Jesus and Jim Crow

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.”

~Matthew 18:10, RSV

States began enacting what came to be known as “Jim Crow” laws – laws that institutionalized racial segregation – shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the enslaved Africans in secessionist states, which shortly led to the full abolition of slavery, and made a whole lot of “white folks” very unhappy. The Jim Crow Laws that were legitimized in the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson that coined the phrase “separate but equal” – separate drinking fountains and schools for “whites” and “coloreds,” laws that ensured white people and “people of color” didn’t have to sit together on buses, in theaters, or in restaurants were common, especially in the South. Of course, while they were separate they were not equal.

I had the good fortune to attend a program last week sponsored by California Faith Action, an alliance of interfaith groups and concerned individuals trying to correct injustices in California’s education and criminal justice systems. The featured speaker was Dr. Michelle Alexander – civil rights lawyer, college professor, author, and activist. Her 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness causes anyone who reads it and is paying attention to look at what has been happening in the United States in the last few decades in a new and darker light – no pun intended – and admit that the system itself has been designed and moderated to keep people of color “in their place.” The reality may be hidden behind “law and order” and “zero tolerance” rhetoric but it is every bit as racist as the segregationist and discriminatory laws of previous centuries.

I don’t want to restate everything I read in Dr. Alexander’s book. Read it. I don’t want to regurgitate everything I heard at last week’s event from Rod McGowan of CADRE, a grassroots effort to improve the schools in South Los Angeles. But there are a few points from the program last week that I want to share, to give you something to think about.

In a workshop titled the School to Prison Pipeline Mr. McGowan talked about something called “push out,” a concept that contrasts with the idea that students “drop out” of school. He said students don’t wake up one day and decide for no reason to quit school, but they are pushed out when “the environment in school is such that students don’t feel comfortable coming back.” He also shared some embarrassing statistics:

  • In California, the annual spending on a juvenile inmate is around $218,000; the annual spending on education per child is $7,500.
  • There have been 33 prisons built in California since 1998 but only three universities.

Michelle Alexander, a persuasive writer and an engaging speaker, had her own disturbing statistics to share. (Again, I recommend that you read her book.) She said we now have more African Americans in the criminal justice system in this country than were enslaved in 1850. Rates of imprisonment have risen 1,000% since Ronald Reagan declared a “War on Drugs” in 1982. That isn’t a typo – one thousand percent. With nonviolent drug offenses classed as felonies, Dr. Alexander says, young men can be “rendered permanently unemployable” before they’re old enough to vote. When they’re paroled they can’t find jobs, they don’t qualify for food stamps, and if their family lives in public housing they can’t even go home without putting everyone at risk of eviction. Where are they supposed to go? What are they supposed to do?

Dr. Alexander said, “We have to create safe places in our churches and faith communities where people feel welcome.” That’s a step in the right direction. We also have to make our voices heard and call on the government, in the liberative language of the Exodus and the Civil Rights Movement… “Let my people go!”

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