Decrying the horrors of white nationalism is low hanging fruit. Conservatives and liberals alike agree that white supremacy, KKK, neo-Nazis, and racist fascists are all evil. The accepted verbiage in American culture in 2017 is that racism is an inherently bad thing.
I intentionally excluded President Donald Trump from the above generalizations (conservatives and liberals) because as he showed on Monday, August 15, 2017, in his third set of statements responding to white nationalist protest from Charlottesville, VA, he actually doesn’t blanket condemnation on white hate groups. He blames victims, that is, oppressed minorities, when confrontations turn violent.
Here I address everyone else, which is most of America. President Trump’s election has emboldened the brazenly racist. But most people are not brazenly racist. Their racism is hidden behind a veil of ‘colorblindness.’ Their racism is concealed, even from themselves much of the time, behind the misguided belief that the end of the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s was the end of systematic racism in America. Their racism is buried deep because they know racism is evil, so they don’t want to face it in themselves.
Two acts in the last few days will do nothing to combat this abiding racism that continues to render African Americans and Latinos in our country as second class citizens. Michelle Alexander calls black and brown skinned persons the lowest caste and she believes America has an intricate, nearly intractable caste system (The New Jim Crowe, 2010). First, there was the rally-gone-wrong in Charlottesville. White supremacists protested the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Anti-racists counter protesters confronted the protesters. Some of the confrontations became quite violent. One white nationalist, James Alex Fields of Ohio, ran a car at high-speed into a crowd and killed Heather Heyer of Virginia. Heather was trying to stand up to the bullying evil of white supremacy.
The entire event and especially James Fields’ murderous act is easy to condemn in the harshest of terms. That condemnation, spoken in the language and town of damning, fiery rhetoric, will do nothing to deal with the system that keeps black and brown people in an under caste, denied of rights, and unable to thrive in American life.
Second, on Monday, August 15, in Durham, NC, a group of protestors, angry at white nationalists and at the president for failing to condemn them, forcibly toppled a Confederate statue and then gleefully taunted the fallen monument. The rage felt by the crowd that performed this act – rage at racism and rage at the continued debasement brought on by an unfair social and legal system – is justified. Toppling that statue and all confederate statutes, especially in such a mocking way, won’t change the conditions that have produced this unfair social and legal system.
Michelle Alexander shows why. The so-called war on drugs targets minority communities and doles out impossibly harsh penalties for minor drug offenses. First comes the felony conviction, which the prosecutor bullies the usually impoverished black suspect into accepting. Then the sentence. The convict loses years of his life in prison, comes out, and is unable to find a job, public housing, or get food stamps. This is because employers can discriminate in hiring based on a felony conviction. A felony conviction also makes one ineligible for federal housing and food assistance.
There are as many drug users among Asians as among whites as among Hispanics as among blacks. But all the felony convictions seem to fall on the blacks and Hispanics.[i] The most dangerous drug is alcohol. Drunk-driving accidents and alcohol related deaths greatly out-number deaths related to other drug usage. Alcohol is far more dangerous to everyone than crystal meth or crack cocaine. So why do we fear the meth and the cocaine? Why are the harshest punishments assigned to the drugs mostly used by African Americans? Why are African Americans more likely to be arrested and convicted than whites committing the exact same crimes at the same rates? Blacks don’t commit more crime, they just get punished more often and more harshly.
Shouting about how awful racism is, and waving an angry middle finger at a white nationalist or toppled confederate statue won’t change this. The people who enforce the system that has wrecked so many black lives claim to be colorblind. Many who enforce mass incarceration are the same people who shout about the evils of racism. Alexander illustrates thoroughly in The New Jim Crow that two of our supposedly most black-friendly presidents, Bill Clinton and Barak Obama, did much in their respective tenures to increase the weight of mass incarceration born by black people who are openly targeted in the “war on drugs.”
