In the nineteenth century, many American communities and cities celebrated Independence Day with a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence, which was usually followed by an oral address or speech dedicated to the celebration of independence and the heritage of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers. On July 5, 1852, the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, invited the Black abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass to be the keynote speaker for their Independence Day celebration. The Fourth of July Speech, scheduled for Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, attracted an audience of 600. The meeting opened with a prayer and was followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence. When Douglass finally came to the platform to deliver his speech, the event took a jarring turn. Douglass told his audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked them, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”
Within Douglass’ now-legendary address is what historian Philip S. Foner has called “probably the most moving passage in all of Douglass’ speeches.”
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
On this and every July 4th, Americans might do well to re-read and reflect on Douglass’ famous message. It challenges us to move beyond the biases and blind spots of our own cultural privileges and consider those around us for whom, as Langston Hughes said, “America has never been America.”
Read Douglass’ complete speech here, and watch actor Danny Glover recite an excerpt from the address below.
As a Christian, you may ask yourself at times how to live out your faith in the public sphere. Injustices are occurring in the world around us every day. Because your faith doesn’t allow you to ignore these happenings, you feel a strong desire from within to take productive action. Some people choose to take harmful action but your desire is to take action that heals, that works towards justice and that shows God’s love for humanity. This is what we should aim to do, and my goal is to help you begin to think of ways you can live out your faith while having a positive impact on the world around you.
We are called to live out our faith and have an impact on society. A verse in the scriptures that reiterates this calling is Micah 6:8, which says “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In this verse Micah points out what God requires of us. We are to do Justice. How are we “to do Justice”? What does that mean for us? Justice comes in different forms. We can do Justice by lending help to the parent who is struggling to put food on the table and is earning just enough to put a roof over their children’s heads. We can lend our help by offering to buy them groceries, maybe filling up their car with gas or connecting them to resources that can give them financial assistance and build their credit. We can do justice by assisting the homeless in our community to find shelter and get them connected to resources that will supply them with food and daily necessities. We can do justice by giving our time, talent and treasure to community organizations that give back to youth, those who are less fortunate and those who are struggling to make it each day.
These are some ways we can do justice on an individual basis. To those who already do such acts regularly, I commend you. Continue this good work. However, there’s also a need for justice on a systemic level within our society. As Christians, we are to follow the example of Christ, and stand beside those who are looked down on and mistreated by society. We have the capability to do justice on a systemic level by advocating for changes within our systems. We should advocate for opportunities for disadvantaged youth. Whether that be through mentorship programs, academic tutoring, pouring more resources into historically underfunded schools and giving families more choices as to where their child can attend. We should advocate for those who are battling unfair sentences in the justice system and creating opportunities for those who have paid their debt to society, in an effort to reduce recidivism rates. We should aim to provide more accessible opportunities for employment, educational opportunities, and programs for financial and civic literacy once they are released. More people should focus on advocating for those struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse. These are initiatives that would exhibit justice as Micah 6:8 led us to do.
Our participation in advocating for policy and systemic change in the public sphere is crucial. Many people believe their voice doesn’t matter, and as a result they don’t bother to vote or advocate for change. I can understand why many feel this way. However, inaction by good hearted people doesn’t get us further towards justice at all. Our government is supposed to be by and for the people. That means we the people of the United States have a voice and can move our government through civic engagement to reform laws and systems to deliver true justice. We can have a great impact especially on a local level. For example, after the terrible deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor many cities across the country were pressed by citizens to take action against not only police brutality but racial injustice on a broad systemic level. That means in education, voting, criminal justice, and especially public health as the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the inequities in our health care system. With much to be addressed U.S. cities and state governments passed their own policies in an attempt to tackle racial injustice. In my home City of Middletown, CT where I am a member of the City Council, we decided to establish a Task Force on Anti-Racism. This Task Force was given the charge to find policy solutions to systemic racism wherever it exists under our jurisdiction. My colleagues and I received numerous emails from residents calling for change. The establishment of the Task Force was a response to residents’ call to action and would be the beginning of furthering justice within our own community. This is one example of how people can make a difference and move our government from stagnation and lip service to action and moving in the right direction. I encourage you to believe that your voice matters. Someone is waiting for you to stand up for the cause of justice.
