‘The Black plight is America’s plight’ – Black Policy Day kicks off with Tuesday night panel discussion

By Matthew Young, RealWV

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – “My whole life – I’m 48-years-old – I’ve been hearing about the ‘Black plight.’ And 48 years before that was a ‘Black plight,’ and the 48 before that was a ‘black plight.’ So 48 years from now, we want you guys to come out here and try to put a stop to the ‘Black plight,’ because the ‘Black plight’ is America’s plight.”

That’s what Brian Lewin, criminal law reform specialist for the ACLU West Virginia, told those gathered in Charleston Tuesday for the Black Policy Day (BPD) pre-event dinner. Lewin, who spoke as part of a four-person panel, targeted his comments primarily at the younger people in attendance. However, both the significance and the broadness of his message transcended its intended audience. 

“The freedoms of Black people are the only freedoms that have to be legislated, voted on, approved, and enforced,” Lewin said. “So to the young advocates that are coming up, we need you guys to be engaged. We need you to look to your left, look to your right, and work with everybody you can regardless of their race, their sex, and regardless of what they do.”

“We all have to come together,” Lewin added. “Please, I implore and behoove you young people, please come together and hold each other’s hand so we can be better 48 years from now.”

Organized by Dr. Shanequa Smith with the Black Voter Impact Initiative, Katonya Hart with the Partnership for Furthering Arts and Education, and Crystal Good with Black By God: The West Virginian, BPD is an annual event held at the State Capitol in Charleston. Now in its third year, BPD serves as a platform for the state’s historically disregarded Black voices to be heard, and provides an opportunity for community advocates to meet face-to-face with the men and women responsible for making West Virginia’s laws. 

Joining Lewin on the panel was W.Va. Economic Justice Fellow Kenny Matthews, with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), who laughingly told those in attendance, “Basically I go up to the Capitol and tell people how bad their ideas are.” 

Central to the mission of the American Friends Service Committee are the concepts of “just and sustainable peace,” and “just economies.” Matthews joined the AFSC in August of 2023, and after spending some eight years incarcerated, he has a unique understanding of West Virginia’s judicial system.

“A couple of the issues that we’re really working on this year, one is SB 154, which […] is going to make simple possession a felony,” Matthews said, adding that the prison time for possession with intent to deliver would be tripled under the bill. 

“Basically it’s targeting poor communities,” Matthews explained. “It will inevitably have racial disparities because the majority of people (convicted of drug-related crimes) are people of color, so they’re going to do the most time.”

According to Matthews, forging realistic pathways toward treatment is a far better way to combat the state’s ongoing drug crisis. 

“They say that the reason why they want this bill is because they want to give the circuit courts the ability to send people to drug court as a way to get them into treatment,” Matthews said. “Last year there were 547-ish people approved by probation and the prosecution to go into drug court, but only a little over 350 of them were actually sentenced to drug court by the judge.”

Conversely, one proposal that Matthews is hoping will gain traction is a plan for convicts who have served at least ten years of their sentence to petition for early release. 

“After that amount of time, it’s punitive,” Matthews said. “It’s no longer rehabilitative.” 

Also participating in the panel was Jaden Carter, an advocacy intern with ACLU West Virginia. After expressing her gratitude for the opportunity to be an active part of the state’s legislative process, Carter stressed the importance of passing legislation such as the “Crown Act” and the “Voting Rights Bill.”

“But what’s most important,” Carter noted, “Is recognizing your individual impact when you advocate for yourself and your rights. I thank all who continue to advocate, and speak truth to power.”

The panel’s final participant, Rhonda Rogombé with the W.Va. Center on Budget and Policy, jokingly told those in attendance, “There are a lot of issues that our organization works on, and a lot of fires to fight on a daily basis at the bad idea factory.”

Kenny Matthews, Brian Lewin, Jaden Carter, and Rhonda Rogombé participate in a panel discussion during Tuesday’s Black Policy Day pre-event dinner. Photo by Matthew Young, RealWV.

As Rogombé explained, her primary focus is on West Virginia’s infant and maternal health, with specific emphasis on their impact on the Black population. 

“The most recent data that we have shows that Black babies are twice as likely as their white counterparts to die across the state,” Rogombé said. “Within the WVU healthcare system, that rate was over four times as much.”

“We know on the national level that Black and indigenous folks see maternal mortality rates three-to-four times higher than their white counterparts,” Rogombé continued, “But in West Virginia we really don’t know what that looks like because we don’t collect and publicize the data.”

“That means that we don’t know how deep the disparity goes, and how our population is being impacted by this problem,” Rogombé added. 

Black Policy Day begins at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 7.

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