Our comfortable injustice, Part 1: Christians, race and the U. S. legal system

Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter. Isaiah 59:14 (ESV)

Declare me innocent, O God! Defend me against these ungodly people. Rescue me from these unjust liars. Psalm 43:1 (NLT)

But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream. Amos 5:24 (HCSB)

The subject of justice has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the Christian community of late. I think this is rightfully so. For so long, filled with the hope of Christ’s immediate return, we tended to ignore our neighbors asleep on the sidewalk heating grate in favor of watching the next installment of A Thief in the Night. Those who gave compassion to the poor–and demanded the same from others–were often derided as “liberal” or promoting a works based salvation in which societal reform is the gospel. We rejoiced that Jesus was with the two or three of us gathered in His name, but seemed to forget He also promised to meet us in prison or when He was naked as long as we ministered to Him in those cases. Forming a holy huddle of prayer after Sunday night church is one thing; taking the stranger Jesus into our home is quite another (Matthew 7:34-46).

Owing much to the heartbeat of young believers who have proclaimed that being the light of the world means actually being in the world in order to light it, there has been a renewal of interest in stopping injustice wherever it occurs. It is now easier to convince believers who were formerly on the sidelines to stand against sex traffickers, corporate exploitation of third world workers, government undercutting of a national economy (suffered by Haiti, for instance), or to become involved in adoption movements. Injustice now arouses our anger. Even when we do not know exactly how to act we are, at least, moved viscerally to pray. We are concerned, and we often express it online, on the phone or in person.

Despite the advances recently made one area where issues of justice have a hard time building a fan base concerns the injustice of the American “justice” system. Remembering Romans 13 many of us were taught to be strong supporters of our government. Thus, excepting overtly anti-biblical atrocities like abortion-on-demand, we are far too hesitant to critique the state. (That hesitancy is quickly cast aside, it seems, if the party opposing our cherished beliefs controls the Congress or the White House. In such cases critique is all some Christians know.)

As it now stands in the United States, the most consistent, the most embedded, the most troublesome injustice is our justice system. It has become a perpetual motion machine of search, arrest, cajole, convict, and imprison. Adam Gopnik, in The Caging of America, writes:

Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States. Emphasis in original.

Mass incarceration resulting from perverted justice, like the flu, is not epidemic or even pandemic; it’s endemic. It is just the way of things.

In her troubling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander writes,

In two short decades, between 1980 and 2000, the number of people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails soared from roughly 300,000 to more than 2 million. By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans–or one in every 31 adults–were behind bars, on probation, or on parole. (pg. 60)

Constitutional attorney, John W. Whitehead, wrote in a recent commentary:

Consider this: despite the fact that violent crime in America has been on the decline, the nation’s incarceration rate has tripled since 1980. Approximately 13 million people are introduced to American jails in any given year. Incredibly, more than six million people are under “correctional supervision” in America, meaning that one in fifty Americans are working their way through the prison system, either as inmates, or while on parole or probation. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the majority of those being held in federal prisons are convicted of drug offenses—namely, marijuana. Presently, one out of every 100 Americans is serving time behind bars.

In a July 2009 article for The Howard Journal Professor of Criminology David Wilson noted regarding Charles Dickens’ 1842 visit to America:

For Dickens, America would stand or fall by how it treated those whom it imprisoned.

And, it should be observed, how we treat those we imprison starts with the lengths we are willing to go to incarcerate people in the first place. Since the 1970’s that length has been increasing like taffy on a hot summer day. This is especially true when the incarceration of African-Americans is concerned.

Glenn C. Loury addresses this in his book, Race, Incarceration and American Values:

Between 1980 and 1997 the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent offenses tripled, and the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses increased by a factor of eleven. Indeed, the criminal-justice researcher Alfred Blumstein has argued that none of the growth in incarceration between 1980 and 1996 can be attributed to more crime…As of 2000, thirty-three states had abolished limited parole (up from seventeen in 1980), twenty-four states had introduced three strikes laws (up from zero), and forty states had introduced truth-in-sentencing laws (up from three). The vast majority of these changes occurred in the 1990’s as crime rates fell. (p. 8, 9, Emphasis added.)

(The role of increased laws, eviscerating the 4th amendment, and the rise of the Prison Industrial Complex will be explored in Part 2 of this series.)

