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I returned to society in January of 2019 after a 24-year prison sentence for my “third strike,” stealing a $400 dollar VCR. Since then, I have witnessed the socio-economic decline of Black Americans. Not only are we dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, we are also dealing with a racial pandemic, that seems like it is reversing decades of progress made by civil rights laws and leaders. 

The socio-economic plight of black Americans has created a paradigm shift in how people of other races view and treat them. Blacks are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and are about 18% of the 20 million Americans unemployed in this country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Since my return to society, rarely have I seen any Black-owned businesses or Black professionals in the Bay Area. Instead of seeing Black lawyers, judges, doctors, educators, politicians or city leaders, I’m seeing Blacks in beggerly and deplorable conditions. 

I remember one day standing on the top floor of the West Oakland BART station waiting to go to the city of Hayward, across from me what looked like an old mentally disturbed black man dressed in ragged and dirty clothes digging in a trash can and consuming partially eaten food left there by people. Below on the streets I could see two young Black men being questioned and handcuffed by the police. Something I see regularly — in my neighborhood. 

Perhaps because I am not used to it, having been “deprived” of seeing much of it for 24 years, it disgusts me to watch news about shootings and brutalities of Blacks, Blacks looting in the streets and brazen daytime robberies of stores by Blacks. This type of behavior has worsened the image of Black people in America, causing other races to fear us. It will surely lead to more paranoia, more discrimination, and more hate that already exists toward our race. 

I’ve been experiencing these attitudes from people in society since my release from prison. Attitudes of hatred, paranoia and fear towards me. I’ve seen this acted out by people when I’m in the BART station or on the city transit or walking downtown. When sitting by a White person on the train or bus, they’ll sometimes get up and walk away in discomfort or fear often looking over their shoulder with a paranoid look. These types of reactions made me feel bad. It was hurtful. But I’ve learned not to internalize peoples opinions of me, because that’s not who I am. Shockingly, I’ve even experienced this type of treatment from my own race. This demonstrated to me that this type of discriminatory attitude is contagious. 

However, I’ve come to understand why these races project these types of attitudes toward Black people. It’s a mindset or belief they have about us, taught to them by their own culture, and how the media has portrayed us and how Blacks have negatively portrayed themselves. 

These stereotypical attitudes are also inherent in the people who work in our political, legal, educational, financial institutions. Their attitude towards Black people is why we have systemic racism. It is manifested in brutality by police, high incarceration and unemployment of blacks, and low enrollment of Blacks in our schools and higher education. 

Our entire culture is a national public health epidemic. It’s a travesty of justice how the most wealthy nation in the world has allowed so much extreme poverty of Black people. I have witnessed Black men and women peddling and begging for money in public places, homeless, displaying mental illness, selling items (that could be potentially stolen) to make money. On any given day driving home from work, I might see an old Black man sitting on an egg cart with a cup in his hand begging people for money as they drove by, or another black man in ragged clothes on a corner next to the BART station stooped over with his pants down, defecating on the sidewalk. These are sights I could not have imagined in my wildest nightmares during my time in prison. 

I’ve often seen this internalized oppression of Black people in how Black people treat one another. I’ve seen Black men and women arguing in public places and berating one another. Black men hustling their Black women to prostitute for financial gain — the Black man turning against the Black woman, and the Black woman turning against the Black man and dating and marrying other races 

The other day, I met a young Black woman at the Hayward city park, looking depressed and distraught. My compassion overtook me and provoked me to ask her what was wrong. She shared her story with me about the abusive relationship she was in. She talked about how her Black boyfriend verbally and physically abuses her, how he takes her personal belongings, destroys her cell phones, monitors her movements, and takes her money and gives her nothing. She even at one point considered suicide. She told me that she wanted to leave that oppressive environment, and I offered to help her find other housing. 

The discriminatory economic and criminal justice policies, the incarceration of Blacks in disproportionate numbers, the crack epidemic and police brutality are contributing factors in the degrading conditions of the Black race. I also believe much of the racial divide we see in America today is because of President Donald Trump’s divisive words and actions and response to the racial unrest have encouraged the racist attitudes we see against Black people in America. Presidents have a lot of influence, and he as a White man has openly shown his prejudicial opinions towards people of color, encouraging other White people who have concealed their feelings to disclose them.

Today we see the protest and violent rioting because of this systemic racism stemming from the brutal killing of George Floyd by a White officer pressing his knee on George’s neck. It’s this type of unhumane mistreatment and police brutality that has destroyed the lives of Black people. 

Recently, I was traveling to San Francisco on BART and sat next to a Samoan woman. I could see that she was uncomfortable with me sitting next to her, so I tried to break the ice and generated a conversation with her. After conversing for a while, I introduced myself and explained why I engaged her. She confessed to me that she was nervous because of an uncomfortable experience she had before with a Black man on the train. This woman was still living her fears. It shows how other races can develop stereotypical attitudes towards Blacks and how bad the image of the Black man is in their minds. As far as they are concerned, we are all the same. 

We must be honest about the outrageous racial disparities in our criminal justice system and work to address racial prejudice. We must promote fair and impartial treatment of African Americans. It is time to improve the lives of black people in America and address the mistreatment of them by addressing these racial disparities. 

Even though the looting and rioting in America is slowing down, the protests are continuing. It is a time for action. This latest event with George Floyd is a turning point in America. Protestors and people must come together and organize like never before. They must come together and discuss what the issues that need to be addressed and how they are going to go about addressing them. They must also reach out to those who have lost faith and hope in our system and encourage them to get involved and educate them on the issues. They must also help these people to register to vote if they haven’t. We must bring our issues before our leaders and hold their feet to the fire to implement those changes.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Forrest Jones is a writer based in Oakland, California. He wrote for San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he was formerly incarcerated.