In less than 24 hours the Dominican Republic will begin what is euphemistically being called a “social cleaning.” In this process of state housekeeping, the government will deport over 100,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent in effort to tidy of their immigration rolls. The criteria for this is unjust and appalling, ranging from targeting those with Haitian-sounding names and dark-skin to picking out women who look like prostitutes and considering those to be among the number.
According to an aid worker whose account was published in The Nation, the following is occurring:
“…in the barrios, police trucks have come through to conduct limpiezas (“cleanings,” with the adjective implied: “social cleanings”): “The detained tend to range from intoxicated persons to suspected prostitutes, but are disproportionately Haitian or dark-skinned Dominicans with Haitian facial features. These could just be guys drinking and playing dominos or women standing on street corners. More often, though, they tend to be young men with Haitian features and darker skin. The police usually—usually—detain them for a night and then let them go with a warning.” But, he says, this stepped-up activity is preparation for June 16:
Given the common practice of nightly police sweeps, the government solicitation of passenger buses, the official declaration of intent to pass Law 169-14 without delay on June 16, and the general history of anti-Haitian abuses on the part of law enforcement and government authorities, it is reasonable to assume that the infrastructure is now in place for mass detention and deportation of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent from the Dominican Republic. The general attitude among this vulnerable subpopulation is a mix of fear and resignation.”
The majority of those in danger of being deported are migrant workers who own businesses in DR but there are also families, women, and children who are at risk of being deported to Haiti. Some media sources have referred to the threatened population as “Haitians” but this is a misnomer because the people actually have no connection to Haiti—some having never visited the country—and thus they are being deported to become strangers in a strange land where there aren’t even enough resources for an influx of citizens.
Many are currently scrambling to gain legal residency before today’s 7pm deadline, but they are doing so in the midst of volumes of paperwork and understaffed offices. Even if they are able to get through the paperwork and the lines there are criteria they must meet such as proving that they arrived before October 2011. This becomes particularly challenging for those born in rural towns under the care of midwives which, in many cases, means they weren’t issued birth certificates. Immediately this puts many at a disadvantage and increases the risk that they will be deported from the only home they’ve known. One has to wonder if these criteria weren’t purposely established to ensure that many wouldn’t be able to secure their residency before the deadline.
Unfortunately, the current situation in the Dominican Republic is nothing new. It is only making good on an approximately 78-year tension that has existed in the Dominican Republic. It started with the 1937 Parsley Massacre which was carried out by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo who targeted Dominicans who were dark enough to be Haitian or who were unable to pronounce key words in Spanish. So what we are seeing today is a continuation of an old battle fueled by anti-Haitian sentiments. Discrimination is at the root of this and the “social cleansing,” which is actually more akin to ethnic cleansing, is the government trying to create some semblance of ethnic purity on the island.
Furthermore, this is not just a battle on the island but America has a role in this. In an interview in the Americas Quarterly, Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat said,
One thing that is not mentioned as often is that early in the 20th century (1915 to 1934 for Haiti, and 1916 to 1924 for the D.R.), the entire island was occupied by the United States. Then again, in the D.R. in the 1960s, Trujillo — who not only organized a massacre, but wiped out several generations of Dominican families — was trained during the occupation by U.S. Marines and put in power when they pulled out. Same with the Haitian army that terrorized Haitians for generations. It is not a matter of blame but a matter of historical record.
Thus the discrimination currently taking place is a strongly-rooted practice in not recognizing Dominicans of Haitian descent as full Dominicans.
According to sources, the government has procured 12 buses and opened processing centers at the border to expedite the process of deporting the Dominicans of Haitian descent.
So what can we do?
1. The Dominican Republic is a hot tourist destination for many black and brown people. Thus the first thing that any of us can do is ensure that our fellow brothers and sisters with plans to vacation in the region this summer cancel their trips immediately and boycott. We must choose our people’s freedom over our leisure and to continue to pump money into DR’s economy is to suggest that we don’t care about their lives.
