By Maria Kane
Somewhere in my mother’s home sits a box of tattered T-shirts from my childhood, fashionable relics of the past. A handful of them are souvenirs from family vacations to SeaWorld, Disney Land, and other beloved destinations; others are keepsakes from my father's business trips. No shirt, however, is more seared into my memory—and I suspect our collective memory—than the green and white “Just Say No” anti-drug T-shirt of the 1980s and early 1990s.
For many teens coming of age during those years—including my naive, yet earnest, middle-class self—wearing those shirts was our chance to let the world know that not only would we not use drugs, we stood firmly with the "good guys" in America's newly-waged War on Drugs. We were part of a nation who saw itself as the victim of thuggish men infiltrating our communities with illegal substances. We heard that the best way to win the war was by systematically targeting and incarcerating those whom our law enforcement officials suspected of setting our street corners ablaze.
Thirty years later, the war rages on without any clear-cut winner, and more people are imprisoned in the U.S. than in any other nation. What was once a crucial issue of safety and public health has been transformed into a political and moral measuring stick. So we wonder, What are our options? Won't our streets be safer with more people locked in jail? In any case, people must endure the consequences of breaking the law.
Yes that's true, but what if that's only partially true? What if we knew the names behind the statistics? What if there were more to the story?
Here is a statistic: More than 5 million Americans convicted of non-violent drug offenses—even those who have completed their sentence—will never again cast a ballot in any election.
Here is the story: In 1965, fifteen-year-old Clinton Drake joined thousands of other demonstrators as they marched down Alabama's streets for the sake of equal voting rights. Soon after, he married and became the father of two sons. Twenty years later, Clinton—a Vietnam veteran himself—prayed for his eldest son as he served in the Persian Gulf War. Clinton's life was meaningful and content, and did not differ drastically from many of his peers. That all changed in 1993, when the possession of five joints of marijuana sent him to prison for five years. Though he completed his sentence, Clinton's past remains his present. He must reimburse the courts $900 for prosecuting his case, or he will never vote again. Many employers have reneged on their offers upon learning of Clinton's past, and he's struggled just to make ends meet. At the same time, Clinton's felony conviction prevents him from receiving any social assistance that could offer some initial stability, including temporary housing or food assistance. Were it not for his family, Clinton's “golden years” would be spent sleeping on the streets.1
Here is a statistic: Of the women incarcerated in the United States, more than 70 percent are single mothers whose children are left orphans.
Here is the story: Meet Theresa Smith. In the late 1990s, Theresa, a college-educated airline agent from Houston, Texas, occasionally provided her beautician with airline passes and rides to the airport in exchange for his services. Unbeknownst to Theresa, her stylist was a major drug dealer. In 1999, Theresa's rides and airlines passes led to her arrest and conviction for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Because of mandatory minimum sentences, Theresa, a single parent of four daughters, automatically received a ten-year prison sentence. Now fifty-two years old, Theresa has missed her youngest daughter's high school graduation, her oldest daughter's marriage, and the birth of her first grandchild.2
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
—Psalm 13:1 (NRSV)
Disenfranchisement. Mandatory minimum sentences. Unemployment. Denial of social services. Heartache. This is the story of more than two million Americans convicted of non-violent drug offenses—many of whom are people of color. Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar and former clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court, has made it her mission to challenge the perception and laws that render Clinton and Theresa nothing more than statistics. Indeed, she wants us to expand our vision of humanity to see the belovedness of God's children—no matter the circumstance—and reimagine a new way for addressing drug abuse.
In 2010, Alexander published The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. As Alexander argues, the New Jim Crow does not resemble the overt racism of the pre-Civil Rights era made infamous in images of Bull Conner's rabid dogs snapping at the heels of segregation defying children. This new manifestation of a racialized social order, she claims, is more subtle but just as insidious. It has perpetuated a cycle of poverty and racial discord vis a vis the War on Drugs even as the rate of drug use and distribution has remained the same as it was when the war began. Meticulously researched, Alexander's book left me uncomfortable as it forced me to confront long-held assumptions and judgments about privilege, justice, and retribution. I came face-to-face with my desire to punish the so-called bad guy while standing comfortably on the sidelines in my faded green T-shirt.
Alexander argues—and not without controversy—that while the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s formally outlawed segregation and race-based appropriations of citizenship, it did not singlehandedly end generations of structural inequality; many working-class African-American communities have continued to lag far behind whites in educational and economic opportunity. Rather than discussing the relationship among race, poverty, and structural inequality—including the economic blight of urban America following the growth of the suburbs—talk of crime and dependency took its place.
