White People and Black Art, Part 1: How Jordan Peele Taught White People Voting for Obama Doesn’t Make Them Less Racist (Or: Why White People Need to Watch Get Out)

For Black History Month, I’ll be doing a series about films, comics, books, and other forms of media which predominantly feature people of color in the cast and/or are created by people of color. Since I am one of the whitest people to ever be white, I will not be writing as an “expert” on black culture or art. I also acknowledge that black art is not made with white people in mind, because everything else is catered to our desires anyways. Instead, I share these musings as one seeking to educate her fellow white people on why black lives and black representation matter, and what we as white people can learn about racial tensions and interactions from these art forms.

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains major spoilers for Get Out.

*****

Film Title: Get Out

CDN.Collider

After Get Out received four Academy Award nominations, I took out the Amazon gift card we received for our wedding and finally bought the movie.

I hadn’t seen it since the weekend after it came out, all the way back in late February of 2017. The first time I saw the film, I went in not knowing what to expect. Why were all the white people acting so weird around Chris? Why were all the people of color acting so strangely? What would happen to Chris? What did this family have to do with all of it?

In true white feminist form, I even had the audacity to think Rose would be an innocent in all of this. Watching the film a second time, I wondered why the hell I ever thought this to begin with.

What I remember most from that first movie-going experience was how uncomfortable I felt. I recounted my past interactions with people of color and all of the microaggressions I had committed. I remembered my “I would have voted for Obama for a third term” quips, my awkward attempts at “blackcent,” and even my “I’m a middle class white woman with an Arabic father whose struggles I have never dealt with, but I STILL know and understand oppression!” attitude.

I also left better informed not only as to how people of color feel when I and other white people make those blunders, but how those microaggressions can quickly shift from small to full-scale attempts to whitewash people of color.

Some of the microaggressions we see in the film are pretty obvious once they are displayed to us in all of their awkwardness. When we hear Mr. Armitage say “I would have voted for Obama for a third term” and call Chris “my man,” we see how he demeans Chris’ blackness by acting on stereotypes. When we see the woman feeling up Chris’ arms and the Japanese man asking Chris to speak on behalf of all black people about the African-American experience, we understand how wrong it is to make one person a spokesperson for their race and to remember to respect people’s boundaries.

Jordan Peele also uses this film to show white people how these microaggressions can very easily become something more malevolent.

The whole plot of Get Out revolves around a science that’s meant to create black bodies without blackness, black minds devoid of black consciousness. The Armitages literally round up black people via their daughter Rose, and then auction off their bodies to their white friends and family. They do this with no sense of irony or shame. They do this not caring about the fact that they are ripping black people from their bodies and planting their white friends and family in them. Because of this operation, the white people get all the “benefits” of blackness without living any of the experiences. They get to put it on like it’s the latest fashion accessory and not the lived experiences of another people.

In Get Out, we see not only how we humiliate and discomfort people of color, but how we rob them of control over their bodies and culture.

Let’s look at the guy who “buys” Chris: Jim Hudson. Jim explains how he will control Chris’ body while Chris himself is confined to becoming a passenger in his own body in the Sunken Place. As he explains himself, Jim tells Chris how it was his photography skills that captured the attention of the art dealer who is blind, and he even goes so far as to tell Chris, “I could give a shit what color you are…I want your eye, man.”

In this moment, Jim tells Chris, “I want your physical eye, but I don’t want the embodied experiences that made this eye possible.” After all, physical vision is not the only thing necessary to make thought-provoking and emotion-inducing art. What makes Chris’ photography so fantastic is how it reflects his experiences, joys, sorrows, and whole human story, from the absence of his father and his mother’s loss all the way to where he is when the story starts. To remove Chris from his body is to take away from the story he tells with his photographs.

Therefore, not only is Jim robbing Chris of his body; he is robbing him of his story and his authority to tell it. Even if Jim could see through Chris’ physical eyes, he would not be able to capture images as Chris once did, because he would not feel the beauty and pain Chris experienced. Chris and his stories would be trapped in the Sunken Place, safely out of the way of white people like Jim and their own desires.

