Tag Archives: social justice

Playing Offense in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Today we live in an era where one in three black men will go to jail during their lifetime. One in three!

Crime rates have been dropping for decades. Yet, paradoxically, the prison population from 1978 to 2014 has risen 408%.

To put this in context compared to the rest of the world, we only have 5% of the world’s population, yet we have more than 20% of the world’s prison population.

Stop and think about that. That doesn’t make any sense, does it? How is that even possible?

The answer is that while the crime rate in the United States is similar to crime rates in other countries around the world, it’s the incarceration rate that differs here. We’ve made the decision to become the world’s largest jailer. Rather than attempt to lift people up, we’ve chosen to lock them up. As a result we’ve robbed generations of families the opportunity to live the American dream.

And if you’re wondering, who are these people we are locking up, it’s disproportionately black and brown people.

This in a nutshell is the system of mass incarceration, and in my opinion it is the single greatest US human rights travesty of our generation.

In late 2015 I had an opportunity to hear civil rights leader Bryan Stevenson speak on a panel with John Legend and Harry Belafonte about racial justice. Towards the end of the discussion, he asked the packed audience a series of questions.

If you lived during the age of slavery, raise your hand if you think you would have been an abolitionist?

Most people raised their hand. Then he asked:

If you lived during the Jim Crow era, how many of you would have stood up and fought against the terrorism and lynchings enacted against black people?

Again most people raised their hands.

What about the era we are living in now, the era of mass incarceration?

The room went silent.

It was stunning.

His point was well taken. The era of slavery didn’t end in 1865. It evolved. Today’s mass incarceration is yesterday’s Jim Crow. We evolved from chains to nooses to cages. The means of subjugation are different but the racial narrative has always been the same.

The question is, why are we not treating today’s system of mass incarceration the same way we would have treated Jim Crow or slavery.

In 2015 Bryan Stevenson brought me to tears and I told myself in that moment I was going to do more. In 2017 I’m starting with baby steps.

As a first step I’m committing to writing more and speaking up more when I witness injustice. The system we have is broken. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed. I think the very first step is truly acknowledging it for what it is.

As a second step, I’ve made a decision to be more intentional about my charitable giving. I tend to play defense when it comes to charitable giving. When my friends ask for money to support a cause they care about, I’ll give $50 and call it day. At the end of the year I have given to all these people I care about, but I haven’t actually helped move the needle for any cause I care about.

For 2017 I’ve decided to stop playing defense and start playing offense. So this year I’m dedicating my entire giving budget to a single organization called Defy Ventures.

Defy Ventures is an entrepreneurship program for people in prison. Think of it as a Techstars or a YC except the entrepreneurs are behind bars rather than co-working spaces.

Graduation day in prions with Defy Ventures via INC

As a third step, I am planning to go to prison more. I have been a mentor with Defy since 2015 and it’s been phenomenal. But this past December I had the chance for the first time to go to prison with the organization and invite about 25 LA entrepreneurs and investors with me. I won’t share too much about the experience because I want everyone to go and experience it for themselves but it was deeply powerful. I can promise you, if you go on one of these trips, it will change you. I’ve committed to going on four more prison trips in 2017 and hope to see friends in the tech community join me in LA, SF or NY. If you’re interested in coming to prison, please get in touch.

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When Hate Becomes Mainstream

wellsville-swastika

If you’re following the news you’ve probably heard about all the hate crimes and hate speech that has proliferated since Trump became our president elect. It turns out that stuff’s real. You can add my story to the growing list.

Novemeber 7th

On November 7th, I was walking through the subway in New York when I heard someone mutter “you almost hit me with your box, you fucking n*gger.”

Let me repeat this.

I was in the subway in New York City. Not Alabama. Not Mississippi. Not South Carolina. Not Texas. Not Georgia. And it wasn’t 1865 either. It was 2016.

“Seriously?” I thought to myself.

I turned around.

Behind me was a middle aged white man in a pinstripe suit and overcoat. Before I could even stop to think, I found myself confronting him.

“What’d you say?” I asked.

“I said he almost hit me with his box”

“That’s not what you said. You said ‘you almost hit me with your box you fucking n*gger.’”

“Yeah, okay. So? That’s what he is.”

“Maybe he did almost hit you with his box but you don’t need to use the N-word.”

And with that, our conversation ended. I walked away rattled. He walked away angry, bitter, and muttering to himself.

I immediately regretted not saying something more forceful.

What I wanted to say was “FUCK YOU, you human piece of dogshit. Bigotry has no place in our society and you represent the worst of America.”

But I didn’t say any of this because I was scared. He was a belligerent bully acting erratically. I thought he might take a swing at me or even pull out a gun. So instead of really telling him off like he deserved, I politely just asked this scumbag to be a little less racist the next time around.

About ten other people witnessed what happened. One lady went up to the guy who had been discriminated against and asked if he was okay. But other than that, no one said a word.

After a very fleeting surge of courage, I ultimately wimped out pretty hard. And everyone else? Well, they just watched.

We all failed. And because of this, the bully won.

The whole event left me deeply shaken. As I contemplated what I had just witnessed, the only thing that brought me solace was the fact that it was Nov 7th. On Nov 8th everything would go back to normal and this disgusting cockroach would have to slink back into the dark shadows with all the millions of other closet racists Donald Trump has emboldened this election cycle.

November 8th.

Okay. Scratch what I said about November 8th.

As we watched the election results come in that night and it appeared Trump was going to win, I literally couldn’t talk. I went numb — catatonic.

