Rev. Douglas Taylor
January 20, 2013
I went to the movies this month. The opening scene showed a chain gang of prisoners slaving away under the watchful eye of the guards. The head guard then calls one prisoner out of line. (singing)
[JAVERT] Now bring me prisoner 24601. Your time is up and your parole's begun. You know what that means. [VALJEAN] Yes, it means I'm free. [JAVERT] No! It means you get your yellow ticket-of-leave. You are a thief. [VALJEAN] I stole a loaf of bread. [JAVERT] You robbed a house. [VALJEAN] I broke a window pane. (And the music swells) My sister's child was close to death and we were starving. [JAVERT] You will starve again unless you learn the meaning of the law. [VALJEAN] I know the meaning of those 19 years, a slave of the law.
The movie is Les Miserables the musical staring Anne Hathaway and several other. I love this musical, not just for the powerful music but also for the ethical and religious themes with which it works. Usually when bringing this story up as an example in a sermon I would be talking about redemption and our capacity to change. Today, however, I want to talk about the way a criminal justice system can be used as a tool of social control.
I’m not enough of a scholar of the history or the French Revolution to know if the portrayal in Les Mis is accurate but the story certainly sets it up as an unjust justice system. The lead character, Jean Val jean, is sentenced to 5 years for stealing bread and property damage, along with 14 additional years for trying to run when the police came to arrest him. So, 19 years of forced hard labor for stealing food and resisting arrest.
But on top of that, and the story really emphasizes this, for the rest of his life, Val jean is plagued by the ex-convict label. He can’t get decent work, he is kicked out of inns, people do not trust him, he has to report in to every police station regularly. His whole life is defined by being a convict. We who watch this story know it is unfair, unjust. Val jean is a good man but the stigma of being a convict is the only thing the world around him sees.
All this is a literary backdrop to the real point for us today; the point that our U.S. criminal justice system has become a tool for social control. In our reading this morning for Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, she made the bold statement, “we have allowed our criminal justice system to create a new racial undercaste.” Her premise is not just that our criminal justice system in unjust, not just that it is a tool being used to enforce social control rather than justice, not just that it is creating a social class of disposable people in our society, but that all of this is pointedly focused on young black men in our country. Her premise is that mass incarceration is the new form of racial control that picks up where the old Jim Crow laws and practices left off.
That’s quite a bold premise, don’t you think? I suggest you read the book to get a sense of it yourself. It’s a remarkably easy read given the topic. The UUA has selected it for its Common Read this year. And I’ve been surprised to hear how many people have been reading it. “Oh, yes, I’m reading that book,” people say when I mentioned it as the premise for my sermon. I have been a little surprised to hear from 19- and 20-year-olds I know telling me about this book, and not just because they were assigned The New Jim Crow for a class. Our congregation’s Book Group will be using this book for its topic in April, keep an eye out for their invitation to join in the discussion.
Jim Crow, the original Jim Crow, was a system of laws, customs and practices that effectively trapped African Americans into a second class status that authorized legal discrimination against them. Despite the triumph of emancipation and the end of slavery in 1863, a new system of legal practices and social norms arose to keep African Americans relegated to second-class status in our society. The popular narrative that arose reflecting on the Civil Rights efforts of the 1960’s is that we have fought and won against the Jim Crow laws and norms of segregation, and a new day of colorblindness has dawned in our nation. ‘The issue of race is dead and we are now colorblind,’ this version of the tale tells us. ‘Witness the election of our nation’s first black president.’
As a side note, I will echo Michelle Alexander’s warning: the myth of colorblindness and black exceptionalism does not negate the prevalent reality of racism in our country; indeed it only hides it thus allowing it to continue unchallenged. The new Jim Crow, Alexander contends, is a system of racial and social control that developed to do the same work as the original Jim Crow: laws, customs and practices that authorize legal discrimination against people of color. This time, it takes the form of mass incarceration.
Let me sketch out how it works as Michelle Alexander tells it in her book. We begin with the Reagan era War on Drugs.
We have over 2 million people in prisons and jails in our country today. As a ratio of incarcerated people to the whole population that is a huge number. Our ratio is the highest in the world. We imprison more people at a higher ratio than countries that are considered highly repressive such as Russia, China, and Iran (p6).
Between 1960 and 1990, for example, official crime rates in Finland, Germany, and the United States were close to identical. Yet the U.S. incarceration rate quadrupled, the Finnish rate fell by 60%, and the German rate was stable in that period. (p7)
That alone would be enough for us to claim we have a problem. But notice another startling statistic. 40% of incarcerated people are African American. Yet African Americans make up only 13% in general population. We “imprison a larger percentage of [our] black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington D.C. … it is estimated that three out of four young black men can expect to serve time in prison.” (p6-7)
Time and again it is noted that the dramatic increase in our prison population has been largely due to the War on Drugs with it’s mandatory sentencing and ‘three strikes your out’ policy. When I was looking for supporting information online I saw a graph of prison population that grows slowly for a long time, keeping pace with general population growth, and then suddenly in the 80’s it climbs sharply and doesn’t quit. We went from 300,000 to 2 million in less than 30 years. Our prisons expanded exponentially because our government chose to see criminal activity in what is more accurately a public health problem.
