There was an ad in last week's Independent that, to me, seemed to symbolize everything that's positive about our nation. One of our local photographers ran it, hoping to get a little wedding business. It was a simple, lovely shot of an engaged couple, young, fresh-faced and clearly delighted with each other. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the couple so depicted -- at least, not to contemporary eyes.
But less than 50 years ago, no photographer would have dared use such a photo to promote his business, and few newspapers in the American heartland would have accepted it. Why? Because, in a country still mired in overt, legally sanctioned racism, interracial relationships were barely tolerated.
We have not eradicated racism in the country. But we have taken giant steps toward that goal. Legally sanctioned racism is gone. The racism that was so much a part of American life in the '40s and '50s -- the jokes, the casual use of the "N" word, the assumption that nonwhites were inherently inferior to whites -- has mostly vanished. I suspect that the handsome young couple in the engagement photo will encounter racism from time to time, but it won't define their lives, or the lives of their children. And that's wonderful, and it's an incredible tribute to this country. Slavery, and the racism that justified it, stained this land for centuries. Ending racism in America, which we're close to doing, is an achievement as difficult and unlikely as, say, joining Israelis and Palestinians in a secular, democratic and peaceful state.
Thanks to racism, we lost many generations of African-Americans whose contributions, large as they were, would have been immeasurably larger had they not been deprived of education, of opportunity and even of identity itself. You'd think that we would have learned that society is ill served by creating and perpetuating a permanent underclass, outcasts forbidden to hold most jobs, who can be jailed upon the flimsiest of pretexts.
Unfortunately, that's not the case. Thanks to our monstrous prison system, the vast national gulag that currently imprisons 2 million Americans, we have consigned millions of people to twilight lives, not exactly in jail, but scarcely free.
A few facts: First, with 2,019,234 people in the slammer, we lead the world. With 702 prisoners per 100,000 population, we're way ahead of every other country (Russia's a distant second). Many of these folks are locked up for nonviolent offenses (drug possession/sale, parole violations, etc., etc.). Many others are serving long sentences for relatively minor offenses, sentences mandated by politicians more interested in votes than justice.
Of the 2 million miscreants currently doing time, all but a handful will be released, having "paid their debt to society." Unfortunately for them, and for us, the debt is never discharged. If you're a convicted felon, you're barred from voting, from owning a firearm and from holding scores, even hundreds of jobs. You can't, for example, become a barber, a cosmetician, a psychologist, a real-estate broker or an airport screener. Clearly, it makes sense to bar certain felons from certain occupations; you don't want pedophiles at a day-care center, or scam artists becoming CPA's. But to bar ex-offenders from all but menial jobs, in effect consigning them to unstable, poverty-stricken lives, is both objectively wrong and bad social policy.
We reap what we sow. Ours is a society that values material success and offers many paths to that success. If the legal paths are closed, the enterprising ex-offender will find another way. That's why there's so much recidivism, and that's why organized crime networks of all kinds have no trouble finding employees. We arrest, convict and incarcerate hundreds of thousands of petty criminals. And once they're released, we bar them from the job market. And we're shocked -- shocked! -- that they re-offend.
Forget all the rhetoric about getting tough on crime; let's look at our new government-created underclass. Surprise! Its members are disproportionately young and male, black and hispanic.
Let's recognize the national mindset that has led us to this point for what it is: a subset of the corrosive racism that so damaged our nation. And let's recognize that we need, for the sake of ourselves and of our country, to change. After all, a country that proudly operates the world's largest prison system, locking up its citizens for actions that most countries don't consider criminal, can hardly be a beacon of justice and democracy for the rest of the world.