As I think about the incarceration of young black men for relatively minor drug crimes, and the murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, I cannot help but compare the astonishing progress that Americans have made in overcoming prejudice against gays and lesbians to the astounding lack of progress we have made in overcoming prejudice against black Americans.
It is often repeated that the reason for changes in attitudes about gays and lesbians is the process of coming out—most people in America now know a lesbian or gay family member, friend, or co-worker. On the other hand, I would dare to speculate that many—perhaps most—Americans who are not African-American do not know a boy like Trayon Martin or Jordan Davis. If you do—count yourself lucky! Our society remains divided by race and class divisions (many of them a legacy of racism) that prevent many non-black Americans from knowing a single young black man.
Most white Americans know a teen-ager or an adult who has smoked pot or tried cocaine or other drugs. Most white Americans would be outraged if a child or friend of theirs were sent to prison for years for possession of one marijuana cigarette. White middle class Americans would be storming the halls of justice if police stopped and frisked white students on college campuses and imprisoned every single one of them found with an illegal cigarette or pill. What would happen if police regularly raided fraternity parties and arrested all of those serving alcohol to minors along with all of those possessing illegal substances? A new “justice” movement would be born at once.
Yet most (not all) of those same Americans are not outraged when young black men are incarcerated for carrying a small amount of marijuana or crack cocaine on their persons.
- About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug
- 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites
- African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.
- African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet
Some white people do know about such statistics (I do), but how many of us have translated a general concern about this issue to outrage?
I don’t think most white Americans hate black Americans. But I do think that the fact that few white people know a young black man who was sent to prison for years (58.7 months = almost 5 years) and stigmatized for life for a minor drug offense allows us “not to think too much” about the gross injustices in the criminal justice system.
I cannot help but thinking that the reason the juries aquitted George Zimmerman and failed to convict Michael Dunn of murder has something to do with the fact that many of the jurors could not identify with Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis because they did not know any boys like them. But who among us does not know an angry and fearful white man? Who among us has not heard a white male relative make racist comments?
If you don’t know any young black men, then—even without your conscious consent—your mind will probably provide you with racist stereotypes when you are confronted with a young black man in a hoodie on a dark street. The fear evoked by such stereotypes could be quelled if you thought—hey that’s just a kid like my friend’s son “Jonathan.” But if your friends don’t have any black sons named Jonathan—where will your mind go next?
And where would it go if you sat on a jury? Most of us have heard white men in our families, among our friends, or at work make racist comments. Speaking for myself, I know more than one person “like that”–and even if though I don’t agree with them, I “know” them. I also “know” that such men are not “all bad.” So what kind of a juror would I be?
I don’t have the solution for this problem. Our country passed laws to end segregation in schools and neighborhoods two generations ago. Yet segregation persists. In many ways black and white Americans still live in two different worlds.
At minimum we need to name the ways in which racial segregation is producing two different justice systems—one for blacks and a very different one for whites. And then we need to raise our voices to change it.
Carol P. Christ is looking forward to the spring Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she leads through Ariadne Institute. Early bird special for the spring pilgrimage extended for those who join now. Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference. Carol is a founding mother in feminism and religion and women’s spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.