This desire to whitewash the black experience causes us to turn a blind eye to the plights of people of color. It’s why we chant “All Lives Matter” in response to “Black Lives Matter.” It’s why we complain about “reverse racism” when people of color call out systemic racism. It’s why white feminists accuse other women of being divisive when they bring up issues women of color, trans and queer women, and women with disabilities encounter. We fear dealing with the experiences of people of color, because we fear dealing with our own racism. As such, in these seemingly insignificant everyday actions, we attempt to confine people of color to our own Sunken Places.

And we need to stop.

White people can understand that black people and other people of color not only have different skin colors but different experiences as well. This is not only allowed but necessary if we are to do the work of dismantling white supremacy. Once we acknowledge that people of color experience America in a very different way than we do, we can actually work on making change happen in our own interactions and in the systems with which we engage daily.

As uncomfortable as this movie may make us, it is good for white people to realize our racist tendencies, regardless of how “colorblind” we claim to be. When we see other white people acting out our own patterns and feel Chris’ discomfort and witness attempts on his life, we might be inspired to think more before we speak and act when interacting with those of different races.

If you’re a white person who hasn’t seen Get Out, I highly recommend it. Jordan Peele is a master storyteller, the pacing is solid, and the scares can be endured by those adverse to the horror genre.

But more than that, it’s a story about how our good intentions can become harmful actions if left unchecked, and we owe it to our siblings of color to wrestle with and understand our own selves so we can work to dismantle white supremacy forever.

Kneeling for the Kin-dom of God

On Shrove Tuesday, (or Fat Tuesday for those adverse to fancy liturgical language), I slid down a slick ramp and busted my left knee open.

I was working in a parsonage office, and my boss brought to my attention that it had started raining, and I’d left my car windows down. I had taken the recycling and trash to the dump on my way to work, and without the cracked windows, my car would have been real ripe for the drive home.

Heeding his words, I grabbed my coat and went a little too fast out the door and onto the small, descending ramp attached to the house.

And I went down. Hard.

As I recovered from my embarrassment, I bit back curses and gingerly pushed myself up from the soft ground. I could feel the wet blood sliding down my leg and seeping through my favorite pair of jeans, which had, of course ripped. Nevertheless, I hobbled to my car, rolled up the windows, limped back inside, and asked my boss for a first aid kit.

This nasty cut bled through the 3 Band-Aids my boss gave me and 3 more at home.

The next day, Ash Wednesday, my knee stung and prickled as I knelt in front of the altar and the deacon smeared ashes on my forehead in the shape of a cross, muttering, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

On the first Sunday of Lent, after days of replacing bandages and applying Neosporin, small amounts of pus replaced the blood. Kneeling for prayers at my Episcopal service was unbearable, and I was in a constant state of adjusting myself on the kneeling altar.

By the second Sunday, getting on my knees for prayer was a bit more bearable. A hard scab covered the worst parts of the wound, but a small remnant of exposed skin remained open to the environment.

I began to regret being part of a denomination in which most of our prayer time was spent on our knees. We made our confessions crouched over rickety altars. We partook of our holy meal while kneeling. Whenever we asked to be made right with God and for the world to be renewed, we did so in the most submissive position a body can take. And I did so with physical pain simmering in my body.

When you spend a lot of time on your knees asking for renewal, and you’re already in some type of pain or discomfort, the desire for said renewal to happen becomes much more urgent.

*****

I’ve been thinking about my knee and kneeling in light of the American athletes bending down on football fields, soccer arenas, and basketball courts across the nation.

I think about how I knelt in reverence, and how these athletes knelt in protest, and I can’t help but think they’re somehow connected.

When I knelt in painful awareness of my busted knee, I did so out of submission to and reverence of God, with a sense of humility, smallness, and even defenselessness.

I knelt in preparation for, during the receiving of, and while returning from the Eucharist, a communal meal symbolizing Christ’s nourishing presence within us.

I knelt during prayers of confession, wondering why the One who made us and the universe would entertain the notion of letting us approach with our tiny pleas for forgiveness.

I knelt to lower myself before God, in order for the Kin-dom of God to be made real, first in me, then in the world.

Back in 2016, Kaepernick began kneeling down during the playing of the national anthem to protest the system that this country gave birth to, one that allows the police to brutalize and destroy its citizens with no consequences. He knelt, not because he’s not a patriot, nor because he disrespects veterans, but because he cares about the people deemed unworthy and disposable.

