Reflections on The New Jim Crow – Lay Led Service

CUF Admin
July 17, 2016

Reflections on The New Jim Crow – Lay Led Service

Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship Lay-led Service
July 17, 2016

Introduction: Linda Linsin

The theme for this month is Journeys. My fellow Racial Justice Book Club readers and I are on an awakening journey to understand racial divides. We are making an effort to educate our “white” selves to the plight of our brothers and sisters of color.

Throughout my professional career, I worked with early childhood and elementary aged children. My focus was educating them to the best of my ability with curriculums that had been mapped out by professionals in age-appropriate increments. I taught with enthusiasm and great gusto injecting what I thought to be non-biased historical content that would show our children the great country to which they were born and, in some cases, to which they had immigrated. We coursed through history together, acknowledging what great men George Washington and our founding fathers were to have established our independence from Great Britain. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, Martin Luther King fought for civil rights and we have the first black sitting president of the United States. We have come so far! Aren’t we a great people! But are we?

I never questioned my white identity until I sat down with the racial justice reading group last fall to read Waking up White by Debby Irving. I did not recognize the white privilege of which I was a part. That book opened my eyes to a lifestyle I had taken for granted; a lifestyle that people of color struggle with daily.

Then the book club devoured Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and I learned that we are incarcerating boys of color as young as 13 and holding them in solitary confinement to protect them from adult prison inmates: boys that didn’t have fair counsel or trials. Stevenson’s book led us to The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander which brings us to this service this morning.

[In her book, Alexander describes the history of racialized social control in the United States stating that Slavery and Jim Crow appear to have died but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of the time. She supports with facts that time and time again, the most ardent proponents of racial hierarchy have succeeded in creating new caste systems by triggering a collapse of resistance across the political spectrum. This feat, she says, has been achieved largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower-class whites, a group of people who are understandably eager to ensure that they never find themselves trapped at the bottom of the American totem pole. This pattern, dating back to slavery, has birthed yet another racial caste system in the United States: mass incarceration.]

But, wait! These mass incarcerations were a direct result of the War on Drugs, right? And taking drug kingpins off the streets is important to our safety as citizens, right? That’s what I was led to believe. The fact is that the vast majority of those arrested are not charged with serious offenses. Alexander points out that in 2005 four out of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one out of five was for sales. Most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity.

Oh, but, wait! The drug war is principally concerned with dangerous drugs, right? That’s what I thought. Alexander shows this to be false by pointing out that arrest for marijuana possession – a drug less harmful than tobacco or alcohol – accounted for nearly 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests in the 1990s. The percentage of drug arrests that result in prison sentences (rather than dismissal, community service, or probation) has quadrupled, resulting in a prison-building boom the likes of which the world has never seen. In the two short decades, between 1980 and 2000, the number of people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails soared from roughly 300,000 to more than 2 million. By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans – or one in every 31 adults – were behind bars, on probation, or on parole.

But, wait! Whites are being arrested too. Again, Alexander points out that although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino. The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported in 2000 that white youth aged 12-17 are more than a third more likely to have sold illegal drugs than African American youth. And yet, African-Americans are incarcerated at grossly disproportionate rates throughout the United States.

But surely our democratic justice system ensures fairness and equality. But, does it? The Supreme Court has eviscerated constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, effectively giving the police license to stop and search anyone, anywhere, at any time. Did you know the law had changed in this way?

And, who benefits from the War on Drugs? Alexander notes that many law enforcement officials – including conservatives – were not eager to jump on board with the War on Drugs, because local communities were more concerned about serious crimes such as murder, rape, and robbery. The Reagan administration overcame this initial resistance by offering millions of dollars to state and local law enforcement agencies that would boost the sheer numbers of drug arrests. It became a numbers game driven by cash.

I don’t want to be misunderstood; I believe that if laws are broken, there should be restitution. I want to live in a civilized society and feel safe. But, I also want that feeling of safety to be experienced by people of color as well. They too should feel comfortable walking down streets, shopping in stores, and living their lives without the fear of being violated through unjustified suspicions.

I didn’t think I would ever be embarrassed by my whiteness, but after reading The New Jim Crow, I am now taking stock of who I have been and who I would like to be as a civilized human being on my journey moving forward. I choose to be active in my transformation to civility in whatever small ways I can. It is a huge systemic problem in our nation, but like a turtle, if I don’t stick my neck out, I will not move forward and work toward positive change.

Therese Thein

Amos is a 36-year-old African-American man who is back in the Illinois Department of Corrections, where he has spent the majority of his adult life. By most measures, he is not a good guy. His prior convictions are for armed robbery, residential burglary, home invasion and aggravated battery to a police officer. However, the crime for which he is in prison now is for being a black man walking in Marion, Illinois with less than a gram of cocaine in his pocket.

