Iowa incarcerates Blacks at a rate nearly 14 times that for whitesmore than double the national average. There are 4,200 Blacks in jail per 100,000 residents, according to a study by the Sentencing Project. In the past two decades, with mandatory sentences and other brutal anticrime measures, the prison population has mushroomed in Iowa, as it has nationally. Today 2.2 million men and women are behind bars in the United States, 900,000 of them African Americans.
At the meeting here, 75 people listened impatiently to Iowa Corrections director John Baldwin, who said that by the time prisoners are in jail its too late, and to Polk County judge Odell McGhee, who blamed the problems not on racism, but on the breakdown of the Black family.
McGhee, a former government prosecutor who is Black, said Blacks are locked up at a higher rate because they are guilty of committing more crimes. If children went to bed earlier and were disciplined by their parents, they wouldnt end up in jail, he asserted.
Meeting participants lined up at the microphone to ask questions, give their opinions, and in many cases take on the ideas put forward especially by McGhee. Others took the microphone to agree with him.
A nurse at Mercy Medical Center pointed out that the racism Blacks face is already noticeable in Des Moines schools. Black elementary students, 15.3 percent of the student body, made up 36.8 percent of those suspended during the 2003-04 school year.
The whole system is stacked against us, one person said from the floor. Everywhere we go face discrimination. Dont blame the Black family. Its the system.
Once you make it through the glass ceiling, you forget what its like down here underneath it, David Burkett said, referring to Judge McGhee. When my 17-year-old son has problems, I cant tell him to call the police, because we cant trust the police.
Socialist Workers Party candidate Diana Newberry joined the discussion. Racism and unequal treatment is institutionalized at every level in the United States, and there is no individual solution, she said to applause from some. We see it in jobs, the schools, where people live, and in the prisons.
Thats why we need affirmative action with quotas in employment, housing, and education. Thats why the actions to demand justice for the Jena Six are so important.
One person at the meeting who agreed with Newberrys remarks offered to help introduce her to others in the Black community who he believes should hear her ideas.
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