2. Sign the petition to pressure the Dominican Republic government to stop the “cleaning” they have planned in the next few days.
3. Encourage the Human Rights Watch to become more vocal about this situation, particularly through their director, Ken Roth, a prolific social media user who hasn’t addressed the situation much–only one tweet of a NY Times story and the Human Rights Watch homepage has nothing about the situation on their homepage. Tweet the @hrw (Human Rights Watch) : “Why are you ignoring Haitians in DR? Stop the exile!” Share the same tweet with both the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses. Call HRW, follow link http://m.hrw.org/contact-us
4. We can continue to complain about what mainstream news media isn’t covering or we can just cover it ourselves. Let’s stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Dominican Republic and remember that, we too, share in their struggle. Keep spreading this news on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to get the word out.
The Bloody Origins of the Dominican Republic’s ethnic “cleansing” of Haitians
Five Things to Know About the “Cleaning” of Haitians from the DR
Why You Should Boycott the Dominican Republic
We Regret to Inform You that in Four Days You and Your Family Will Be Deported to Haiti
The Dominican Republic and Haiti: A Shared View from the Diaspora
As Election Day draws near, one of the most hotly contested battles isn’t just over the economy or foreign policy; it’s over the fundamental right to vote itself. This year we have seen an upsurge in voting-related laws being proposed and passed. As is too often the case, these new laws disproportionately work against people of color, as well as low-income populations.
Christians have a legacy of electing leaders, and we have a responsibility to protect this right for all our sisters and brothers. The early church decided that it would be good for them to “choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn responsibility over to them” (Acts 6:3). Indeed, we are to “select capable men from all the people — men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain — and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Exodus 18:21). When we exercise the right to vote, we participate in a history passed down to us from both our political and spiritual forebears.
But this year, new laws seek to selectively impair voting capacity of a subset of the population by reducing polling hours and by requiring photo IDs. Some estimates suggest that in Pennsylvania, for instance, 9 percent of registered voters do not own a driver’s license and that nationwide these percentages could add up to approximately 22 million otherwise legally eligible voters being disenfranchised at the polls this year. Yet there have only been ten instances of in-person voter fraud in the nation since the year 2000. Ten.
What’s Wrong with Showing an ID?
One may wonder why obtaining a simple driver’s license is such a big deal. Doesn’t everybody need one anyway? But as it is less common to drive in urban settings, these populations are less likely to need driver’s licenses. And car ownership itself is a privilege of economic status that many of us in the middle-class strata take for granted. In fact, most other interactions that require a driver’s license are also habits of privilege (cashing a check, making purchase returns, renting a car, boarding a flight). Alternative forms of photo ID (like passports, government IDs, and college IDs) are also upper-middle-class documents.
It’s true that some types of non-driver’s-license photo ID are available for free, but they often require documentation like birth certificates and Social Security cards that can cost a significant amount of time and/or money to obtain. A simple task that is supposedly a right of citizenship quickly becomes a multi-day bureaucratic saga that requires energy and time away from work, often when one can’t afford either.
Those that use public transportation are especially burdened when original documentation, photo ID, registration, and actual voting all happen in different locations with restricted hours of operation. And in the meantime, local taxes that fund such public services are voted down by those least likely to need those services.
Homelessness makes the situation all the more difficult. It becomes almost impossible to establish residency, provide a mailing address, or show proof of identification. Yet a mailing address is often necessary to receive voter ID cards that individuals have to show on Election Day (regardless of photo ID requirements). All the while, those with the privilege of ease of access to voting can influence policies on housing, welfare, and social services, to the exclusion of those whom the policies actually affect.
Injecting Race Into the Race
In addition, these issues are conflated with race. Nationally, more than one million black residents and half-million Latinos live more than 10 miles away from locations issuing valid photo IDs. In Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, driver’s license offices “that are open more than twice a week are located largely away from rural black populations.”