With myriad issues that need to be addressed it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. You don’t have to figure out how you will be an advocate for all of them. I encourage you to look at the example of Christ. He advocated for those who were hungry, sick, outcasts and shamed. He even advocated for you before you were born so that you may have life more abundantly. If you use your time and energy each day advocating for justice, you are advocating for those who are facing current circumstances as well as generations to come. Remember, to do justice is to take action that creates a society where everyone has the opportunities, tools and resources to fulfill their God-given potential. Justice can be restorative instead of further tearing individuals down.
I focused in the previous passages on how we “do justice.” However, those actions are to love kindness and walk humbly as well. When we reach out our hand to help and advocate for others who society would rather turn their backs on, we extend kindness. When we set aside our pride and consider the circumstances of others instead of solely focusing on our own, we begin to walk humbly. I challenge you to think about what issues in your community you can begin to advocate for that would further the cause of justice. What Town Hall meetings can you attend to advocate for justice? What issues can you write your Legislator or Mayor about? If you don’t know who these individuals are, I encourage you to research them. As you begin to walk in the requirements of Micah 6:8, you will be living out your faith in the public sphere.
Justice is supposed to be “blind.” But is race blindness always the best way to achieve racial equality? An algorithm to predict recidivism among prison populations is underscoring that debate.
The risk-assessment tool is a centerpiece of the First Step Act, which Congress passed in 2018 with significant bipartisan support, and is meant to shorten some criminal sentences and improve conditions in prisons. Among other changes, it rewards federal inmates with early release if they participate in programs designed to reduce their risk of re-offending. Potential candidates eligible for early release are identified using the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs, called PATTERN, which estimates an inmate’s risk of committing a crime upon release.
Proponents celebrated the First Step Act as a step toward criminal justice reform that provides a clear path to reducing the prison population of low-risk nonviolent offenders while preserving public safety.
But a review of the PATTERN system published by the Department of Justice in December 2021 found that PATTERN overpredicts recidivism among minority inmates by between 2% and 8% compared with white inmates. Critics fear that PATTERN is reinforcing racial biases that have long plagued the U.S. prison system.
Making PATTERN equally accurate for all inmates might require the algorithm to take inmates’ race into account, which can seem counterintuitive. In other words, achieving fair outcomes across racial groups might require focusing more on race, not less: a seeming paradox that plays out in many discussions of fairness and racial justice.
How PATTERN works
The PATTERN algorithm scores individuals according to a range of variables that have been shown to predict recidivism. These factors include criminal history, education level, disciplinary incidents while incarcerated, and whether they have completed any programs aimed at reducing recidivism, among others. The algorithm predicts both general and violent recidivism, and does not take an inmate’s race into account when producing risk scores.
Based on this score, individuals are deemed high-, medium- or low-risk. Only those falling into the last category are eligible for early release.
The DOJ’s latest review, which compares PATTERN predictions with actual outcomes of former inmates, shows that the algorithm’s errors tended to disadvantage nonwhite inmates.
In comparison with white inmates, PATTERN overpredicted general recidivism among Black male inmates by between 2% and 3%. According to the DOJ report, this number rose to 6% to 7% for Black women, relative to white women. PATTERN overpredicted recidivism in Hispanic individuals by 2% to 6% in comparison with white inmates, and overpredicted recidivism among Asian men by 7% to 8% in comparison with white inmates.
These disparate results will likely strike many people as unfair, with the potential to reinforce existing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. For example, Black Americans are already incarcerated at almost five times the rate of white Americans.
At the same time that the algorithm overpredicted recidivism for some racial groups, it underpredicted for others.
Native American men’s general recidivism was underpredicted by 12% to 15% in relation to white inmates, with a 2% underprediction for violent recidivism. Violent recidivism was underpredicted by 4% to 5% for Black men and 1% to 2% for Black women.
