Let’s Talk About Race: 14 Atlantans on how far we’ve come—and how far we still have to go

Even in a city with black leadership, black is still the color of the outside

Ilham N. Askia
Illustration by Richie Pope

At five years old, I was introduced to the criminal justice system when my father was sent to prison. Until that moment, he had been my world. He was tall, black, strong, and caring—my protector. For the next 10 years, I would see my daddy only in a cage. The long drive with my grandmother to the “castle”—what I called Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York—would become a familiar routine. Meals of potato chips and prepackaged sandwiches, consumed in a cold waiting room, were soon a tradition. I grew numb to the orders barked from prison guards that always preceded the too-short visits with my daddy. My father’s incarceration fostered in me my first consciousness about race.

Everyone who mattered to me was touched by the criminal justice system. Most of the men in my family would cycle in and out. My community knew poverty, substance abuse, mental illness, and inadequate school systems all too well. The ultimate solution to each of these problems could be found in one place: the criminal justice system.

I was aware of the white society enveloping my black nucleus of family and friends. Every person who made important decisions was white. I dreamed that one day I would have power. I imagined a world where people who looked like me made important decisions. I assumed that if black people just had power, black people would have justice. I was just a child; I had childish beliefs.

“In a city with black leadership, black prosecutors, black judges, and black business owners, black is still the color of the outside.”

So, I worked hard to be in a position to effect change. I earned a volleyball scholarship to an Ivy League university. It would begin an experience that reinforced my worldview that black meant being on the outside. It was reinforced as my mother and I arrived on campus in our used car, alongside college students in BMWs and Range Rovers. It was reinforced when another student’s mother asked, “Did you get here by affirmative action?” after knowing me for a mere 10 minutes. And it was reinforced every time I heard the comments from my white classmates—“I bet you got a lot of financial aid, huh?”—that could come only from a place of incredible privilege. I grew up in a city where power was synonymous with white. I was educated in institutions where the same was true. White people in power were not easing the suffering of my community. And so, when I moved to Atlanta, I was filled with hope.

It was exciting to be in a place where Dr. Joseph Lowery, Congressman John Lewis, and Pearl Cleage walked the same streets and shopped in the same stores as I did. With images of Dr. King, Maynard Jackson, and Andrew Young all around us, my son could grow up without feeling like he had a target on his back. Shirley Franklin was our mayor. With a black woman running the city, my daughter would know she could be anything she wanted. Unlike me, my children would not grow up to see blackness as synonymous with being on the outside.

But Atlanta taught me that race is complicated. Every day, I drive by Peachtree-Pine, the shelter that housed hundreds of homeless people each night before it was closed last year. My family would pack sandwiches to bring to the crowds of men, women, and children that were huddled around the shelter every day. My children could not help but notice that almost every face was black. When I first moved to Atlanta, I worked in the public school system and understood that predominantly black schools had fewer resources than their white counterparts. I now spend my days working on criminal justice reform and cannot help but notice that Atlanta, like every other city in America, disproportionately incarcerates black people.

In a city with black leadership, black prosecutors, black judges, and black business owners, black is still the color of the outside. And so my life in Atlanta is complicated. I am a graduate of Leadership Atlanta. I am the executive director of Gideon’s Promise, a local nonprofit that serves communities of color. I have sat on boards and committees that influence black life in Atlanta. But despite all I have accomplished, every day I see people on the fringes of society who remind me of my family, my childhood friends, and the people I love.

In Atlanta, I have one foot in the door of privilege and power. The other stands on the corner of oppression and hopelessness. But both worlds are black. I am proud to live in a city that helped lead the nation’s struggle for civil rights. Yet, every day, I see people who look like me being pushed to the side by people who also look like me.

When a homeless man named Sean Ramsey was arrested for holding a sign that read, “Homeless, please help,” he was not even afforded basic constitutional protections. He had no lawyer. He was locked up for more than two months until lawyers from the Southern Center for Human Rights learned of his plight and secured his release. Sean Ramsey looks like me. He reminded me of so many of my family members who were discarded by the justice system. But the people who controlled his fate looked like me, too. This was more complicated than I understood as a five-year-old girl.

As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” I am certain that those of us who have known oppression are more likely to look out for the oppressed. But I also understand that membership in a community that knows oppression does not ensure one will not succumb to indifference when they are given the power to lead. In his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, James Forman Jr. writes that the minds we must change in the fight for justice belong not just to white people. I am encouraged by all of the black people with whom I work who are collectively committed to tackling this problem.

Through Gideon’s Promise, I am helping build a movement of advocates to give voice to marginalized people threatened by our approach to criminal justice. This movement has been forged by countless supporters who recognize the need to ensure every person has a voice. I am grateful for every supporter of our work, but I am especially excited every time we add a supporter from the black community. It reinforces in me that collectively we have the power, and the will, to solve the problems that plague our people.

Ilham N. Askia is the cofounder and executive director of Gideon’s Promise, which trains and advocates for public defenders.