Legislation has also targeted such options as early voting for individuals who aren’t able to make it to their polling places on Election Day. In the process of overturning these laws, some compelling stories have come to light (this court case in particular), but often at the expense of privacy and dignity. Ohio State Representative Alicia Reese notes, “Citizens have come up to me asking why, as a voter, have I been called lazy? Why, as a voter, have I been called a criminal because I want to go vote? As a voter, why are they making it more difficult because I work two shifts and I want to get to the board of elections to vote but I don’t want to lose my job in the process? Why in Ohio is the vote under attack?”
What is more, the proponents of these laws seem to be well aware of the laws’ nuanced and biased consequences, allowing the swirl of myths and fear mongering from a select few to confuse their motives. Pennsylvania State Representative Mike Turzai exclaimed that the new voter ID law “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.”
In a recent case regarding their voter ID law, the state of Texas argued that “poverty is not a protected classification under the Constitution,” and if “minority voters are disproportionately indigent,” they are nevertheless not being racially discriminated against. But a lack of intent to discriminate does not ensure a lack of discrimination. Indeed, a national survey demonstrated a correlation between those supporting Voter ID laws and those harboring negative attitudes toward people of color, which wasn’t simply explained by party affiliation.
It’s important to note that many proponents of voter ID laws are not intentionally trying to be discriminatory on the basis of class or race. But when we view the world from only one perspective, we tend to forget that the prevailing system favors the privileged in our country. Those that support voter ID laws are often the same folks who equate poverty with laziness, and blackness with criminal behavior, without ever digging into a deeper understanding of the subtle, often subconscious biases that we all maintain.
It is ironic that as we send troops overseas to “defend freedom and democracy” abroad, we create ways to hinder our own democratic process at home. Shouldn’t we laud an increase in voter turnout rather than trying to suppress it? Shouldn’t we want more citizens to become engaged in electoral proceedings, not fewer? How does decreased participation enhance the democratic process?
Perhaps there is a fear that by allowing more voting opportunities the “wrong” policies will be enacted. But if one’s policies are good and righteous, won’t they appeal to the majority of voters? We must remember that “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people” (Proverbs 14:34).
If voter ID laws were purely about preventing voter fraud, the entire country would benefit from this added security. But if one political party makes gains from voter suppression, what does it say about that party’s platform? Clearly not that it is formed with the benefit all citizens in mind.
What does it say if one has to silence the voice of the people in order to win a seat in government? Could this be a sign that one’s policies are no longer benefiting the majority of one’s constituents? In some cases, I think it might. But rather than adjust their policies or “sell” voters on their positions, some politicians seek to increase the barriers to voting for their opponents.
A Troubled History at the Polls
Discrimination and intimidation at the polls is nothing new. Our country’s voting history is fraught with poll taxes, literacy requirements, racial gerrymandering, and voter intimidation (all of which were legal in our lifetime — or at least our parents’). Indeed, as I describe, many of these injustices are still practiced in one form or another today.
Both modern and historic laws use carefully coded language to allow for legal discrimination, without ever explicitly mentioning race. When poll taxes were legally in use, they often came with a grandfather clause that allowed citizens whose ancestors had voted in the years before the civil war (you know … before the abolition of slavery) to forgo the tax.
The implications for such a legacy are profound. Years of disenfranchisement leads to a foundation of legal precedent and accumulated power that perpetuate disparity and injustice. It’s no coincidence that that the Senate is still 96 percent white. As Christians, we know God says to “choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you” (Deuteronomy 1:13), but some groups are still embarrassingly absent from our leadership.
What effects might this disparity have on controversial or racially veiled legislation moving forward? Even assuming no intentional prejudice, surely we can’t presume that homogeneous legislatures have full understanding of the needs of their constituents of color.
The Truth About Voter Fraud
As Christian voters we have an obligation to “discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good” (Job 34:4). It’s true that there are cases in which voter fraud has been a problem, but these cases most often occur in the context of absentee voting, a scenario that is not at all helped by the requirement of a photo ID at the polls.
