The reading this morning comes from The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. She writes,
The impact of the drug war has been astounding. In less than 30 years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than two million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the United States, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000.
The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison. Similar rates of incarceration can be found in black communities across America.
These stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime. Studies show that people of all colors use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color. This is not what one would guess, however, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, which are overflowing with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men. And in major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These young men are part of a growing undercaste, permanently locked up and locked out of mainstream society. [p. 6-7]
I want you to create a mental image of a drug dealer. Take a moment and hold that image while I tell you a true story.
At the beginning of my ministry here, one of the things I did for fun was to volunteer for an oral history project. I was trained in the techniques of oral history and I was assigned to interview a gentleman who lived in a rural area outside of one of Kansas’ university towns. I drove out to his home on a Saturday morning and he invited me to sit on his backyard patio. “Can I offer you something,” he asked me. “Coffee, tea, water, soft drink, a joint?” I graciously accepted the cup of coffee. It was at that point that it dawned on me that this man had a small marijuana growing operation in his wooded backyard.
There’s not really anything more to this story. But, be honest with me. How many of you were holding a mental image of a white guy in his sixties with a Ph.D. and who also happens to be a respected member of the community? Be honest.
This morning’s sermon is inspired by a book I read earlier this year, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. It was a New York Times bestseller and has been called the most important book about racial justice in the past decade. Alexander is a law professor at the Ohio State University with a dual appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. She will also be a guest speaker at our denomination’s General Assembly a little more than a week from now and I look forward to having the chance to hear her and hopefully to meet her.
In the month of April, at least three different Unitarian Universalist ministers preached sermons on Alexander’s book. All three sermons – one in Iowa, one in Illinois, and one in Oklahoma – were delivered, interestingly enough, by white guys about my age. All three sermons beautifully summarized the arguments of Alexander’s book. I am going to take a slightly different course and speak about the connection between the subject matter of Alexander’s book and the day-to-day lives of members of Unitarian Universalist congregations. Before we talk about the lived experience of African Americans who are victimized by the war on drugs, let me first say a few words about my own experience and about my own privilege. You might ask yourself if your experience, or the experience of members of your family, has parallels with my own. I grew up in a town where there was certainly some level of illegal drug use, although I didn’t encounter drugs until I went to college. I went to a liberal arts college with a reputation for its open and laissez-affair attitude towards drug use. Even though I wasn’t one to seek out drugs, I learned what was common knowledge among most students – the smart kid in my Humanities seminar was doing a brisk business selling hallucinogens from his dorm room, ecstasy was being dealt out of that dorm, those students were rumored to be doing more than just their homework in the chemistry lab.
The cost of all of this could be measured in wasted brain cells, measured in wasted tuition dollars, or, sadly, measured in lives damaged by drug abuse and addiction. The cost for my college peers, however, was never measured in jail time, legal fees, prosecution, or the long term consequences of a criminal record.
To go back to the story about the university professor, it should not be at all surprising that this would be where I would encounter drugs. Michelle Alexander writes, “Studies consistently indicate that drug markets, like American society generally, reflect our nation’s racial and socioeconomic boundaries. Whites tend to sell to whites; blacks to blacks. University students tend to sell to each other. Rural whites, for their part, don’t make a special trip to the ‘hood to purchase marijuana.” [p. 99-100] We know that many areas of American life remain segregated; drug dealing is one of those areas.
I think it is absolutely essential to name privilege at the outset, before we launch into a discussion about the New Jim Crow and the war on drugs. I want you to imagine a world in which police show up to do locker searches at Shawnee Mission East High School. I want you to imagine a world in which police descend on the Town Center Plaza on a Saturday night and stop and frisk those going to the movie theater, in the way that young people of color are stopped and frisked in New York City and elsewhere. I want you to imagine a world in which the police set up a traffic stop along 151st Street and search cars for drugs. And, I want you to imagine a world in which those caught up in these police operations were arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Such a world for us would be unthinkable and we would find it intolerable. Any police chief or prosecutor who tried such a thing around here would soon be looking for a new job. As Michelle Alexander writes, “In every state across our nation, African Americans – particularly in the poorest neighborhoods – are subjected to tactics and practices that would result in public outrage and scandal if committed in middle-class white neighborhoods.” [p. 98]
Michelle Alexander combines passion with devastating evidence to argue that the war on drugs and the modern day criminal justice system creates a system of racialized social control that is analogous to the old Jim Crow system. Alexander begins with a provocative history of one African American family. She writes,
Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises – the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole. [p.1]
Alexander describes a system of racialized social control that does not only affect the 2.3 million incarcerated persons in our nation’s prisons, but also the millions of Americans who find after serving their time that they are perpetually punished. She writes,
The “whites” only sign may be gone, but new signs have gone up – notices placed in job applications, rental agreements, loan applications, forms for welfare benefits, school applications, and petitions for licenses – informing the general public that “felons” are not wanted here. A criminal record today authorizes precisely the forms of discrimination we supposedly left behind – discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service. Those labeled criminals can even be denied the right to vote. [p. 141]
It is an historical fact that “get tough on crime” politics found its ascendancy at the precise moment in our nation’s history when the old Jim Crow system met its defeat at the hands of the civil rights movement. Politicians could no longer explicitly call for racial segregation, but they did develop a coded way of speaking about crime and poverty. The crime rate was actually in decline when Ronald Reagan officially announced the war on drugs in the early 1980s. Since that time, Republicans and Democrats alike have both made it a political point to show that they are tough on crime, even though the policies they support often have a detrimental effect on the communities they claim to be making safe.