On a February night at about 10:30, two Marion police officers were on routine patrol. They testified that there were recent reports of burglaries in this area, a historically black neighborhood. They see a man walking alone and decide to stop him. The man wants to know why he is being stopped and initially refuses to give his name. In other words, he’s exercising his constitutional rights. The official version of events is that one officer recognizes Amos and knows he’s on parole. He requests Amos to keep his hands out of his pockets and requests to search him for weapons and contraband pursuant to his parole agreement. The officers testify that Amos keeps putting his hands in his pockets (it is February) and begins to resist. Amos is “placed on the ground”, handcuffed and searched without his consent. The police find ½ gram of cocaine, a felony, and a couple of grams of cannabis, a class B misdemeanor. He is arrested and held in the Williamson County Jail for Unlawful Possession of a Controlled Substance. That’s the official version of events.

Here’s what actually happened. A subpoena issued to the Marion Police Department revealed that during the 30 days immediately prior to Amos’ arrest, there were only 3 reports of burglary, and none within 48 hours. Two had known and identified suspects and the remaining burglary was from the opposite side of town, about as far away from where Amos was arrested that you could get and still be in Marion City limits. The police lied under oath during the preliminary hearing and admitted it during the Motion to Suppress hearing.

Next, thru radio communications and the admissions of the police officers, it came out that neither recognized Amos until after he was on the ground and handcuffed. His parole status was unknown until after arrest.

Both officers testified under oath that they did not see Amos commit any crime, there were no reports that any crime had been committed, and there was no evidence that a crime was going to be committed to justify an investigatory stop.

Finally, every time a police officer leaves the car or has a civilian contact, they call it into dispatch. On this February night, when the police officers decide to stop Amos for walking down the street, minding his own business, the call into dispatch was “Black Man Walking.”

The Court in Williamson County held that this was an illegal investigatory stop by the police. However, the Court refused to suppress the evidence and decided that the evidence was discovered from a valid search of a parolee during a consensual police contact. Amos was sentenced to 18 months in prison. His case is on appeal. He will be out of prison by the time his appeal is denied.

And his appeal will be denied. On June 20, 2016, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Utah v. Strieff. In this case, Strieff, a white man, was seen leaving a house in Salt Lake City that the police believed was a drug house. They had absolutely no evidence of drug manufacturing, delivery, sales or possession; just a suspicion based on an unverified anonymous tip and several very brief visits by different people. The police officer stopped the defendant, asked him for identification and what he was doing at the house. The officer discovered an arrest warrant for a traffic violation. During the search incident to arrest, the officer found methamphetamine and paraphernalia. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to suppress the evidence. Although the initial investigatory stop was blatantly unconstitutional and illegal, the discovery of a valid warrant severed the link between the unlawful action of the police and the evidence seized.

So you see, the law must be colorblind. Strieff is a white man. Amos is a black man. Each was subject to an illegal and unconstitutional detention by the State.

Justice Sonja Sotomayor, in her dissent, states:

“This case involves a suspicionless stop, one in which the officer initiated this chain of events without justification. As the Justice Department notes, many innocent people are subjected to the humiliations of these unconstitutional searches. The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner. But it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny. See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. For generations, black and brown parents have given their children “the talk” – instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger – all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them. Citing WEB DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903); J. Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963); T. Coates, Between the World and Me (2015).”

“By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”

“We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated”. They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but. I dissent.”

I dissent.

Bob DeFilippis

My awakening began too long ago to spend much time on today. I will say I think it happened when I left my hometown and began to realize that I was a racist. It’s taken several more years of nudges, alarms, prods and shoves to get me to this point.

I describe myself this way now: I’m still a racist but I’ve developed pretty good ability to manage it and refuse to let it manage me…90 % of the time.

That said, different events along the way have helped me awaken more and most importantly, helped me stay awake when the temptation to back to sleep is very powerful

One big event was in 1994 and my business partner and I had just broken our company apart. He was staying in Philadelphia and I was moving to the Baltimore – Washington corridor to manage my business there.

I’m not certain but I think it was my first trip and I decided to drive through Baltimore City one evening. I had seen North Philly and it was bleak, but inner city Baltimore was so much worse than I had ever experienced. My heart sank and I quickly found my way back to the Interstate and continued to DC.

I was left to imagine what life was like for the people who lived in an abandoned houses with boarded up windows, rat infested buildings stripped of utilities, on streets filled with trash and debris. All sandwiched between Baltimore’s plush inner harbor area and tree-lined suburban neighborhoods filled with beautiful homes on well-manicured lawns.