While some of the new legislation has been struck down, others remain up for debate and it’s important to inform ourselves about the effects of the legislation. If you haven’t registered for this year’s election, do so. And educate yourself about the ID requirements in your state. If you’re already registered and ready to go, help some who aren’t in that same position. On Election Day, join with other believers to unite around the communion table as a way of practicing our common bond in Christ amid our theological, political, and denominational differences. And on that day, consider giving of your time to make sure every citizen can cast a vote safely and legally.
What do you think of voter ID laws? Share your view in the comments section below.
I still remember the first time it happened. I was dropping off my 17-year-old cousin at a friend’s house in the wealthy, white Massachusetts suburb in which I lived and where my father is still a professor. We knocked on the wrong door. Minutes later, I was pulled over by the police. Slight, young and scared, I was interrogated about my activities, whether I was delivering drugs and what I was up to.
I remembered. My parents had sat me down months before when I got my license.
It doesn’t matter that you’re female. It doesn’t matter that you’re an honors student. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never been in trouble a day in your life. It doesn’t matter that you are leaving to start attending Stanford this fall. When most of these police officers see you, all they will see is a young black girl and that can be dangerous. So, when you are harassed — and you will be — try to stay calm. Try not to be afraid, and call us as soon as you can.
A black teenager’s rite of passage.
Since then I, a minivan-driving soccer mom of three, have been stopped because I “looked suspicious.” My husband, a partner in a Dallas law firm, has watched white women clutch their purses in the elevator out of fear of him. One of my best friends from college, a Wall Street banker, was stopped last year after leaving a midweek choir rehearsal at his church and arrested for “looking suspicious” in his own tony Westchester suburb, and was forced to spend the night in jail. And my 26-year-old brother-in-law, a Princeton honors graduate, an ordained minister, and a Habitat for Humanity staff member living in Harlem, was stopped and questioned while walking home from work by four white police officers just six weeks ago because they thought “he looked suspicious — like he was looking into a van.” Thank God none of us were shot out of “self-defense” since our brown skin made us look so “suspicious.”
I am scared. It is not a new fear, but one that has never gone away and is heightened as I look at my three beautiful boys. These precious ones, for whom my husband and I have lovingly and willingly sacrificed much; with whom I have stayed up countless nights, wiping noses and reading bedtime stories; for whom I have visited dozens of schools and spent hours of research, trying to secure them the best education; in short, the sons for whom I have given my life could find themselves in danger through no fault of their own.
Now they are growing up from babies into fine young men. And that should be nothing but pure joy. Yet, in our society, that also means new danger for them. Not just from the random violence that can touch any life, but due to the particular violence that is visited upon black boys — especially as they begin to look like young men.
We have to prepare them for what they will encounter because of someone else’s perception of what they are, based on media images that portray black boys and men as predators, pimps, and thugs — even though my sons have no personal reference for this. No, the black men in their lives are loving, responsible, and hardworking fathers, uncles, teachers, and friends who model courage and conviction, values and virtue, family and faith.
So, how could Trayvon Martin’s tragic slaying last month in Florida not break my heart, trouble my soul, and compel me to action? How can it be that, a month later, his shooter has not even been charged with a crime? How can it be that we live in a country that we fight to defend, but where the taking of our sons’ lives does not even warrant their killers’ arrest? How can it be that this child’s life was taken simply because he was walking while black? How can this be the America that I love?
Sadly, so little has changed.
My well-meaning white friends have no idea why so many African Americans distrust or fear the police who have vowed to protect and serve. And they have no idea what it is like for black parents to have to prepare their children to deal with a public that often still judges them by the color of their skin. They are so committed to the idea that we live in a color-blind society that it is hard for them even to perceive, let alone help change, the reality that impacts our lives and the lives of our children daily.
