Common Sense: Tune in to 'The New Jim Crow'

Some years ago, during the late 1960s, my younger sister, who at the time was attending UCLA's law school, was part of a project that took her to one of California's state prisons for men.

She said she saw why she and other black women her age had trouble finding men to date: “They're all locked up,” she declared.

Far too many people will reflect on her off-the-top-of-her-head statement by answering back with the all-too-familiar viewpoint suggesting the high numbers of black men in the criminal justice system simply reflect their law-breaking lifestyle.

But I suppose my lawyer sister, like the rest of us, kept on doing whatever our individual agendas called for and neglected to keep a count as to what was actually going on.

Too many of us got professional degrees and forgot who we were. Too many of us moved away from the 'hood and thought we had arrived. And too many of us, who knew someone locked up, said, “He did the crime, so he's doing the time.”

While just about everyone I know, who looks like me, knows someone who belongs in some dismal way to the American criminal justice system, too many of us were unavailable when it was time to lend a helping hand.

Too many of us like to say, “those” families over there on Summit Street in Pasadena, Forest Avenue in Kansas City, Orleans Street in Baltimore or 103rd Street in Los Angeles, have folks in prison because that's where they need to be.

Then there are the many who aren't saying anything, maybe because of denial and fear that if they start questioning why so many black men are locked up, they'll be letting the pretend game out of the bag.

It was Kanye West who said, “George Bush doesn't care about black people.” I can't remember that the young entertainer used any statistics or other facts to back up his assertion. In fact, I think he back-pedaled a bit in follow-up interviews.

Shirlee Smith says America doesn't care about black people, and I'm backing up my assertion by asking you to turn to the pages of attorney Michelle Alexander's book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

If my sister thought all the “fine” black men were behind bars in the 1960s, today's count makes a serious thinker have to wonder about the act of genocide.

Am I a rabble-rouser? Don't listen to me, read the book. Don't listen to me, listen to Cornel West, professor and theologian, who will be speaking at All Saints Church, 132 N. Euclid Ave., Pasadena, at 10:15 a.m. Sunday.

Join All Saints' The New Jim Crow discussion group. For meeting dates and times, visit www.allsaints-

Thanks, All Saints. But am I the only one who wonders why the churches in the 'hood aren't addressing this issue?


SHIRLEE SMITH is an Altadena resident, parent and author of "They're Your Kids, Not Your Friends." She can be reached by email at and online at

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