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Medea Benjamin: The deep, festering wounds of racism

CBS News asked noted figures in the arts, business and politics about their experience in today's civil rights movement, or about figures who inspired them in their activism.

Medea Benjamin, activist; co-founder, Code Pink; co-founder, Global Exchange

Please share an experience in which you realized that the U.S. has/has not achieved equality in race, gender or sexual preference, and its impact on you.

Courtesy Medea Benjamin

When I was 26, I met a Cuban while I was living in Africa. He was a coach for the national basketball team. He was charming, fun, gregarious, curious, handsome, well-educated and a great dancer. We fell in love, got married and went to live in Cuba. It was 1980. After a few years, I fell afoul of the government and had to leave. With my husband and our baby, we migrated to California.

I am a white woman. In Cuba, my husband was considered mulatto, or mixed race. In the U.S., he was simply black.

In horror, I watched how U.S. society -- particularly racism -- took a well-adjusted man with a healthy dollop of self-worth and crushed him. Searching for work was humiliating. He was turned down at interview after interview until he finally took a job cleaning floors at a hotel, a job where people barely acknowledged his existence. He lost all sense of his own dignity and started hanging out with similar black men, men who unfortunately used drugs to dull their pain. He got addicted to crack and ended up in prison, where over 90 percent of the other prisoners were black.

Our family fell apart, and it took him many years to recover from the addition. Today he does drug and alcohol counseling in the jails, spending day after day with men who are society's rejects. Almost all of them are black.

With our nation's wealth inequalities growing and the epidemic of mass incarceration of young black men, the wounds of racism continue to be deep and festering. I'm an optimist by nature, but when it comes to race, as long as we refuse to address the issue honestly and radically through a massive redistribution of wealth and privilege, we will continue to be a racist nation that diminishes all of us.

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