Other athletes began to join him. They, too, knelt in defiance of the corrupt ways of our country, and they hoped that in their kneeling, others would be inspired to make a different world possible.

Instead, people lashed out. Instead of clinging to justice, they clung to their star-spangled idol.

Those who are against this movement say they care about respecting the flag and the country, and about revering the lives lost to protect it.

But I don’t think that’s really why they’re upset.

They’re not mad that Kaepernick knelt or that others joined him. They’re mad that he wouldn’t stand to honor the country that disproportionately mutilates and murders black and brown bodies, bodies like his. They’re mad because these “sons of bitches” broke a code of conduct for an inanimate object that idolizes an idyllic lifestyle that exists at the expense of black and brown and other marginalized lives.

Like the Pharisees with their tithes of mint, they give their fair share of salutes and attention but neglect the more important matters of the law: “justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”

But standing for the flag isn’t the reverence those who seek a more just, merciful, and faithful nation need to show. If we are serious, like Kaepernick and his supporters are, about making America a more just nation for all people, we need to show reverence and submission to something greater.

This requires us not to stand, but to kneel.

We need to show that reverence to God’s Dream for the world, in which justice rolls down like water, the wolf and the lamb feed together and a little child leads us all, and we will no longer need written laws, creeds, anthems, or codes of conduct, because the love of God will be engraved into every heart and soul.

It is to God’s Dream that we pledge our ultimate allegiance. Not America. Not the American Dream. Not even the flag.

And it’s an allegiance we show by getting on our knees.

We show that allegiance by kneeling and confessing our complicity in a corrupt system, even when it is extremely uncomfortable and even painful to do so. We show that allegiance by kneeling in front of our siblings of color in submission to their leadership, since they know the way forward better than we ever could.

We kneel to make ourselves open to discomforting change and transformation.

We kneel to say God’s will, not America’s, be done.

Because the truth is, God’s Kin-dom isn’t something we stand tall and proud for as it enters. It’s one that is ushered into the world as we kneel down in submission to its presence and in defiance of the empires of the world.

We kneel, because we owe our allegiance to this Kin-dom, not an prideful, idolatrous, exclusionary, supremacist Empire.

I’m Not “Woke”

Oil Lamp

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.” – Matthew 25:1-10 (NRSV)

In high school, I had thick, springy curls that my straight- and thin-haired friends and family envied. One of those friends, a white girl, told me that I had “black people hair.” I took it as a compliment.

I took it as such a compliment that I told my mother what my friend said while we were riding on the DC metro, and a woman of color was sitting in the seat right behind me.

My mother tried, in vain, to get me to shut up. But I still spewed those words out of my mouth.

There’s no nice way to put it: I made a racist comment.

At the next station, the woman in the seat behind me got up to leave, and as she walked by our seats, her bag bumped me rather roughly in the arm.

It was more than likely an accident. But I felt enough shame to never say the remark ever again.

*****

I wish I could say I stopped making racist comments and remarks, intentional or otherwise, after this encounter. But I didn’t.

Hell, I still say and think problematic words and thoughts. I still have strong biases that need time, effort, and intention to destroy.

Yet I once considered myself a “woke” person. I’m sure other white people did, too.

And that in and of itself is problematic.

First of all, as a white person, I shouldn’t be using a term that began as an urge by and for people of color  to “remain vigilant, but also to keep safe,” before being appropriated into a badge white allies use to say that “if they walk the walk, they get to talk the talk.”

Second of all, the use of the phrase implies that there is a prize white people get when they cross the non-existent finish line of “not being racist anymore.” For white people, our so-called “wokeness,” our collection of quotes, behaviors, and friends, does not prove we’re “no longer racist.”

Our work of dismantling white supremacy is more than that. It is an uncomfortable and unceasing journey, and white people can cover themselves with merit badges without putting a dent in this system.

Claiming a so-called “wokeness” separates us from other white people. It allows us to claim we’re done being racist while other white people are not.

It’s a false claim that says we no longer have biases towards people of color that still need to be broken down.

It’s a claim that falsely announces the demise of this whole system.

The hard truth of it all is I didn’t magically stopped being a racist when I started chanting “Black Lives Matter” or when I marched in Charlottesville.

