All Souls Kansas City

January 13: “The New Jim Crow, Still” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

Click here to start at the sermon.

The thing that is necessary to remember is that pathology can be produced. Rats, for instance, are an intelligent, adaptive, prolific species; smart enough to have figured out how to take advantage of the environment created by human civilization for the purpose of their own thriving. They have moderately complex and reasonably ordered patterns of social interaction. They have many natural predators, their main defense being fecundity; in normal circumstances, rat mothers raise litters of young with efficient care. All other things being equal, a rat is a perfectly nice, ordinary creature; part of the interdependent web of all existence, an expression of the life of all that is. Nothing inherently wrong with rats. And yet, as the scientist John B. Calhoun demonstrated in his now famous experiments at the National Institutes of Mental Health in the early 1960s, when they get too crowded, rats go nuts. In a situation where a colony of rats has reproduced beyond a certain density in a confined setting where none of them can leave, rats become socially dysfunctional. Some become selfish tyrants; others form violent gangs. They engage in rape without regard to gender, and cannibalism. Females rarely achieve pregnancy, or carry to term; if they do give birth, they abandon or attack their pups. Some become catatonic, withdrawing from all activity and social function. Ultimately, under the combined impact of fatal violence, reproductive failure, infant mortality, and psychological disintegration, the colony does not just fall back to a sustainable population for the space; it goes extinct altogether. There is nothing wrong with these rats to begin with; the problem is not with their being rats, it is with the inescapable crowding that is imposed on them. They become pathological, and their pathology is produced.

The publication of Calhoun’s experimental results brought forth a vociferous and sometimes heated debate about their applicability to human conditions. Ought we to understand that overcrowded cities were responsible for pathological behaviors observed among their human citizens? How should we make sense of highly concentrated communities of privileged people who did not become dysfunctional? Or does privilege serve to disguise the dysfunction that is really there? Or is what rats do irrelevant to what humans do? It is not my intention to enter in to that conversation this morning. The only moral I take away from what Calhoun called the “behavior sink” into which the rats predictable fell is that pathology is not always random or arbitrary; it can be produced.

I emphasize this principle as we turn our attention once again to the anniversary of the birth of America’s moral hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the reconsideration of his legacy to which that celebration annually calls us. As religious and social progressives, we are aware that it is not enough to admire and affirm what Dr. King and his followers achieved in their lifetimes, astounding as those changes were. Without them, we would not have Barak Obama in the White House today, nor many of the landmark accomplishments of legal and social justice that have unfolded within the historical experience of many in this room. Nevertheless, as Dr. King made clear before his death, there is a great deal – a very great deal – of work that remains to be done. The racial privilege upon which this nation was founded has not been dismantled, or repented of; it has only become less crude, less overt, less easy to name and so to resist.

Let me confess two significant realities about my own life and learning in this area, so that you will understand that I am in no position myself to offer counsels of perfection. First of all, I benefit from the conventions of white privilege that structure our national, and indeed international, culture. In a few ways that I notice, and many ways that I do not even see, my life is easier, safer, and more fulfilling not because of anything I have earned, but because I was born white. There is no meaningful way in which I can renounce this advantage, even if I truly wanted to, and I have but little confidence that if it were possible, when it came to the point, I really would give it up.

The second confession is that, unlike my parents’ generation, including Dr. King, I do not know how to fix this dilemma. I have not been able to discover or imagine a path that could lead our society to a place of ongoing justice that both remedies history and practices equality of opportunity in the present day. I am persuaded that our current legal, economic, and social structures do not offer equal justice; that both power and opportunity remain significantly stratified by race in American culture, and that popular energy to maintain this disparity is stronger than the energy for changing it. There are those who claim that only a complete, revolutionary restructuring of our entire western capitalist Enlightenment system will accomplish the necessary change, while my own historical perspective leads me to regard such ambition dubiously. Yet I cannot argue that the incremental remedies that I have seen achieved in my lifetime, though not insignificant, even begin to approach a sufficient transformation in this enduring evil. What the answer is at this point, I do not know, and it seems to me that to acknowledge that ignorance is essential to any genuine progress.

It would be one thing to recognize that what needs to be done now will be very difficult, or unpopular, or time consuming, or dangerous; challenges like that have been undertaken before now, and some victories over the long term have been won. But these have had envisionable goals; end slavery, gain voting rights, outlaw legal discrimination, increase minority representation in schools and trades and public service. The underlying struggle for the conscience of American society is not so easily benchmarked, and racism is a mutating virus that changes with its host, only to reappear in unpredictable forms. When the institution of chattel slavery could no longer be maintained, the system of Jim Crow restrictions on black individuals and communities quickly encoded existing white privilege, and perpetuated it in law and custom. When that system was challenged, and its legal sanctions overturned, it seemed as though there would be no more place for racist impulses and structures of white privilege to find political and legislative cover. Exposed to the light of public opinion as personal prejudice, without legal enforcement, such ideas would wither of their own falsity and injustice, we thought. But we reckoned without the adaptability of the virus of racism.

