I was admittedly raised in an African-American community that emphasized innumerable lessons regarding how African-American males could increase their chances of successfully navigating what amounted to as a world in which whites held the majority, if not all, of the power. Of course, many of these messages pivoted along racial matters in one way or another. One of the most important and reverberating lessons came from my father after several of my peers had found themselves entangled in the criminal justice system. I will never forget the stoic way that my father told me, “Don’t ever get so far out there that I can’t get you back.”
I immediately realized that this statement was my father’s way of saying that there are situations that I could get myself into that would render him helpless, regardless of his desire to help me. Considering that my father was my hero, an individual that I thought could conquer every issue that threatened his family, I heeded this warning and by-passed the vast majority of issues that led to my classmates and friends entanglement with the criminal justice system.
During the late-eighties and early-nineties, I witnessed droves of my contemporaries falling victim to the allure of “fast money”. The fallout from their engagement with America’s drug culture was disastrous. American Judges, at the behest of the myopic Congressional Black Caucus, were given absolutely no discretion in how they dealt with drug cases, particularly those that included any element of crack cocaine, and were forced to handout ‘mandatory sentences’ that far-exceeded the non-violent offense. I saw close friends, acquaintances, and family members receive sentences that ranged from eight years to multiple life sentences for non-violent drug offenses.
The ‘fortunate’ one’s served around a decade for their crime and returned to their indigenous community. However, their sentence did not cease once they returned home, in many ways it intensified as they were unable to secure gainful employment and leave juvenile mistakes in the past. I recognized something that many of my generation failed to realize at the time, a single conviction, even for a non-violent crime, would not be forgiven by a judgmental white America, the location that we were forced to seek employment, that left droves of young Black men as social and economic pariah.
Although it is very difficult to get today’s young people to understand that in life “there are different strokes for different folks”, meaning that life is rarely fair. However, there are a few moments that blatantly display its unfairness. One such incident recently flowed from Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe’s office; Beebe is scheduled to leave office in January due to term limits. Although this is no slight to my father, or the millions of fathers throughout this nation, the Governor’s reach, meaning his political influence, far-exceeds theirs. It does not appear that there is any transgression that any of the Governors children could make that would place them “so far out there that he can’t get them back.”
I am referring to the Governors recent announcement that he would be pardoning Kyle Beebe, his son, for a 2003 felony drug conviction. Kyle Beebe was convicted for possession of marijuana with intent to deliver. The Governor’s son received a very lenient sentence of three years supervised probation. Obviously realizing that his father would be leaving office in approximately six weeks, Kyle Beebe recently petitioned his father to have his conviction pardoned.
However, it is Kyle Beebe’s application for clemency that is from my perspective, extremely revealing in regards to the universality of man in regards to his hopes and aspirations. In his letter to Governor Beebe, Kyle Beebe relates,
“Mr. Governor, I am asking for a second chance at life. I am asking for a second chance to be the man that I know that I can be. At the time of my arrest I was living in a fantasy world, not reality. I was young and dumb. At that time in my life I felt like I was missing something and I tried to fill that emptiness by selling drugs…Mr. Governor, if you could please find it in your heart to forgive me, I will forever be grateful. I thank you for your consideration.”
Governor Beebe would relate in an interview with KATV-TV, “I would have done it a long time ago if he’d have asked, but he took his sweet time about asking.” Although many may find this issue to be questionable, I actually understand the Governor Beebe’s actions and know that I would do the same for my son. To his credit, the Governor has pardoned over 700 non-violent offenders.
Of course, this privilege is rarely extended to African-American males who have been convicted of non-violent offenses despite their indomitable desire to ‘have a second chance at life to become the man that they know that they are capable of becoming.’ If we believe the theories of Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, African-American males inability to have their non-violent offenses pardoned and permanently removed from their records serves as an albatross around their necks. Alexander goes so far as to state that this tried-and-true routine of arresting African-American males and placing charges upon them is merely part of a larger playbook designed to mute them politically and economically. The alluded to status has a disastrous affect upon the entire African-American community.
In today’s society, even a minor brush with the law for African-American males, regardless if they are 16 or 60, prevents them from ever securing gainful employment. Even Real Housewives of Atlanta star Kandi Burruss chimed in regarding the disparate treatment that African-American males receive from the American judicial system. As of 2010, 1 in 3 African-American males could expect to face incarceration at some point of their lives; compared to only 1 in 17 white males.
Apparently, our loved one’s influence is not sufficient. As it appears that even the slightest transgression means that we have, in the words of my father, ‘gotten too far out there for our loved one’s to get us back.’ Thereby preventing droves of Black men from receiving the chance that Governor Beebe graciously bestowed upon his son Kyle “…for a second chance to be the man that I know that I can be.”
Dr. James Thomas Jones III