This summer, as a project of the UUCM Undoing Racism Committee, I have been reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. Included in Alexander’s argument is the contention that civil rights leaders, the very people who should be leading the charge against mass incarceration, have turned a blind eye. Comfortable championing the model citizen, the civil rights movement has been slow to fly the same flags of righteousness in defense of the incarcerated. Constrained by “the politics of respectability,” civil rights leaders have worked to prove our ‘worthiness,’ demonstrating that Blacks are “just like” read “just as good as” Whites. This posture makes it difficult to advocate on behalf of criminals who, after all, “must have done something wrong.”
Alexander works to demonstrate that many of the people corralled into the system through the war on drugs are innocent – or at least, not very guilty. They could be any of us. But some criminals are guilty. They have broken the law. How do we fight for the rights of these people?
The answer is twofold. First, it requires that we embrace an ethic of forgiveness. All of us make mistakes. And many of us will break a law: smoking a joint, drinking underage, speeding on a highway or city street. The test of our character – both individual and as a society – is how we respond. Do we strip individuals of their rights in perpetuity, or do we forgive? Second, it calls for a recognition that this system of mass incarceration is not just about crime-fighting. It is, instead, a system of racial control. But it’s difficult to talk about mass incarceration as a system of racial control in a post racial America. How do we allege ‘racism’ at a set of laws that are ostensibly race neutral.
Alexander poses this as the difference between “colorblindness” and “color consciousness.” Colorblindness is the idea that we no longer see race. We make policy and treat each other as if race does not exist. This concept, Alexander argues, has dominated our political stance toward race since the “success” of the Civil Rights Movement. With the achievements of policies like Affirmative Action and the visible evidence of successful Black Americans – epitomized by the election of Barack Obama – we seem to have within our grasp a world where we are indeed judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin. The problem, it turns out, is that there is a vast difference between judging one by the color of her skin – and acknowledging the color of one’s skin. It’s the difference, I’ll pull from today’s sermon, between “tolerating” where we just ignore our differences and allowing/challenging ourselves to be transformed by grappling with our differences.
How can we explain the persistence of what looks and feels like racism in a world of colorblindness? And how do we sound the alarm, raise the issue, without being accused of “playing the race card?” Reverend Al Sharpton, on his syndicated radio program – The Hour of Power – put it this way: When we’re playing with a stacked, racial deck – we can’t help but pull out a race card. In other words, in a system that at it’s very foundation has been based on racial difference and racial oppression, this will inevitably be manifested in our institutions and policies. And making cosmetic changes, tinkering with the system, and refusing to acknowledge race won’t deliver us to a post-racial society.
Instead of colorblindness, Alexander suggests color consciousness.
A commitment to color consciousness places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.
But, in this day and age, this is no easy task. It seems at every turn, Americans are more interested in their individual circumstances than in the collective. And far too often, there is the suggestion that these two – the individual and the collective – are understood as at odds with each other. We are seriously having a national conversation about the value of Medicare and Social Security. Our 21st century values suggest that we should give our elders a stipend and let them fend for themselves – when it runs out, that’s their problem. And who are we that we begrudge struggling families food stamps? How did we get to the point where our idea of public education is to give every child a voucher so that families can ‘purchase’ their education.
The question I came to in our discussion today is “What kind of people are we?” and What kind of people are we going to be?”
Are we a people who stingily guard what we have? Or are we a people who share with each other understanding that we are all in this together? Are we a people who write folks off when they make a mistake? Or are we a people with the capacity for forgiveness? Are we a people who can live with each other only if we ignore our differences? Or are we a people who are willing to be transformed by those differences?