Alexander offers only the beginning of what might be ways out of this systemic oppression of black communities. To go into detail would entail another book (which I hope she writes). Organizations like the New Baptist Covenant (http://newbaptistcovenant.org/) are taking steps to combat racism in meaningful ways. But while Alexander does not outline ideas for how to end mass incarceration, she does give the kernel of the idea that’s needed. She writes, “To deny the individual agency of those caught up in the system [of mass incarceration] – their capacity to overcome seemingly impossible odds – would be to deny an essential element of their humanity. We (human beings) have a higher self, a capacity for transcendence” (p.176). Then, she goes on to say, “Rather than shaming and condemning an already deeply stigmatized group (poor black convicted felons), we, collectively, can embrace them – no necessarily their behavior, but them – their humanness. ‘Hate the crime, but love the criminal’” (p.176-177).
Until we (“we” = all Americans of every color and social class) see poor black people as people and the erasure of poor black people from mainstream society through mass incarceration as itself a crime, the problems of systemic racism will plague our society. Toppling and taunting statues and yelling at supremacists won’t change a thing.
The Bible has a framework for what Michelle Alexander is saying. Human beings are made in the image of God. This was emphasized in Genesis right before Adam and Eve were the first to flagrantly disobey God and then their son Cain committed the first murder, killing their other son, his brother Abel. This idea of ‘image of God’ is central to the Biblical view of creation. We don’t know the skin tone of the first humans, and the Bible does not specify. The central theme is God is creator and humans – all humans – are special in God’s creation, the highpoint of God’s creation (Genesis 1:27-28, 31). So, the poor, undereducated black 15-year-old who is targeted by cops and then busted for ‘possession’ the first time someone, maybe his mentor, slips him a small sealed bag of white powder and is then convicted and trapped in the system of mass incarceration – that kid is an “image bearer.”
What does God look like? Look at that kid. When you do, see the image God. Don’t see a “thug.” Don’t see fear (yours or his). Don’t see just one more felon to lock away. See him. See him. See a child of God, made in the image of God. If we see young black males this way, the way God sees them, we as a society won’t tolerate their disappearance in the racially weighted “war on drugs.” We’ll pool our imaginations and come up with ways to end this system of oppression just slavery and Jim Crow ended. But this time, if our solutions are based in love, mass incarceration won’t be replaced by the next iteration of systemic racism.
In the Genesis idea cited above, the Bible offers a creation framework to Alexander’s conclusion. In the Gospels, the Bible also offers a redemption framework. Jesus came to free that imprisoned black kid. He said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me … to free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). In ways impossible for a comfortable white suburbanite to understand, that 15-year-old imprisoned poor black kid is oppressed. And just because we whites are comfortable and just because we don’t understand and just because we are extremely comfortable in our not understanding is no excuse to turn a blind eye. Because we follow Jesus, we have to be for that kid. Jesus teaches what love looks like in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and then demonstrates his love by dying for our sins.
We whites won’t be subject to mass incarceration. We are no better than the inner city black person arrested for felony-possession. No better. But our mistakes will bring minimal suffering or none at all. Yet, our mistakes cut us off from God. Gossip. Alcoholism. Sloth. Omission (failing to help those who God commands us to help or failing to share money and talents God has blessed us with). Harsh, hateful rhetoric. Society does not call these things ‘crimes.’ But, the Bible calls these things ‘sins.’ Sins cut us off from God. Jesus died a shameful criminal’s death to make it possible for us to be cleansed of our sins. Jesus stood in the shoes of the convicted felon and he did so that we might have abundant life (John 10:10).
As disciples, followers of Jesus, we are to be as he was and is. We are to love as he loves. He loves the millions of black and Hispanic Americans whose lives have been wrecked by mass incarceration. If we – Christians who comprise his church in America – follow our master’s example and truly see and truly love our black and brown brothers and sisters, we will find a way to help them out of the system of oppression. The church is the body of Christ. He has come to free the captives.
[i] I realize that when I say “all,” that is hyperbole. This is a short blog. In her book Alexander details how the convictions of a few whites in the war on drugs help to perpetuate the entire system (see p.204-205).