Awesome morning at the U today. The Undoing Racism Committee is reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. I continue to be blown away by the remarkable work of this committee: 17 people today – more than 20 if you count people who have been to discussions in the past. That’s a far cry from our early concern that we would not get anyone to come to these discussions.
After a pretty vibrant discussion of Chapter 2: “The Lockdown” and Chapter 3: “The Color of Justice,” one of the participants (who is not a member of the congregation) asked: I’m looking at some of the issues that this committee is working on; is this a ministry of this church? Heck yes, it is!
Generally, the mission of our committee is “to understand, challenge, and act to dismantle systemic, institutional, and cultural racism as it exists in our daily lives.” Going into this project, our goals have been to:
- learn more about how the War on Drugs and subsequent mass incarceration are impacting the lives of people of color
- create a space for discussion of this issue
- develop a response that draws on our values as Unitarian Universalists
I was definitely proud of our work – and our ministry – today.
The themes in this book were particularly resonant this weekend as I watched Night Catches Us, written and directed by Tanya Hamilton. The film, set in 1976, tells the story of Marcus and Patricia, former Black Panthers, upon the return of Marcus who is suspected by the community of betraying other members of the Party. The movie is pretty good – check out the trailer.
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What was striking to me, particularly while reading The New Jim Crow, was the oppressive presence of the police and the criminal justice system in the community. Years before what Alexander marks as the beginning of the War on Drugs, you can see the roots of the pervasive police surveillance that buttresses the War on Drugs.
Except, the roots of this surveillance and the roots of a legalized racial caste system in the US predate 1976. I’m currently watching The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (finally!).
The film opens with Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King, Jr., and attempts to draw a contrast between King’s stance of non-violence and other black revolutionaries involved in the Black Power Movement. That’s a disingenuous contrast that I don’t find particularly useful. However, what is useful is Stokely Carmichael’s and the Black Panther Party’s analysis of power and capitalism. In one scene, a member of the Black Panther Party argues that (i’m paraphrasing) people have been duped into thinking the problem is racism, when the problem is really capitalism.
I’m drawn back to Cornell West’s, Forward to Michelle Alexander’s book. In grappling with the inadequacies of the rhetoric of “colorblind” West writes:
Martin Luther King Jr. called for us to be lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and the vulnerable.
That’s a pretty stirring call to action. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s prophetic voice; Stokely Carmichael’s sharp critical analysis; Angela Davis on poverty, violence, incarceration and liberation; Michelle Alexander’s meticulous research and narrative. How could you not want to be a part of a black power movement that calls us to be lovestruck with one another – that recognizes the radical, revolutionary power of love to dismantle centuries of systemic oppression.