I am often more in tune with how individuals and their stories are impacted during trying times than I am with systems that can cause and/or perpetuate such trying times. So I am learning. Particularly about the housing market and its effect on eviction and homelessness. And now the criminal justice system and its effect on poor communities/communities of color.
I have started The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, but keep putting it down. Trying to digest and think versus react and attack. Then I heard from several sources I needed to watch 13th on Netflix. For someone like me, the documentary was a great way to hit what I can only assume are some highlights of Alexander’s book. The author herself is interviewed along with Bryan Stevenson of whom I am a fan.
The basic premise is how the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery – as long as you are not a criminal. As you can imagine, in a fallen world, imperfect government, and with leaders prone to sin (like all of us) this clause can quickly be turned into a way to control and oppress. After slavery was abolished, and the Southern economy ravaged, the clause allowed for newly-freed slaves to – legally – be charged with petty crimes such as loitering, be labeled a criminal, and continue to be used for cheap or free labor. And public lynchings and terror of blacks were condoned.
When such outright violence became too much, Jim Crow laws/segregation were put into effect. Now there were legal ways to relegate blacks to second class citizens. When the Civil Rights movement showed the world the injustice of such laws, the Freedom to Vote act was an admission to the black community their rights had been stripped and was a move toward reparations.
As the Baby Boomer generation grew into adulthood, so came a boom in crime rates based on the sheer volume of the population. The “War on Crime” and “Law and Order” were an easy way for politicians to receive the public’s vote. As such, tougher sentencing, the introduction of crack cocaine (into predominantly urban, poor communities), treating drug addiction as a crime instead of a health issue, and media/pop culture educating the public against people of color became the norm.
Then came the 1994 $30 billion crime bill which helped morph law enforcement into an “infrastructure of militarization.” In short, it took the “serve” out of “To Protect and Serve.” In a free market economy, this quickly turns into a private industry profit-making situation. Businesses and individuals making money on people being punished in the prison system. Instead of helping educate, heal, or otherwise reform those who need it.
I know two things as I move into this conversation. The first is, this is a very simplified review of an extremely well-documented book and documentary. But if you are like me – are of the powerful majority or are middle class or of some other inherent privilege – sometimes you don’t understand the issues because they don’t negatively affect you. Sometimes a big picture fly-over helps at least begin a discussion.
The other thing I know is that because The New Jim Crow book is 4 years old, there have been solid arguments raised against its premise. I have heard some of those arguments and, just yesterday, explored an article on The Gospel Coalition’s website in which a great discussion began in the comments section. My favorite response in the comments was by the article’s author, Rasool Berry:
“The ‘New Jim Crow’ analogy is helpful precisely because it still gives us a framework for understanding the pattern of these cultural forces even as they evolve. How did former slave owners respond to the new social order created by abolition? History tells us they did by creating black codes to control and exploit. What did they do once the black codes were illegal? History tells us intimidation, violence and Jim Crow laws to still maintain superiority and control of former slaves and their descendants. How did whites respond to the social revolution of the ’60’s marked by the end of Jim Crow laws which still maintained a racial hierarchy? … Did all of that racial animus simply evaporate? How do we discuss what happened next and how we ended up here? Is there anyway that the tragic circumstances and outcomes today are related to that history? I think the answer is obvious but perhaps how to discuss it is less so.”
Yes. The answer is obvious but perhaps how to discuss it is less so. Especially in our current climate in which we are so divided and fuses are short.
As usual, I do not have a clear-cut call to action. I simply ask you to care. To think about all this and its implications, especially if you have never done so. Advent has so been on my heart and mind, and frankly I would prefer a more Christmas-y post this morning. But in advent – in the waiting – we are called to be ambassadors of the Kingdom. To bring heaven where we can onto this earth because He Himself came to redeem. If so many are systemically abused during our tenure here, being informed matters. It doesn’t negate that the primary assault is spiritual, but it can give us a practical framework to understand how evil is perpetuated.