Will.i.am Opines on the Prison Industrial Complex

Will.i.am Opines on the Prison Industrial Complex

By Annie-Rose Strasser / ThinkProgress.org

Celebrities served as more than just pretty faces at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this weekend. While they were in town, several big names, from basketball stars to musicians, also stopped by the week’s Sunday news talk shows to get in a word about policy.

Among them was Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am, who came on Meet The Press to talk about his education foundation. While there, the musician managed to weave together his interest in education policy with a powerful rebuke of America’s inactive Congress and its problems with mass incarceration.

“When you come to America, we grow, but our citizens aren’t growing,” Will.i.am explained to the panel. “Our colleges are still the best colleges, but the people in the neighborhood I come from aren’t trying to go to MIT. They’re not thinking of Stanford or Harvard. People from India come to attend these colleges, and then they get educated and go to their countries and create jobs in their developing countries. When you travel the world, you get to see the country you are from and how we are developing or not.
“And then you look at this industrial prison complex where half of — actually the majority of people in prison are African and Latino, African-American, and Latino. That breaks my heart.”

Racial disparities in incarceration are indeed stark. Black and Latino people make up 60 percent of those in prison. And, going back to Will.i.am’s point, it is a barrier to education and employment; imprisonment makes it much more difficult to find a job, let alone training in an advanced field — science- and math-focused careers — like those that his organization focuses on.

During his Meet the Press appearance, Will.i.am also pointed to the war on drugs as not only an indicator of mass incarceration but also a sign that government could make policy but wasn’t trying. “America, we fought a war on drugs and lost,” he said, “and all it did was put young people in jail for petty drug crimes, and our prisons are overpopulated, and prison guards get paid more than teachers. Why can’t we all agree we should fight a war on education, starting from 8 years old to 19?”

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), a Tea Party Republican, tried to jump on this messaging to make an argument for getting rid of the Department of Education and putting all education decisions in the hands of states. Elimination of this department has long been a favorite proposal of the right, who believe there is no constitutional authority to create one. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has argued for abolishing the Department so that kids don’t need to learn about people with “two mommies.” Americans, by 61 percent, think that the department should be cut.

“I believe in American exceptionalism,” Chaffetz said at one point, adding later, “One of the beauties of the United States of America is we’re creative, we create things… I believe the best way to do it is at the state level. We don’t want the federal bureaucracy. There shouldn’t be a federal Department of Education. I want to drive that down to the states and let them innovate. Let us in Utah figure out how to educate our kids.”

“However, you’re doing it,” Will.i.am retorted, “why aren’t you doing it?”

(First published by ThinkProgress.org)