Elite Playlands, Obama Sightings and Serious Discussions
The president and his family vacationed at one end of Martha's Vineyard. Black intellectuals and academics gathered at the opposite end to talk about religion, crime and justice. Two interlocking worlds kept apart on a small island by the common issue of race.
The first black president of the United States and his family hunkered down at one end of a small island, and some of the best and brightest African Americans gathered at the other end: so close, but yet so far away. Maybe it reflects the breadth and range -- and the limitations -- of what it means to be black in America.
On Thursday night last week, several hundred casually -- and often elegantly -- dressed African Americans (with a generous mix of people of other races) crowded into the 170-year-old Old Whaling Church in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard for a serious discussion. The event was the latest incarnation of an event that has become a summer feature on the resort island seven miles off Massachusetts' Cape Cod.
On the far side of the 67,700-acre island, President Barack Obama and his family vacationed, with one outing for books drawing an enthusiastic crowd of supporters (after all, this is Massachusetts) that applauded when the heavily guarded president and his daughters came out of the Bunch of Grapes bookstore, waving and smiling. In his current mode of shunning the issue of race, the president would have been unlikely to join the discussion taking place less than 10 miles away.
For each of the past few years, Harvard professor (and The Root's editor-in-chief) Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research have enticed a cross-section of scholars, journalists and pundits to take time out from their busy schedules or their coincidental vacations on the island to talk about a big issue. This week it was about the phenomenon of the growing incarceration of black men.
The panel included Michelle Alexander, an associate professor of law at the Ohio State University and author of The New Jim Crow, who noted that while crime rates have not increased substantially in the last 30 years, incarceration has grown 500 percent, with the brunt of the increase falling on black men, who now make up half of the 2 million men in U.S. prisons. "The mass incarceration of poor people of color has operated to create a caste-like system in which millions of people are locked into a permanent second-class status for life, highly reminiscent of what we supposedly left behind," said Alexander.
She cited statistics that in 2004, the number of African Americans involved with the correctional system (in prison, probation or parole) was greater than the number of black slaves in 1850. Alexander argues that the tougher laws that created this phenomenon were a backlash against the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Her book was excerpted by The Root earlier this year.
Charles Blow, a columnist for The New York Times, cited the way police in New York City, who have stopped millions of blacks and Hispanics under a stop-and-frisk law, will urge young men to take marijuana cigarettes out of their pockets before they are searched to avoid tougher penalties. In fact, taking the joint out turns what would have been a noncriminal violation worthy of a ticket into a misdemeanor arrest and a police record. Blow says the price of processing 40,000 such arrests in New York each year is paid for by a federal program that the Obama administration continues to support.