Living the Dream
By Tom Gomez
All Jamal G. ever really wanted was to be there for his wife and kids. Jamal fell in love with his wife, Tamika, while they were both still in junior high school. Tamika finished high school, and eventually earned a four year degree from the State University. Jamal dropped out of school, joined a gang, and started selling drugs, moving from small quantities of weed to larger quantities of crack cocaine. As an African American man who never finished school and grew up in a desperately poor neighborhood his chances of becoming a statistic were better than average. That’s not to say Jamal couldn’t have made better choices. Now 32 years old, Jamal was ‘killing his number’ when we met at Denver’s Peer One correctional treatment facility. By then he’d spent most of the past 12 years of his life in state and federal prisons, or under some form of parole supervision.
For all the hype throughout the 90s about the ‘breakdown of the family,’ especially the black family, Jamal says his life on the street centered around babies and bills, not ‘bitches ‘n bling.’ Tamika got pregnant with their first child while still in high school. Jamal says that he had a job but that it didn’t pay much and that he didn’t see any other way for a 17 year old boy to support a family. By then he’d already dropped out of school and stated hustling small amounts of marijuana. Anyway he says he was never much for school, that is was Tamika who was the smart one. So while she finished school after the baby was born, Jamal put in work with his cousins hustling ‘crack’ cocaine. To hear him tell the story the media its portrayal of the ruthless gang members and gunsling ‘superpredator’ misses him and what he was about. Jamal says he did what he did so Tamika could stay in school, so they could have an apartment together, so he could pay (several times over) for the furniture from RentaCenter, and buy a minivan to haul kids, laundry and groceries.
Jamal dreamed about homeownership and financial security while he listens to ‘gangster rap’ music anyone to call the mother of his four children a ‘bitch’ or a ‘hoe’ can plan on getting himself seriously hurt, Jamal certainly doesn’t think of her in that way, or talk about her in those terms. While he admits that he was heavily armed at all times on the stree Jamal insists he had little choice. During 1993 alone, over 100 young men lost their lives to gang violence in Denver during 12 blood soaked weeks, including several of Jamal’s friends. While ’93 was the worst year in the city’s history for such intermittent violence, it was not the last year of it. The drug trade is deadly every year. Whish is why Jamal admits to carrying a gun on himself at all times, a spare in his car, and a shotgun at home.
By the time the burst came Jamal had saved almost $16,000 toward the down payment on his first home. Located in the neighborhood he and Tamika both grew up in the house was no mansion in Cherry Hill. But it was close to both of their families, and it was theirs, as soon as they paid off the bank in 30 years. Tamika had finished college the year before and gotten a good job with an insurance company. Jamal had made it to realize the American Dream of homeownership and free enterprise. He was an entrepreneur. Then the bust came and it all came crashing down on his head.
Jamal was lucky. All that was found at his home was $15,000 in cash and the shotgun. He never brought work home. Instead he and his cousins used a safe house to weigh, cut, package, and manufacture their product he says. Without Jamal being caught with either drugs, or paraphernalia to weigh, package or manufacture the case against him turned on the testimony of a police informant who claimed Jamal had sold him drugs. While the government’s case against him was weak he felt, Jamal already by this time had two prior felony convictions and had previously served 18 months for possession. He took a plea for six years with three years mandatory parole. He was 24 by this time, his oldest kid had just started second grade. Tamika was pregnant.
Now finishing his time eight years latter often being retuned to custody for a parole violation for driving without a license Jamal worries about his future on the street. Tamika has stuck by him and visits to bring the kids by every week (the facility rules prevent her from staying until he is freed). While he is lucky to have the support of his family he knows how hard his incarceration has been on them, not just emotionally but financially. A number of his relatives are still involved in the drug trade and Jamal admits it will be difficult to stay working the same kind of low paying jobs he had at 17 as the father to four lads. While Tamika has a good job and doesn’t want him to do anything to jeopardize his freedom Jamal is ashamed to live off his wife’s earnings and admits returning to criminal conduct is a powerful temptation. It’s easy to see why.
