This past Friday night, which I mentioned earlier, we had a Karaoke night. One of the songs I sang as a duet with fellow member John DeGreeve was Frank Sinatra’s My Way. I’ve always liked this song. It speaks about living a full life, it speaks of sacrifice and failure and redemption to seeing your goals through all the way to completion. And finally towards the end it says “To say the things he truly feels uninhibited. “ And so I changed the words towards the end to sing from “I did it my way” to “we did it our way” But every now and then someone or something comes along and shakes up our way.
We live our life seeing the world from our view, from our perspective, reading the paper, watching the news, well educated, we fancy ourselves as fairly insightful, we are fairly certain we know what is the best way to solve all the world’s problems if only people would listen to us, and then suddenly like Toto in the Wizard of Oz someone pulls back the curtain and someone says who is that person behind the curtain and our carefully shaped veneer of the world gets peeled away and we see things for how they truly are. And when something like that happens, the way we look at the world can never be the same. We realize that Our way of looking at the world has to change.
Maybe that is our way as Unitarian Universalists, relooking, re-orienting, re-inventing our view of the world and therefore ourselves. We often say, to question is the answer, but we also have to make sure we are asking the right questions. Learning to look at the world in a new way and asking some better questions happened to me last June when I went to Justice General Assembly in Phoenix Arizona. I tell you this is why I highly recommend going to General Assembly, it can change you for the better, it can open your eyes to a new way of looking and seeing and being. And it does it in unexpected ways. I attended a program led by Professor Michelle Alexander from The Ohio State University She was discussing her book “The New Jim Crow”. We will be starting this Thursday for four weeks a joint adult religious education course with Edwards Congregational on the issues brought up in this book. Now I don’t want to assume that everyone knows what I mean by Jim Crow. And even if you do I think it is important to see how the two systems connect. After the Civil War there was a time called Reconstruction, a time when former slaves were given rights and access to resources, limited as they were.
And although there was a populist movement at the time where there were some instance of interracial cooperation, most southerners still harbored wide resentments towards African Americans. After the Federal troops left the South as part of a political agreement in 1877 a new era called Redemption began where Southern Whites planned to in their words redeem the south. They passed vagrancy and other laws that gave them an excuse to arrest African Americans and used them as prison labor. They passed multiple laws that were selectively enforced that limited African Americans from voting and thus limited their political power. Southerners used terrorist tactics killing African Americans who tried to assert their freedom. They passed segregation laws, the goal of which was to drive a wedge between poor Whites and African Americans, all of whom had much in common from an economic perspective, but were always pitted against each other across racial boundaries to diffuse their power. Due to a confluence of events, including the sacrifice and hard work of many civil rights workers, and I believe the advent of television shining a light on the events in the 1960s, led to the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights act which reversed the outrages of Jim Crow laws.
Martin Luther King Jr said “Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless…he went on to say that legislation will break down the legal barriers and bring people together physically, but something must touch the hearts and souls of people so that they will come together spiritually because it is natural and right” And although many hearts have been changed it seems that many hearts have not been. Only tactics have been changed. It seems the work for equality is a little harder than we thought, and so many just close their eyes and find something easier to salve their souls. But I ask you to ask yourself a different question today. Why are there more African Americans in prison today then were slaves prior to the Civil War.
Michelle Alexander in the New Jim Crow argues that the War of Drugs which officially started in the 1982 under the Reagan administration and has continued unabated by administration after administration, both Democrat and Republican has been used over the last three decades to control the lives and limit the opportunities of people of color and particularly poor people of color. Study after study has shown undeniably that illegal drug usage among races is remarkably similar yet the rate of incarceration for people of color is astronomically higher than for white people. The War on Drugs was aimed directly at poor people of color. Now I do not want to minimize the dangers and the destruction that drugs can cause. I need more than all my fingers and toes to count the people who I knew personally when growing up, whose lives and whose families were devastated by drugs, due to addiction, due to jail and due to death.
