By Wendell Hutson, Special to the NNPA from The Chicago Crusader –
There are so many disparities facing the Black community today state Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-13th District) said she has lost count. “The number of disparities facing our communities continue to grow with no end in sight and I no longer can keep up with them,” Hunter told the Crusader. “But if I had to list the top three it would the criminal justice system, education and employment.” E. Hardy knows too well the struggles Black men face once they are cycled through the criminal justice system. In 2002, he pled guilty to felony retail theft to avoid a trial and possible incarceration if convicted.
“I did what I had to do to stay out of jail but now I am paying a life sentence for it,” Hardy, 40, recalled. “Every time I apply for a job I get asked if I have ever been convicted of a felony crime. I’m always honest and say yes and then I never hear back from them.” The inability for many Black men to get a job has not only hurt the Black community but society as a whole, said Leonardo D. Gilbert, a community activist and pastor of Sheldon Heights Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago.
“In order to improve the economic status of so many [Black] communities we need to make sure the men from those communities are working,” he added. “God made man head of household but without a job that is hard to do.” Studying disparities in Black communities is something Hunter has been doing for nearly a decade. She was a member of The Disproportionate Justice Study Commission, created in 2008 by the General Assembly to assess the effects of Illinois’ drug laws on racial and ethnic minority populations and the incarceration rates of members of those populations. The commission concluded in a report released earlier this year that an increase in prison populations across the state was attributed, in part, to changes in drug policies that focused on punishment and enforcement opposed to treatment alternatives. Hunter agreed.
“There are a disproportionate number of African Americans incarcerated throughout the state. It makes you wonder because it made me wonder, ‘Why were there so many?’” she said. “I visit prisons (all the time) to try to talk to them [inmates] and encourage them. Over at Cook County Jail there are so many African Americans. It’s so overwhelming.” In Illinois, there are 44,000 inmates and more than 24,000 are Black, according to a report in the Chicago Reader. State Rep. Monique Davis (D-27th District) pegs unemployment, education and healthcare as the three top disparities facing Blacks today. Davis was first elected in 1987 and is the second, longest serving Black, state representative in the General Assembly behind state Rep. Mary Flowers (D-31st District).
“Healthcare is a major problem for Blacks. On the South Side where most Blacks live there is no adult trauma center. Why is that? There is a trauma center at Northwestern Hospital for folks who live downtown and on the North Side,” Davis said. “And there is a trauma center at Stroger Hospital for those living on the West Side. But for the South Side we must travel north or to the south suburbs to Christ Hospital, which is just as far as the others.”
The third leg of the disparity tripod is education. “Education connects people to jobs. If you do not have a descent education then you are lost,” she added. “The governor wants to abolish the General Assembly Legislative Scholarship because he said it is being abused by state legislators who award them. But this scholarship has made it possible for so many Black kids to go to college.”
Every state representative and senator is allowed to award two to four GAL scholarships each year to students who live in their district regardless of financial need. The scholarship waives tuition and can only be used to attend a four-year, public college in Illinois. Disparities are a fact of life but does not mean Illinois residents have to accept it, said Gov. Pat Quinn.
“We know that disparities exist within the African American community, preventing some from achieving their full potential,” Quinn said. “In Illinois, we want everybody in, and nobody left out. We won’t shy away from examining the root causes of inequality, and working to correct them.”
Community activist Harold Lucas said he is not surprised that both Hunter and Davis list employment and education as top disparities facing Blacks, but concludes it must end. “The disparity and lack of gainful employment or entrepreneurial business development opportunities among African American residents living in Chicago is unacceptable,” Lucas, president and chief executive officer for the non-profit Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council, noted. However, he said he is disappointed that the commission will not present its findings and offer recommendations for another two years. “Forming a commission to address the disparities that does not present its findings to the Illinois General Assembly until December 2013, ignores the severity of the extremely serious problems of poverty,” explained Lucas. “The so-called underclass, economically inspired class stratification, political corruption and patronage greed has dominated the city of Chicago for the past 50 years.”
Recently, Quinn signed House bill 1547, which was sponsored by Davis and Hunter, into law. The new legislation, went into effect immediately, will create the Commission to End the Disparities Facing the African American Community. The commission will research the disparities facing Blacks in the areas of healthcare, health services, employment, education, criminal justice, housing, and other social and economic issues. Both Davis and Hunter and will more than likely be co-chairs of the commission, which could hold its first meeting by January 2012, according to Hunter.
The commission will be comprised of a bipartisan group of legislators from both houses of the General Assembly and will also include up to 10 other individuals representing Black communities throughout the state. All members will serve without compensation. Residents interested in being considered to join the commission should contact Davis, Hunter or their local state legislator.