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Commentary By John H. McWhorter

They're Finding Jobs

Public Safety Policing, Crime Control

It is a myth that no one will hire an ex-con.

He might conclude otherwise if he tries to get a job by using the wanted ads in a paper. What he needs, instead, are people who know where to send him—say, an organization specializing in connecting ex-offenders with work.

A couple of decades ago, the good fight was breaking down the walls of segregation. Today, the civil rights movement is more about helping the distracted and the misled of the poor, black people and how they can join the America that the civil rights pioneers created for us.

That is what organizations bringing ex-offenders into the mainstream are doing. They deserve the attention of anyone seriously interested in today's version of what used to be called the Struggle. Serious interest here means letting go of utopian rhetoric about a perfectly level socio-economic playing field and dealing with the world as it is.

In this vein, I have been visiting organizations in Newark helping ex-offenders. Finding them work is the least of their challenges. White Rose Linen has been especially open to hiring excons, while others get work as handymen, janitors, warehouse workers, truck drivers, and in sanitation and customer service.

The first task at hand for an ex-offender is becoming able to work legitimately. The first problem is identification. Job application asks for your social security number, but ex-cons often never got one. And trying to get a birth certificate is even harder.

This week in the New Yorker, we hear from a man living in the Fortune Academy halfway house in New York who aptly describes the problem with attaining personal records: "I went to Social Security to get a card. They told me to go to Medicaid. Well, Medicaid says you need a Social Security card. Then I go to Vital records to get a birth certificate—they won't give it to me because I don't have an I.D."

In Irvington, N.J., which is near Newark, Offender Aid and Restoration of Essex County unties this knot. As soon as an ex-offender comes in, they get him a birth certificate and a social security card. Also especially important is getting him a driver's license, including giving him the $24 fee for it, given that many driving jobs are ones that undereducated people are able to do. The day I visited OAR, a young man was taken through the process of getting all of this documentation in just 26 hours since his release.

Despite getting the ex-offenders their documents, one OAR worker estimates that nine out of 10 clients also need to be placed in detoxification or rehabilitation centers, which the organization takes them through as well.

The job part is easy then. Each week OAR holds employment counseling meetings where each client leaves with three job leads. Many companies require that ex-offenders get federal bonding insurance to guarantee against possible theft, and OAR purchases it for the client.

At OAR there is no room for the piety that racism is an ex-con's main problem. An ex-offender seeking help must face that his life will only change if he gives up the easy temptations of oppositional posturing. OAR drills clients on how they can present themselves in a better light—making eye contact, sitting up straight, and asking questions.

So does the Prisoners Resource Center of the American Friends Service Committee in downtown Newark. Every week, head case manager of PRC, Omar Shabazz, gives an introductory prep talk to about 15 clients, and he doesn't pull punches. He quotes an ex-con saying, "That's embarrassing for somebody to come in to Burger King and see me flippin' burgers." To that, Mr. Shabazz says, "What's embarrassing is that you dropped out of school in seventh grade!"

The siren lure of selling drugs is frontand-center at PRC. The project assistant of PRC, Lynette Marsh, addresses the issue head-on: "I know there's temptation—you come in here and we talk you out of it.” She hands out a mock resume with a name and address: "STREET HUSTLER: Nearest Street Corner Anywhere in Newark." Under the objectives section of the resume, it says: "I am enthusiastic about gaining more street knowledge to get my dope game up and pursue a full-time career as a Drug Dealer." Under the other skills section of the resume, it says: "Ain't Got None."

The room is skeptical at first. The myth about ex-con' unhireability is so pervasive that most of them seem to suspect PRC is a sham. The listeners have also taken in a dose of conspiracy theory of the white man keeping the black man down — they first wake up when Mr. Shabazz mentions the devotion to corralling black men behind bars, also known as the prison-industrial complex, a dedicated effort of getting and keeping black men in prison because prisons make money. But Mr. Shabazz has little interest in that line: "If you go on Prince street right now, the only white guys you see are sittin' in cars tryin' to protect you from you, and the only people you see with hoods on is guys that talk like us."

After two hours, Mr. Shabazz has brought most of them around. It helps that he did 21 years behind bars himself. His background gives his lectures an air of tough-love that an outsider could barely hope to conjure. "I'm no policeman, lawyer, parole officer— none of that. I'm a little of everything and also your brother."

Many, although it would be hard to get them to admit this, are waiting for a second civil rights revolution. Today's freedom fighters—the Shabazzes and Marshes and the folks at OAR—are right under their noses though. The question now is how to turn up the volume of the revolution.

This piece originally appeared in The New York Sun

This piece originally appeared in The New York Sun