Thursday, June 20, 2013

An Introduction to Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow"

by Matthew T. Avery
Member, Kimball Avenue Church

[Note: This introduction to The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness was prepared By Matthew T. Avery for a discussion by Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance member congregations.]

The title, The New Jim Crow, is provocative. How can there be a new Jim Crow after the victories of the Civil Rights Movement and with policies like Affirmative Action in place? The central argument is this: the War on Drugs and mass incarceration has replaced Jim Crow as a system of legalized discrimination and racial control. Dr. Alexander lays out a very nuanced and convincing case in support of this claim.

Here is an excerpt from the book that well illustrates the thesis (The New Jim Crow, p. 1):
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.

Cotton’s story illustrates, in many respects, the old adage “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
And if the reader is tempted to see the term “mass incarceration?” as more hyperbole Dr. Alexander describes the shocking degree to which our prison population has exploded (p. 7):
In less than thirty years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 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….
This is a quintupling of the prison population in less than thirty years. And this increase in incarceration has not risen along with crime rates (p. 7):
Today, due to recent declines, U.S. crime rates have dipped below the international norm. Nevertheless, the United States how boasts an incarceration rate that is six to ten times greater than that of other industrialized nations.
And yet more hard facts (pp. 6, 7):
No other country in the world imprisons so many of it racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.

And in major US cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records are are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.
Studies have consistently shown that across ethnicities, drug use and selling happens at very close rates. And yet, in some states 80 to 90 percent of those sent to prison under drug laws are African American. What Dr. Alexander calls the “wave of punitiveness” that has swept our nation has hit poor and minority communities, not college campuses, or middle-class white neighborhoods, where rates of drug use and selling are just as high.

Here is an example of what can happen once branded a felon, innocence notwithstanding (p. 97):
Imagine you are Emma Faye Stewart, a thirty-year-old, single African American mother of two who was arrested as part of a drug sweep in Hearne, Texas. All but one of the people arrested were African American. You are innocent. After a week in jail, you have no one to care for your two small children and are eager to get home. Your court-appointed attorney urges you to plead guilty to a drug distribution charge, saying the prosecutor has offered probation. You refuse, steadfastly proclaiming your innocence. Finally, after almost a month in jail, you decide to plead guilty so you can return home to your children. Unwilling to risk a trial and years of imprisonment, you are sentenced to ten years probation and ordered to pay $1,000 in fines, as well as court and probation costs. You are also now branded a drug felon. You are no longer eligible for food stamps; you may be discriminated against in employment; you cannot vote for at least twelve years; and you are about to be evicted from public housing. Once homeless, your children will be taken from you and put in foster care.

A judge eventually dismisses all cases against the defendants who did not plead guilty. At trial, the judge finds that the entire seep was based on the testimony of a single informant who lied to the prosecution. You, however, are still a drug felon, homeless, and desperate to regain custody of your children.
Once ensnared in the system of mass incarceration it is almost impossible to escape it. There is little, if any, forgiveness. Once you’ve “done your time” and “paid your debt to society” you might actually continue to pay the rest of your life.

This book is full of bad news. While reading I was anxious to learn what Dr. Alexander might offer in the way of a solution. She contends that a patchwork of legal reforms will not suffice and that nothing less than a massive broad-based movement for human rights, and for an end to mass incarceration, will effectively counter this gross injustice currently taking place in our society. Now is the time to end the War on Drugs and mass incarceration.

[To learn more about this book, see A Painful, Unnecessary, Inhuman Practice: Caging America’s Young Adults by Leslie Willis]

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Call for Chicago Area Lutheran Churches to Work Against Violence

The following resolution was passed at the 2013 Assembly of the Metro Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), of which First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Logan Square and St. Luke's Lutheran Church of Logan Square are members.


WHEREAS, according to published crime data from the uniform crime reports in seven categories collected by the FBI and from local law enforcement agencies, Chicago has one of the highest crime rates in America compared to all communities of all sizes and,

WHEREAS, there has continued to be an increase in violent crime (forcible rape, murder, non-negligent manslaughter, armed robbery, aggravated assault, and assault with a deadly weapon), and

WHEREAS, there is good evidence to suggest that non-police resources can play an important role in reducing crime rates, and

WHEREAS, economic violence among young people who don’t have jobs or an education or enough to eat leads to violence in the streets of our communities, and

WHEREAS, the church in all communities has a mission to work toward peace and justice, therefore be it

RESOLVED, that a Bishop’s Advisory Group be established to be a resource for individuals, congregations, and communities who seek ways to transform the culture of violence and drug and substance abuse through methods such as mentoring programs, intentional training in non-violence, community involvement, and other partnerships in their community and that April 4th be designated as Metropolitan Chicago Synod Anti-Violence Day.

RESOLVED, that congregations and individuals of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod be encouraged to share ideas and resources with each other that seek to prevent violence in our communities, and be it further

RESOLVED, that the congregations and individuals of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod commit to working toward changes in public policy issues which impact violence.

Submitted by:

Metropolitan Chicago Synod Council