The JPC Summer Book Group Takes on The New Jim Crow
By Kerry L. Dearborn, Ph.D., Seattle Pacific University
Many of us would like to believe racism no longer exists in our enlightened equal-opportunity-for-all nation. Look at President Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Eric Holder, Colin Powell, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., to name just a few African-Americans whose achievements seem to support that thesis. If you work hard, play by the rules, and avoid crime, anyone can make it in our nation. Can’t they?
One student in a social justice class I taught a few years ago arrived very angry after reading the chapter on racism from Doing Christian Ethics From the Margins by Miguel de la Torre. I thought she was upset about the book. In contrast she was upset that all her life she had been told that racism had basically died with Martin Luther King Jr. Now she was reading about the many ways it continued to surface in destructive ways throughout our country — like a hydra, the mythical serpentlike beast that was able to grow back two heads for every one cut off. The hydra killed silently as well, with breath so poisonous that her tracks were deadly.
Summer book group finds disparities
Racism may not be as visible to Euro-Americans as it once was, but it is leaving a vast toxic trail, which has been documented recently by numerous articles, journals, and books. This summer a number of us from SPU and from around the city were able to participate in a challenging and dynamic book group organized by Max Hunter and Dr. Eddie Moore, director of diversity at The Bush School.
We gathered together weekly at either the UmojaFest P.E.A.C.E. Center or The Bush School and engaged in challenging and far-ranging discussions on articles, current events, personal experiences and books, including Lockstep and Dance in which the author, Linda Tucker, led us in a probing analysis of these issues. The most compelling text we read was also the central focus for our time together, Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. In her book, many of us discovered the pervasive trail of a poisonous system that parades itself as color blind but in fact feeds on racial profiling, results in the mass incarceration of black men, and has created a new racial caste.
Alexander carefully documents the way in which racism in America shifted from slavery to Jim Crow laws of “separate but equal,” to the current massive disenfranchisement of black communities through the War on Drugs that unevenly targets urban black communities.
Studies have shown that, proportionately, whites use drugs at the same rates as African-Americans, yet are far less likely to be sought or caught, and even for the few who are, their punishment pales in contrast to those wielded against especially young black men. Alexander writes, “federal laws … punish crack offenses [more likely used by those who are black] one hundred times more severely than offenses involving powder cocaine [more likely used by those who are white].”
She goes on to write, “African-Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct. In fact, studies suggest that white professionals may be the most likely of any group to have engaged in illegal drug activity in their lifetime, yet they are the least likely to be made criminals.”
The percentages are really astounding: “90 percent of the people arrested and convicted of drug offences in some states [are] African American.” In many cities across the United States “young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college." Alexander offers numerous examples and cites an abundance of studies. One was particularly striking to me, “Consider this: Just 992 black men received a bachelor’s degree from Illinois state universities in 1999, while roughly 7,000 black men were released from the state prison system the following year just for drug offenses.”
Why does the mass incarceration of black men create a racial caste that resembles Jim Crow? Alexander explains that once a person is labeled a felon, in most states they cannot vote, cannot serve on a jury, and “will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives — denied employment, housing, education and public benefits.” In other words they have lost more rights than African-Americans lost under Jim Crow. Alexander writes, “Felon disenfranchisement laws have been more effective in eliminating black voters in the age of mass incarceration than they were during Jim Crow.” This means “perpetual marginality.” And what is more, federal funding incentives have been allocated to police departments to prioritize drug-related arrests over other crimes. Police are “rewarded in cash --- through drug forfeiture laws and federal grant programs — for rounding up as many people as possible.”
The civil rights issue of today
The numerous injustices Alexander exposes are like multiple alarms going off at once. Though drunk driving is known to imperil lives more egregiously than drug possession, the punishment for DUI is typically two days in jail for first offenders and two to 10 days for second offenses, as opposed to five years mandatory minimum sentence in federal prison for possession of a tiny amount of crack cocaine. Drunk drivers, predominantly white and male, are given treatment and counseling to keep them functioning and in society. People charged with drug offenses, largely poor people of color, are typically charged with felonies and imprisoned. They are moved into a permanent lower caste, though the “vast majority of those arrested for drug crimes are not charged with serious offences, and most of the people in state prison on drug charges have no history of violence or significant selling activity.”
Another alarm set off relates to our approach to U.S. prisons. The United States has had the highest rate of incarceration in the world, including imprisoning “a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.”
“In 1991, the Sentencing Project reported that the number of people behind bars in the United States was unprecedented in world history, and that one-fourth of young African-American men were now under the control of the criminal justice system.” In some cities, like Washington D.C., the ratio is as high as three out of four young black men who “can expect to serve time in prison.”. New prisons are predominately built in white, rural areas, which “then benefit from inflated populations totals at the expense of the urban, overwhelming minority communities from which the prisoners come.”
Benefits include increased representation in state legislatures. “More African-Americans are under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. The mass incarceration of people of color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.”
Confronting the illusion
Alexander argues convincingly that mass incarceration of black men is the civil rights issue of our day. Though our book group would have appreciated more specific ideas of ways in which we could respond, she offers instead some pressing guidelines. One is to move beyond the illusion that we are a color-blind nation and to engage in more conversations around race. “Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem.” We need to overcome the real blindness that has afflicted much of white America, blindness to “the racial and structural divisions that persist in society: The segregated, unequal schools, the segregated, jobless ghettos, and the segregated public discourse — a public conversation that excludes the current pariah caste.” In fact, Alexander writes that unless we address the deeply racist nature of this issue, it will easily morph into another insidious racist system.
Secondly, Alexander encourages an approach that includes all people of good will, rather than one that polarizes people according to race or class. Addressing the mass incarceration of black men is more than a civil rights issue. It is a human rights issue. So she calls us to cultivate a fire within that addresses this crisis with “an ethic of genuine care, compassion, and concern for every human being — of every class, race and nationality, within our nation’s borders.”
All people should recognize in this book an urgent mandate to increase awareness and advocacy. As Christians, we should find her call resonating with the very essence of who we are in Christ — those who are filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit poured out on people of every race, tribe, and tongue, and those who follow a Lord for whom care for prisoners is an indication that they truly know him.
Rather than ignoring this beast of injustice as it eats away at the fabric of so many lives and communities, Jesus calls his disciples to follow him. And we know Jesus defeated evil through complete solidarity with criminals on the cross, both to reveal our own criminal status and the infinite love of God that transforms criminals into sons and daughters who share in God’s kingdom.
What are some specific steps we can take in this direction? For my husband, Tim Dearborn, who works for World Vision International, these readings and discussions shed vital light on some of the challenges World Vision faces globally. For me, it gave more depth and insight to urban issues in our own city, with specific relevance for our own John Perkins Center and our reconciliation studies minor at Seattle Pacific University.
Personally, the book strengthened God’s call to Tim and me to deepen understanding of our own white privilege and complicity, and our awareness of the challenges faced by African-Americans in our country. It also intensified our gratitude for the friendships and colleagues we have. Both of us are committed to pray for the fire of God’s love and power to guide and embolden us, and to learn more when Michelle Alexander visits our city and our campus in January 24-27, 2011.
Kerry Dearborn, Ph.D. has been professor of theological studies at Seattle Pacific University since 1994. She has also taught at Fuller Seminary Extension in Seattle and Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.
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