Questions of faith color so much of southern culture that the late Flannery O’Connor described the south as a “Christ-haunted landscape”. Some would add as well that we are a race-haunted landscape, with our towns and countryside littered with the vestiges of southern slavery and racial segregation – from the beautiful plantation mansions some tour, to the confederate memorials, to the market houses in the center of many of our towns where people were sold as property alongside produce.
In my feature “letters from a haunted landscape” I want to review books which speak to issues in our southern culture from a progressive perspective. As I’ve noted previously in my blog, one task the progressive Christian has here in the south is of embracing the beautiful and good in our southern story and culture while also working to name and exorcise the remnants of prejudice which also have been so intricately woven into our way of life that neither the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement has fully removed.
For the first book in this book review feature, I want to review Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. In this masterfully done book, Michelle Alexander paints a picture of race in American life which gives a context to the shocking scenes of brutality and loss that have made head-lines the past few years. Her work focuses on the ongoing legacy of the American system of slavery in ongoing systemic practices of racial discrimination and subjugation. It is an important and necessary read for an of us wanting to come to grips with the living issues surrounding race in our culture.
I don’t know a person who was not shocked to see the onslaught of stories this past year of young men of color, many who are only children, killed by the police. The deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner have not only made headlines but simultaneously captured the imagination of the nation while breaking the hearts of so many people. Seeing their deaths as unarmed young people has been too much for some to believe.
On the one hand, many white folks here in the south and elsewhere have stretched to look for some justification. Well, if those boys had not run or talked back, or been dressed as they were, it would have gone differently, they say. As if any of those factors would justify killing un-armed young people. Some have gone so far to paint these young adults as if they somehow displayed almost super-human strength in order to justify the use of lethal force, able to dis-arm well trained and armed police officers by miraculous force. These justifications occur because none of us want to live in a world where we have to face that some of our dear young people have to live in fear of being harassed or killed by the police and others tasked to protect them simply for the color of their skin.
On the other hand, many white southerners like myself were horrified because, having worked to speak up against racism and injustice for our whole adult lives, we don’t want to have to believe that still in this day and age we are repeating the same mistakes our parents and grandparents made. We want our children to be growing up in a society where the racial antagonism, bigotry, and injustice of the past is laid aside. And we have worked very hard to learn “color-blindness” as a way of not treating others with prejudice.
Such events, of course, though shocking and hurtful were not a surprise to people of color. I remember while pastoring a multi-cultural church in Fayetteville, NC, having a member who is an active civil rights advocate in town and also a mother to a few black men tell me about the “Driving While Black” initiative in Fayetteville which highlighted the stories of young men of color who experienced systematic racial profiling and discrimination while simply driving to work, school, and in the community. At her invitation, I joined a listening circle of mothers each sharing their stories. Each mother who was a person of color had some story to tell about ways their children had been at risk, almost becoming a Trayvon or an Eric Garner, at the hands of belligerent police. They told how, just as my mother taught me to look both ways before crossing the street, they had to coach their children to not stand too tall, not speak to loud, and to be very careful less any police officer choose them as the target for mistreatment. As the statistics and stories were shared, I found myself realizing that my so-called color blindness was causing me not to see and know the experience of others around me, including members of my own church family.
In The New Jim Crow, Alexander pain-stakingly leads the reader through a process of pulling away the layers of “color-blindness” dust that we may have well-meaningly placed over our eyes intending to see others fairly yet which has kept so many of us from seeing the ongoing practices of race-based discrimination we face in our society.
The central premise in her book is that America was founded on a racial caste system in which the success of the wealthy and powerful is gained through the oppression of and marginalization of specific racial groups. She thoroughly traces the history of the concept of “race” in America and how it comes to be the justification for race-based slavery from colonial times until the Civil War. She then explains how there is a brief period of release experienced by non-white persons following the Civil War. This includes some holding office and political power until powerful political and economic interests wage a campaign to break the power alliance created between low income whites and people of color that emerged during the early post-Civil War period. These political and economic powers had a vested interest in the status quo and use racial politics to divide and conquer the low income citizens by pitting poor whites against people of color. This results in the “Jim Crow” system of racial apartheid in pre-1960’s America. It ensures that poor white people will feel that, though their basic needs are not met nor opportunities for advancement for them granted, that they are at least they are better off than people of color.
Following this demonstration of the history of race in America, Alexander develops the bold argument that occasions such as occurred with Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and others are not occasions of the system failing to do what it was designed to do and thus in need of “mild reform” but instead evidence that the system is doing exactly what it was designed to do, to be a systematic means of keeping minorities in their place. This is a system not corrected even when people of color are placed in as chief of police or as president, but which can only be corrected through a concerted focused process aimed at changing our approach not just to race but incarceration itself.
When Alexander began to flesh this out in her book, I have to admit that just as I did not want to watch, see, and believe what footage of young people of color has demonstrated happened to many these last few years, so I really found seeing the history and statistics she brings out painful to face. Surveying the history of American law enforcement and particularly incarceration from the 1800’s to today, she demonstrates how following the official end of slavery Draconian measures immediately came into play to make being poor and black, which was the situation of a freed slave, illegal in much of the southern United States. She then demonstrated how this enabled the Jim Crow south to essentially have a class of slave labor which, though not entirely black, was predominantly so.
Then, perhaps most disappointing to see of all, Alexander in very a detailed and convincing presentation describes how this same pattern followed the end of Jim Crow during the Civil Rights movement with an important change: color blindness. She explains how color blindness is intended to lead toward equal treatment of people of all backgrounds but in fact ends up leading people to overlook continuing systemic patterns of racism that existed in the criminal justice system as a continuance from the pre-Civil Rights era. She then charts how individuals who largely had argued for racial segregation change their themes to ones of being “tough on crime” and eventually orchestrate the drug war of the 1980’s which, following police practice since the 1800’s, continues to disproportionately target people of color.
For me, this book was one that was truly eye-opening. I think anyone wanting to understand the racial and criminal justice struggles of the past few years, not just here in our beloved south-land but throughout our country, need to begin to read through her book. It is not an easy read, since none of us want to truly see the extent to which racism and systematic discrimination continue to be a legacy in our country.
This is important work though. A part of our calling as people of faith and of good will especially here in the south-land but also throughout this country and God’s world is to continue to expose and resist systems of discrimination and oppression, so we can be faithful to the call Christ has given us when he said:
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Let’s busy ourselves with this important work.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,