National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 23, 2004

Greed, racism and locking up our kids

Welfare for the wealthy is a U.S. government tradition. From its earliest days the federal government has been prepared to bail out the rich.

There’s a connection between that assertion and today’s huge U.S. prison population; between that assertion and today’s abandonment of significant portions of American youth to juvenile detention systems deemed “cruel and in violation of international standards” by Amnesty International.

The connection is greed at one end of the power spectrum and racism at the other working through a mindset that the United States is no more than just another colony to be exploited by the wealthy who rule it, where minorities get the short end of consideration.

American generosity is legendary, and yet we are able to so easily see past desperate circumstances in our midst. Our own poor minorities and the poor minorities who occupy our prisons and juvenile detention centers in disproportionate numbers, the poor born in areas both rural and urban with disproportionate percentages of the worst housing, the most overcrowded housing, the highest unemployment rates, the worst schools.

Anyone who cares knows the mantra of the mix: housing conditions exacerbate abuse and abandonment; unemployment guarantees a cycle of poverty. Atrocious schools ensure the route to jobs is all but sealed off, even if the jobs existed. The United States is one of the few holdouts that won’t ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The wealthy who govern the United States on behalf of the wealthy have misappropriated funds meant to continually build a nation by building up its people. A nation is little more than a house for many people. It needs constant maintenance. It requires ensuring the weakest are kept within the walls, at least safe, warm, fed and with a modicum of hope.

NCR readers know the tale.

The two-part series on juvenile justice we are running adds another dimension. What happens to the kids who come out of a world of governmental, social and often familial neglect is especially distressing.

The Building Blocks for Youth advocacy group delves deeply into what happens. Its studies, funded by reputable foundations with strong interest in social concerns, reveal that in almost every state African-American, Latino and Native American youth are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. Nationwide Latino and Latina youth receive harsher punishments than whites for the same crime. In California, youth of color are 8.3 times more likely to be sent to an adult court than white youth for the same offenses.

These are complex social issues. But racism and poverty are at the core. “Three strikes and out” and “zero tolerance” are responses by angry and often fearful whites.

In California, they can be the response of those intolerant of the burgeoning Latino presence. There and elsewhere nationally, punitive postures can stem in part from a media focus that unduly connects youth of color to crime.

Whatever host of forces is at work, the result has been a collapse of the American way of political concern and social responsibility and a concurrent collapse of civic responsibility.

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 2004

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