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With the rise in hate crimes and the rise in racist rhetoric, it is vital that communities that desire to be healthy, vibrant and thriving make a true investment in civil rights.

That was the message of Ngozi Ndulue to the Davenport community at the NAACP Metrocom Davenport Unit 4019’s 99th annual Freedom Fund Banquet held Saturday at the Rogalski Center on the campus of St. Ambrose University.

Speaking to the media before the event, Ndulue said the NAACP’s theme this year is “Steadfast and Immovable.”

That means, she said, “we need to not just hold the line, but keep progressing in the area of civils rights.”

Ndulue is the senior director of criminal justice programs and the national offices of the NAACP. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she grew up in Cincinnati. The earned her bachelor of arts degree in French and mathematics from the University of Cincinnati, and her Juris Doctor from Yale Law School.

Her legal background includes representing people sentenced to death as an assistant federal public defender for the District of Arizona. In 2011, she joined the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, a Cincinnati non-profit law firm that focuses on reforming the criminal legal system. During her time at the center, Ndulue represented prisoners in federal civil rights cases, worked on state and local racial just policy campaigns and administered a law school clinic.

“The call to people here today is to get involved with the local NAACP,” Ndulue said. “Build those coalitions with all the government officials and with folks from neighboring communities in the Quad-City area.

“This is a time where we need to think about where we’re going to invest,” she said. “Are we going to invest in a community that is healthy, thriving and vibrant? That means investing in civil rights.

“That means an investment in accountability from all of our government agencies, including and especially the police,” she added. “It means investing in a welcoming community that means people are not being punished for the rest of their lives for one mistake. It means investing with our corporate friends to talk about the way they change their hiring policies, to talk about supporting us as we are trying to move this discussion forward.”

Ndulue said that between 1980 and 2013 investment in education grew 100 percent. “Investing in corrections and locking people up grew 300 percent,” she added. “So we are making choices.”

“It’s important to recognize that we are in a country that was founded with structural and institutional racism baked into the DNA,” she said. “Our constitution allowed slavery. Now let’s go past that slavery when it changed into convict leasing and a criminal justice system that is working in ways to enforce the racial caste system. It isn’t about specific policies. It’s how the policies affect access of people to power.”

Many hoped that the election of Barack Obama marked the end of racism in America. But that was just a ruse. The racism never was gone, she said.

“There is no day in this society, in this world, that we are at a place of non-racism or post-racism,” Ndulue said. “We still have this baked into the structure of our society. You can see this with the justice disparities, including in Iowa.”

The crack cocaine versus power cocaine disparity is a good example when compared to the opioid crisis.

“The way we are talking about the opioid crisis and the people with drug issues and the way we are saving people’s lives, is different,” Ndulue said. “We were not talking that way when we were talking about the crack epidemic. The face of that epidemic was not a white face.

“The question is who have we been willing to throw away, and we’ve been throwing away the other,” she said.

Additionally, to allow one blemish on a person’s criminal record to define who they are as a person for the rest of their life and restricts them from career opportunities is not justice. When a person does their time, she said, their time should be done.

“If the way the criminal justice system had worked in a community of color the way it worked in white higher income areas we would not have the criminal justice system that we have today,” Ndulue said.

There are many communities pushing for “ban the box” legislation on job applications, she said. “Take off that check box saying you have been convicted of a crime. Potential employers see that right of the bat the person doesn’t have a true chance.”

And there are proportionately more African Americans with criminal records.

Ndulue said that with matched qualifications job applicants get calls back in this order: white men without criminal records, white men with criminal records, black men without criminal records and at 5 percent black men with criminal records. What people want is fair-chance hiring.

“The theme this year is steadfast and immovable,” Ndulue said. “In these times we’re seeing some unprecedented threats to the civil rights gains we’ve had in past years. It’s a really powerful phrase on which to meditate.