Reducing bias by including race
It is tempting to conclude that the Department of Justice should abandon the system altogether. However, computer and data scientists have developed an array of tools over the past decade designed to address concerns about algorithmic unfairness. So it is worth asking whether PATTERN’s inequalities can be remedied.
One option is to apply “debiasing techniques” of the sort described in recent work by criminal justice experts Jennifer Skeem and Christopher Lowenkamp. As computer scientists and legal scholars have observed, the predictive value of a piece of information about a person might vary depending on their other characteristics. For example, suppose that having stable housing tends to reduce the risk that a former inmate will commit another crime, but that the relationship between housing and not re-offending is stronger for white inmates than Black inmates. An algorithm could take this into account for higher accuracy.
But taking this difference into account would require that designers include each inmate’s race in the algorithm, which raises legal concerns. Treating individuals differently on the basis of race in legal decision-making risks violating the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.
Several legal scholars, including Deborah Hellman, have recently argued that this legal concern is overstated. For example, the law permits using racial classifications to describe criminal suspects and to gather demographic data on the census.
Other uses of racial classifications are more problematic. For example, racial profiling and affirmative action programs continue to be contested in court. But Hellman argues that designing algorithms that are sensitive to the way that information’s predictive value varies across racial lines is more akin to using race in suspect descriptions and the census.
In part, this is because race-sensitive algorithms, unlike racial profiling, do not rely on statistical generalizations about the prevalence of a feature, like the rate of re-offending, within a racial group. Rather, she proposes making statistical generalizations about the reliability of the algorithm’s information for members of a racial group and adjusting appropriately.
But there are also several ethical concerns to consider. Incorporating race might constitute unfair treatment. It might fail to treat inmates as individuals, since it relies upon statistical facts about the racial group to which they are assigned. And it might put some inmates in a worse position than others to earn early-release credits, merely because of their race.
Despite these concerns, we argue there are good ethical reasons to incorporate race into the algorithm.
First, by incorporating race, the algorithm could be more accurate across all racial groups. This might allow the federal prison system to grant early release to more inmates who pose a low risk of recidivism while keeping high-risk inmates behind bars. This will promote justice without sacrificing public safety – what proponents of criminal justice reform want.
Furthermore, changing the algorithm to include race can improve outcomes for Black inmates without making things worse for white inmates. This is because earning credits toward early release from prison is not a zero-sum game; one person’s eligibility for the early release program does not affect anyone else’s. This is very different from programs like affirmative actionin hiring or education. In these cases, positions are limited, so making things better for one group necessarily makes things worse for the other group.
As PATTERN illustrates, racial equality is not necessarily promoted by taking race out of the equation – at least not when all participants stand to benefit.
No one can deny that our nation is angry, hurt and frustrated due to the senseless violence that continues to plague us; however, the way we address today’s issues is absolutely critical, particularly for us as Christians. Here are a few suggestions on how we can respond to the violence and pain through active faith.
Pray in unity.
Now, more than ever, the church is commanded to pray in unity. In Matthew 18, Jesus emphasizes the importance of collective spirituality by saying, “If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.” Yes, times are tough and you may find it difficult, but praying together not only obeys these words of Christ, but also serves as a powerful tool of encouragement and reminds us that we are not alone in the struggle. Besides, Christianity is a communal faith, and historically, many African and African-influenced cultures have always valued collective spirituality. Most importantly, we must remember that we serve a God who answers prayer, not always in the ways we expect, but always effective according to His will!
Educate yourself and others.
Hosea 4:6 declares, “For my people perish for lack of knowledge.” In order to actively address today’s issues, it is absolutely critical that we are prepared, both spiritually and intellectually. Take the time to educate yourself on the laws, procedures and government systems that affect both you and your family. However, it is just as important to equip yourself with Scriptures that will assist you in learning strategies that respect government while actively advocating against injustice and violence. Throughout the Bible, Jesus teaches us the importance of knowing your rights as both citizens of your home country and citizens of God’s kingdom. (Matthew 22:15-22, Luke 4:38-53, Mark 3:1-6) It is imperative that you know your rights in order to prevent them from being violated.