Another big event was when I was asked to volunteer for the Jackson County Summit of Hope and First Step programs. My role is to offer job or work counseling to people who are about to re-enter society after incarceration.

During the Summit of Hope, I talk to adults whose lives have taken different courses that led them to commit felonies and they have paid for them with jail time. What I didn’t know until I read The New Jim Crow, was they will continue to pay the rest of their lives.

They all seem to have regrets, but they seem to develop a kind of tough shell that’s hard to penetrate. I leave those sessions with a sense of frustration and impotence. Many of these young men have little formal education, no work history and no marketable skills, let alone a place to stay when they are released.

As hard as I try I can’t believe that I have anything useful for them. I can’t seem to find a bridge to carry them back into society in a way that allows them to have a future any different from their past. Once again, the book I mentioned before has opened up new awareness’s about their plight.

I never thought I would experience tears while counseling people. My counseling experience has been in business management and career transitioning. But the most recent event jarred me so much emotionally that it brought the welling up feeling in the back of my eyes I feel just before the water starts flowing.

It was during the First Step program. These were children. Kids between 14 and 19. Kids whose lives were filled with possibilities. Kids who have the chance to have their records expunged and live normal productive lives.

These young man had already started down wrong path and I struggled to figure out a way that I could help. But I am one man who has a five to ten-minute interaction with them. They will leave and go back to the life that brought them here in the first place.

That’s when the despair really hit me. When I realized that the child sitting in front of me is frightened and has no place and no one to go to for real support. They will get out of jail and go back to the same circumstances that got them here in the first place.

Our society is sick. Don’t believe me. Read for yourself. The New Jim Crow is a good start. We are building the system that creates the criminal and their recidivism.

In summary, I would not suggest you drive through Baltimore but I do have another suggestion. Read the book and watch the series, The Wire.

The Wire is lauded for its literary thematics; its uncommonly acute exploration of social and political themes; and its realistic portrayal of urban life. Although the show received average ratings throughout its run, and never won any major television awards, it has since come to be regarded by many critics as one of the greatest television dramas of all time.

This program coupled with my reading of the book is one of the most powerful consciousness awakening experiences I have ever had.

Mary Campbell

Reading the books in our Racial Justice Book Club gave me a deeper perspective on several issues that I was aware of, but not the finer details. I remember when the “War on Drugs” was initiated. I was upset at the term “War”. Why did the government always have to declare “Wars” when addressing social concerns? I was aware of the three strikes laws passed, but did not know until reading these books how severe the sentences were for minor infractions, nor the percentage of persons of color to white persons who actually are serving these sentences.

I have had two jobs in which the ramifications of the current legal system impacted the person I served. As a job coach in Minnesota, about half the men on my caseload had been convicted of a felony. Having to check the box on a job application that the person had Felony charges impacted the employer response. None of these clients had served any jail time. The employers never inquired what the felony was for. These were all white men and they did not get a call back from the employers.

My working at Good Samaritan Ministries provided a window of learning about others aspects of incarceration.  We had released inmates arriving who needed housing. They had no place to go, or for various reasons could not return to their community of origin when placed in the Department of Corrections. A felony conviction also impacts many social service programs which hinder a person from public housing, food stamps, and other services. So getting a job to have money to move out on your own was very difficult even for those who qualified for our Transitional Housing program.

My Belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the Interdependent web have been my anchors in the Unitarian Universal Association. I feel society is building walls between people and reinforcing these walls with fear. One of the UUA’s current focuses is the theme of Standing on the Side of Love. LOVE is the answer. However you recognize your connection to the web of life, use your talent/s to build the connections to help those that much of society has abandoned.

