Sunday, January 13, 2013

The New Jim Crow

A Reading From Dr. Martin Luther King’s Commencement Address at Oberlin College in 1965:

I'm sure that you have read that arresting little story from the pen of Washington Irving entitled Rip Van Winkle. The thing that we usually remember about this story is that Rip Van Winkle slept 20 years. But there is another point in that story that is almost always completely overlooked: it was a sign on the inn in the little town on the Hudson from which Rip went up into the mountain for his long sleep. When he went up, the sign had a picture of King George III of England. When he came down, years later, the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. When Rip looked up at the picture of George Washington, he was completely lost; he knew not who he was. This reveals to us that the most striking fact about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not that he slept 20 years, but that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up on the mountain, a great revolution was taking place in the world - indeed, a revolution which would, at points, change the course of history. And Rip Van Winkle knew nothing about it; he was asleep.
There are all too many people who, in some great period of social change, fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands.  There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.


As most of you know – I was born here in Statesboro in 1950.  I grew up with Jim Crow laws.  But of course, I was among those privileged by those laws.  Nevertheless, I noticed.  I’ve shared with this congregation before my experience at the Dairy Queen in line with my dad when I questioned the need for two lines.  He told me the colored people were in one line and got chocolate ice cream and that we were white and got vanilla ice cream in our line.  Of course, I told him I wanted chocolate.  He told me that I was white and I got vanilla and would just have to accept that – because that’s the way things were.  And I didn’t question him much about the differences after that.  Jim Crow laws were not just about separating folks, though.  They were designed to oppress and keep folks in their place by denying all kinds of privileges.  Then in the 60’s and 70’s, with the help of the Civil Rights Movement and the courts – those laws were thrown out – and Jim Crow was no more – at least not officially and legally. 

But NOW, here’s civil rights activist, author and professor Michelle Alexander claiming that there is a New Jim Crow --- what’s that about?  I’m going to let you hear this in her own voice as she shares the major thesis of her book with this 4 ½ minute audio clip from a talk she gave at our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly.  Preceding this clip she shared with her audience the quote from Dr. King that I shared in our reading this morning about sleeping through the Civil Rights revolution. And then she shares about another more recent revolution – a counter- revolution that many of us have slept through.  Stay awake now – and listen:

“We have not ended racial caste in America – we have merely redesigned it.”
                                                                                    Michelle Alexander

Now Alexander’s book is full of wonderful data in narrative form, and I hope you will read it.  But to make it a little easier for you to grasp what she’s referring to today – I’d like to share some visuals that I’ve gathered from the internet – primarily from a non-profit called “Beyond Bars.”  I subscribe to their Facebook page and therefore have these memes pop up to greet me and challenge me.  Fans of Richard Dawkins will recognize his term meme (spelled m-e-m-e) --- meaning some construct that reproduces through cultural exchange.  And of course, the biggest use of this term now is with internet memes—usually pictures or charts with some pithy facts or sayings that help us to visually understand some concept.  Here are a few of these.

Here are the incarceration rates from 1925 to 2008.  Why the sudden rise?
 Most folks will point to the War on Drugs.

Well, you say maybe its because of an increase in other crimes – property crimes or violent crimes.
 This graph below indicates that is not the case. 

Well – what’s race got to do with it?  Take a look at this comparison. 

Some may ask where have all the young African American men gone? --- Take a look at this graph – comparing by ages?  And of course – when they get out if they are felons, they face another kind of Jim Crow oppression – perfectly legal.

Are more people of color taking drugs? Here’s a meme with an interesting statistic.

And, yes,  I’ve checked these out with various research groups.

Well – this is just the way the world is – you say?  NO – this is just the way of the USA.
Look at this chart comparing our incarceration rates with other countries.  There IS no comparison. 

Here’s a couple of memes that illustrate that.

And these are not for violent crimes.  Here’s another meme with a Michelle Alexander quote:

This one asks what the real cash crop is?  Prisoners!

Why don’t many of these folks do something about this politically?  It’s pretty hard to do when you can’t vote!

If none of these have swayed you  -- perhaps this one will.  "What are the odds that your American dream will end up behind bars?