Be persistent and hopeful in seeking justice.
In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable that is not often shared among members of the Church. It is a parable about a persistent woman who goes to a judge to receive justice. Although he is not righteous, the judge gives the woman justice because of her persistence. As Christians, will we have enough faith to be persistent and seek God, even when dealing with a broken and unrighteous government?
The call to action here is clear. Keep seeking justice, even in a broken system, because the persistence will eventually bring about change.
Love your neighbor.
In the midst of all that is going on, this is the key. We have to choose to love our neighbors the way God loves (Matthew 22:38-39). We must love because we have been shown love, even when it is uncomfortable and inconvenient. Showing acts of love to our neighbors, particularly to those who historically have not always shown love in return, will begin to build the bridges across the ravines of fear that divide our nation and lead to the violence in the first place.
It is important to see here that love covers a multitude of sins, the sins that separate us from one another and God. Fear drives a lot of the sin of violence in this nation. It is the fear that we will keep killing one another, fear that things will not change, fear between races, and fear within communities. However, it is perfect love that casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Share your thoughts on the recent violence and your plan of action as a Christian in today’s society below.
During Lent, we commemorate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. As if it were New Year’s Eve, most Christians make a Lenten resolution, consecrate it with prayer, and stick it out until Easter. Our concern for particularity in this moment, while laudable, can prevent us from grasping — and being grasped by — a broader sense of mission. The immediacy of figuring out, “What am I going to give up?” can prevent us from asking, “What sort of person is God calling me to be within the church and the world?” The first question pivots around our personal aspirations; the second one opens up a vista of service and mission. Developing the latter theme, we might approach Lent as an opportunity to embrace the care of Christ and emulate his ministry of coming alongside and caring for the least of these.
Embracing the care of Christ can be painful, for it often requires a prior admission that we are wounded. Many recent college graduates work hard to secure employment and repay loans, only to experience job loss, a reduction of responsibility, or another economic shift causing them to move back in with their parents. They are wounded. Some 222,000 veterans have returned from Iraq to a jobless recovery, a gridlocked Congress, and employers who cannot grasp the relevance of leadership skills honed in a military context. They, too, are wounded.
Our individual ailments differ, but we share an Augustinian solidarity. The bishop of Hippo suggests that we are Good Samaritans, called to love across differences of race, class, religion, and other social realities. Yet we are also recipients of God’s boundary-bursting, Samaritan love — Jesus found us by the side of the road, bandaged our wounds, and nursed us into wholeness by the power of his Holy Spirit.
As a community whose health has been and is being restored, Christ calls us to tend to the social ills of his people and all people. Matthew 25:31-46, in particular, underscores the importance of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those who are in prison, and welcoming the stranger.
By caring with and for society’s most vulnerable members — Jesus calls them “the least of these” — we bear witness to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in Christ. We embody his love by performing acts that immediately address the maladies of drug addiction, domestic violence, and chronic sickness. Moreover, our engagement in intermediate, systems-transforming work on behalf of the least of these — inmates, immigrants, gay and lesbian military personnel, and so on — testifies to the restorative justice of God’s kingdom in Christ.
Such care, whether personal or structural, does not itself build or establish God’s kingdom. To claim that it does collapses human initiative into divine work (making devils out of those who may oppose it for well-argued reasons) and, more dangerously, runs the risk of idolizing the stratification of power that enables such change (e.g., relief and development arms of denominations or national governments become sacrosanct instruments beyond critique). Our individual and collective care for “the least of these” represent necessary and yet feeble attempts to follow in the footsteps of our Lord who prioritized the marginalized in his ministry. Our call is not about politics, not about ideology, but about modeling the love and justice of Christ. Cornel West has famously remarked that, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” What does our Christian faith look like out on the street?
Lent reminds us that the church’s social service and justice-making efforts fall short of God’s glory, that our best attempts to repair the world are still broken, leading us to depend anew on the care of Christ. We are weak, but the consolations of our Lord are strong; through him we discover the strength to love, the power to carry on.