Some have balked at the idea that the legal disenfranchisement of criminals today is analogous to the legal disenfranchisement of people of color during the era of Jim Crow. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime, they might say. So, let me be clear. This sermon is not about the legalization of drugs, although I have some very definite opinions on the matter. Nor is this sermon about the ethics and morality of drug use, although I do have some particular opinions on this matter as well. No, this sermon is about justice.
If whites make up about two-thirds of the adult population in the United States, and if study after study shows that whites are more likely to use and sell drugs than people of color, then a just enforcement of our nation’s laws would mean that roughly three out of four people in prison for drug crimes should be white. Nationwide, an African American man is thirteen times more likely to go to prison for a drug offense than a white man. According to Human RightsWatch, in not one single state in the nation are whites incarcerated for drug crimes at a rate that matches their percentage of the population at large. In fact, “in seven states African Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison.” [p. 98] If Jake, Dylan, and Amy went to prison at the same rates as Jamal, Darnell, and Aisha, we would consider it outrageous and intolerable. The system would be changed and the legal consequences of drug use would be altered. To say that the law is the law is to use rhetoric that is hollow. Americans would not accept these laws if the laws were enforced fairly.
While I was reading Elizabeth Alexander’s book, I had a vivid memory of an experience from years earlier. During grad school I received an invitation from my undergraduate institution. My college’s president was coming to Boston and there was going to be a reception for alumni living in the Boston area. There was a question and answer session and someone asked him to comment on steps the college could take to make the student body more racially diverse. His answer was brutally honest and quite memorable. He said that his admissions staff spoke with the parents of students of color who chose another school. What they heard back was that the college’s laissez-affair and tolerant approach to drug use was a major strike against the college in the eyes of minority families. The narrative that says that experimenting with recreational drug use in your late teens and early twenties is a rite of passage to be regarded with a lighthearted spirit, a wink and a nod, is a narrative of privilege that is out of touch with the lived reality of many people of color. For them, as they had instilled into their children, there was no room for error and one slip was all it took for opportunities to close forever. According to my college president, parents of prospective students of color told the admissions officers that it felt as though the college didn’t really understand the world they were coming from.
The war on drugs, the new Jim Crow, is a system that harms whites as well as people of color. It is a system that harms whites in more ways than just serving as an impediment to visions of diversity, pluralism, and multiculturalism. Scholars have pointed out the way in which the old Jim Crow system, like slavery before it, made use of what is called the “racial bribe.” The “racial bribe” gave poor whites a sense of superiority over blacks and the price of the bribe was to side with the white wealthy elite. Michelle Alexander argues that the war on drugs, the mass incarceration of people of color as a form of racialized control, functions as another form of a racial bribe. She writes, “In retrospect, it seems clear that nothing could have been more important in the 1970s and 1980s than finding a way to create a durable, interracial, bottom-up coalition for social and economic justice to ensure that another caste system did not emerge from the ashes of Jim Crow.” [p. 256]
What are we to do? There are so many issues of importance that tug at us. These issues are environmental and economic. They involve ending oppression based on race, gender, nationality, religion, and sexual orientation. They involve issues of peace and civil liberties and civil rights, not to mention the day to day work to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and care for the sick.
I would urge you to read Michelle Alexander’s book. Her arguments are powerful and persuasive and may change the way you see the world and your own story. Share this book with your friends. Social movements need a large group of people who do not find the world as it is to be acceptable. You can become one of those people, if you are not already.
Through reading this book and others like it, we also grow in an awareness of our own privilege, of the ways in which the story of our own life is not universal. Such growth and self-understanding is necessary if we are to build the world we dream about and be the community we dream about. Such learning is incredibly important if we would be one.
Let us continue to find a deeper wholeness, a connection between our own story and the story of our world. Let us connect soul with earth. May we turn caravans of despair into journeys of passion, connection, integrity, and insight. With these deep yearnings, let us go forth.