I learned in law school, and it is still true today, that it is the color of the victim, not the perpetrator, that is one of the greatest determinants in criminal sentencing. The harshest penalties are given for crimes against white women and the least harsh, even for the same crimes, are meted out when the victim is “only” black.
So, I can’t make nice. I can’t pretend. The murder of Trayvon Martin could be the murder of any black boy going to the store for iced tea and candy, including my sons.
The clock is ticking, and justice has not been served. The clock is ticking, and my boys will be young black men soon.
The clock is ticking, and my husband and I must prepare to have the same talk with them that our parents had with us: You are bright. You are funny and smart and sometimes silly. Your laughter and smiles fill up the room when you enter. And your warmth and your hugs fill my heart with more happiness and joy than any one person has a right to expect in one lifetime. You are capable of being anything you want to be in this life — even President of the United States. But when you walk out of the safety, protection and loving arms of our home, you are walking while black, and only our prayers can protect you then.
The United States Supreme Court declined this month to hear an appeal of a lower court’s decision to uphold the New York City Board of Education’s ban on holding worship services in public schools and one church facing eviction held a party to celebrate, according to its pastor, Rev. Sam Andreades.
UrbanFaith talked to Andreades in July after Katherine Stewart, author of the forthcoming The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (PublicAffairs, January 2012) mentioned his church in a New York Times op-ed column about the issue. Stewart had said it was “hard to imagine” how The Village Church was “representative” of the Greenwich Village community, given its affiliation with the homosexual “recovery” organization Exodus International.This week, we talked to both Andreades and Stewart about the Supreme Court’s decision.
Rejoicing in Inconvenience
Andreades said it means The Village Church will have to find new worship space by February 12, 2012. The congregation is small and considering studio space that is comparable in price to what it paid PS 3 in fees, he said. After the decision came down, Andreades was contacted by a representative of New York City councilman and pastor Fernando Cabrera about supporting new legislation that would permit religious groups to use public school space for worship, but he declined to participate in that pursuit.
“They’re trying to make a push for all the different religious organizations to contact their local council members and get their support for this. It’s bipartisan because actually politicians know that it’s ridiculous to alienate religious folks,” said Andreades, but he thinks the political route represents a missed opportunity.
“This is pretty clearly an effort of the New York Legal Association, the legal community, in conjunction with willing parties in the Board of Education to bring this discrimination. The legal reasoning is just so bizarre. Somehow doing worship in a space transubstantiates the space. That’s really weird. So I think it really qualifies as genuine persecution,” said Andreades.
(In the lower court decision, a judge had said that “when worship services are performed in a place … the nature of the site changes,” according to The New York Times.)
“Jesus and his disciples said that when you are actually experiencing suffering–and in this case it’s not even high level persecution, it’s kind of low level persecution—when you experience inconvenience is what this is, for the cause of Christ, for wearing the name of Christ, there’s only one appropriate response and that’s to rejoice,” Andreades explained.
Church/State Separation Guards Against Ill Will
Stewart disagreed (via email) with Andreades’ characterization of the court decision as discrimination.
“Just as it is possible to categorically exclude political groups from the schools without discriminating against any one particular political viewpoint, it is also possible to exclude religious worship as a category of activity from the schools without discriminating against any one religious viewpoint. It is not discrimination when religious groups of all stripes fail to get a subsidy from the state. And it is precisely to guard against the kind of ill will that inevitably ensues when that subsidy is revoked that the subsidy should not be demanded in the first place,” said Stewart.
“According to the New York City Department of Education, the churches in public schools were only paying custodial fees. They were not paying rent, nor did they pay for heating, air-conditioning, electricity, or furniture, and they had no leases. Such arrangements are a taxpayer subsidy to religious groups; if Andreades has a different arrangement, I would be eager to know,” she added.
Even if religious groups in public schools are paying market rent, Stewart thinks the arrangement “could still be problematic, though perhaps less so.”