Shock. Sadness. Disgust.

I went to bed before the final results were announced hoping against hope that I’d wake up to some miracle.

November 9th

I woke up. I immediately checked my phone.

Donald Trump. President Elect.

WTF!!??? Seriously??

We are in deep fucking trouble, America.

November 10th

I can remember being upset when Bush won in 2000 and even more so in 2004 because it felt like the Dems really blew that one. But this whole Trump thing hurt in a way that was on an entirely different level from any other normal Republican. This was supposed to be the election where Hillary won in a landslide and the country sent a loud and emphatic message to the rest of the world that we reject bigotry in all its forms. This was supposed to be the election where America showed the world what values we stand for.

In the end, I think we did show the world what we stand for. But sadly we revealed ourselves to be a very different America than the America I thought I knew.

To me, electing a racist reality television star over the most qualified nominee we’ve ever had is a slap in the face to all women. As a nation we just told women to go back to their place in the kitchen.

Sit down, woman. You don’t belong here.

But this election was more than just a slap in the face to women. It was a slap in the face to immigrants to Muslims and to all minorities. To all these people, America just said “your lives don’t matter.”

November 10–15

It has taken me almost a week to process everything about what just happened to our country. After grieving for a day or so, I spent the next couple days sticking my head in the sand and ignoring all news about the election. I couldn’t take it. I was too depressed and angry.

I finally started reading the news again on day 3 of the Trumpocalypse. But I decided not to write anything until my mind was clear I’d really recovered from this state of depression.

So now a week has passed and here’s what I have to say:

I have read about a million articles analyzing the election. I have processed everything there is to process and I’ve come to the conclusion that Trump voters aren’t really racist —  they are just regular people like you and me who felt ignored and left behind by an increasingly globalized economy.

Well that, and they fucking hate Mexicans.

In all seriousness, I’ve read so many articles and blog posts that tell the story of the “non-racist” Trump voter. These articles explain how it wasn’t about white-identity politics. It wasn’t about hate. This election was about the economy and jobs.

But here’s the thing — this storyline is complete garbage. Seriously, it’s fucking offensive. We need to stop normalizing the most abnormal presidency in the last 100 years.

Of course not every Trump voter is a card carrying KKK member. That would be insane and I don’t think anyone was ever really claiming that.

But if you vote for a racist candidate who promises to take away the rights of minorities simply because you think he’ll do a better job on the economy, that is not right — that is not what America stands for. You might not be a “textbook racist” but there is an extremely high chance you are someone who just doesn’t give a fuck about others.

I suppose that is slightly better than being a full-blown racist, but not by a lot. Because at the end of the day, whether you hate minorities or not, your intentions are irrelevant. When you choose to prioritize your own economic interests above the basic rights and freedoms of your fellow citizens you are effectively saying “Fuck you Muslims. Fuck you Mexicans. Fuck you, women. You don’t deserve the same rights I deserve and truthfully, I don’t care what terrible things happen to you, as long as I get an extra $375 on my tax refund this year.”

That, in my opinion is the biggest problem with America today. It’s not that the whole country is racist. It’s that the whole country (both conservatives and liberals alike) are indifferent to the suffering of people they consider “other.”

And the whole idea that you can separate bigotry from the Trump presidency is nonsense.

Here’s an analogy. I’m not sure it’s the best one but it’s the best I could come up with.

Racism and sexism are kind of like olives. People who like olives often really love olives. And people who don’t like olives don’t just mildly dislike them, they find them utterly disgusting.

The people who voted Trump but claimed they weren’t racist are basically arguing that they ordered a veggie pizza and all the things about the pizza were great except the olives. So when the pizza comes out they’ll just pick the olives off.

But here’s the thing. They didn’t order a veggie pizza. They ordered olive fucking tapenade!!!

When Trump comes out on DAY ONE of his campaign and says that Mexicans are rapists, anyone listening knew that olives were the main course of his campaign. They were baked in and inseparable from the jump. Pretending that Trump is a veggie pizza is simply offensive.

Now, I am not writing this post to shame people. I understand that people feel desperate and when you are desperate you make choices you’re not always proud of. I don’t blame these voters for their choices any more than I blame the guy in the street selling drugs because he sees no other options for employment. But what about the people who were not desperate? What about those Trump voters solidly in the middle or upper class?. How do they justify their votes? I want to have compassion for these voters. I want to understand. I want to be openminded. But it’s hard.

 At the end of the day, the bully on the subway might only represent the views of a very small minority of American citizens. Let’s say 5%. But when 95% of the population idly stands by and watches as the bully abuses his victim, we end up in a situation where the bully on the subway somehow ends up becoming the leader of the free world.

America, we failed. We didn’t stand up for what was right. We chose to be silent in the face of injustice. We chose to vote our pocketbooks at the expense of others. And I’m afraid to say, we got what we deserved.

I’ve come to accept that Trump is my president. I really do want to give him a chance. I want to believe that the hateful and divisive things he said during the campaign were just campaign rhetoric that won’t become policy. But a week after Trump is elected when you hear that Trump named Steve Bannon, an indisputable bigot as his chief strategist, it’s hard to hold out hope.

So now more than ever, I think it is up to all of us to double down on racial and gender equality. Now more than ever it is time to speak up for our Mexican and Muslim brothers and sisters. Now more than ever it is time to fight for justice.

We royally screwed up this election because we failed to stand up to the bully. Let’s not ever do that again. When we see injustice, we owe it to ourselves, to our country, and to the world to speak up.

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