Justice Like Water

“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.”

This is how Michelle Alexander, a professor of law at The Ohio State University, begins her book entitled, “The New Jim Crow.” Her argument, not without controversy, is that we as a nation have not left behind the racial discrimination of the Jim Crow era. She argues that instead of discriminating based on race, our system of justice classifies large numbers of black people, especially black men, as criminals, making it perfectly legal to discriminate against them as felons. She argues that “we have not ended [the racial caste system] in America; we have merely redesigned it.” And from everything I’ve seen, I have to agree with her.

Tomorrow we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day, remembering the life of an important American who helped our country regain – or maybe gain – its conscience. And it’s tempting for me, the Sunday before we celebrate his life, to simply affirm his call for justice. To tell you that it’s not enough just to say we want equality – we actually have to work for it. But if I don’t make the case that racism still exists even here in this building, then I’d be as responsible as a firefighter who comes to a house engulfed in flames and installs a smoke detector. The truth is, our house is on fire. Racism is here, it’s something I’ve witnessed personally, and it’s something I’ve been wanting to speak out about for a few months now.

We’re used to thinking of racism as discrimination based on the color of skin, which is something that’s now nearly universally despised. When the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers was caught on tape telling his girlfriend not to associate with black people, we’re all appalled by it. And we pat ourselves on the back for not saying such racist things. For one thing, we probably think too highly of ourselves. Too often, we’re “racist buts” – which happens whenever you begin a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…” Those sentences generally don’t end well. But racism goes deeper than that. As the saying goes, sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. The sin of racism that calls out loudest to American Christians for repentance is not the speaking of racist words, but the enforcement and legitimization of racist policies. Those racist policies are found in the way we arrest, incarcerate, and stigmatize people of color. This racist system is referred to as “mass incarceration.”

In the early seventies, as you may remember, fewer than 350,000 people were imprisoned in the United States. There was, in fact, a movement to establish a society without prisons, full of people convinced by overwhelming evidence that prisons did more to create and enhance crime than to deter it. As of 2003, thought, the number of Americans in prison increased by over 600% to 2 million people. Today, the only other country in the world that comes anywhere near our rate of incarceration is Russia, where you are much less likely to be in jail than here, in the land of the free. Today, we put a greater percentage of our black citizens in jail than South Africa did at the height of apartheid, when overtly racist policies were supported and enforced in that country.

But criminals deserve to be punished, right? That’s what justice means, isn’t it? Not according to Amos.  For Amos, justice doesn’t mean punishment of criminals. It doesn’t even mean the restoration of proper theology or better worship services. Amos doesn’t care if you show up to church every week, if you have the books of the Bible memorized, or if you do your devotionals every day. Amos wants you to see the ways people around you are treated unfairly, and to do something about it.

So we must be willing to open our eyes. We have to be willing to seek good and not evil – not to ignore evil, not to punish evil, but to seek good. We have to look beyond the fact that we have a black president, we have to look beyond the fact that black men and women we the highest echelons of society, because when society tells us, “Racism can’t exist if America elected a black president,” it’s trying to immunize us against an infection of racial justice. With our eyes focused on Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, we miss how the War on Drugs has disenfranchised more black people than Jim Crow, how it was more likely that a black man would be able to vote in 1870, five years after the civil war ended, than it is today.

How is this possible? Because it’s all perfectly legal, and we all support it. When a black man – or anyone, for that matter – is arrested, tried, and put in jail for drug-related offenses, we applaud a system that attempts to reduce drug use. They’ve broken the law, they’ve harmed our society, and now they’re paying the price, all of which is perfectly fair.

But how, then, does Luzerne County Correctional Facility have a population that is 23% black, when Luzerne County has a population that is only 5% black?

Certainly, because black people are more likely to be poor, and black and poor people are more likely to use drugs, nonviolent drug offences being the largest cause of incarceration. But the US Department of Health tells us that blacks and whites use and sell drugs at the exact same rates, and Hispanics are less likely than either to use drugs! In fact, white youth are more likely than just about any other group to use drugs – but black youth are far more likely to get arrested. How, then, can we justify putting such a high percentage of black people in prison that many black boys expect – not just fear, but expect – to be incarcerated? We can’t justify it, because it’s not just. And it’s tearing our community apart.