What soon followed was the creation of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug-related offenses, a rise in federal funding to local communities who increased their arrest and conviction rates, and the labeling of depressed urban areas as problems, not communities. It wasn't long before images of black men and women strung out on cocaine flashed across our television screens and became America's newest face of danger. In no time, political and racial lines transformed our sensibilities even as we assured ourselves color no longer mattered.3
Nevertheless, since the official War on Drugs began, studies have continuously shown that blacks and whites use illegal drugs at the same exact rate. Yet black Americans comprise 60 percent of our prisons' population while only making up 14 percent of the nation's population. Indeed, today one in three black men are in jail—many for life. In other words, millions of families are without fathers, sons, grandfathers, friends, brothers, and providers. Part of this is due to sentencing disparities. A person in possession of one gram of the cheaper crack cocaine found on city streets receives the same sentence as someone with 500 grams of the more expensive powder cocaine.4 With the media and criminal justice system's focus on poor and urban areas as the root of the problem, our perception of drug use remains distorted and our assumptions divide us. For many black men, it's a stereotype that haunts them wherever they go, leaving them fearful and mentally wearied. I've had to ask myself: could our yearning to be “colorblind” be keeping us from seeing the disparities in front of us?
Although mass incarceration has disproportionally imprisoned people of color, it has transformed all of our lives. Economically, it perpetuates a cycle of poverty that overwhelms and stymies the growth of our communities. Socially, it reduces our understanding of society into stark dichotomies of good vs. bad, deserving vs. undeserving. More importantly, it leaves children without parents. In calling the effort to eradicate drug usage a “war,” the system of mass incarceration has normalized vengeance, ruthlessness, and a no-holds-barred approach to justice.
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
—1 John 3:18 (NRSV)
To be clear, people who have supported these policies are not evil, racist men and women. Nor is the desire for a harmonious and safe community misguided. Drugs are destructive. None of this is about blame and taking sides. Still, the truth of history and God's longing for creation call us to see the worth and possibility in all of God's children, to speak up for those who have been rendered silent, and to imagine a better way.
No one is asking for a consequence-free system of justice, just a second look at how we approach justice and humanity today. Without a doubt, speaking up for those without a voice will bring forth difficult and sometimes painful conversations around privilege. However, giving birth to God's kingdom has always demanded patience, vulnerability, and forgiveness. Most importantly, it can't happen without love—for others and ourselves, even our darkest shadows. Just imagine what could happen when we place our eternal faith over our temporal politics. Might there be a way to speak life and hope to those written off? Indeed, we are people of The Way, people whose Savior did not walk the streets in silk and gold, but who dined with the grandest and the weakest, the outcasts and the beautiful ... with us all.
Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget,yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.
—Isaiah 49:15-16 (NRSV)
Eight years ago, as a chaplain at a psychiatric in-patient facility, I briefly led a support group for women recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. Many days I sobbed tears of frustration and anger at the suffering I saw and the helplessness I felt. Those six months were among the hardest in my life. They were also the holiest. As one patient mercifully said to me, “Jesus already saved us. You just need to listen to us and love us. You'll see we're not that different from you.”
Reading Alexander's book brought me back to that woman's wisdom. She taught me to see a person, not a number. When I did, I saw a kaleidoscope of dreams and fears, joys and heartaches. I saw the splendid colors of creation cradled in God's hand, lovingly embraced, longingly adored. I can never forget these women.
Nor should the millions of people enmeshed in a system of poverty, drugs, and incarceration be forgotten. Can we be the people of God who will show the world another way? To see and love them as God sees them: inscribed on the palm of God's hand since the beginning of time. Remembered then. Remembered now. Remembered always.
How do you respond to the author's question, “Can we be the people of God who will show the world another way”?
From “Just Say No” by Maria Kane. Published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, August/September/October 2014, Vol. 29, No. 4. Copyright © 2014 by The Upper Room.
1 Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 154-5.
2 “Theresa McIntyre Smith,” The Sentencing Project, http://www.sentencingproject.org/detail/feature.cfm?feature_id=1o&id=135. Statistic also taken from sentencingproject.org
3 “Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander” Bill Moyers Journal, PBS, April 2, 2010.
4 “Cocaine and Crack Facts” The Drug Policy Alliance, http://www.drugpolicy.org/drug...
For more resources—including Bible study materials—and to get involved: newjimcrow.com
I join many of those who will pray for you as you seek to discern what you are called to be at this moment. May God grant you the courage to fulfill that calling. May we all open our eyes and see the misery, open our ears and hear the cries of God’s people, and, like God through the Lord Jesus Christ, be incarnate amongst them.”
View a growing list of resources for the spiritual work of overcoming racism.