I HEAR A STIRRING, a rumbling. An awakening. Sometimes the sound is so faint, I worry it’s my imagination, my optimism getting the best of me. I pause, listen, and wait. Here it comes again. I want to rush to my window, fling it open, stick my head way out, and look around. Is it happening? For real this time? Is the sleeping giant finally waking up?
God knows we’ve slept too long.
Many of us—myself included—slept through a revolution. Actually, it was a counterrevolution that has blown back much of the progress that so many racial justice advocates risked their lives for. This counterrevolution occurred with barely a whimper of protest, even as a war was declared, one that purported to be aimed at “drugs.”
Really, the war took aim at people—overwhelmingly poor people and people of color—who were taken prisoner en masse and then relegated to a permanent, second-class status, stripped of basic civil and human rights such as the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free from legal discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education and public benefits. Branded “criminals” or “felons,” millions of people discovered that the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement no longer applied to them.
A penal system unprecedented in world history emerged in a few short decades; by the year 2000, 2 million people found themselves behind bars, and 60 million were saddled with criminal records that would condemn them for life—staggering statistics, given that in the 1970s there were only about 350,000 people in prison.
I am listening carefully at my window now. I hear that rumbling sound, signs of an awakening in the streets. My heart leaps for joy. People of all colors are beginning to raise their voices a little louder; people who have spent time behind bars are organizing for the restoration of their civil and human rights; young people are becoming bolder and more defiant in challenging the prison-industrial complex; and people of faith are finally waking up to the uncomfortable reality that we have been complicit in the birth and maintenance of a system predicated on denying to God’s children the very forms of compassion, forgiveness, and possibilities for redemption that we claim to cherish.
Even in the halls of power, winds of change have begun to blow. I turn on the news and I see the attorney general of the United States condemning felon disenfranchisement laws and harsh mandatory minimum sentences and expanding the criteria for clemency for those imprisoned for nonviolent offenses. For the first time in decades, it appears that the prison building boom is slowing down, the numbers of people being locked in cages beginning to decline. State legislatures are reforming drug laws aimed at nonviolent drug offenders, marijuana legalization has taken hold in Colorado and Washington, and 17 states have passed laws decriminalizing marijuana. Change is in the air.
It all looks so good from here, on my couch, with the remote control in one hand. How tempting it is to imagine that this problem is sorting itself out on its own. But as my thoughts drift toward complacency, I hear that voice whispering to me again, a voice that returns whenever I get tired or lazy and begin to think maybe someone else will do my work, make my contribution for me. That inner voice repeats the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “[H]uman progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability,” King said. “It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.”
Social stagnation. That is precisely the danger we face now: a little reform here, a little reform there, and then ... nothing. A new normal that looks and feels much like the old. The sleeping giant may toss and turn but ultimately choose to stay in bed, imagining that someone else will do the work that is ours to do. Many of us have comfortable beds and simply don’t want to be disturbed.
I remember my early stirrings. Although I was a civil rights lawyer and firmly committed to social justice, it took me a long while to see the bigger picture. Only after years of representing victims of racial profiling, investigating patterns of drug law enforcement, and attempting to assist people who had been released from prison “re-enter” society only to be faced with one legal barrier after another did I finally wake up to the reality that social justice advocates like me were notwrestling with mere social or legal problems. We were dealing with a vast new system of racial and social control—the rise of a new caste-like system in the U.S. It is a system that cannot be “reformed” and thereby redeemed any more than it would have been possible to reform slavery or Jim Crow and thereby approach justice.
The system of mass incarceration is rotten to its core. As Kaia Stern eloquently explains in her book Voices from American Prisons, the quintupling of our prison population in a few short decades and the relegation of tens of millions of people to a permanent second-class status is a reflection of the fact that we in the United States are captive to a “spirit of punishment.” She writes, “There is no more pressing human rights issue, no more urgent spiritual crossroads or threat to democracy, than the current penal crisis.”
THE ULTIMATE QUESTION for us, as people of faith and conscience, is whether we are willing to rise to the challenge this moment in our history presents. Are we willing to do the work? Are we willing to end the drug war in its entirety and shift to a public health model for dealing with drug addiction and abuse? Are we willing to abolish legal discrimination against people with criminal records—discrimination that denies them basic human rights to work, shelter, education, and food? Are we willing to organize for restorative, rehabilitative, and transformative models of justice that take seriously the interests of the victim, the offender, and the community as a whole? Are we willing to tell the truth—the whole truth—about the values and ideologies that brought us to this place and time? Or will we go back to sleep and tolerate a slightly downsized version of the prison industrial-complex, one that still cages and perpetually controls millions, but on a slightly smaller scale?