“Schools are more than buildings, just as houses of worship are more than buildings. He and his group may be exercising good sense in their approach to the school children in the local community, but there are a number of other cases in which religious groups that happened to be located in schools wished to approach kids or use their association with the school in inappropriate ways,” she explained.
Andreades wondered if Stewart really understands the relationships that exist between congregations and the school communities that host them. Although he doesn’t think the principal of PS 3 ever wanted a relationship with The Village Church, the custodial staff is “not happy” about the situation, he said, because it has good relationships with members of the congregation and because custodians will lose income. Parents “aren’t thrilled” either, he said, in part because the church provides a Parents Night Out service to the community once a month.
“I imagine that we could still do it at the school, because that’s not a worship service,” said Andreades. “It’s just to bless the parents and give the kids a fun time.”
Funding Equals Government Endorsement
While Stewart appreciates that Andreades and his congregants “feel that the presence of their faith community is beneficial to many people,” she said, “One of the reasons we have such a vibrant and diverse religious landscape here in the United States is the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government endorsement – widely interpreted to include direct subsidies or funding — of any particular denomination or form of faith.”
“It may seem convenient now to use school facilities as houses of worship, but think about the long-term; if school administrators and city officials are put in positions where they have to make judgments or mediate disputes about religion, both religion and education will suffer,” argued Stewart.
Praying for a Place to Worship
Andreades has not had much discussion with pastors of other churches impacted by the decision, he said, but he has been in contact with the Bronx Household of Faith, the church at the center of the legal battle, and said the church is asking for prayer that it can find a new place to meet for worship. To read the prayer that Andreades composed and that The Village Church prayed after news broke of the Supreme Court decision, go to page 2.
What do you think?
Is this a case of religious discrimination or did the courts make the right decision?
PROBING A BROKEN SYSTEM: Author and legal scholar Michelle Alexander questions the lopsided number of black men in prison.
Forty years ago today, the United States government declared its legendary “War on Drugs,” and our nation has not been the same since—especially if you happen to be an urban male with dark skin.
The Jim Crow laws may have been officially struck down years ago, but author and scholar Michelle Alexander argues that a new racial caste system has grown in its place: the mass incarceration of minorities, particularly African American men.
It’s not a conclusion she reached lightly. As Alexander discusses in her critically acclaimed book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, it took years as a racial justice project director for the ACLU for Alexander to see the eerie similarities between the present U.S. criminal justice system and Jim Crow.
Namely, having a criminal or felony record means you face legal discrimination for the rest of your life. Depending on the type of crime, you can lose some of your rights—including the right to vote—and can be barred from housing, employment, financial aid and public benefits (see this report for details). These consequences have come down the hardest on low-income minority communities. As Alexander points out, law enforcement has unfairly targeted those neighborhoods for drug arrests, despite the fact that minorities do not use or sell drugs more than whites.
As a result, more African American men are in prisons, in jails, on probation or on parole today than were enslaved in 1850, 10 years before the Civil War. And an African-American child has less of a chance of being raised by both parents today than in the age of slavery, both according to Alexander’s book.
In an exclusive interview with UrbanFaith, Alexander called for people to create a major social movement against the new Jim Crow spurred by love for the imprisoned. She drew on Martin Luther King Jr.’s book Strength to Love to discuss the kind of love needed for this movement: a love that is, as King wrote, “not to be confused with sentimental outpouring” or “emotional bosh,” but rather a force that loves in spite of flaws or wrongdoings.
As a person of faith, Alexander said she believes every person is a “precious child of God, deserving of our care, compassion and concern, and to use Martin Luther King Jr.’s term, unsentimental love.” Part of our conversation with her is below.
URBAN FAITH: You say in your book that so few people realize that mass incarceration is a racial caste system. Why do you think that is?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: The system of mass incarceration and how it operates much like racial caste system has lived invisibly in our society in large part because prisons themselves are out of sight, out of mind. In the days when there were whites-only signs, people of all races could not help but notice that a caste system was alive and well. Today, people who are sent to prison are shipped off and no longer a part of our consciousness, unless of course they’re a family member or a friend, someone we know well. The communities which are hardest hit are themselves segregated from mainstream society.
