last week i had the pleasure of attending the first annual christian unity gathering, a social justice minded forum for communities of faith, hosted by the national council of churches (ncc). the inaugural topic? mass incarceration. let me begin by expressing how pleased i was to learn that the ncc had chosen to address such an issue at such a time as this. i was equally pleased to be selected by the evangelical lutheran church in america to partake in an inter-generational think tank during the gathering. until now, i’ve felt as if i and a few others were on an island (rikers island if you like puns) shouting at the top of our lungs for equity within our criminal (no)justice system with no one in sight to hear our cry. people either just don’t know, or just don’t care.
just a month ago mass incarceration casually came up in a conversation and someone said, “mass incarceration? what’s that?” i went on to try to explain briefly by saying “it’s the unequal and unfair criminalization of black and brown men mostly,” but could tell the racial implications interwoven within mass incarceration turned them off from being able to receive anything i was saying. nobody likes to talk about race in this country especially if doing so might implicate you in the crime (ie white people). i was once told that because i talk about race (insert: racial inequality) so much i come off more as a racist than those who are. i guess i’m too loud about it. but i don’t mind; i’d rather be a loud liberator than a quiet racist. the fact of the matter is, we can’t talk about mass incarceration without talking about race.
here’s a crash course:
mass incarceration at its core, is an issue of the inequality of our judicial system and it has had a profound effect on african american social destruction. although the U. S. accounts for less than 5% of the world’s population, it houses 25% of the world’s prisoners, making the U.S. #1 in the world in incarceration. and you can guess majority of those prisoners are black men in their 20’s and 30’s, prime years for seeking higher learning, beginning careers, and establishing foundations upon which families are built. the southern center of human rights explains that “mass incarceration has resulted in such a concentration of imprisonment in low-income african-american communities that sending those who commit crimes to prison now does more harm than good in those neighborhoods. Researchers confirm that the cumulative effects of mass incarceration – that is…broken families, weakened social bonds, distrust of police, and compromised economic opportunities – have reached a tipping point, resulting in an increase rather than a decrease in crime in disadvantaged neighborhoods.”
it’s the new jim crow, and as civil rights lawyer michelle alexander writes in her book of the same name, the new jim crow represents the installation of a legal racial caste system. you see, here in america we like to believe that since the courts ruled discrimination by race unethical and illegal decades ago, we now live in a “post racial” society. however the courts have not made it illegal to warehouse black and brown men in prisons, majority of which are for non-violent, victimless offenses. you see if we can imprison black men at a disproportionate rate, labeling them as felons and subsequently second class citizens, society can directly discriminate against them by criminal history, allowing indirect and lawful discrimination by race.
the vehicle for doing so has been the “war on drugs.” it’s a fact that rates of drug use and possession among blacks and whites are almost identical. it’s also a fact that blacks are more likely to be arrested, tried, and found guilty more often than whites for the same offenses, and when whites are found guilty, their sentences will be less severe than that of blacks. it’s a fact that a black man with no criminal history is less likely to find employment than a white man with the same skill set and a criminal background. i could go on, because the disparity is so glaring on so many levels, but ill stop here.
this is what we’re up against folks. the mass incarceration of black and brown men and women is a social justice issue, and for that it should be an issue of great priority to people of faith. i’m glad the ncc has set the table, and i’m happy to be sitting at it.