It will require great courage, and some real sacrifice, to stand up for, and to stand with, the “least of these”—the criminals, the felons, the despised, and the “illegals”—and to insist publicly on their humanity, dignity, and value in the eyes of God. It will not be easy for people to learn to care for the drug addict and the drug dealer, or to see that the victim of a horrible crime as well as the perpetrator are both children of God and worthy of our profound care and concern. People may be reluctant to see that the woman who crossed the border illegally in the hope of a better life deserves our sincere compassion, as does the young man who sold some weed to help the mother of his child pay the rent. Cultivating such a shift in consciousness will require the birth of a movement unlike anything this nation has ever seen—one that is rooted in the awareness of the fundamental dignity and basic human rights of each and every one of us, no matter who we are, where we came from, or what we’ve done.
I know there are many people who say that surely much less will do; just look at all the progress that is being made in the halls of power. Sadly, though, so much of that progress is illusory. Most of the reform at the state level has not been driven by a growing awareness of the value of the people and communities that have been destroyed in the race to incarcerate; rather, the progress has been motivated primarily by fiscal concerns—an effort by politicians to balance budgets in a time of economic crisis. Politicians across the political spectrum, including former “get-tough” true believers such as Newt Gingrich, are now calling for modest reforms because they know it is impossible to maintain this vast new penal state without raising taxes on the predominately white middle class.
Yes, some progress can be made without building a truly transformative movement. We may manage to persuade mainstream voters that prisons are too expensive or that drug use should be viewed more as a public health problem than a crime, without ever challenging people (including ourselves) to care—really care—for the “others.” We can win by saying whatever the pollsters tell us will work, and we can appeal to people’s self-interest and fiscal concerns. But if we choose that path, we cannot pretend we are traveling a road that will lead to higher ground. What we face is a profound moral and spiritual crisis, not merely a social, political, or economic one.
IN THE END, if our advocacy fails to build a new moral consensus—if it fails to cultivate an ethic of genuine care, compassion, and concern for every human being of every class, race, and nationality—the reforms we achieve will not bring an end to caste-like systems in the U.S. Mass incarceration will remain, just downsized a bit, or a new system of racial and social control will emerge—one that we cannot foresee, just as the current system of mass incarceration was utterly unimaginable just 40 years ago.
The evil of these systems lies not in their cost, inefficiency, or impracticality. The evil lies in the belief that some of us are disposable, unworthy of care, compassion, or concern. And until we challenge that core belief, systems of racial and social control will continue to be born and thrive in this country for a long, long time.
So what are we to do? “People are ready to move in a new direction,” observes Iva Carruthers, who has been leading the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference’s faith-based network in consciousness-raising and movement-building efforts. “The challenge is charting a course that will lead to sustained change against the forces that undergird mass incarceration. The push must be strategic and focused on specific policy changes, but we must also be sure to frame this issue as one of fundamental human rights and unresolved issues of race and racism in America.”
Rev. Michael McBride, who leads the Lifeline for Healing Communities Campaign for the PICO Network, rightly emphasizes that genuine humility is required when entering this work. “People of faith are beginning to understand the theological and moral imperative to tear down this devastating system,” he says. “But my fear is that many white-led congregations and organizations will enter this conversation unaware of the impact of race and privilege, both in the systems that perpetuate this evil and in the unconscious mindset that informs their own engagement with this issue.” He believes that the way we can ensure we are moving in the right direction “is by making a commitment that churches and faith-based organizations will be willing to follow the leadership of people of color and impacted individuals/families in this fight.”
McBride’s words ring true with my own experience. When I was working as a civil rights lawyer, the temptation was ever-present to treat victims of racial profiling or those struggling to survive following release from prison as “clients”—people who were in need of my help, expertise, guidance, or assistance. Even as an African-American woman who was well versed in the dynamics of power and privilege, it was easy for me to forget that I had much to learn from the people I sought to help, and that they possessed not only the potential but every right to be leaders and true partners in this work.
All of us will need support and guidance as we find our voice and strength in building this movement, though some of us are facing truly desperate circumstances. Let us step forward, as we are, with arms open wide and ready to grow, challenge, and be challenged. We are all co-workers with God, together bending the arc of history toward justice.
May we rise up like a sleeping giant, awakening at last, and get to work making America and ourselves what we must become.
Michelle Alexander is a civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.