JOHN MCWHORTER MARCH 12, 2009
In my last post I mentioned Rapper Cam'ron's new song and video about how hard it can be to get a job when you have a record. It's an urgent problem, but too often when race issues are discussed, the word on the street--and on the op-ed page, and in the panel discussion--is that ex-cons just can't get gainful employment, period.
It's not true. In fact, it's less true every year as programs designed to get ex-cons into jobs take root and thrive in city after city. The reason I am so impatient with the idea that being concerned about race means pretending to think cartoons are important is because theatrics like this distract attention from what is really helping real people in real life.
Here's the problem: every year 700,000 people are released from prison. Within a year almost half are arrested again, and of them, only 1 in 10 have jobs. Ex-cons without work tend to stray from the law to get money.
Take yesterday's testimony to the House Appropriations Committe by George T. McDonald, founder and president of New York's DOE Fund, and, more pertinently to today's topic, the Ready, Willing & Able program. New Yorkers and Philadelphians are familiar with the men in blue outfits who do sanitation and clean-up work around the city. Few are aware that what put them there is today's version of Civil Rights work, and should be reproduced nationwide.
These are men who as recently as ten years ago were commonly dismissed as the "undeserving poor"--"jailbirds," as I recall them being termed when I was a kid in the seventies and eighties. Yet here is a story McDonald gave the subcommittee yesterday of one of Ready, Willing & Able's participants:
"Anthony Malpica came to Ready, Willing & Able with over 50 convictions for Breaking and Entering. During his three decade long addiction to heroin he had known two homes: a prison cell and a cardboard box in an abandoned lot in Spanish Harlem that he called cardboard co-op city. Upon his last release, he heard about RWA at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Putting on our blue uniform and sweeping the streets of New York was Anthony's first legitimate job at the age of 45. When it came time for him to look for permanent employment, he applied for a job as--of all things--a locksmith apprentice. As he says, "he had broken many locks to rob, but he had never imagined himself fixing them." Today, Anthony has been drug-free for 10 years. He is married and lives in his own home. He is no longer a locksmith apprentice, but a certified, bonded locksmith."
Two things to note about that story:
1. No, it is not an exceptional success story amidst a sea of failures and near-misses. Ready, Willing & Able are one of the few organizations of its kind that do major follow-up, and fewer than 5% of their graduates are arrested again after a year.
2. No, Ready, Willing & Able participants do not spend the rest of their lives pushing trash cans around. That's only for nine months--then they are taught how to get and keep real jobs. And not just mowing lawns.
Despite the President's noble call in his address to Congress for more people to get college degrees, Anthony Malpica did not need to get a Bachelor's Degree to have a decent life. Locksmiths don't need B.A.s, nor do they live hardscrabble lives (as any of us can attest from having to call one). Other Ready, Willing & Able participants get jobs as construction workers, pest control workers, security guards, and cooks.
Will Anthony Malpica ever be a rich man? No. But will most of us? No. Some respond to stories like his with a resentment that he is expected to "settle" for a working class or lower-middle class life--as if there is something ignoble in what is otherwise referred to affectionately as "good, honest work," "working with your hands" and "bringing home the bacon."
Ready, Willing & Able serves 1000 people a day. It brings people straight from prison into group housing. It provides drug counseling.
The next time you hear someone sounding off about how hopeless the situation for uneducated black people is in this country, if they make no mention of prisoner re-entry programs like this one and you can't find a reference to same in the index of their books, then you know you have encountered someone who is more interested in the catharsis of complaining than in the work of solutions.
Suggestion to a graduate student in sociology or African-American Studies: instead of doing a dissertation on subtle remnants of racism or on the survivalist intragroup dynamics of a drug gang in Chicago, examine several prisoner re-entry programs of this kind across the country, assess their success rates and make suggestions for improvement, publish your dissertation as a book with a good, sexy title, and then push it in the media with all you're worth.