insidious, racially motived ideological belief, that black men in America need to be contained.

During the period of American slavery, black men were owned as property; during the Jim Crow era black men were controlled through mass lynching; and post Jim Crow era we saw the rise of the prison industrial complex correlate with the war on drugs or more aptly put the war on blacks.

Policymakers have long touted the war on drugs as being necessary in order to rid society of dangerous criminals, but the reality is that the prison population skyrocketed from 500,000 to 2.3 million between 1980 and 2008. Session’s policy initiative will result in the continued confinement of black men and limit the liberties and opportunities afforded to African Americans on Juneteenth.

Mass incarceration threatens the pursuit of democracy for minorities because it leads to the disproportionate disenfranchisement of black voters. The U.S. is one of the only westernized democracies that practices the disenfranchisement of convicted felons. Economists find that the disproportionate rate at which minorities are convicted of felonies number to be enough to skew the outcomes of elections.

The disenfranchisement of African Americans also reinforces the idea that democracy in America is not for black Americans.

In other countries democracy through participation is an inalienable human right, in the United States it is a political tool used by those in power to curtail the political freedom of African Americans.

W.E.B. Du Bois once said that to be a poor is hard, but to be a poor race in the land of dollars is the bottom of hardship. Incarceration of African Americans occurs at six times the rate of whites, which undermines the financial security and stability of the black community. Upon being released, ex-offenders are unlikely to be employed, and thus susceptible to possible recidivism. To put the likelihood of employment for ex-minority offenders into perspective, understand that studies demonstrate that white men with criminal records are more likely to receive callbacks for job interviews, than black men without records. The biased incarceration of people of color strips communities of color of human capital and depresses the ability to pursue the accumulation of wealth, the American dream, and the full participation in a free and open democracy.

Is mass incarceration necessary? Are drugs a problem in the United States? That depends on whom you ask. Given that whites are more likely to use illicit drugs, but blacks are more likely to be sentenced to hard time for offenses, along with the recent increase in the number of white opioid-related deaths, and the recent legalization of marijuana, many would be led to believe that the drug problem in American boils down to this country’s historical preference for controlling black and brown bodies through imprisonment.

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions would do well as the attorney general to implement progressive criminal justice policies that do not continue the modern day enslavement of black people through incarceration and the subsequent divestment communities of color.

To pursue such racially biased policies, that detrimentally affect lives and communities of color shows a clear disregard for the value of black and brown lives and black and brown futures.

Fellow citizens need to call local representatives and demand that Sessions retract his policy initiative and pursue fair and equal treatment for all Americans before the law.

-Dawn Godbolt

(Dawn Godbolt is a Health Equity Fellow at the Center for Global Policy Solutions and a participant in the Allies for Reaching Community Health Equity Public Voices Fellowship with The OpEd Project.)


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