‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Michelle Alexander begins the Introduction of her book “The New Jim Crow” with the story of Jarvious Cotton.
“Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises - the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.”
Cotton’s family tree is the story of people of color in our nation, predominately African Americans, but not limited to them, who throughout our history have lived through a series of caste systems which have kept them relegated to second class citizens, and has prevented us as a society from being spiritually healthy.
It began with Christopher Columbus, who we proudly name a national holiday after. He “was acting as a Spanish agent in accord with the Papal Bull of 1452 that declared the Christian Doctrine of Discovery, whereby Christian nations could ‘capture, vanquish, and subdue the pagans, and other enemies of Christ,’ to ‘put them into perpetual slavery,’ and ‘to take all their possessions and property.’”
“In 1823, the Christian Doctrine of Discovery became part of U.S. law by the Supreme Court case, Johnson v. McIntosh… The Vatican still refuses to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery.” Shameful!
Between 1492 and the mid-1800’s our indigenous population was reduced from ten million to nearly one million - 90% of their population lost.
Between 1619 and 1865 somewhere between 8 and 12 million slaves were owned in this country, and double that number died on the journey here. African Americans, throughout the entire period of slavery, were legally defined as chattel property with no human rights.
In a compromise between the northern and southern political forces, the U.S. Constitution legally defined African Americans (both free and enslaved) as three-fifths of a person, for purposes of determining the population represented by white elected officials. The humanness of Hispanic/Latino and Asian Americans was questionable. They were usually grouped with Native and African Americans.
We’ve made progress over these ensuing decades, but it seems that with each two steps forward we take one step back as a new caste system replaces an old. As the old adage goes “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
We no longer put those we consider less than human in shackles, but the emancipation of the slaves was followed by the Jim Crow laws, relegating those of color to the other side of town and the back of the bus. The Civil Rights Movement led to the abolishment of those laws, only to be replaced by something more insidious.
For years now the use of race to justify discrimination, exclusion and social contempt has been considered immoral. No one wants to be labeled a racist. Although in our current political climate, once again, we’ve taken a step backward in our treatment of our Muslim sisters and brothers. That is overt racism.
What Alexander makes a compelling case for in her book, is that mass incarceration, brought on by the drug wars, has created a new caste system she calls the New Jim Crow. She carefully lays out how we now rely on our criminal justice system today to “legally discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.” I can hear voices, maybe not ones in this room, but out on the streets, saying “But that applies to white people too.” Yes it does, but statistics tell a different story, and Alexander has the statistics to back up her thesis.
In the 1980’s crime and welfare were the major themes of Ronald Reagan’s campaign rhetoric. In October 1982 his administration began the War on Drugs, despite the fact that less than 2% of Americans at the time believed that drugs were the most important issue facing our nation. About the same time communities living in the inner cities were suffering from an economic collapse as blue collar factory jobs disappeared overseas.
The FBI’s anti-drug funding skyrocketed, from $8 million to $95 million, while funds for agencies responsible for drug treatment, prevention and education were drastically reduced. All of us of a certain age remember the campaign “Just Say No”, (as if that would make a difference.)
The War on Poverty was abandoned for the War on Drugs. It wasn’t just a War on Drugs, it was a War on People, trapped in racially segregated ghettos. Instead of providing community investment, quality education and job training when the jobs disappeared, we locked the unemployed up for selling weed and crack cocaine.
In the last 30 years the U.S. prison population has increased from around 300,000 to over 2.3 million, mostly from drug convictions. The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world: 705 people per 100,000. We imprison a larger percentage of our black population than South Africa at the height of apartheid.
In some states black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges 20 to 50 times greater than those of white men, despite the statistics that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crimes. In major cities as many as 80% of young African American men have a criminal record.
More than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the War on Drugs began. These were not “kingpins” or big time drug dealers. They include young kids selling week on the corner to help their mom pay the rent. These statistics are staggering.
Incarceration costs $200 billion annually - $200 billion, some of which could be used to fund affordable housing, job creation, improved educational opportunities for children and youth, and those looking to retrain in order to move up the economic ladder. Instead we build more prisons. Don’t kid yourself, prisons are big business in this country in which a lot of people have an invested interest in maintaining the status quo.
But what has this done to a whole segment of our population? - to individual lives and families caught in its stranglehold?