Racial bias in the legal system is pervasive, from arrest to execution. A June 2011 opinion piece in the Palm Beach Post stated:

In 2008, four out of five arrests were for mere possession of drugs, one-half of those for marijuana. Due to selective enforcement, those imprisoned are primarily minorities.

While there is no evidence to support that African-Americans use drugs at a higher rate than white Americans, and although they make up only 12.6 percent of the general population, African-Americans account for 37 percent of total drug arrests annually and 56 percent of incarcerations. As Georgetown University law Professor David Cole put it, were whites being arrested at the same rate as blacks, “We would almost certainly see this as an urgent national calamity, and demand a collective investment of public resources to forestall so many going to prison.” (Emphasis added.)

Regardless of one’s position on the War on Drugs, it exists and there are laws driving it. However, it is unjust to search, arrest, prosecute and imprison members of one race to a greater degree when the evidence suggests equal violations across races.

A January 2005 paper entitled Racial Disparity in Sentencing: A Review of the Literature by Tushar Kansal of The Sentencing Project, found:

–Young, black and Latino males (especially if unemployed) are subject to particularly harsh sentencing compared to other offender populations;
–Black and Latino defendants are disadvantaged compared to whites with regard to legal-process related factors such as the “trial penalty,” sentence reductions for substantial assistance, criminal history, pretrial detention, and type of attorney;
–Black defendants convicted of harming white victims suffer harsher penalties than blacks who commit crimes against other blacks or white defendants who harm whites;
–Black and Latino defendants tend to be sentenced more severely than comparably situated white defendants for less serious crimes, especially drug and property crimes.

Studies that examine death-penalty cases have generally found that:

–In the vast majority of cases, if the murder victim is white, the defendant is more likely to receive a death sentence;
–In a few jurisdictions, notably the federal system, minority defendants (especially blacks) are more likely to receive a death sentence. (p. 2, 3, Emphasis added.)

An Amnesty International USA report, based on a 1990 U.S. General Accounting Office study

found a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty. The study concluded that a defendant was several times more likely to be sentenced to death if the murder victim was white. This has been confirmed by the findings of many other studies that, holding all other factors constant, the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim.

Race death sentencing in the United States

Graphic: amnestyusa.org

If research at the federal level demonstrates anything it is that white lives are more valuable than those of African-Americans. This is racism by definition.

Christians in the United States simply cannot claim to hate racism while supporting an unjust legal system that exercises racial oppression by its selective prosecution of the law.

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Read Part 2: Incarceration for profit.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

4 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • Lauren Pendley

    This is (part of the reason) why I cannot support the death penalty as applied in the United States. The Baldus study (as referenced in Supreme Court decision McCleskey v. Kemp) gives more information about the death penalty and race. Their statistics actually come straight from Georgia. Unfortunately a lot of the death penalty Supreme Court cases come straight from Georgia…

    It’s sad that the government is ignoring the problem of prevalent racism in the criminal justice system. In Supreme Court decision U.S. v. Armstrong, the Court set the burden impossibly high to prove that the government was selectively prosecuting blacks instead of whites in drug cases.

    In the past year I’ve taken courses on Capital Punishment, Wrongful Convictions, and Race Law. So this post is right up my alley (unfortunately).

    • Marty Duren

      I, for one, hope God uses you to break down some of this if that’s where you have opportunity to practice.

      I do not oppose the death penalty in principle, but I have a very hard time supporting it in practice because of the extent to which DNA has exonerated “guilty” people, the unreliability of eye-witnesses, corruption in the process and the like. We only get one shot to get that right. Seems we get it wrong a lot.

  • Dwight McKissic

    Marty,

    If the SBC wedded our perceived commitment to evangelism/discipleship with your and others burden for justice, we would see the Kingdom of God in our convention.The Great Commission and The Great Commandment rightly understood and practiced combines these two great instructions from Jesus.Sadly, we have not structurally and consistently combined these in our churches and conventions. In light of Richard Land’s recent controversial comments, your post is fitly spoken.

    Thanks for letting the Lord use you as a prophetic voice to His people.I plan to post on the Land comments within the next couple of weeks and I will link to this post.

    Dwight

    • Marty Duren

      Thanks, Dwight. Blessings.

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