I’ve mentioned Bryan Stevenson several times now, but if you’re wondering about him, run out and get his book “Just Mercy.” This book, along with Michael Moore’s new film “Where to Invade Next,” have led me to one irrefutable conclusion:
Things are so much worse than I thought.
Being around kids day in and day out, I’m always leaning far to the side of hope, accentuating the positive and celebrating the great distance we’ve come from the “good old days” that were so bad, so horrific, so unbearable, so sorrow-laden for so many in this country—especially if you were a person of color, a worker in a factory, a woman, a homosexual. But between the above book and the above film, I see that so much is the same old same old. Consider:
• 1865: 13th Amendment passed and slavery was officially abolished. But after a brief period of rising status of black folks, Reconstruction ended (through a deal behind closed doors in Washington), the Ku Klux Klan began its campaign of terrorism, lynchings began.
• 1890: Jim Crow segregation laws wreaked havoc with the possibility of equal rights and various strategies to keeps blacks from voting—poll taxes, literacy tests, residence requirements, physical threats and more, were in effect.
• 1954: Supreme Court ends school segregation with Brown vs. Board of Education.
• 1964: Civil Rights Act signed into law outlawing discrimination in many areas. 14th Amendment guaranteed citizens equal protection under the law, 15th Amendment protected Voting Rights.
• 1967: Supreme Court declared interracial marriage legal.
Marriage, voting rights, equal protection, education— by 1970, you can see the moral arc of the American universe slowly bending towards justice.
And yet. In 1971, Nixon begins his War on Drugs and treats it as a criminal offense rather than a mental health issue (like alcohol abuse is). Michael Moore’s movie shows impressive results in Portugal and other places were drug addiction is de-criminalized, but the result in the U.S. was a huge increase in the prison population and the population that suffered most were black folks living in urban areas where drugs were both a Mafia-business and a personal survival strategy to endure racism and poverty. As a result, the prison population that was around 300,000 in the early 1970’s is now 2.3 million people! And one in three black male babies (of which my grandson is one) can expect to be incarcerated if the system continues like this! Money spent on jails and prisons has grown from $6.9 billion in 1980 to nearly $80 billion today.
Michael Moore’s movie, Bryan Stevenson’s book and particularly the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander reveal a chilling portrait of the new system of segregation, voter-suppression and a type of slavery. Instead of working in the fields, black prisoners are making products for companies like Victoria’s Secret at slave-wages. Former prisoners have had their voting rights taken away, assuring the good-old boy system of protecting white privilege in places where blacks make up a significant part of the population. And a significant number of incarcerated blacks got thrown in jail by all-white juries, insufficient evidence and a rigged system. Not to mention the epidemic of young black men murdered by policeman who get off scot-free. So much for progress in voting rights, equal protection, education.
In short, it’s one thing to work against individual ignorance and prejudice, but these are purposeful, political and systematic government-approved forces doing everything in their power to keep blacks under the white privileged or supremacist thumbs. And worst of all, it’s working. And it’s mostly invisible— so many good-hearted people are wholly ignorant of these forces as work.
As I said. It’s so much worse than I thought.
My friends, there is so much work ahead. Let us not rest content with progress. Keep alert, speak out, educate (yourself and others), keep your heart open even though it breaks just reading the story of Walter McMillian (in Just Mercy). Pick your corner of injustice and dig in.
Either that or let’s just all move to Europe.