Alexander asks us to “Imagine you are Erma Faye Stewart, a thirty year old, single African American mother of two who was arrested as part of a drug sweep in Hearne, Texas. All but one of the people arrested were African American. You are innocent. After a week in jail, you have no one to care for your two small children and are eager to get home. Your court appointed attorney urges you to plead guilty to a drug distribution charge, saying the prosecutor has offered probation. You refuse, steadfastly proclaiming your innocence. Finally, after almost a month in jail, you decide to plead guilty so you can return home to your children.
Unwilling to risk a trial and years of imprisonment, you are sentenced to ten years probation and ordered to pay $1,000 in fines, as well as court and probation costs. You are also now branded a drug felon. You are no longer eligible for food stamps; you may be discriminated against in employment; you cannot vote for at least twelve years; and you are about to be evicted from public housing. Once homeless, your children will be taken from you and put in foster care.
A judge eventually dismisses all cases against the defendants who did not plead guilty. At trial, the judge finds that the entire sweep was based on the testimony of a single informant who lied to the prosecution. You, however, are still a drug felon, homeless, and desperate to regain custody of your children.”
This story, and others like it, have played out more times across this country than we would care to admit.
Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge and professor at Harvard Law School, wrote in a recent op-ed piece in The Globe:
“Over a 17 year judicial career, I sent hundreds of defendants to jail — and about 80% of them received a sentence that was disproportionate, unfair, and discriminatory. … There were 10,15,and 20 year sentences for drugs, which made no sense under any rational social policy. … To say we treated human beings like numbers is not an overstatement. What mattered most was the quantity of drugs or how many guideline “points” were in their criminal record.
What did not matter were facts like whether the defendant dealt drugs out of the car he was living in rather than dealing to buy a fancy car. What did not matter was whether his record was violent or just a collection of petty offenses. Family ties were not ordinarily relevant; neither was drug addiction. Mental health issues were largely ignored. Factors everyone would agree are meaningful to determine culpability, even the risk of reoffending, were irrelevant.”
Gertner has left the bench to try and undo the damage that she sadly admits to being a part of. “Did jail make a difference?” she asks. “Rarely. It hurt more than it helped. It was a waste of money, and a waste of lives.” We are hearing this more and more today, from politicians on both sides of the aisle. I’m sorry to say this, but I fee like it took the heroine epidemic, which is devastating families and communities in all socio - economic and racial groups to open the eyes of those responsible for making the laws.
Finally we are hearing the rallying cries for drug rehab over incarceration, for the repeal of mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws, and for the release of those imprisoned under unfair and discriminatory sentencing guidelines. Slowly progress is being made.
But this will not restore the communities that were destroyed during decades of prosecutions, prisons, and punishment, or the lives of a generation of African American men who have been missing from their families and the economic life of their communities.
What are we to do, those of us sitting here in this bubble of privilege? What will it take for us as a society to become spiritually healthy? What would Jesus have us do?
Jesus was all about opening our hearts and developing compassion, so I think it starts there. Alexander says, “We have become blind, not so much to race as to the existence of racial caste in America.” What is alarming to her is that we as a society will choose not to care. We will be blind to the injustice and suffering of others.
It’s easy to keep those blinders on when most of our lives are so removed from the suffering I’m talking about this morning. But Jesus instruction to love our neighbors as ourselves includes all of humanity.
Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, in an address at Hebrew College, told the students, “To do the work necessary to dismantle racism, white people need to, also, feel the pain of the system — the pain of separation from a large part of humanity; the pain of knowing that some of the wealth, the opportunities I have come at the expense of others — even though I didn’t cause it or want it.”
We started to do that work last Sunday during our sacred conversation on race with Don Remick, but it was just the beginning. It is that kind of dialogue that fosters a critical consciousness which can lead to effective social action. Don left us with a challenge: in order to really make a difference, we have to leave our comfort zone.How will we do that?
Jesus tells us in that famous passage from Matthew, to get down in the trenches: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the prisoner. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
David Cole, a professor of law at Georgetown University, and Mark Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, have proposed a Marshall Plan for communities decimated by our failed war on drugs. Not easy to achieve in the current political climate, but necessary if we are going to create a society where everyone has a decent shot at living the fullest life they can.
Charity is necessary and we here at Eliot are pretty good at that. It’s changing the systemic problems underlying the need for charity that are more difficult to achieve. That requires engaging in the political process: signing petitions, attending rallies at the statehouse, writing and calling representatives, making your voice heard and your vote count. There was a time years ago I’m told, when Eliot was known for their activism. It’s time again. I’ve inserted in your bulletins a statement by our United Parish in Brookline for you to see how another of our churches is addressing that challenge and inviting us to join them.
I leave you with one last word of hope from Michelle Alexander: “We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was King’s dream — a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for.”