The Common Good

In My Community: Equal at Birth, but Incarcerated at Adulthood

Dane County, Wisconsin, is an amazing community for African-American babies to be born into. It is a horrible community in which to live if you are an adult African-American male. As an African American who is both male and a father, I find this stark contrast appalling.

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Recently, I was at a Healthy Births Outcome event. We gathered that morning to discuss the fact that Dane County has the absolute best African-American infant survival rate in the entire country. In fact, we are the only community in the nation where white and African-American infants have the same survival rate. As the father of a 1-pound, eight-ounce baby who was born 16 weeks too early, I am grateful to live in Madison, Wisconsin. So the news is good for African-American babies. It is not so good for African-American adults.

A colleague just showed me a report that states that in Dane County, 50 percent of ALL young African-American men are either in prison, on probation or parole, or on extended supervision. That's one-half of ALL our young African-American men. What are the implications for African-American families? What does this mean for African-American women? What does this mean for African-American economics? This is scary and this is wrong! Wisconsin needs to be challenged on the way our prison system does business.

For example, nearly 50 percent of Wisconsin's prison population is African-American. This is appalling when one considers that African Americans make up only 5 percent of the state's population. If you are male and African American in Wisconsin, you are 30 times more likely to be arrested on drug offenses than your white counterparts. Gov. Jim Doyle and County Executive Kathleen Falk each established a task force to review the racial disparity in the Wisconsin and Dane County criminal justice systems. We need more than startling statistics. We need answers as to how this could happen in our state, and we need to find solutions.

Unfortunately, racial profiling contributes to Wisconsin's bleak reputation for treating its African-American males more severely. Sadly, I know that from firsthand experience, as I was recently pulled over by two Madison police cars in the parking lot of Fountain of Life Church, a well-established multiethnic congregation where I am the founding senior pastor. I had not violated a single traffic rule, yet I was asked to show identification and to explain what I was doing there. My white staff member who was parked in the same lot and sitting in his car when I arrived was not asked a single question. Is this some cruel joke? Is this really happening in my comfortable backyard while I snooze? African-American males are not genetically inferior to our white counterparts, nor are we predisposed to failure and criminal activity. So, what is wrong with our corrections systems, and why have so many of us just ignored this huge problem?

As a male African-American Madisonian, I want to issue a call beyond the various task forces that now exist. I want to invite the entire community to become concerned and involved. I want to encourage African-American pastors to make their voices and concerns known. I want to invite white clergy to address issues of racial disparity and discrimination from their pulpits. I want the Urban League and NAACP to keep our political leaders' feet to the fire for finding doable solutions for eradicating this awful disparity.

How can we celebrate healthy African-American babies and not give a damn about their fathers and brothers and uncles?

Dane County leads the way for healthy African-American babies; let's do the same for African-American males.

portrait-alex-geeRev. Dr. Alex Gee is the senior pastor of Fountain of Life Church in Madison, Wisconsin.

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