From The Reckoning: Introduction

The story that is the centerpiece of this book is true. The names of its principal characters, Peewee Kirkland, New Child Lynch, and Mark Lawrence, are real. I have changed the names of others for reasons that will become obvious.

I do not venture in this telling far afield of the events of the lives remarked here. You, no doubt, would have puzzled out the reasons for this narrowness of compass on your own. Sometimes, very old, very broad stories are best told small, in consumable units of observed lives, replete with travail and stunted prospect. Social data, the scholar’s tool, serve well enough in conveying the trend and breadth of social conditions. But the usefulness of the academician’s bar graph ends there, bleaching from general view the searing pain and hopelessness borne by the modern, uncomprehending victims of old, obscure, and oft-transmuted American social policies. To understand the full damage that America has done to the black world over the last 346 years, we must extrapolate the general from the specific, not the other way around.

The young black men whose stories are told here represent the gravely endangered generation of the fathers of our future. They, like the millions who comprise their peer ranks, were born into the rigged game of dysfunctional families, variably crippling poverty, poor education, and all but nonexistent opportunity for long-term success.

Some of them miraculously survive; a few, even, like Mark Lawrence and Peewee Kirkland, with an abiding exercise of fatherlike duty towards the many like New Child Lynch who are forced to contend with social obstacles that no child in a “civilized” society should ever be compelled to confront.

Such are the legacies for American blacks after 246 years of slavery and the century of government-embraced racial discrimination that followed on slavery’s heels. One hundred and thirty-eight years after the Emancipation Proclamation, our young men, slavery’s grandsons, are six times more likely to be arrested for a serious crime than are their white counterparts. After arrest, they are more likely than their white counterparts to be prosecuted and convicted. Upon conviction, they serve prison sentences roughly twice as long as those served by whites for the same crimes.

From birth, black inner-city males are strapped onto a hard-life treadmill leading all too often toward early death or jail. While the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world, Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, has one of the highest in America. More than one in every three black men in the District of Columbia between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five falls under one or another arm of the criminal justice system.

Prisons, increasingly under private ownership, are a growth industry. Nothing inflates prison stock prices like the growing ranks of American prisoners, the majority of whom are being held for nonviolent crimes and, all too many, in places like Washington, D.C., well past the times set by the courts.

Public funds are being used to subsidize a national private prison industry whose growth depends on higher incarceration rates. Said differently, society is subsidizing its own demise for the benefit of private investors. The investors are disproportionately white. The prisoners are disproportionately black. Inside the new private hells, prisoners toil for private companies, earning but a pittance while undercutting the wages of nonprison labor. Owing to the extremely low wages for prison labor, the companies that employ prisoners constitute, not surprisingly, still another new growth industry. Towards this modern bondage, down this human cattle chute, black males from birth are being herded willy-nilly before our very eyes. It is this new de facto slavery that benefits the same private interests, transmogrified, that its predecessor institution benefited centuries before.

In my last book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, I argued that only massive American government reparations can begin to repair the devastating economic and psychosocial injury done to blacks in America since 1619 at the hands of, first, the colonial governments, and, later, the American government. But while broad programmatic restitution can insure for African-Americans a future, it cannot salvage a living generation of African-American men and women who are being, in alarming numbers, lost to the black community as wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, breadwinners, and responsible social contributors.

This, we must do for ourselves.

Reprinted from The Reckoning: What Blacks Owe to Each Other by Randall Robinson by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002 by Randall Robinson. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.