When I was growing up, I knew I was expected to go to college. Everyone I knew went to college. I understood early that going to college would be likely to shape my life. I would meet new people, learn new things, and when I got out, people would think of me differently.
Here’s the same paragraph with only one word changed:
When I was growing up, I knew I was expected to go to prison. Everyone I knew went to prison. I understood early that going to prison would be likely to shape my life. I would meet new people, learn new things, and when I got out, people would think of me differently.
For many young men of color, the second version is as accurate for them as the first version was for me. They will spend time in prison and when they come out, their opportunities will be changed forever.
Different Backgrounds, Different Expectations
Have you ever met anyone who has been in prison or whose father or brothers have been in prison? If you’re a college-educated white person, you probably haven’t.
But for many young black men, everyone they know has a prison experience. Their expectations are shaped by that just as yours may have been shaped by the fact that everyone you knew went to college.
With decades of mass incarceration of black men, we’ve created two cultures with a gap between them as wide as the Grand Canyon. People on each side have grown afraid of those on the other side.
Educated white people often believe that black men who have spent time in prison are dangerous. And black men who have spent time in prison are afraid that white people will treat them with contempt.
But We Have So Much More in Common…
In my years of walking in Saint Mary’s Park, where I’ve met many people from the prison culture, I’ve learned that we have more essential things in common than we might imagine.
We all want to love and be loved. We all want our families to be healthy and safe. We all want to be productive. We all want to help others.
Our lives may have been shaped by vastly different social conditions, but we can come together around the simple essentials of every day life. And that’s worth doing.
Expand Your Circle of Contacts
Look for people you come in contact with regularly who may not have had the same privileges you have had. Perhaps your dry cleaner or the person who collects your trash. Maybe a crossing guard on the street or, like me, people who walk at the park in a poor part of town. Take time to learn their stories. Notice and admire their strength. With small gestures, you can begin to bridge the great divide.
Share your experiences in connecting with people in the comment box below. Or, jog on over to Facebook and share your words there.