Every year, Black History Month celebrates the historical African American struggle to gain access to full rights as American citizens. Many have a distorted image of the progression of African Americans, assuming that civil rights struggles are a thing of the past. Today, a new generation of second-class citizenship has developed. What was once a category based on race has now transformed into a classification associated with those who hold criminal records. And the biggest barrier they face is the ability to get a job after being released from prison.
In the 1960s, the civil rights movement was the largest full-scale response to decades of Jim Crow laws that limited African American participation as citizens. Today’s policies have resulted in a new system of mass incarceration that is replicating the second-class citizenry of the Jim Crow era. Just as Jim Crow once directly targeted African Americans, mass incarceration continues to fall disproportionately on communities of color. Those arrested and incarcerated due to drug offenses are overwhelming African American. As a result, Africans Americans and other minorities are sentenced to incarceration at disproportionately higher rates than whites. However, this system doesn’t just focus on ethnic background — it also affects low-income communities across the nation at a similar rate.
Americans with criminal records face with the daily fear of being stopped and frisked by officers, the anxiety that the prison door can re-open repeatedly — not for committing a crime, but for simply missing an appointment with a parole officer or failing to pay a court fee. While Jim Crow deliberately disenfranchised blacks through literacy tests, today we openly deny ex-felons the right to participate in the democratic process. Voting rights have yet to be formerly restored for all second-class citizens in America.
The greatest struggle this oppressed community continues to face is the inability to obtain legitimate work due to the negative stigma of criminal records.
With our prison population nearly 2.3 million, the number of Americans with criminal records is large and on the rise. A criminal record eliminates someone’s access to jobs, housing, education, social services, and voting rights. Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, explains that mass incarceration operates as the Jim Crow South once did, creating tightly networked systems of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that reinforce a subordinate status.
I spoke with a friend of mine who falls into this category and has been turned away from job after job after serving seven months in prison for a drug-related felony. He participated in one of Arizona’s rehabilitation programs that help inmates prepare to find a job after being released from prison. Yet he struggles daily looking for a job, being unable to qualify for basic necessities such as food stamps, and the constant fear of harassment from officers, all due to his drug felony.
He explained that after applying to six jobs last week, he was hired as a chef. He was ecstatic to have finally found a job. But the next day, the company told him that corporate headquarters said they could not hire him.
Our policies suppress all individuals with criminal records through one application question: Have you ever been arrested or convicted? While most Americans have the privilege of overlooking this question, it creates barriers for all individuals with criminal histories, particularly with no federal law prohibiting employers for discriminating against individuals with criminal records. Instead, the question allows employers to immediately disregard an application for merely answering yes.
My friend explained that employers “try to tell you that this won’t affect you, but I know it does.” Therefore the “first thing I look at on an application is if it asks for a felony or something. If yes, I won’t bother because I don’t get called back.” Experiences like his have become normalized, promoting unequal social standards.
This month, Americans across the nation will celebrate the progress of African Americans in the United States. But we can’t neglect the caste system that continues to disproportionately affect this community. Mass incarceration has diminished the gains accomplished during the civil rights movement and expanded second-class citizenship to 2.3 million people confined in prisons and millions labeled as criminals, ex-offenders, and convicts.
Photo Credit: katerha