I’m still part of this broken system, so I’m still a racist. And that hasn’t stopped yet. Not now. Maybe not even in my own lifetime.

The same applies to all of us white folks.

*****

Along with most white Christians, I like to think I’m one of those wise, eternity-minded bridesmaids in Matthew’s parable, ready and waiting for the coming Kingdom with oil overflowing.

But more often than not, I’m one of the foolish ones caught unaware and unprepared, left begging my siblings of color for oil to light my lamp instead of fetching it for myself ahead of time.

So I’m getting rid of this “woke” label, one that was never mine to claim to begin with.

Instead, I’m waking up to my own self, my own biases and complicity, and the system that has made them all possible. I’m waking up to my past sins and attempting to move forward in humble repentance instead of being paralyzed by personal shame. I’m awakening compassion, empathy, and understanding within me, and I’m opening my ears to be more attuned to the stories of pain and joy from people of color. I will wake up to my need to admit wrong-doing and to apologize.

But waking up isn’t an easy process, either, nor is it a quick one.

Sometimes, I hit the snooze button. Sometimes, I take a long time to rub the sleep out of my eyes. Sometimes, that bed of privilege and supremacy is so comfortable that I don’t want to dream of resting on anything else, even when I know that comfort is built on the backs of my marginalized siblings.

Sometimes, like the seven bridesmaids in Matthew’s parable, I awaken with a jolt to discover I have no oil in my lamp and am lost in the dark, and those wiser and more prepared are moving towards a more perfect world.

It is in those times I am called to remember it’s one thing to bring a lamp in a dark space and quite another to bring the oil to light it.

And the sooner we realize we don’t have what we need to illuminate the darkness, the sooner we might start following those who have known the way much longer than we have.

Where Do I Begin?

Antifa

NY Magazine

Where do I begin?

Do I begin at St. Paul’s on Friday night, when the white supremacists surrounded a sanctuary of worship after beating up a gang of peaceful students, threatening and intimidating the people who came to answer the call of the God of justice?

Do I begin on Saturday morning, when the group with which I came couldn’t even get to Emancipation Park, the original site of the rally, because they knew they’d be marching to their arrests at best and their deaths at worst?

Do I begin when we finally got to the streets as the white supremacists were on their way out, and the white people put their bodies between the black and brown ones so the neo-Nazis couldn’t threaten them physically but could still taunt and demonize their sacred humanity?

Could I even begin when we got back to McGuffy Park after the white supremacists left and had a golden half hour of peace and joy, where we traded snacks and stories as if it were just a normal Saturday spent amongst friends?

Should I begin when we took to the streets again so we could meet some friends in need, when we marched and chanted and for a few shining moments held our fists up in victory?

Do I begin with the terror and chaos, the crashing cars, flying bodies, and screaming voices, of being separated from my group and not knowing if they were alive, injured or dead, of not knowing what the hell was going on except it was something awful?

Or must I start at the beginning of our nation’s history to unearth white supremacy’s origins, which have been embodied over and over again, from Native American genocide and slavery to Jim Crow laws and police brutality?

Where do I start? Where do I stop?

*****

DavidSmash

New York Times

The events are too much to recount. Should I begin with the people instead?

There was my main group, three activists from Black Lives Matter (BLM) and four from Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). The BLM folks strategized where we would march and stationed themselves on the front lines during confrontations with the white supremacists. My fellow SURJ Care Bear and I provided snacks, water, and Aspirin to our Direct Action friends. Two SURJ de-escalators put their body between the three men in BLM and hoards of neo-Nazi, fascist white supremacists. We were seven brave souls doing God’s holy work of justice and mercy, demanding the acknowledgement of the sacred humanity of black and brown bodies, and handing out cough drops when the yelling broke our voices.

One of the BLM guys loved fruit snacks and always gave me a hug when I handed him a pack. He was always at the head of the pack when a confrontation with white supremacists occurred, at great risk to his own life. Another man had such a calm demeanor that I wondered what he was even doing there, until I heard him passionately chant and yell whenever he was on the front lines. Another carried a megaphone and led the whole community in our cries and made us double over with laughter at his witty one-liners. He’s a theater person like me, and he told me about the August Wilson play he’ll be performing in for which he hasn’t even begun to memorize his lines. (#Relatable).