A significant majority of the increase in arrests at the start of the War on Drugs was for marijuana. The cliché that marijuana is a gateway drug is of course a falsehood, except if you see the gateway as the entre into mass incarceration. Young black men are arrested and tried for possession of marijuana, and they are now on the books with a conviction. That one conviction can easily turn into a felony and you now have people who are serving 25 years in prison for non-violent crimes like sale and possession of marijuana. Sure, pot is a gateway drug. Not into use of harder drugs but into the criminal justice system. Even if people in this situation never commit a violent crime, they can be plagued all their life. “Prisoner 24601, your time is up and your parole’s begun, you know what that means?” “Yes it means I’m free” “No.” No, being released from prison does not mean people are free. Once labeled a drug criminal, they are relegated to second class status permanently. They will continue to be legally discriminated against in terms of employment and housing, access to education and public assistance, as well as their rights to vote and serve on a jury – rights which are legally removed from them.
But all that, in and of itself, while problematic is not the extent of the problem. The large scope is that black people are being incarcerated from drug related crime in grossly disproportionate rates from white people. And it’s not that black people use and sell drugs more and are therefore arrested more. Decades of studies consistently show that people of color do not use or sell drugs at higher rates than do white people. White people use and sell drugs just as much, but don’t get arrested or convicted as often.
There is decades of evidence to show that, despite the myth of colorblindness, there is a huge racial disparity at every level of the system “from initial stop, search, and arrest to plea bargaining and sentencing.” (P 17) All we get from the myth of colorblindness is that race is ostensibly not a consideration and therefore the courts will not hear an appeal against the criminal justice system on the basis of race. But the numbers are clear: it is a fact that African Americans are disproportionately represented in the prison population. If it’s not due to a commensurate disproportion in crime rates, than to what is it due?
Or to ask the question another way: What is the purpose of our prisons? Certainly not to reform. Our ‘Correctional Facilities’ have not served for decades (if ever) with the intention of ‘correcting’ or reforming those who are incarcerated. Correction and reform happen and even happen intentionally – but that is not the real point or things would be structured differently.
I remember conversations I had with a man in prison who was trying very hard to get his life together, trying hard to reform. I remember saying something about how at least in prison he is forced to go clean from the drugs. He smiled sadly at my ignorance saying, “There are not many places in our country where it is easier to get drugs than prison. For the right price I could get my hands on just about any drug I wanted in here.”
I don’t know the ins and outs of prisons but it seems to me that if our ‘correctional facilities’ really wanted to ‘correct’ drug users they would have the means to at least make it hard to obtain drugs in prison. My point circles back to the question of what prisons are for if they are not for reforming prisoners.
They are not a deterrent to crime – there are a multitude of studies showing that point. Do they serve the purpose of simply warehousing people our society considers disposable? Is it to build and maintain a workforce that is more cost-effective than shipping jobs overseas? Is it the new system of Jim Crow? The premise of Michelle Alexander’s book is that the system of mass incarceration is the latest form of systemic racism in our long history of systemic racism as a nation.
And here is the insidious trick that I fall into, that I am sure many well-intentioned liberal white people fall into. My theology, my world view, is dominated by the belief that all people are created equal and that I and every other inherently worthy person can choose actions that are constructive or destructive. Yes, I make mistakes. Yes, I can spiral into destructive patterns and choices because of unhealthy things in my life, in my heart, in my spirit. But ultimately, I am the captain of my life; I am responsible for my lot.
Further, I would never knowingly participate in discrimination against a person of color. I work at not being a bystander not just in terms of racism but against bigotry and discrimination and hate in all its varied and ugly forms. But systemic oppression is a different animal. Systemic racism has little to do with my personal choices and my capacity to effect my situation.
Or let me ask it like this: are all of those people in prison for non-violent drug-related felonies caught in the system simply because they made their choices. You do the crime, you serve the time; you made your bed, not you’ve got to lie in it. They didn’t “Just say No.” Think about it for a minute. I believe my life is in my control, moving according the personal choices I make. Why would it be any different for a person of color who sold and smokes pot and is not in prison? This is the trick we liberals tend to fall into.
Individual choice is not a significant aspect in the big picture, it is about systemic injustice. Surely the evidence of racially disproportionate arrests and convictions for African Americans is enough to make us pause and consider Michelle Alexander’s critique. Young black men are in particular are routinely arrested and convicted for a public health issue masquerading as a crime. They then carry the label and stigma that keeps them relegated to second class status in and out of the actual prison bars for the rest of their lives. “I know the meaning of those 19 years, a slave of the law.”
Alexander calls for a new Civil Rights movement to respond to the new Jim Crow of mass incarceration. Too many people are not seeing the connection between criminal justice reform and racism. Any attempt to reform the criminal justice system without an intentional focus on race will be misguided because the primary purpose of the criminal justice system today is not to prevent crime. If anything, our current system seems better suited to creating more crime.
Michelle Alexander urges us to question this. Alexander urges us to connect the dots, to get uncomfortable with the way things are, to stop being colorblind.
Fifty years ago, James Baldwin wrote:
I can conceive of no Negro native to this country who has not, by the age of puberty, been irreparably scarred by the conditions of his life … The wonder is not that so many are ruined but that so many survive.
He was talking about Jim Crow segregation and the situation and circumstances that led to the 60’s civil rights movement. But how apt his words still are today. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “There are some things in our social system to which we ought to be mal adjusted.”
Near the end of her book Michelle Alexander writes:
We have allowed ourselves to be willfully blind to the emergence of a new caste system – a system of social excommunication that has denied millions of African Americans basic human dignity. The significance of this cannot be overstated, for the failure to acknowledge the humanity and dignity of all persons has lurked at the root of every racial caste system. (p259)
Alexander urges us to connect the dots, to get uncomfortable with the way things are, to stop being colorblind. She urges us to begin a new movement to end this new Jim Crow. And if Martin Luther King Jr. was right about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, then a new movement will arise and the next generation will see more justice and freedom then is known today.
In a world without end
May it be so.