By Joshua M Hicks (@jhicks042)
One day a young man was sitting in on a group discussion and he was asked, “what is his definition of the American Dream?”
Some time was took to ponder the question before the young man eventually answered, “to stay alive.”
A natural follow-up emerged from the discussion leader, who asked the young man, “what led you to say that answer?” The young man replied, “because in my neighborhood, resources are limited and success rates are very low. I’m not even suppose to be alive, so how can a boy dream when all he sees is negativity?”
Sitting in the room while that conversation took place emphasized the importance of mentorship to me. My alma mater, Roosevelt University, continues to support the values of mentorship and it showed and proved last week in a conference featuring Chicago’s very own superstar Common.
Roosevelt’s Auditorium Theatre was the location for the Third annual American Dream Conference, with this year’s theme being “The American Dream Reconsidered.”
Acting as featured speaker was the South Side native Common, once a pioneering rapper from around the way now known worldwide as a Academy Award, Golden Globe, Grammy and Emmy Award-winning actor and musician. Other distinguished speakers at the conference included the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Janice K. Jackson, and CEO of After School Matters, Mary Ellen Caron.
The importance of equal educational opportunities for all was a primary talking point along with how Chicago is striving to continuously overcome the negative statistics within the educational system to better pave a way for black and brown students to fulfill their dreams. In his address, Common highlighted an important part that we often overlook, and that’s the history of systematic oppression that the government applies against African-American communities, especially regarding the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Slavery was essential to the building of America’s economic system as well as an oppression tactic designed to limit the potential success of Blacks. Even in the wake of abolition laws were created to keep Blacks uneducated, making us more dependent on the oppressor for survival instead of ourselves.
After slavery was abolished in 1865 as part of the 13th Amendment freed slaves struggled to be recognized as truly free citizens during the Reconstruction period due to the restricted black codes that were already contracted in the law, overlooking the present laws written to end enslavement.
The Klu Klux Klan (KKK) and other racial organizations then aided to the rebirth of white supremacy in politics and institutionalizing discrimination given that many Klan members held positions as lawmakers and enforcers, making being Black in America that much more difficult.
Lingering racism and discrimination led to the evolving civil rights movement in the 20th Century which offset the effects of entrenched segregation in the Jim Crow era. The movement, although successful, still is vital to the progressive ideals of Americans due to laws still being implemented to target Blacks and other people of color in the criminal justice system.
What’s been left, even decades after the most definitive civil rights legislation being passed, is the over-penalization of Blacks for harmless crimes, the passing of lengthy sentences and damage of personal records as well as familial structures and equal rights opportunities. America is continually making money off incarcerated criminals regardless of their degree of innocence.
In 2014, black people constituted 2.3 million, or 34 percent, of the total 6.8 million correctional population, a number making our segment of the nation incarcerated at a rate more than five times that of whites.
The imprisonment rate for black women is twice that of white women. Nationwide, black children represent 32% of children who are arrested, 42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are judicially waived to criminal court, according to the NAACP.
Not to also mention, Black men are still being abused and murdered by police everyday at a high rate without penalty. A sobering reminder of that fact exists currently in Chicago as the emotional court trial involving Officer Jason Van Dyke, killer of underage citizen Laquan McDonald, takes place.
These facts continue to show why groups like Black Lives Matter (BLM) and others are fighting against the everyday institutional racism that allows “separate, but equal” to dictate the “justice for all” estate.
These facts show why Common showed his support for Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which was essential to the development of the Netflix documentary called 13th, which he helped create a hit, Emmy-winning song for.
These statistics also show why Common created The Common Ground Foundation, which has an 100% graduation rate with 97% of its mentees becoming seniors attending four-year institutions.
Common’s shouting out the Roosevelt-based mentoring program Black Male Leadership Academy (BMLA) for their efforts in making a difference in young black men within the West and South Sides of Chicago meant a lot to the organization, I say that as a lead mentor and the assistant director of BMLA.
In my role with BMLA it is my duty to make a difference in African-American communities within Chicago and help pave the way for young black men to have the ability to one day live their lives in America the best way they can.
I invite anyone that reads this to help me continue those efforts as has Common, Roosevelt University and others across the city have done on an everyday basis so we all can live our idealized American Dream.
Joshua M. Hicks is the lead columnist of WARR