Race, Cages, and the Church

Criminal justice reform has become a top priority in the past few weeks, with bills in both the House and Senate poised to be marked up by the end of the month. These bills address many of the problems discussed in a previous post, and the Office of Public Witness will be present at a Senate hearing discussing the Senate bill later today. Supporting these reforms is important, but the problem of mass incarceration goes beyond legislation and requires an examination of our values.

When one in 28 children has a parent in prison, we should wonder if this really the land of the free.

When one out of nine African-American have parents in prison, we especially should wonder if this is a land of equality.

As a community of faith, we need to stand up and acknowledge the injustice of our prison system, especially in relation to its disproportionate representation of African-Americans. By understanding the causes of this unfortunate phenomenon, we can begin to develop creative ways to tackle racism in our system of mass incarceration.

Calling a system racist may seem odd, especially in a country that, since the Civil Rights Movement, generally opposes overtly racist ideology. As a church, however, we acknowledge the complexity of racism in a 1991 Annual Conference report, which, quoting a National Council of Churches policy statement, says:

Racism is personal prejudice plus power. Racism is the intentional or unintentional use of power to isolate, separate and exploit others. This use of power is based on a belief in superior racial origin, identity or supposed racial characteristics. Racism confers certain privileges on and defends the dominant group, which in turn sustains and perpetuates racism. Both consciously and unconsciously, racism is enforced and maintained by the legal, cultural, religious, educational, economic, political and military institutions of societies. Racism is more than just a personal attitude; it is the institutionalized form of that attitude.

Racism subtly pervades the structures of our society despite past efforts to eliminate it. Overturning segregation and various Jim Crow laws were important steps towards racial justice, but the conversation on race has largely been absent since then. In that complacency, mass incarceration has become a new system of segregation that, when examined seriously, proves just as controversial and problematic as Jim Crow laws.

The numbers are terrifying. Despite the fact that whites and blacks use illegal drugs at roughly the same rate, 45 percent of all drug offenders in 2011 were black while only 30 percent were white. When coupled with 500 percent increase in prisoners in the past 30 years, the numerical difference between white and black prisoners is staggering. This discrepancy is important to understand because it reveals the racist implementation of supposedly “colorblind” legislation developed during the War on Drugs.

A major problem lies in the decision to wage the drug war in poor, minority communities despite the fact that illegal drug use is comparable across racial lines. Convenience is often the justification for this behavior since poor individuals often lack an ability to commit such crimes in private space, making their crimes readily visible. Other motivations are political; far less attention is given to a drug bust in a marginalized community as opposed to middle class home in suburbia. (For a more sustained discussion of this topic, read chapter 3 of The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.)

Such motivations are dangerous because they offer seemingly justifiable reasons for colorblind policy that, in practice, is racist. Racism is prejudice plus power. The ability to choose targets of police action is power. The choice to focus almost exclusively on poor, minority neighborhoods reveals the prejudice. But the moral wrongness of this practice extends beyond simple choice and into the effects it has on communities. Targeting the same minority communities creates a vicious cycle that exacerbates drug crime. Most drug offenders in these communities are addicts or dealers making barely enough money to pay rent. When dealers are taken off the street, the vacuum is filled by those with an actual need for money (these are poor neighborhoods, after all). As a result, more and more individuals get arrested, further fracturing that community.

Attempting to portray criminals as victims of societal ills, for some, seems like a weak attempt to disregard the American values of individuality and agency. These critics instead blame black men, who by being absent at home, cause the moral “degeneration” that leads these communities down a path of crime. Daring to enter a chicken-or-egg discussion, it is important to note that they are absent because of overly-aggressive, prejudiced crime enforcement. One in four black men born since the beginning of the War on Drugs in late 1970’s has spent time in prison. That this War has successfully incarcerated so many so should not be taken as a success, but as a failure to address the heart of the matter. Caging human beings en masse is guaranteed to harm a community, and mass incarceration assures this brokenness. Money that could be spent on drug rehabilitation and community development programs instead goes to a racist system of mass incarceration that costs billions of dollars each year. But most of all, this system destroys lives more than it helps.

People lose years of their lives under harsh mandatory minimum sentences and three-strike laws, only to return to a further crippled neighborhood. Worse, those years in prison are not the end of one’s punishment. Most job applications require felons to declare their criminal status, hindering their ability to get a job and thus their transition back into society. However, the legacy of a criminal record haunts black men far worse than any other group. Studies have shown that white men with a criminal record get called back for jobs more frequently black men with a criminal record and black men without a criminal record. These studies reveal the horrible cultural assumption that black men are dangerous criminals despite evidence to the contrary. Rounding up black men to put in prisons has exacerbated this false perception and only complicates law enforcement when police are given full discretion to tackle crime. Socialization works against even those who would consciously not consider themselves racist, yet from this mix of power and subtle, unconscious prejudice is born a racist justice system.

The topic of race is often uncomfortable to discuss, especially in the context of an overwhelmingly white church, but it is a conversation that needs to occur if we are to truly embrace everyone as children of God. The Church of the Brethren is making an effort to ensure that this conversation occurs, specifically through Ecumenical Advocacy Days (EAD) and Christian Citizenship Seminar (CCS). EAD brings Christians from all over to participate in workshops and prepares participants to visit lawmakers with a particular legislative “ask.” EAD 2016 takes place April 15-18, 2016, with the theme is “Lift Every Voice! – Racism, Class and Power.” This event, cosponsored by the Office of Public Witness, provides a powerful platform for Brethren to learn about and take part in racial justice work. Click here for more information or to register.

CCS occurs the following week on April 23-28 2016, and invites youth to come to Washington, DC and New York City to learn how to be faithful, impactful citizens. CCS 2016 will explore the issue of race and mass incarceration in detail, and participants will visit legislators and learn skills to enact social change in their own communities. Encourage your youth to take part in this important conversation!

In 1963, the Church proclaimed, “The deepening crises in race relations all across the land confront the Christian church with its sharpest challenges to integrity and discipleship in this century. A revolution in relations between the races is upon us. We can neither stop it nor delay it. We can only hope to help guide it by active participation in it as concerned and courageous Christians.” May our commitment to God’s justice be strengthened by remembering that those words still ring true today.

Jesse Winter

Peacebuilding and Policy Associate

Office of Public Witness

Washington, DC

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