The New Jim Crow: Race and Theology

As part of my Seminary’s Anti-Racism Workshop this year, we invited the students [and the whole community] to read The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander; and boy, I'm glad we did!  I hadn't read it before, and if you haven’t read it yet, put down this blog and go start reading it right now:  it’s eye-opening, thought-provoking, frustrating, and discouraging—and absolutely a must-read if you want to get a better understanding of how deeply entrenched racism is in this country, and how we have been conditioned to overlook it and accept it.

Her thesis is simple:  the current criminal justice system in the United States functions as a contemporary system of racial control through mass incarceration [specifically as a result of the “War on Drugs”]; and relegates millions of [primarily] African-American men to permanent second class status.  And the point of the book is equally straightforward:  “What this book is intended to do—the only thing it is intended to do—is to stimulate a much-needed conversation about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States” [16].  But as you might imagine, that’s not a discussion that is easy to start.

As one of the first steps, we have to confront some well-entrenched stereotypes that actually are false.  Some examples:
·         “Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino” [98].
·         “The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported in 2000 that white youth aged 12-17 are more than a third more likely to have sold illegal drugs than African American youth” [99].
·         “…violent crime rates have fluctuated over the years and bear little relationship to incarceration rates...” [101].
·         “In New Jersey, the data showed that only 15% of all drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike were racial minorities, yet 42% of all stops and 73% of all arrests were of black motorists—despite the fact that blacks and whites violated traffic laws at almost exactly the same rate” [133].  Maryland showed similar statistics.  “What surprised many analysts was that, in both studies, whites were actually more likely than people of color to be carrying illegal drugs or contraband in their vehicles” [133].  In New Jersey, the rate was almost twice as high.
·         “Research by Boston College social psychologist Rebekah Levine Coley found that black fathers not living at home are more likely to keep in contact with their children than fathers of any other ethnic or racial group” [179].
·         “The mass incarceration of people of color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery” [180].

Shocking, isn't it?  It’s hard to admit that the world isn't what you thought it was—and established societal systems aren't what you thought they were, either.

These issues are deeply theological, of course, and the church needs to be much, much more vocal with a prophetic word of critique and hope at the intersection of theology and race—and this is especially true of the Lutheran Church, which so often and in so many places seems quite content in its white homogeneity.  Let me offer a few places of entry into that theological conversation.

1.       All human beings are equally sinful; and sin is not first and foremost the result of individual moral [or immoral] actions.  Part of what continues to undergird both the justification for the War on Drugs, and even more the dominant narrative around class identity in society as a whole, is the blaming of the poor for their poverty:  assuming things like homelessness and joblessness are the result of individual character defects, rather than systemic failures.  Related to this is the temptation to play off the “deserving” poor against the “undeserving,” justifying public assistance only for those who try/work/beg/grovel hard enough. Poor people are not poor because they are lazy, stupid or deceitful; and rich people are not rich because they are industrious, smart and truthful.  That’s called self-justification, and it’s a lie.

2.      Sin is structural, and points to far more than any individual’s single thoughts or actions.  Racism is about much more than my personal feelings or deeds; it’s about a whole culture that reinforces negative assumptions that cast suspicion on African Americans.  [Alexander shares Kathryn Russell’s term “criminalblackman”—all one word— to indicate how deeply felt and immediate such suspicions are.]  In addition, racism points to the fact that I have white privilege whether I want it or not, and my light skin gives me countless advantages in our society that I did not earn and do not deserve.  “The quotation commonly attributed to Nietzsche that ‘there is no immaculate perception’ perfectly captures how cognitive schemas—thought structures—influence what we notice and how the things we notice get interpreted” [106]. 

       In this context, Alexander also shares one of the clearest, most helpful images for this structural sin that I have ever come across:  the “birdcage metaphor” as described by Iris Marion Young.  “If one thinks about racism by examining only one wire of the cage, or one form of disadvantage, it is difficult to understand how and why the bird is trapped.  Only a large number of wires arranged in a specific way, and connected to one another, serve to enclose the bird and to ensure that it cannot escape” [184].

3.      Shame is a terrible burden, from which we are freed by God’s gracious love and forgiveness.  The stigma of incarceration is born like the mark of Cain for the rest of one’s life, as it often leads to a lifetime ban on voting and jury duty, and prevents many kinds of housing assistance and employment.  “The shame and stigma that follows you for the rest of your life—that is the worst” [161].  This shame also leads to self-hate, which then itself leads to silence, humiliation, and self-fulfilling prophecies regarding one’s own unworthiness and depravity.  “The harm done by this social silence is more than interpersonal.  The silence—driven by stigma and fear of shame—results in a repression of public thought, a collective denial of lived experience….It also makes community healing and collective political action next to impossible” [169].

4.      You can’t love what you can’t see.  Many people today think that not “seeing” color is a very enlightened position to take, because it points to the idea that race “doesn't matter:” we don’t care if someone is black or white.  However, Alexander won’t let us off the hook so easily:  “It is precisely because we, as a nation, have not cared much about African Americans that we have allowed our criminal justice system to create a new racial undercaste” [241].  In this way, Alexander points out the dangers of setting up “colorblindness” as an ideal:  “Seeing race is not the problem.  Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. …We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, earn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love.  That was King’s dream—a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love.  That is a goal worth fighting for” [244].  Amen to that.

I could go on and on—it really is a powerful book.  Let me just close with this:  if you haven’t read the book, read it.  If you have read it, share it.  If you have shared it, get a group together and talk about it.  There is still so much work to do—let’s be a part of it.