Ending hunger in America by honoring Black August

Photo by Joseph Molieri/Bread for the World.

By Marlysa D. Gamblin

In honor of Black August, Bread for the World affirms the efforts of everyone contributing to ending mass incarceration and lifts up solutions to mass incarceration.

As I have written in previous papers and blogs, our country cannot successfully end hunger and poverty if racism still exists. In my last blog, I wrote about the importance of not only focusing on the individual levels of racism, but expanding our thinking and activism toward ALL forms of racism—including structural and systematic racism. Only when we dissolve these systems and put in place more equitable ones will our country fully eradicate racism.

As an African American woman, scholar of Black Studies, and policy advisor at Bread for the World Institute, I have learned that over-policing and mass incarceration are two major systems of oppression that prevent the black community from freeing themselves of the chains of hunger and poverty and reaching their full potential in the United States. Black August is a time to double down and focus on just that—ending the unjust treatment of Black bodies in our justice system.

Black History Month in February focuses solely on celebration and history, but Black August was started by black prisoners, who honored everyone who had been unjustly incarcerated or killed by the police by wearing black wristbands during the month of August. Black August has since expanded beyond the walls of prisons and been embraced by the community to lift up solutions that end racial disparities in what prisoners have experienced—being over-policed, over-incarcerated, and more likely to experience police brutality or be killed.

In my briefing paper, “Ending U.S. Hunger and Poverty by Focusing on Communities Where It’s Most Likely,” I explore what over-policing and mass incarceration are and how they hurt the Black community. For example, in research done by the Sentencing Project, African Americans had a 12 percent chance of being stopped and searched by police, yet police found something illegal only 22 percent of those times. In the same research, whites were stopped at half the rate of blacks (6 percent), yet police found something illegal almost twice as often. We even see racial bias and over-policing with black school children—they are 3.5 times as likely to be suspended or expelled by law enforcement than white students for the same offense.  

While these are only two examples, we know from research in our 2017 Hunger Report that over-policing of Black bodies results in a higher likelihood that Black bodies will also be incarcerated and even brutalized and killed by police at higher rates—both phenomena increase the likelihood of Black families falling deeper into hunger and poverty. Something has to be done.

At Bread for the World, we believe in comprehensive criminal justice reform that addresses racial inequality at every stage of mass incarceration, from policing, to sentencing, to reentry. Bottom line—black bodies should not be the collateral damage of racism. And we know from research that failing to confront systems of racism means failing to end hunger in America. 

As discussed in the briefing paper and in the White House Advisory Council report that Bread helped to write, there are some good first steps to address mass incarceration and its negative effects on the Black community, including high hunger rates. These include:

*Note: For the purposes of dismantling mass incarceration, the first set of recommendations should prioritize efforts in the Department of Justice and the Department of Education, two agencies with the highest rates of law enforcement targeting black bodies.

Eliminate racial inequality and bias within ALL federal agencies:

  • Conduct a comprehensive analysis of racial inequality in agencies to identify where disparate impact, racial discrimination, and racial inequality exist in the programs they oversee and policies they create.
  • Equip agencies to better implement and enforce racial equity and existing anti-discrimination laws.
  • Mandate that the Department of Justice withhold Title VI funding given to local law enforcement if they engage in racial profiling, brutality, or bias.
  • Mandate the Department of Justice to require local law enforcement agencies to collect and make available transparent demographic data on all stops, tickets, arrests, and other encounters to hold local agencies accountable for racial targeting.

Prioritize investments and policy change to support communities most affected by hunger (these include families with returning citizens since they are disproportionately black)

  • Eliminate laws and policies that prohibit returning citizens and their families from receiving full SNAP, TANF, Pell Grant, and Medicaid/Medicare benefits.
  • Strengthen access to employment opportunities for people with criminal records.

Develop and implement plans to release individuals currently incarcerated:

  • Increase the use of clemency and expungement for non-violent, lower level, and drug offenses

Stay tuned for my background paper on mass incarceration, where I look at the history of how incarceration has targeted Black bodies, even before the Emancipation Proclamation, and set out a more comprehensive approach to eradicating mass incarceration in the United States.

Marlysa D. Gamblin is domestic advisor for policy and programs for specific populations at Bread for the World Institute. 

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