Veronica Roberts

Trayvon Martin’s killing has awakened America to just how fragile race relations can be in this country. There are invisible, deep lines drawn in how people of different ethnicity view justice and other social issues -- and how quickly those lines can deteriorate into jagged, deep grooves. We have come a long way from our ugly racist past, yet there are still those stubborn fissures which can erupt swiftly when strained by what some perceive as unequal justice in our judicial system.

People of color have oftentimes heard that they need to forget the past and stop playing "the race card," but how do you retire the race card if America hasn’t yet stamped an expiration date on racism? (Got that brilliant line form a Facebook friend of mine, Mr. Imir Leveque). Piggybacking on top of race inequality, is the even more crushing weight of class and its benefits or handicaps. Both play a pivotal role in our penal system and have a dangerous symbiotic relationship.

In the above video, the statistics are stunning. One of the hosts of Democracy Now said, “There are more African-Americans under correctional control—whether in prison or in jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850.” He added, “More African American men are disenfranchised now because of federal disenfranchised laws, than in 1870.” I told you it was stunning.

Michelle Alexander, legal scholar, Civil Rights advocate and former Director of the Racial Justice Project at ACLU of Northern California, has done some extensive research into America’s justice system, chronicling the deep biases and inequality rampant throughout, in her book, “The New Jim Crow—Mass Incarceration in The Age Of Color Blindness. She writes that “although the Jim Crow laws have been eliminated, the racial caste system set up remains intact,” adding that it has simply been “redesigned and now racial control functions through the criminal justice system.”

Alexander who now holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity as well as the Mortiz College of Law at Ohio State University, delivers even more powerful and disturbing analysis (Click on the above video to take a listen).

The NAACP's Ben Jealous said during a 2011 press conference on education and incarceration, " America is five times more likely to lock up an African American male than South Africa during the height of the Apartheid system." More people of color in jails across America than were locked up during Apartheid?

Moreover it is reportedly cheaper to send someone to rehab than to prison, yet our judicial system continues to send people away for minor and non-violent offenses like possession of marijuana or cocaine use. The three strikes policy makes it even more dangerous to keep shipping folks of to jail, especially our younger population.

Not just our young population, but a disproportionate number of poor people of color. Are they committing more offenses than other groups? The answer is no, though the media likes to portray otherwise. When the evening news and reality shows are slanted to show an imbalance of our general social lanscape and many use that as their only source of information, the sterotypes and bias continue to fester and spread.

Poverty and color play a damning role in how justice is dispensed across courts in the U.S. Biased jury selection and stiffer sentences for petty crimes among poor Brown and Black offenders, also add to the higer number of imprisoned young men and women. Moreover, warehousing the poor in ever-expanding prisons, while spending considerably less on education, have an adverse effect on them for life. The vicious cycle of being a felon brands one until death. It affects every aspect of their lives--from voting to applying for a job, housing, governemnt assistance for food and school.

America makes up 5 percent of the world's population, yet we have 25 percent of the world's prisons. Connecticut spends $400,000 to lock up a juvenile, yet spends $10,000 to educate him. For the first time, California's prison budget will exceed it's education budget.

It seems we prefer to incarcerate than educate.

Expanding prisons and failing schools seem deeply interwined. Our public school system is set up to fail, providing substandard education and facilities. Though desegregation in public schools promised a comparable education for every child, all public schools are certainly not created equal. Many inner city or urban schools are at an acute disadvantage leading to greater high school drop-out rates. This can ricochet back into the vicious cycle of incarceration.