“I worry every time my son leaves my house”.
I have an African-American friend who has a young adult son. One morning we were talking after the death of George Floyd. I asked questions to try and understand how his death effected her. She said many heart wrenching things but one sentence reverberates in my heart.
“I worry every time my son leaves my house”.
Her worry is tied to any police encounter possibly going wrong with her son. I have never felt any danger from the police and have been given mercy many times. (As a teenage drug user, I remember three police stops that should have landed me in jail but each time I was released with a warning). I don’t fear for my children if they were to interact with the police.
But she fears.
Romans 12:15-16 encourages believers to have deep empathy with other believers. Paul’s goal is that we would feel what our brother or sister is feeling and join them. I, for one, am fearing with my sister. I know that racism exists and I believe it is hard to be black in America. I want to do more than empathize though. I want to understand. I want to do something.
I want all of us to do something.
I hear the Lord’s command through the prophet Amos:
“I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”
Amos 5:24 MSG
There is a need for fairness and justice for black Americans. Black moms fear physical harm being done to their sons by the police. I wonder if this fear is an archetype of lament. Lament over something greater and more treacherous than violent police encounters. It is, perhaps, lament of a people who are reminded that equality is not a realized reality but still hope deferred.
The United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world. This has happened over the last 20+ years as the War on Drugs has filled our prisons to overflowing with little good to show for it (Sentencing Project). This ‘war’ has put the black community in its crosshairs. Research shows that “black and white Americans use drugs at similar rates [and whites are more likely to sell drugs], but black Americans are 2.7 times as likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses” (The Hamilton Project). Further, an African American is 6 times more likely to serve prison time for his drug crime than a white person will for his drug crime (The Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Race). The police should not become escape goats for this. We are all to blame. Whether intended or not, our criminal system is targeting the black community and the consequences are dire.
The War on Drugs has most impacted black men. A quarter of black men will spend time in prison or jail at some point in their lives, many because of drug related offenses. This has dampened educational opportunities for these men: since the passage of the 1986 federal anti-drug bill, the rate of black men entering college has dropped by 20% (How the War on Drugs Kept Black Men Out of College). Further, 33% of black adult men are not working today; 11% of those men are currently incarcerated and another significant percentage have been incarcerated previously. Sadly, after their incarceration, entering the workforce will be an obstacle many cannot overcome (Collateral Costs: The Effects of Incarceration on the Employment and Earnings of Young Workers, Harry Holzer). There is a direct connection between the over jailing of African-American men for drug crimes and the destruction of the black family. Poor black kids are the most devastated victims in this war: 66% are living in homes without fathers.
I am overwhelmed that there is not an outcry from the evangelical church over this unequal justice. More importantly, we must find ways to act with our brothers and sisters.
We can make known and seek to change that:
Black men are not treated equally under the law. Often, arrested African Americans do not have the ability to hire a competent lawyer. This leaves them with a public defender who is overworked and underpaid. This positions the defendant to receive a subpar defense, harsher sentences than their white counterparts and excessive jail times. If each person is equal under the law, then legal representation should reflect that. Christians should fight for structural changes such as redesigning the public defender system so that everyone has access to reliable and competent legal representation. Having money should not enable better outcomes in criminal court.
African Americans have a much higher chance of being wrongly convicted. Think about a young black man navigating the police and district attorneys who have great leeway in getting a confession including being deceptive. Many of us know to not speak to the police in such situations without an attorney. What might happen if one did not know that? It is not hard to incriminate oneself. We should support organizations like the Innocence project. They are making a difference.
Incarceration for drugs doesn’t work. Drug cases, even ones including sellers, are best handled with a drug treatment plan not jail. The war on drugs which incarcerates has failed the black community. The collateral damage of black families and their futures is too high a price to pay for so little in return. The real war is about addiction, lack of economic opportunities and mental illness. Those within the church should fight for changing laws so that if drugs remained criminalized then treatment should be the primary option.
Law enforcement needs more support. Being in law enforcement is hard work. The work is emotionally and mentally grinding. Today, nearly all police officers are rigorously vetted before they are hired. Nearly all start as decent men and women who want to make a difference. It is the perils and shadows of the job that has the potential to change them into cynical, bitter or even bigoted people with guns. We must provide ongoing support and training for officers so that they continue to be psychologically healthy. And when and if a police officer has lost that light of goodness that they nearly all start with, then there must be clear mechanisms to off ramp them from their job while protecting their livelihood. The alternative is unthinkable. They deserve to be taken care of.
The application of the law isn’t fair. There must be work done so that black men are not unfairly targeted with arrests while white men are let off the statistical hook. This is a complicated reality. Poor neighborhoods usually have more crime. More crime means increased police encounters. Often this means that poorer blacks will have more police interactions than whites because poverty is higher for African Americans. This is not a policing issue as much as a public policy crisis. There is deep need to fix our drug laws so that this inequality is remedied.
We need to help fathers. Poor black boys are in need of fathers. When young black boys have ‘fathers’ in their lives, hope arises. The church should do all it can to keep fathers in the home. And when it isn’t possible, we should be fathers for the fatherless.
I need not agree with the philosophical tenets of identity politics or embrace critical race theory to care for my sister who fears when her son leaves the house. Whatever the undercurrents, there is injustice. It is so clear to me that there is work to be done. I pray that I take my place and do my part so that justice will flow like a river for each person in the United States.
I pray you stand and do your part too.