It is helpful to understand that racism likes to appear rational; as far back as slavery it sought to justify itself by appealing to studies like those of Samuel Morton, who calculated the capacity of white and negro brains by measuring the amount of lead shot that various skulls could hold. The Swiss naturalist and Harvard professor Louis Agassiz popularized the work of the French Aristocrat Arthur de Gobineau, tracing the origins of what he determined were the various uniquely created races, never intended to interact. Today such pseudo-science has been discredited, but remember that pathology can be produced. What followed the legal dismantling of the racist Jim Crow cultural consensus was America’s sudden appeal to ‘law and order’, and an astronomical increase in the incarceration rate among black citizens, especially young men. The majority of restrictions imposed on black communities by legal forms of discrimination before the 1950s – in housing, employment, voting, education, and economic opportunity – are still mandated, with an untroubled social conscience, against anyone identified as a felon. While the population of actual prisoners has indeed skyrocketed since Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, it is not necessary that black people actually be in prison; the deprivations of meaningful citizenship apply once they have ever been in prison, for the rest of their lives, whether or not they are ever again in trouble with the law.

This reconfiguration of the dynamics for racial control began during the Civil Rights era, even before the battles of legal integration were fully won. Where once leaders of government and public opinion had openly defended racial segregation as essential to preserving the social status quo, they started instead to attack the presence of ‘outside agitators’ – such as Martin Luther King – who disrupted cities and communities by engaging in illegal activities like marches and boycotts. A return to ‘law and order’ became code language for ending such civil demonstrations, and thus implicitly the pressure for change among black activists. Lyndon Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty’ was countered by Richard Nixon’s call for a ‘War on Drugs,’ and it was the latter which captured the popular imagination and legislative agenda in the 1970s, culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The appearance of crack cocaine in 1985, together with the globalized outsourcing of most blue collar manufacturing jobs, devastated poor black neighborhoods, and gave some façade to the anti-drug agenda, as black residents trapped in the ghettos frantically sought to preserve their communities. This justified an increase in federal spending on antidrug enforcement from $157 million in 1981 to $2.25 trillion by 1991, while research, treatment, prevention and education funding fell from $288 million to $60 million during the same period. These kind of shocking statistics can be piled up to the point where you can’t take them in anymore; let me offer you just one other. It struck me because 1972 was the year I graduated from high school. That year, there were approximately 350,000 men and women in prison in the United States; an average of about 7,000 per state, though of course not that evenly distributed. Now 350,000 ruined lives is still a tragedy, but you can wrap your mind around that number; it’s about two reasonable size community colleges per state. A state might actually be able to grapple with that; to think intelligently about how to help those people; attend to their physical and mental health needs, make sure they have some life skills, motivate them to be productive citizens in the future. A state might responsibly take that many people’s well-being into its hands by force. Do you have any idea what that number is today? It’s over 2.2 million, and 60% of them are black or Hispanic. Moreover, another 5 million adults are on parole or probation, as well as 70,000 juveniles in detention, putting over 3% of the entire U.S. population under correctional supervision, the vast majority of them non-white.

Has it ever occurred to you that the low likelihood of going to jail, either for something trivial that you did, like smoking a joint or selling one to your friend, or something you didn’t do at all, is part of the invisible white privilege that surrounds us all like the air we breathe? How about the likelihood of your child, or your grandchild, doing something stupid, and being labeled a felon, who can’t get a job or vote for the rest of his or her life? Would the reality of that, or the fear of that, make you a little crazy? Pathology can be produced; it can be produced for the very specific purpose of making sure that black people in this country mostly still can’t mobilize as a community to claim the rights of full citizenship; can’t really compete with whites who haven’t been locked up, whose fathers and mothers are not locked up. And be assured, every parent who goes to jail represents a child’s life that is pathologized by that same system.

To understand the elegantly interlocking forces that sustain this new system of enforcing white privilege, this new Jim Crow, I commend to you Michelle Alexander’s book. The profits of the prison-industrial complex alone constitute a daunting fortress of privilege that will need to be dismantled, if we who hope to be advocates of justice are not to be bought off and silenced in the face of racism’s latest mutation. Alexander believes that even a complete reform of our national criminal justice system will not be adequate to eliminate the virus of racism at the heart of our culture; it will just mutate again, into some other unexpected form that will take years of suffering to recognize, and perhaps she is right. I don’t know how to prevent that. What I do know is that I want a government that is committed to address real crime without creating pathology; I want to be a citizen of a nation that is not complacent about the reality of what its code of ‘law and order’ really stands for, and what its appetite for being ‘tough on crime’ actually produces. I am a daughter not only of the civil rights movement, but also of the Enlightenment, and I will not have the sacred word ‘justice’ perverted to the unholy purposes of racial oppression. I will not.

Martin Luther King didn’t solve the whole problem, as he would have been the first to point out, but what he did achieve was not nothing. It may not be in our hands to fix it at last, for all time, either, but that does not excuse us from the work that lies before us in our day, today. The mass incarceration and disenfranchisement of our fellow citizens of color must not be a matter of indifference to us. In 1962 the African American social critic James Baldwin wrote:

This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them; that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. It is their innocence which constitutes the crime.

Pathology is being produced, and lives are being destroyed, on our watch, and in our name. The virus of racism still thrives in our nation’s culture, with its toxic secretions of violence, estrangement, and despair. Our courthouses, that should be the guardians of our collective conscience, are its contamination chambers, and our prisons are its breeding grounds. Martin would have known what to do, just as the one he looked to for inspiration and guidance once announced that his task was to “…bring good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and sight for the blind, and deliverance for those in captivity.” They go together, you see; for once the eyes of the blind are opened, the only thing left is to set the captives free.