In fact, at the time of the war on drugs, I actually saw it as racist act in that I thought the Government was finally getting serious about drugs because it was now starting to affect white communities not just black communities. Local law enforcement was given Federal grants and weapons to fight this war on drugs. Our government for a time had the right to take your property if they only had a suspicion of illegal drug activity. This was finally slightly reformed in the year 2000. Mandatory sentencing laws were passed, thus not allowing judges to judge what might be appropriate….Our 4th amendment rights - the right of privacy against unreasonable search and seizure have been decimated by the Supreme Court. We hear so many people complaining about the 2nd amendment recently yet nary a complaint against the loss of our 4th amendment rights. The reason for that silence is that it has for the most part been selectively applied against poor people of color. An inordinately large number of drug cases never even go to trial. When I watch law and order on tv (it seems like it is on all the time), every defendant gets a public defender, yet often in real life the accused are pressured into signing a plea agreement without the advice of an attorney. And if they don’t take the plea, they are held for long periods of time and threatened with long jail time. Once convicted, whether someone serves jail time or not, they lose their right to vote, they lose the right to obtain food stamps, they lose the right to live in public housing, they lose their right to be on a jury, among many other rights they have lost, just like with Jim Crow. With the additional burden of the increased difficulty in finding a job after a conviction, (lets be honest, if I am choosing between two candidates in a tight job market am I going to choose someone who is a felon vs someone who isn’t). is it any wonder that we have such a high recidivism rate for those convicted. And just like during Jim Crow, Businesses use prison labor to reduce their cost. All of this and often even over a minor amounts of marijuana possession.
Can you imagine what would happen if police consistently went to college campus’s to arrest people for marijuana use. It would never happen. In addition to the outrage, the reality is, people of privilege also tend to have more knowledge and ability to defend themselves in court. Can you imagine how it must feel to be constantly stopped and searched and how that might lead you to distrust law enforcement. There are countless stories, but one famous tragic incident, was in New York City when an immigrant was shot 41 times by police officers because they thought he was going for a gun, when he was just pulling out his i.d. To be assumed a violent criminal merely because of the color of his skin.
How the laws of this land are structured and enforced impact white people’s perception of people of color. In her book Alexander states that “The key to America understanding of class is the persistent belief despite all evidence to the contrary, that anyone with the proper discipline and drive, can move from a lower class to a higher class. And the failure to move up reflects on ones character and by extension the failure of a race or ethnic group to move up reflects very poorly on the group as a whole.” This feeds into the words of Martin Luther King Jr. when in his I have a dream speech he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” And people focus on that line, But because of the uneven and unequal enforcement of laws we have been manipulated to conflate race and crime.
We say we are colorblind, we are just against crime, and it just so happens that the majority of people arrested for crimes are people of color, and we judge, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously and we conflate the image of race with criminality. This came home to me a number of years ago when I leaving an Orlando Magic Basketball game with my younger son, he must have been about 8 years old. And as we get in our car and start driving home, through a high crime area, I instinctively locked my doors. And my son with his then angelic innocent face looks at me and says “oh you saw a black person so you locked your car” In truth, I don’t know if I did or didn’t see an African American, but clearly he saw a connection whether it was conscious or unconscious on my part. And yet it was, a high crime area, and having grown up in the Bronx amidst a tremendous amount of racial violence, I learned to take measures to be safe. You see the question I asked when I was young and experienced racial violence was how can I be safe? I think that is a fair question, but it is not enough to just leave it at that. The question I started asking as I got older and became more aware was why is there racial violence?
A few years back poet and activist Sonia Sanchez spoke at General Assembly, and she told a moving story about a similar experience when she was walking down the street at 2 in the morning and seeing a young black man walking toward her she did all the calculations in her head, how he was dressed with the low riders and wearing chains around his neck, how he was walking with a swag, questioning herself whether she was in danger, blaming herself as to why she didn’t leave her meeting earlier, whether she should cross over to the other side of the street, all of these thoughts processing in just a few seconds,She said despite being fearful, she walked up to him and hugged him and although not knowing him said she was worried about him and asked him why he was out at 2am in the morning, didn’t he know it was dangerous for a young black man to be out that late, and she invited him back to her house for some tea where she and her husband helped council the young man.
You see Martin Luther King in his I had a dream speech also said “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight,” Not just some valleys and hills, Not just the exceptional few who despite roadblocks, hatred, profiling and every challenge imaginable reached their potential, no not just the exceptional few, but Every child, every person should have the right to reach their full potential as a human beings. President Barack Obama in his autobiography admitted to drug use in his youth. Imagine if he had been arrested? How would his life have turned out? Would he have reached his full potential? How many other youth and young men are losing their chance to reach their potential.
Its been almost 150 years since the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution has passed which stated “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United State” and yet our Government has found ways consistently through laws and penalties to control and to limit the freedom of People of Color. Perhaps it is because we still cannot come to terms with what we as a country did in regard to slavery, or perhaps it is guilt overload. But I don’t want you to feel guilty, and say this is terrible and go home. NO!! I want you to come to the classes to learn more and hear more of the details of the New Jim Crow.
I want you to feel insulted, manipulated, indignant, I want you to open the curtain that shields you from the truth. I want you to shed your colorblindness and see the impact that the color of ones skin has in our society. I want you to see the injustice and ask yourself some different questions. I want you to ask, what are we going to do about this? I want you to ask, how can justice reign for all people? May your hearts and souls be touched