Bonnie Cumings

I begin this morning with Michelle Alexander’s description of mass incarceration. She says” Like Jim Crow and slavery before, mass incarceration functions as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs and institutions that operate collectively, to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.” When I read this description I was horrified and angry in recognizing these conditions and had not understood them as a carefully devised, systemic assault on poor communities of color. I was familiar with the outcomes, the pain and the broken families, the loss of schooling and the loss of opportunities, but I was unaware that it was a carefully designed and strategically implemented system of control, an assault on our most vulnerable citizens. This policy, designed and funded by politicians and implemented by local police, began in the 80’s when President Reagan declared a “War on Drugs.” I am certain we all remember Nancy Reagan’s slogan to “just say no” to drugs, displaying unbelievable naiveté on her part. She evidently believed that that would cure all miscreants. Reagan was meanwhile waging another war, trading guns to El Salvador in exchange for U. S. hostages. He accomplished that nefarious act in secret, while these actions and these guns ramped up the drug trade and the drugs coming into the states. We became their best customers and further fueled the drug trade. This War on Drugs did not target the Drug Lords or top level growers or dealers. The War targeted poor communities of color. The War targeted young black men who were selling and using in their own neighborhoods. It was their solution for making money and having some power since other options were limited. Today, drugs and guns continue to flow back and forth across the border and into neighborhoods. The War on Drugs could have funded more addiction treatment in the US or targeted Drug Lords. Instead this War was waged against young black men in poor communities across the nation, often young men who were selling only small amounts of marijuana. Federal money poured into this effort. Money went to police departments in proportion to arrests and convictions, not mattering whether the drug was 2 ounces of marijuana or bags of cocaine. Increasing arrests, convictions and imprisonments fed law enforcement’s coffers. Many of us are aware of the huge sentencing discrepancies for users of powder cocaine vs. crack. In recent years that discrepancy has begun to be addressed. In the 80s and 90s police systematically targeted and invaded communities of color b/c it was so much easier and more cost effective. They could stop and search w/o warrant and they could find users and sellers on the streets. Young men of color in poor communities tended to hang out on the streets given that they lived in small apartments with no yards and with no parks. Wealthy individuals who bought, sold or used illegal drugs did so in their comfortable homes or clubs. Police realized that they got “more bang for their buck” when they targeted people of color. Police began arresting and convicting thousands of, primarily black men and teens. The victims had little recourse given the dearth of available Public Defenders, while the wealthy could hire attorneys skilled in getting them exonerated. More arrests and convictions provided more money for the Police Department. It’s much easier to blame the victim when we don’t know all the facts, isn’t it? The number of people incarcerated increased during these years from 350,000 in the 70s to several million today.

As a social worker in Seattle, for many years I worked with interdisciplinary health care teams focused on poor pregnant and parenting women who identified as using alcohol or drugs, who had, or were at risk for HIV/AIDS and who were homeless. The War on Drugs, continued by President Clinton in the early 90’s, coincided with my years working with these families. President Clinton escalated the War on Drugs and also brought about so-called Welfare Reform, another “attack” shall we say, on poor communities of color. Clinton wanted to be seen as “tough on crime.” Though Washington state was able to avoid the absolute worst of these attacks on the poor by supplementing programs with state money, the War on Drugs and so-called Welfare Reform served to make lives more difficult, and unworkable really, imposing nearly impossible conditions on the young mothers and fathers I came to know quite well over the years. I observed firsthand the strain on families and youngsters as police became ever present, negatively interacting with kids who were often not up to anything! Sometimes they were caught with weed, expelled from school and eventually landing in the criminal “justice” system! Women whose partners were “locked up” were left alone raising children with insufficient support or resources. The strain and stress worry and tears of these women was evident in their demeanor and in the manner in which they conducted their lives. Their load was too heavy. Their pain and hopelessness sometimes kept them from moving forward. The women I knew and cared about sometimes grappled with their own addictions and mental illness, parenting the best way they knew, which was often lacking given the parenting they had or had not received. Most had suffered major trauma in their lives. With their men going into and out of jail or prison, life for many was almost too much to bear, with some slipping back into the ever present drug or alcohol anesthesia. Eviction from long awaited subsidized housing was a threat and a fear. They could be evicted for putting up an extra family member in the unit or there being rumors of someone in the home using drugs. If a returned felon, father, husband or boyfriend returned, he received no financial aid and was required to work, which was largely unavailable to him due to the “checked box” foisted onto a felon. Removing this stain was an arduous, often impossible task. Families were placed in untenable situations, even the fortunate ones who had landed subsidized housing. Maintaining and moving forward required enormous internal strength. This drug war devastated these individuals, families and communities. Children witnessed their fathers being arrested and taken away. Some men, who felt little support or hope and who could not find employment or a career path put their families in jeopardy by continuing to stay in the home, unemployed, or by relapsing on their drug of choice. Some men abused their wives, relapsed or took it out on others. Several had experienced police beatings. One young teen hanged herself in a closet. Another young teen talked about her father being shot right in front of her when she was quite young. These children and grown “children” lived with daily trauma and sometimes reacted in ways that those of us who did not experience such conditions can’t imagine. Child Protective Services worked toward accomplishing their mandate of stabilizing these families but as budget cuts increased, there were fewer and fewer staff or services to help.

Today a national conversation seems to be coalescing around crimes against communities of color. Media depiction of police violence against young men combined with the fear and anger of the communities has exposed to the world how people of color are still being treated. The activist group Black Lives Matter has brought these issues to the eyes and ears of the public. They are speaking for those who have been unable to speak for themselves. I believe that many people participating in these groups have been influenced not only by their own experiences but also by reading this book by Michelle Alexander. A movement has begun and is gaining strength. Communities are standing up and fighting back. There is hope. KEEP HOPE ALIVE.