If you’re not directly touched by this system of control, it’s very easy to be seduced by the myths we are fed in mainstream media, propagated by shows like “Law and Order” and CNN and MSNBC shows that focus on the most heinous crimes. These media images and narratives reinforce the idea that most people doing time in prison are heinous people who we should be fearful of and have no care, compassion or concern for.
The colorblind rhetoric that has enveloped this system seems quite rational on the surface. The system is officially colorblind and we have been told by politicians, media pundits, even by some scholars, that the reason so many poor folks of color are cycling in and out of the criminal justice system is their own fault, due to their culture and their poor choices. And because it’s due to their individual choices, we need not care about the suffering that they may be experiencing.
Why do you think people should care?
I think the fundamental question posed by this system of mass incarceration is whether we as a nation are willing to see every human being as worthy of our collective care, compassion, and concern. And I believe the fate of poor people of color in this country depends on our willingness to answer that question, ‘Yes.’
Even if their behavior we find objectionable or reprehensible, we will not stop caring. We are capable of the kind of love—what Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as unsentimental love—reflected in our policies, practices, our rules of law, our ways of being, structures and institutions. Unsentimental love that keeps on loving, no matter who you are or what you’ve done.
If we continue to look the other way and believe that some people are not worthy of our moral concern, caste-like systems will be a permanent feature of American life. It’s always possible to demonize or criminalize people along racial or ethnic lines to make certain groups of people be viewed in the public eye as bad and wrong. If we allow those kinds of tactics to cut us off from our own capacity for compassion, then we are conceding to a system that is dehumanizing millions.
And we have got to rethink our drug laws, which criminalize and stigmatize people who may well be suffering from drug abuse or addiction. We put them in a cage, brand them as criminals and felons and then subject them to a lifetime of discrimination, scorn and social exclusion. Is that how we would want someone we cared about to be treated? I think the answer is no. It is possible for us to do things differently. In fact, we haven’t always incarcerated such an astonishing percentage of our people.
You say in your book that we need a major social movement in order to truly transform the criminal justice system. From what you’ve seen since you’ve written this book, do you have hope such a movement will start?
I do. I believe that a major movement is possible to end mass incarceration. There are many people who think otherwise. In fact, there were many people who believed in the mid-1950s that Jim Crow segregation in the South would never die, and that civil rights advocates committed to end the Jim Crow system were foolish.
One of the reasons I believe it will take nothing less than a large social movement to end mass incarceration is because, if we were to return to the rates of mass incarceration we had in the 1970s—before the War on Drugs and the ‘get tough’ movement kicked off—we’d have to release 4 out of 5 people in prison today. More than a million people employed by the criminal justice system could lose their jobs. Private prison companies would be forced to watch their profits vanish. This system is now so deeply rooted in our political, social and economic structure that it’s not going to just fade away without a major shift in public consciousness.
But I believe it’s possible. Just as racial justice advocates were able to bring Jim Crow to its knees in a relatively short period of time, it is possible to bring this system to an end as well. Once genuine care and concern are awakened for a population that has been so demonized and stigmatized for so long, the injustice of the legal system that has operated to keep them in their place will become readily apparent to all.
Do you see people having that personal awakening?
Yes, I do. In fact, there are a growing number of African-American churches that are answering the call to engage in movement building work to end mass incarceration. I’m working right now with the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, which is a network of progressive black churches across the country that has committed themselves to making ending mass incarceration a number one priority.
My own view is that the faith community has got to play a lead role in this movement, because what it’s going to take to end this system is a real awakening to care, compassion and concern for all of us, opportunities for redemption and pathways home. And people of faith have got to find their voices in this movement. I’m just delighted to see a growing number of people of faith and faith leaders answering the call and the challenge that this moment in history presents.