“Man is what he believes.”
What happens when those beliefs are unintentionally racist — and never examined? This is a story of how I changed a belief I once held strongly: first by learning from people who had experience the world differently than I do, and then through mathematics and data. Both are potent agents of change. Both have the potential to be humanizing.
14 years old.
The memory is hazy, but I am pretty certain that I wrote a high school admissions essay in support of lengthy drug sentences and incarceration.
I joined a group on campus called SALSA: Students Advocating Life Without Substance Abuse. We traveled to local elementary schools to talk about making good choices. The media had taught me that anyone who didn’t make our same good choices deserved to be stripped of their humanity. It would take years for me to undo this.
18 years old.
Around my college campus, I was famously sober. I told other kids I was allergic to alcohol, because it was easier than trying to get them to understand that I just wasn’t interested. Boys thought it was charming when they offered to drink double in my honor, with a wink and a smile. (Pass.)
Because I didn’t do drugs and I had a car, I quickly became the Designated Driver Extraordinaire. I thought nothing of it when two of my stoner friends asked for a ride to the train tracks on the far side of campus. There, they sold drugs — weed and MDMA — out of the back of my Toyota Camry. Good thing I was a white girl on an elite college campus, and not a Black kid downtown. Because of my white privilege, this became a quirky story about being spontaneous and fun, and not a reason I wouldn’t get jobs in the future.
23 years old.
I have a vivid memory of an argument I had about drug sentences with a multiracial friend. Even though I knew that racism fueled our criminal justice system, I still believed in the war on drugs — hook, line, and sinker. What, was I going to defend drug dealers? …addicts? People hurting our community? It was years before I realized that at the heart of my beliefs was a desire for people not to engage in self harm. Unfortunately, this desire is incompatible with the way our country classifies it as a criminal issue instead of a health one.
As we walked around a particularly beautiful part of his neighborhood, I could not stop fighting with him. My friend threw up his hands in frustration. “You really think people should face the same consequence for having cocaine in their pocket as murdering someone? Really?”
I paused. I was famously stubborn, too. “I mean, they shouldn’t do cocaine… and the sentences are probably different lengths, right?”
I know, I know, I know. I didn’t see how my belief perpetuated racism and systems of racial control. I didn’t understand how America had replaced slavery with mass incarceration and media-driven fear. The good news is that my beliefs have dramatically changed. The other good news is that I’ve learned how to admit I’m wrong — at least some of the time?
26 years old.
I dated a Black man who worked as a personal trainer at my gym. He was charismatic, and smart, and, well, persistently trailed by a cloud of flirtatious women in spandex. After he finished work for the day, we would hit up a vegan café, where we would grab smoothies and play chess. (He won every time.) Oh, and he had recently been released from a six year stint in federal prison.
It was easy to see his humanity. He had made some terrible choices, but the role our oppressive, racist society played seemed obvious, too. I had taken college classes, and seen films, and read books, but nothing comes close to caring about someone who has lived it. This man suffered needlessly because of a society I trusted. This system that I believed in had ripped him and his family apart. He shared how the mother of his son had taken up with one of his friends while he was locked up — “even though she promised she’d wait!” (Not to mention what he experienced inside.)
He lied about his age, too. He told me he was 26, when he was 32 — as if erasing the six most brutal years of his life were as easy as changing a number.
I remember thinking that, while the situation was complex, he and his family should not bear this trauma. I had made all of my bad choices in the safety net of a wealthy, white society. I don’t defend his choices, but where was his safety net? And weren’t there countless others with their own stories like this? There must be a more natural consequence than our current system of incarceration.
At 28, I married my incredible husband. (Alhamdullilah! That’s Arabic for ‘praise be to God.’) Among the infinite gifts he has given me, he has shared what it’s like to live in America as an immigrant. I had considered myself a critical consumer of American culture, but Farid has — with kindness, patience, and love — helped me learn about some of my blindspots.
In my 30s, I learned more about our prison-industrial complex. I saw some documentaries. We tried to help one of my husband’s fellow countrymen who has ended up in detainment because of his immigration status. As we pumped more and more cash into our prison phone account, I received a crash course in the world of for-profit prisons. I cannot believe our country does this to humans, especially nonviolent offenders.
I have children now. Part of being a parent is thinking hard about the relationship between our little family and the world. What kind of people do we want our children to be? How will our children contribute to society, and help shape the world we all want to live in? With these small people around the house, everything feels bigger.
34 years old.
Things reached a tipping point for me when I reviewed the data more closely.
Adult educator Connie Rivera reached out to me after visiting my website SlowRevealGraphs.com. She had developed a unit of study about proportional reasoning and incarceration in the US. (seriously: check it out!) The following graphs, which Connie used in her unit, come from the Sentencing Project.
I already knew that we had a ‘prison crisis’ in the US, but being able to spit out rhetoric about how we over-incarcerate feels different than looking at these ugly ratios.
This data is shown with stunning visuals in Ava DuVernay’s 13th. These bars represent human lives, and these human lives are casualties of the war on drugs. We lost people on our own side — and for what? It’s not that there are 10-20 times more people using drugs in 2015 than in 1980, but we’re punishing them at that rate.
I happen to fall into the category with the nicest ratio, and it’s still a terrible ratio. Looking at the 1 in 3 ratio for Black men makes my eyes swell with tears. I can’t even understand the numbers. They don’t make sense to me. I don’t want them to make sense to my children, ever. This shouldn’t be our future.
One hundred thousand people. That’s twice the population of the town that I live in, all imprisoned on drug offenses. That’s trauma that they will live with, that their families will live with, and that their communities will live with.
…and these people, their families, and their communities are disproportionately black and brown.
These charges create additional motivation for our militarized police to interact with communities of color, even though the white community is plagued just as much — and often more, as is the case with the current opioid crisis.
This meant that my previously rigid support for lengthy sentences for drug offenses, born out of scared white men’s political pandering, was racist. This meant that I was racist. I’m working to change.
I’ve still never personally had alcohol or other drugs, but I see how this system I believed in has not just failed my fellow Americans but truly destroyed them. My belief did not just hurt friends I argued with, but informed how I went about the world: how I consumed media, and how I voted. The ugly underbelly of democracy? Political rhetoric and campaigning.
Meanwhile, it turns out it’s easy to be anti-drug and also anti-racially motivated criminalization.
35 years old.
Some people think data and mathematics are neutral. They aren’t. Our own biases creep into the way that we collect, analyze, and represent data.
So here’s more data. That is: more data that makes me furious that this is our world, and that I had been able to close my eyes before. Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer) posted this thread on twitter.
36 years old… and beyond.
Strong beliefs are important, and learning from people and data can strengthen them — or, in my case, change them entirely.
So what now?
This belief about drug sentences doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s part of a system of strong and also evolving beliefs. I want to understand the world we live in, and I want to help to make it better. Isn’t that why so many of us go into education?
I came across a local organization working on prison reform. They helped me write postcards to politicians regarding immigration and sentencing. They held my hand through the process, and it was the least I could do. Literally. The least.
I have not done much to impact this enormous, overwhelming problem directly. I am proud of the people in my life that have — including my uncle Paul, who works with the Prison Literacy Group in CA. I am proud to share teaching resources about it, and to speak about difficult issues with students (after fostering a safe classroom environment for these discussions). We had a fascinating conversation about this very topic in a fifth grade classroom this year.
I do not have a clear plan of action, but I’m doing the work of introspection. I am looking inside myself for beliefs that help others, and beliefs that unintentionally harm others. I am learning about how others experience the world. I am looking at data.
I think that’s a good start.