|The New Jim Crow|
|Thursday, February 07 2013 12:15|
Dr. Michelle Alexander argues that we have allowed a new system of oppression and control over the African American population to replace the Jim Crow legal system. It operates through the War on Drugs and the criminal justice system. Her carefully documented work is compelling. Unlike the old system of legal, race-based segregation, that many of us worked so hard to dismantle, the New Jim Crow makes no mention of race. Its’ language is “color blind.” Yet the results are much the same. The New Jim Crow poses significant spiritual issues for the progressive community.
Many of you went to hear Dr. Alexander last month when she spoke at Emmanuel Temple, an event supported in part by First Church. Last night 65 members of our community gathered to learn more and reflect further. There was real energy for us to engage these issues.
Two things stood out for me:
First, there is the sense of disappointment and even failure that we have to confront. We have been celebrating the progress we made in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960’s for many years. We’ve been defending Affirmative Action and, recently, celebrating our first African American President. We never believed, at least most of us, that our work on race was done. But we have wanted to believe that those battles of the Civil Rights era had, in fact, moved us toward the Beloved Community. Now we have to acknowledge that the system of racism simply changed, morphed, in response to those victories and we need to gather the energy to work yet again for the cause of simple justice.
Second, we need to find our religious voice in this new era, when many of the decisions we face will be framed in financial terms. Here is an example of what I mean. Gov. Kitzhaber, in dealing with Oregon’s budget problems, has proposed significant changes in the state’s approach to incarceration. To continue doing what we have been doing, incarcerating more and more citizens for long periods, would require the construction of 2,300 more prison beds at a cost of $600,000,000. Kitzhaber wants to hold the prison population stable, arguing that we simply cannot afford to invest that kind of money in prisons.
Mandatory minimum sentencing will need to change, as will other elements of the current system.
I think those changes are in the right direction. But the First Church members who gathered last night were clear that budget driven changes, though we may support them, should not be our primary concern in regard to broad and systemic issue. Changing our system because we cannot afford it does not raise the human impact of the system. It is saying that we would continue if we only had the money. For religious people that cannot be enough.
The New Jim Crow operates even here in Oregon as this chart showing incarceration rates by race shows quite clearly. The proportion of African Americans in Oregon is small, compared to the national picture, of course. There are historical reasons for that and we all need to learn more about that history. But the New Jim Crow is alive and well here.
There was significant energy in the group last night to organize around this issue. I’ll be convening a second session to begin that effort, and to begin reaching out to other groups here in Portland who are already at work on these issues.
But the first priority is for us all to educate ourselves. As Dr. Alexander said:
How do we build upon the work that we have already done? How do we turn piecemeal policy reform work into a genuine movement for racial and social justice in America?
Well, first, I think, we've got to be willing to tell the truth. The whole truth. We have got to be willing to say out loud that we, as a nation, have managed to rebirth a caste-like system in America. And we've got to be willing to tell that truth in our churches, in our community centers, in our schools, in prisons, in re-entry centers. We have got to be able to tell this truth, rather than dressing it up, massaging it, trying to make it appear that it's something other than it is. Until we state who we are, and what we have done, we will never break this cycle of creating caste-like systems in America.
There is much we need to learn. What does the New Jim Crow mean in Oregon where the population of persons of color is so much smaller than in most other places? Despite the disproportionate impact on persons of color, our prison populations are overwhelmingly white. How does our system of incarceration impact our Latino and Native American neighbors? How does it impact the white community?
The New Jim Crow is the UUA’s “common read” book this year. It is available in our First Church Bookstore. Video of Dr. Alexander’s presentation at the UUA’s General Assembly last June is a good introduction
“To tell the truth.” It is the right starting place for a religious community.
I hope, and pray, that there will be more to say about this issue as we move forward.
|Last Updated on Monday, February 11 2013 09:53|