Monday, April 16, 2012

Malcolm X's enduring indictment

When I was in 7th grade I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and wrestled a bit with the notion of white man as devil -- not accepting it outright, but feeling myself being viewed that way.  The dedication to the original edition, which I must have picked up in Alex Haley's epilogue to my paperback, made enough of an impression that I very nearly remembered its exact wording, googling it just now at a distance of 40-odd years:
Back East, Malcolm X carefully read and then signed the publication contract, and he withdrew from his wallet a piece of paper filled with his sprawling longhand. "This is this book's dedication," he said. I read: "This book I dedicate to The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who found me here in America in the muck and mire of the filthiest civilization and society on this earth, and pulled me out, cleaned me up, and stood me on my feet, and made me the man that I am today (my emphasis).
It came to mind when I read this on the The Dish:

Photographer Richard Ross sheds light on the juvenile justice system:
The U.S. locks up children at more than six times the rate of all other developed nations. The over 60,000 average daily juvenile lockups, a figure estimated by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), are also disproportionately young people of color. With an average cost of $80,000 per year to lock up a child, the U.S. spends more than $5 billion annually on youth detention. On top of the cost, in its recent report No Place for Kids, the AECF presents evidence to show that youth incarceration does not reduce recidivism rates, does not benefit public safety and exposes those imprisoned to further abuse and violence.
Malcolm X's epithet does not fit, as I recognized even in the first flush of liberal guilt at 13.  Many countries inflict worse brutalities on prisoners of all ages than the U.S. -- though ours is the harshest among rich countries, the most backward on so many fronts; incarceration, conditions of rooted poverty, health care, violence. Richard Ross's own gloss on his photos offers criticism in the most moderate, judicious of voices. 

My point is only that, given the harsh and hopeless conditions under which so many inner city kids continue to be raised, and the unconscionable rates of incarceration to which African American men in particular are subject, it remains all too easy to grasp why, in the view from the inner city street, ours might still appear "the filthiest civilization and society on this earth." Asking "compared to what?" does not offset the shame.

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