My fellow Care Bear carried copious amounts of water and trail mix in her bag. Our de-escalators ran after our BLM comrades everywhere they went to make sure they stayed safe.

The so-called “evil” and “violent” Antifa prevented the white supremacists from beating clergy and stood by us when the alt-right passed us on the street, making sure we were safe and supported. They took control of the streets in the chaos following an act of terrorism, administering first aid and keeping people off the streets so fire trucks and ambulances could get through. We refused to go anywhere without them.

The people of SURJ made sure we all stayed together. After a terrorist drove through our fellow protesters and had us fleeing for our lives, they ensured that everyone was accounted for before seeking a safe house.

A seminary friend and community organizer prayed with my BLM friend after he witnessed the collision. Another seminary friend was the first familiar face I saw after escaping the chaos and the one I clung to in a desperate, terrified hug.

The family that housed my friends and I let us sleep on their furniture, breathe in their lavender and sage, gobble up their dark chocolate and honey, and rest in the sanctuary of a scenic and peaceful landscape after the chaos and hatred of the day.

In less than 24 hours, these people became my family and my great protectors.

I would march with them again any day.

*****

Is now the time to talk about returning home? Is this the end of the story?

On Saturday night, my fiance held me, the tension of watching and waiting finally over, his relief literally collapsing into me.

On Sunday, we watched movies and cooked meals together, and he kept looking at me and saying “You’re home,” as if he didn’t dare to believe it, because if circumstances had been different, it wouldn’t have been true.

On Monday morning, I used my prayer beads to pray in gratitude and in pain, for justice and for the steadying of my own heart, for myself to keep doing this holy, difficult, important work and for the families who have lost their loved ones to this same work.

On Monday afternoon, I went to work, and one of the first things I saw was my co-worker, a woman of color, leaving her lunch in tears because of a stray “…but don’t All Lives Matter” comment.

And then later that night, all my colleagues held a surprise bridal shower for me, and we ate cake, drank wine, and played Utter Nonesense for hours.

On Tuesday, I saw the posts and comments lumping my BLM friends and Antifa accomplices into the same category as those that threatened to and even succeeded at killing them. I read everything from “they’re the flip side of the same coin” to “everyone is equally responsible for making this happen,” as if our very presence in the face of evil was something to demonize and condemn.

Despite giving evidence that the BLM chapter of Charlottesville committed no violent acts, despite video footage of white supremacists viciously attacking people of color and other protesters, they didn’t listen. The president condemned us all and gave us a name associated with the evil we had encountered, as if we were worse than them.

And to add to the heartbreak and pain, to poison an already salted wound, the people saying and accepting these falsehoods claim the same “Christian” title I do.

We’re barely halfway through a new week, only days separated from Charlottesville, and still the tensions simmer. Still, the battles continue, not on the streets, but in the office and over Facebook and even in our own homes.

Now that I’m home, how do I keep fighting? Must I fight my own people?

Where do I start? When does it end?

*****

Do I conclude with a prayer, a prophecy, or a call to action?

Do I conclude with anything, or do I just let this be?

Do I tell you what to do next, or do I leave the choice up to you?

Do I remind you that real activism isn’t fuzzy hats and fuzzy feelings but hard, heartbreaking work that isn’t about you at all?

Do I dare give you an ending when this is far from over?

Watering Plants After Watching Philando Castile’s Killing

Planet Natural

Yesterday, I finally watched the dashcam footage of Philando Castille’s death.

This morning, as part of my house-sitting promise to my mother, I watered her plants.

I turned the faucet until it could turn no more and felt the water immediately pump through the extendable hose at full blast. I heaved the heavy load over the porch, unraveled the hose from its tangles, and walked to the first bed. I changed the setting to “Shower” and remembered to depress the lever slightly, because even a heavy shower can be too much for those tiny buds.

As I wandered through the beds of mulch and among their scatterings of green, pink, and blue, showering the delicate buds and small leaves, I prayed this small offering of water would be enough. I prayed the light shower would keep them hydrated when the hot summer sun mercilessly beat down on them later in the day. I prayed my neglect of the past couple days would be amended through this sprinkling, that it would be enough to keep them going in the time between my departure and Mom’s return.

