Randall Robinson's book The Debt (2000) about the condition of blacks in America, he states that the United States owes reparations to the descendents of slaves. In The Reckoning: What Blacks Owe to Each Other, written two years later, he moves the emphasis of obligation to other blacks in America. He urgently requests that black leaders and those who have made their way up the socio-economic ladder to work toward improving the dismal situation in urban settings. His plea of help is to the so-called "gated blacks," or those African-Americans who have been able to move up into the middle class, but have either purposely or subconsciously forgotten about those blacks who have become prison laborers in the continuously growing American Gulag.
Robinson leads readers through the life of Peewee Kirkland, a black New Yorker whose tough upbringing led him to a life of crime and to prison twice. Peewee turned his life around, and now he is reaching back to help other poor inner-city kids stay clear of crime and clean of drugs. That is what everyone must do, Robinson suggests: Reach back and lift up those at the bottom.
Robinson blatantly shows, through stressing the statistics of blacks in the prison system, how little the country has changed since the early slavery days. Instead of Southern plantations, blacks are now kept at bay under much worse conditions in crowded incarceration.
The term "gulag" was first used as describing U.S. prisons by Nils Christie in his book Crime Control as Industry: Towards Gulags, Western Style. According to Christie, a person has difficulty knowing who are the worst criminals -- the men and women prisoners or the individuals who run the penal industry. The book details how the United States relies on the criminal justice system to enrich business interests by following the model of corporate America. From 1986 to 1991, the number of white drug offenders in state prisons increased by 110%. The number of black drug offenders grew by 465%. Blacks account for about 14% of the nation's drug users, yet they make up 35% of those arrested for drug possession, 55% of those convicted for drug possession, and 74% of those sentenced to serve time.
Henry Louis Gates in "Are We Better Off?" also notes the disparity between the haves and less than have nots. Despite the fact that he also calls for the middle-class blacks to help the cause, he couches his comments in statements such as it is time for the middle-class blacks to stop feeling guilty and there will always be an underclass, given societal ways and the realities of racism.
Gates said the growing black middle class tends to move into the white-dominated suburbs and subsequently their children may escape the dilapidated and mismanaged schools that the poor children must endure in the inner-city. The barrier that was that used to be intentionally drawn down racial lines is now drawn unintentionally between the middle class and the poor, worsened by socio-geographic disparities that affect the educational system today. "Insisting on a change in attitude, behavior and morals," in Gates' point-of-view, will be required to help bridge the gap.
One hundred years ago, W.E.B. DuBois published a then startling book on race: The Souls of Black Folk. It prophesized that the 20th century would be the century of the "color-line." The book also introduced moral accountability and responsibility into the racial controversy. Those who were oppressed needed to have their day in court. Today, the debate continues about who is responsible and the impact, the barriers, of racism.
DuBois was adamantly opposed to Booker T. Washington, who believed blacks should develop in the trades, practice entrepreneurialism, and win admiration through the achievement of excellence. Washington, Du Bois said, was allowing whites to "shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro's shoulders... when in fact the burden belongs to the nation." But Washington believed black dignity was an outgrowth of achievement, ownership and success in commerce despite the restrictions of Jim Crow. He believed that emergence and the self-development it required were not tied to a civil-rights kind of freedom. His Up From Slavery portrayed the despondency of slavery and extolled how the idea of achievement can transform the slave into a responsible citizen.
Of course, there is no easy answer to this hundred-year-old debate. On the one hand, it is not (no pun intended) a black-and-white, cut-and-dry issue where one answer fits all.…