We naturally associate drugs with black people and assume that a black person with tattoos and a t-shirt is a criminal. We have no tolerance for black people who break the law, but white people who do are seen as needing help to get better. We have become so accustomed to racist stereotypes of drug use that we can’t tell the difference between making fun of them and reinforcing them.

But the stereotypes have a further impact than just offending people – those stereotypes translate into longer, harsher sentences for criminals of color. While a white male teen can expect to escape two or even three cocaine possession charges with a few years in prison, a black male teen has been significantly more likely to be sentenced to life in prison, due to vastly different sentencing for crack and powder cocaine – though this has changed recently. Discretion throughout the system of justice allows police to stop and search any car – or to not search any car – based on whether they think drugs might be around. You can be pulled over for going one mile an hour over the speed limit and arrested on suspicion that drugs are present and have your car impounded, without any proof that drugs are indeed present. Which is not a problem, except that police tend to suspect drug use in people of color far more often than in white people. I’ve been pulled over for no reason before, and I’ve never had my car searched, but I have black friends who can’t say the same thing. And given the fact that the majority of Americans have violated a drug law in their lifetimes, that’s a dangerous thing to allow. Once arrested, prosecutors don’t have any standard of equality in who they choose to prosecute or where they choose to prosecute them. And so, it is far more likely that black men be arrested, brought to trial, and sentenced in a courtroom with disproportionately strict sentencing precedents for drug use.

Even with all of this inequality, the impact would be marginal if black people were allowed to serve their sentence for nonviolent offenses and move on with their lives, their debt to society paid. But there are 5.7 million people on parole in our country today, the majority for drug convictions, with a strong likelihood that parole violations will land them back in prison. And many drug offenders, having served their time, have been labeled felons, even for a single conviction of drug possession. This means that most of their civil rights, like the right to vote which we so often ignore or take for granted, are denied to them, which means they cannot speak for themselves in our government to change the system that is so clearly biased.

I recognize that this is a controversial topic, and that some of you might not agree with how I’ve presented my facts. I’m more than happy to have more discussions about it, because what’s more damaging than anything is when good people like us keep silent. This is the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., whom I have not spoken about much because he wouldn’t have wanted me to talk about him. He would have wanted me to talk about the discrimination against black and brown people that still goes on in our society, he would want me to speak about the injustices perpetrated against poor people of all colors in the name of legalism and the war on drugs. He would have wanted me to point out the Pharisaic hypocrisy of saying that we want to rid our streets of drugs by incarcerating drug users when other nations around the world have done exactly that by treating them as human beings and spending money lost in the prison system on drug treatment and prevention. He would have wanted me to remind you that Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and to release the oppressed. He would have wanted me to remind you that Jesus came to bring recovery of sight to the blind, and that is who we are.

We are blind to the racism that is hidden in our perfectly legal justice system, and it’s time to open our eyes and see sin for what it is – a separation from God that results in separation from our brothers and sisters here on earth. We are not doomed to that separation. Even now, there are people out there, working on bridges between us. Laws are being passed, minds are being changed, decisions are being made. But those who work for justice need our help.

We have a responsibility to speak out – and to do more than speak out, to show up! To vote like we care about our neighbors of color, to hire like we care about them, to spend our money like we care about them, and to treat them as we would want to be treated – to love them as we love ourselves. We have to do this if we want to find ourselves on the side of God’s justice. As Amos reminded the Israelites, the day of the Lord is coming, and if we sit and sing songs and hold services and pretend that’s enough, we will find that God does not come to bring us light, but darkness. If we ignore the call to justice, we will be the ones wailing and lamenting in the streets when God comes, it will be like running from a lion into the waiting arms of a bear, like resting safely inside a house only to be bitten by a snake. It’s time to step into the light. It’s time to offer real worship to God by working for racial and social equality in our community. It’s time to seek good and not evil so that God will breathe new life into our city. It’s time to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.