I remembered I was not their real gardener. I was not at work under the soil soaking up nutrients to send up the roots, through the stems, and to the leaves and buds. I was not their planter or their keeper. Heck, I wasn’t even going to continue this work after Saturday.

And still, I watered each plant, each green that stretched out of the mulch and flower pots, each colorful bud closed up but expectant of the day it would open again.

I guided the small showers lovingly over each plant, and I wondered if God does the same with the tears shed over each unjustified killing, over each act of hatred and animosity towards the “Other.” I wondered if God uses those tears to water the hearts of the brokenhearted, that they may have comfort. I wondered if God uses those tears to water the hard hearts of those who do not understand the reasons for this pain, that they may soften and open. I wondered if God waters us with those tears so we do not remain numb but continue to be sensitive enough to soak them up and keep moving forward, to remind us that we cannot just let ourselves and our siblings continue to die and be killed.

And I wonder if God also sheds tears over our sorry, pitiful, divided state, and I wonder if God waters us with those tears, too. I wonder if in the midst of being showered, unknowingly or otherwise, with the tears of the oppressed and marginalized, we are also being showered by the tears of God.

And then I wonder where one’s tears stop and God’s begin.

*****

After I finished watering, I returned to the house and tidied a few things up. By the time I finished, the pitter-patter of a gentle rain shower sounded on the roof.

Maybe my small offering was accepted and met with another. Maybe God is still listening to and responding to our small acts of faithfulness.

Maybe that’s enough for me to believe right now.

Reading and Waking Up: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Hate

Goodreads

Let me begin this entry of my Lenten reading series by claiming my own privileges and biases: I am a white female coming to terms with my own complicity in an unjust system which values people like me above black Americans. As such, I am writing these reflections for people who want to become more aware of the injustices in our nation, who want to be good allies, and are doing what they can to nudge those in power and privilege into solidarity and action with the oppressed and marginalized. 

It started out as a therapeutic exercise for author Angie Thomas to process her grief over Oscar Grant’s murder, and the title comes from Tupac Shakur’s interpretation of “THUG LIFE,” or “The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everyone.”

To many publishers, and even author Thomas herself, it was “too black” to be profitable. But thanks to efforts promoting more diverse publishing, and a strong national need to confront racial tensions, “The Hate U Give” is here, and it’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for four weeks.

It’s the story of a young woman, Starr, who by age 16 has already witnessed the death of two of her friends, one at age 10 from a drive-by, and again at the novel’s beginning by a police officer. It’s about how the media depicts black victims and police officers in different ways, how witnesses are questioned, and how juries and communities alike respond.

It’s a story of Starr struggling to find her true voice after years of code switching between her “ghetto” neighborhood and upper-class, predominantly white private school. It’s her struggle to be her true self, not her “too black” or “too white” self, around everyone.

It’s brutal in its honesty about the grief, anger, and hope the black community experiences when young lives are snatched away in their prime, as well as the grey areas of how to best support a struggling neighborhood while caring for the safety of a family.

It shows the amazing, strong marriage of a black man and black woman, and the navigation of an adorable teenage interracial relationship. Anyone looking for OTPs will find them aplenty in this novel.

It shows the strengthening of old friendships and familial relationships, the strains of being friends with people who refuse to acknowledge their own racism and biases, and the power of repentance and forgiveness.

It’s simply an amazing book, and I recommend it to anyone who has questions about the Black Lives Matter movement and its legitimacy, the issues black Americans continue to face, the difficult topic of police brutality, and lovers of 90s rap and hip-hop and retro sneakers!

What started out as a step in one woman’s grieving process developed into a story I hope may pour love into the black community while alerting the white community of the consequences of our unacknowledged and damaging behavior. I pray it will be a wake up call to repentance and solidarity, that we may undo the hate we’ve given so less people will be messed up in the future.

Please click here to read the Teen Vogue interview with author Angie Thomas!

Reading and Waking Up: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

jim

Let me begin the first entry of my Lenten reading series by claiming my own privileges and biases: I am a white female coming to terms with my own complicity in an unjust system which values people like me above black Americans. As such, I am writing these reflections for people who want to become more aware of the injustices in our nation, who want to be good allies, and are doing what they can to nudge those in power and privilege into solidarity and action with the oppressed and marginalized. 

