The New Jim Crow

Over the past six months or so, I’ve decided that I need to do a better job of listening to my African American brothers and sisters. Not the kind of listening where you’re trying to think of a response, but the kind of listening that affects your heart, mind and soul. The kind that you take in, mull over and let gnaw on you and change you.

 I’ve been doing this ‘listening’ by following important African American voices on Twitter and FB as well as reading books by African American authors.

 I’ve been listening and digesting one such book for over a month now, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. When it comes to justice issues, I’m a big fan of statistics. They sometimes tell the story of injustice or at least point towards where injustice lives. This book doesn’t just use statistics to point towards injustice - it circles it, highlights it and tells you exactly where it lives.  

In her book, Alexander tells a story about race that isn’t often heard, even by whites that care about race issues. Are you ready for it? Here it is: even though whites use and deal drugs at the same rate as blacks, black men have “Been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than thirteen times higher than white men. The racial bias inherent in the drug war is a major reason that 1 in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006 compared with 1 in 106 white men.” She spends the majority of the book looking at the historical issues that gave rise to that disparity which began in the 1980’s, as well as for other non-racial explanations for those percentages (violent crime rates, etc.).  She then chronicles what happens once those black men enter the legal system through to when they are released after they have allegedly ‘paid their debt’ to society.

I’ll be honest, that ‘thirteen times higher’ hit me like a ton of bricks. I wanted to argue with it and figure out a way to minimize it. But instead of that, I’m sitting on it, mulling it over, and letting it make me uncomfortable – probably in much the same way as the Apostle Paul felt while spending a few days blind after his first experience with the risen Christ and the realization that he was an oppressor. Its colored the way I’ve seen the events in Baltimore, the Justice System and even how we should engage those labeled with the life-long scarlet F (felon). It’s also made me think of Jesus who got up in the temple, read from the Isaiah scroll and said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Because he anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”

 What does it look like to proclaim that message of Jesus in today’s society, given the fact that blacks and whites are treated vastly different (13 times higher– despite the same drug use rates) in our Justice System? How do we ‘release the captive’ and ‘set free the ‘oppressed?’ To be honest, I don’t really know, but I’m trying to listen and understand the plight of my black brothers and sisters. I hope that’s at least the first step.