The effect of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration hit close to home for me this summer while I was on sabbatical.  My son Fred has given me permission to share anything of his life story that may help others – so I’m going to share a little bit of this with you today. 

This is not a picture of Fred, but this fellow and Fred were wearing the same outfit recently.   He wore it the first time though – about a decade ago. Fred was arrested for manufacturing Crystal Meth.  He was deeply addicted himself.  He was fortunate to only spend a little time in jail before being released on probation to a half-way house in Valdosta – but he was a convicted felon for life – having used up his “first offender” possibility when he was just in high school.  He married a woman from Valdosta and stayed clean till recently when their marriage and his work situation went sour.  Because of heated confrontations with his wife, I encouraged him to leave their home in Flagler Beach, FL where they had moved – while she came back to get her things.  He flew to Texas on August 3 to spend a couple of weeks with a friend.  Two days later, he was in a federal detention facility in Texas with huge charges that carried with them 10 years to life in a federal prison because he was the passenger in the truck pulling a piece of farm equipment that had over a ton and a half of marijuana hidden in it.  Long story short, he went through hell and we went through hell.  He declared that he had no knowledge of what was in the equipment, but was indicted.  At first – before I knew the consequences – I thought, well, he made a bad decision in going to Texas and will have to live with it.  But then I found out that these federal drug charges were not like state charges.  There was no probation that let you out early.  And indeed since he had previous drug charges there was a chance for a very long sentence – for him – possibly life-long.  How could this be?  My son may have may have a problem with addiction – but he did not deserve life in prison.  And he was not involved with some drug cartel. He just went out there.  So, I hired a lawyer and we spent most of the rest of my sabbatical going back and forth to Texas – bailing him out then going for arraignment, pretrial hearings, etc.  And listening to Fred tell what went on and seeing others in that courtroom with really no chance – no chance at all -- was enough for me to make sure I no longer stayed on the sidelines of mass incarceration.  Of course, Fred was privileged.  He had a mom who could bail him out – and a lawyer who could talk to the prosecuters and convince them that they did not have a good case against Fred, and it was dropped. 

And Fred was white.  Now that doesn’t mean that white folks are not caught up with all of this insanity.  Indeed Michelle Alexander terms poor whites who are caught in this web as collateral damage --- sacrificed for the “greater good” of the drug war.

I also have been given new insight into the prison system through my relationship with my UU Church of the Larger Fellowship penpal -- Jacob.  Jacob is in a prison in California and we’ve been writing for over a year.  How he remains positive in the midst of what has happened in the prison system is a miracle.  He has shared stories with me that bring tears to my eyes – and I don’t cry easily. 

So why does it seem that nothing is being done?

Well for one thing – because folks who you would think would normally be upset – have been too silent.  The emphasis on civil rights for many has been on things like the continuation of affirmative action for those in more elite positions. Fortunately that is changing.   And then those who really care --  like moms and other family members – are often too ashamed to speak up for their own sons who are in these situations.  I know that feeling. 

Meanwhile, this mass incarceration has evolved into a huge prison industry, with private prisons making a lot of money by keeping prisons full – and then hiring cheap labor out to companies.   And others are making money off of this as well.  And of course they have big lobbies now to make sure this continues.

Quentin Tarontino recently made a movie that Greg and I saw over the holidays called Django that was about slavery – and in an interview with a talk show host, he was bold enough to call compare today’s situation with slavery.  Here are his words about the today’s prison industry and why it continues to exist.

"All the reasons that they had for keeping this going are all the same reasons they have for keeping slavery going after the whole world had pretty much decided that it was immoral. Because it's an industry, one, what are we gonna do with all these people who are let loose, these black people let loose, and two, what are we gonna do about all the people who make money off this industry?"

Michelle Alexander admits that she herself has been asleep while this has happened.
But now she and others are out clanging bells to wake us up!

Will we wake up?

Will we SEE what is happening?

Will we work with others to make a difference?

In his final sermon delivered on in Memphis on Sunday March 31, 1968
King recited that famous protest song we sang earlier and said:

"We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome.
And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

Oh, may it be so!

Amen and Blessed Be