As part of my #BlackLivesMatter reading list, I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

To describe it as eye-opening is an understatement.

I knew there was underlying racism in our prison and criminal justice systems, but I didn’t know how it could happen. Like many other white Americans, my education conditioned me to believe racism in America is dead and gone. I’m still dealing with those biases, and Alexander’s thorough work brought the stories and statistics long hidden in the dark into the bright light of day.

Overview

Alexander’s thesis is this: the current mass incarceration of black Americans in the United States acts as a new system of control reminiscent of Jim Crow society. She begins by explaining the relationships between black slaves and white indentured servants early in American history. Since the indentured servants and slaves otherwise occupied the same class and social ranks, they collaborated together against the white land owners for whom they worked and fought side by side in rebellions. To prevent further collaborations, the white land owners pushed an agenda of white supremacy, which caused a cease in interracial collaborations. Alexander then goes into detail about emancipation, the failure of Reconstruction, and the rise and “downfall” of the Jim Crow laws, setting up the stage for the start of the War on Drugs and the mass incarceration of black Americans which followed.

As of now, there are over 2 million people imprisoned in the United States, compared to 300,000 people thirty years ago. Four million more are on parole or probation. However, despite the fact that the use and selling of drugs across races is similar, three out of four young black men are likely to serve time in prison, and black men are often admitted on drug charges “at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men.”

Alexander compares this mass incarceration of black men for drug use the “New Jim Crow” because of the permanent and legal revoking of the rights of incarcerated citizens upon receiving a felony conviction. Revoked rights include the right to vote, access to government assistance, and securing a job, similar losses black Americans legally sustained during the Jim Crow era. Unfortunately, few are able to push back against these losses, because so many legal cases have supported a “colorblind” criminal justice system, and racism is only seen as a matter of intention instead of a subtle, systematic issue. This is because the only ones deemed racists today are the KKK and people who act in outright ways to show hatred and hostility to black Americans. Subtle, even unintentional and everyday, acts of racism are not regarded as racist, because they are “unintended” and, to some, invisible.

Now What?

This is an excellent and important read, because to those unaware, Alexander provides insight into the racist (intentional or otherwise) structure of our legal and prison system. When a disproportionate amount of black people are imprisoned for drug crimes committed at an equal/greater rate by white people, something in need of confrontation and change is lurking below the surface.

The problem is not guilty people being imprisoned for drug use. The problem is the obvious racial biases inherent in the War on Drugs, which result in the targeting of black Americans and black communities at a rate disproportionate to Americans involved in drug crimes. The problem is mandatory minimum sentencing laws which require any person charged with any type of possession to be sentenced from five years to a decade or more in prison. The problem is the inability to be able to plea anything other than guilty, even when innocent, because of biases surrounding race and lack of financial and legal assistance.

This is a human rights issue, and unfortunately, because these human beings are labeled criminals and felons, few seem willing to rush to their defense.

However, if we claim to be a just and equal society, we must stand up for all Americans, and the incarcerated are our citizens. If we claim to be Christians who follow Jesus, who is found with the imprisoned, we must advocate for their full inclusion in the world as children of God.

The stories, facts, and questions Alexander raises can increase awareness around the nation and push activists, new and seasoned alike, to confront the injustices occurring in a system called to uphold the law. Alexander, who wrote this book seven years ago and before the Black Lives Matter movement officially began, calls the activist community to cease ignoring this issue. Her advice and wisdom seem all the more appropriate and timely now.

The insights from Alexander’s work can also begin the long overdue conversations about race which honor the voices of black Americans, those incarcerated and free, and white voices affected by crippling poverty. They can push white people to confront their own biases, intentional or otherwise. As people shaped in a society in which most of the power is held my white people, racial biases are inevitable, and we must confront, acknowledge, and deal with them, or else we refuse to heal and be good allies to our black brothers and sisters.

In short, Alexander reminds us we need to find solutions to make America a true democracy for ALL. In the fight for justice, we must seek it for “all of us, or none.”

To become involved in the fight for prison and criminal justice reform, check out The Sentencing ProjectNAACP – Criminal Justice, and/or FAMM – Families Against Mandatory Minimums.