Jamal’s story can not be divorced from the larger society he, and others like him, are part of. Roughly 50 percent of Denver’s public school students will fail to graduate from high school, and when that figure is adjusted for race, national origin, ethnicity, and income the results are even grimmer. An African American man is 100 times more likely to see the inside of a US prison than he is to graduate from a university, and the numbers for Native Americans and Latinos are little different. As of 2005 60 percent of those in state and federal prisons were Black and Latino according to figures compiled by the Open Society Institute and cited by Prison Legal News Founder Paul Wright in his 2007 book ‘Prison Profiteers/’ At that time while the poverty rate for the nation as a whole was 11 percent, for African Americans it stood at 24.9 percent while for Latinos it was at 21.8 percent while for whites stood at only 8.3 percent. Since then of course poverty has increased by more that 50 percent in this country, to 17 percent and minorities I suspect have born the brunt of that increase.
Racism isn’t the whole reason for such dismal numbers. The major trends in employment since the Second World War have favored the numbers. A study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development cited by Daniel Lazare in his book ‘America’s Underclass War’ found that between 1990 and 1993 97 percent of new businesses and 87 percent of new jobs were in suburban areas. A development Lazare notes “often forces inner city residents to commute for hours to reach their fast food and cleaning jobs in malls and office parks.” Lazare cites a 1993 study by Northwestern University professor Greg Duncan that found only 17 percent of the nations poor were able to rise 20 percent above the poverty line within a single year, and that only 44 percent were able to do so within 5 years, while for African Americans only eight percent rose from poverty. Despite the facts Lazare notes that 44 percent of all tax subsidies during the 90s benefited only the tom five percent of Americans. While the top 20 percent of households in the US saw their income increase by an astounding 45 percent, income for the bottom 20 percent actually declined by 5.2 percent, to 4.4 percent of the national income. That was under a democratic party president during a time of national prosperity. The reality for the nations poor through was deep cuts in social spending, accompanied by a 587 percent rise in incarceration between 1990 and 2000, and the following decade has been worse.
That is especially bad news for men like Jamal returning to impoverished inner city neighborhoods after long periods of imprisonment with few skills and unstable employment histories. Nationwide (again according to Wright’s figures) 70.8 percent of such men had negative probation or parole outcomes, and that is not the whole story. While Blacks and Latinos account for only 25 percent of the US population, we account for 63 percent of the nation’s prisoners. In New York state Blacks are imprisoned at 34.5 times the rate of whites for drug offenses, while Latinos have 25.7 times the incarceration rate for such offenses. Together Blacks and Latinos account for 93 percent of those in prison for drugs in a state that is 62 percent white. If all this is bad news for Jamal’s chances, it’s worse news for his children who have a five time greater risk of being incarcerated than other kids.
In my adult lifetime I have seen the purchasing power of the bottom 20 percent decline 20 percent, while the share of the nation’s income and equity vested in the top one percent has grown geometrically over the past 30 years. The nation’s poor have grown poorer every year in this country, our chances for advancement more limited, and the number of us in prison or homeless keeps growing. The people who run this society blame the poor for poverty, and deny that linkage between poverty and crime, when in fact these social conditions are largely the result of their policies putting more wealth into even fewer hands. The result is that while the US ranked behind only Russia in per capita incarceration rates, it ranked 19th among industrialized nations in the number of its citizens earning between 62.5-150 percent of national median income, or able to escape poverty (behind the US was again Russia), and that was the start of the millennium. Little has changes since Fredrick Douglass made the poignant observation that “Pride and selfishness combined with mental power, never want for a theory to justify them. When men oppress their fellow men, the oppressor ever finds in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for his oppression. Ignorance and depravity, and inability to rise from degradation to civilization and respectability are the most usual allegations against the oppressed.” It’s been over a year now since I last saw Jamal, hopefully he beat the odds against him.