I’ve been doing a lot of study recently: studying both the Bible (especially Ephesians 2:14-17) and our culture. It’s not hard to see that Racism works as a “dividing wall of hostility” in our country, and I know that the best way to work towards reconciliation is to reach out to people with different voices, different experiences, in order to listen and learn. But even with this mindset, I was surprised when I started talking more seriously with friends from the African-American community and noticed the way that our conversations often seem to veer off into a discussion about law enforcement and criminal justice in the United States of America.
My friends are, like, “Do you have a dash-cam in your car?” Or “Have you ever been pulled over by the cops?”
And in my mind, I’m like, “Um, I thought we were trying to talk about Racism here. I’m really not interested in getting into law enforcement procedures and protocols. Listen: I want to know your thoughts and feelings about race relations in our society.”
I figure there’s more to talk about in the way hate speech… or getting passed over for employment opportunities… or the physical threat of armed white supremacists… But almost without exception, I’ve noticed that our conversations trend back towards what one might very well call “the system of law with its commandments and regulations” (to borrow a phrase from Ephesians 2). Almost invariably, my black friends have horror stories to tell me. About veiled threats. Or direct threats. Or just a general sense of fear and distrust. All centering around law enforcement officers and our criminal justice system.
They’re trying to help me understand that we live in two different societies. The truth is I genuinely cannot remember the last time I was pulled over by the police! It’s been decades! And I’ve never been jailed in my entire life! Some of that may be that I’m a decently-good driver. But almost certainly, based on the stories I’ve heard from my black friends — of varying ages and income levels — I’m pretty sure that some of it (and maybe quite a bit of it) has to come from the fact that I’m an old, white guy. It’s just plain different for young, black men. Our experiences are different — but I don’t notice it, and I don’t feel inclined to do much about it, because I’m a beneficiary of the system.
I want to give you some facts and figures about the “dividing wall of hostility” in the United States of America today (mostly pulled from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Jim Wallis’ America’s Original Sin):
- Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s ended much of our system of legal, institutional segregation. Still, research indicates that the social networks of white Americans are 91% white, with 75% of whites having entirely white social networks.
- The median white household is 13 times wealthier than the median black household and 10 times wealthier than the median Latino household, here in the United States.
- Black students make up 16% of the public school population, but the average black student attends a school that’s at least 50% black. The average black student attends a school that ranks in the 37th percentile for test score results, whereas the average white student attends a school in the 60th percentile. Only 17% of African-American kids graduate from college compared to 31% of white kids.
And our criminal justice system is the real kicker, if you ask me:
- The United States contains 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s prisoners.
- Our current prison population represents a 500% increase in total number of prisoners over the last 40 years (and that time frame is interesting because it follows so close on the heels of Jim Crow Laws in the American South).
- This quote was particularly challenging for me to read: “There are more African American adults under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”
- The demographics of our prison population are not even close to being representative of society at large, even though studies suggest criminal behavior is evenly distributed among all races.
- More than 60% of the people in prison today are people of color.
- Black drivers are 31% more likely to be pulled over then whites.
- African Americans are about three times more likely to be arrested than whites, and black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than those for white offenders for the same crimes.
- When these people get out of prison, their criminal record also means they are stripped of their democratic rights when they return to society. They don’t get to vote for politicians to address the deficiencies in the system.
The more I learned about these irregularities in our “system of law with its commandments and regulations,” the more I noticed in the world around me! I never thought of this stuff before I started talking with my black friends and following some of the leads they gave me for research. I never connected our law enforcement and criminal justice system with our history of Racism. But we’ve clearly got issues.
We’ve lost our way.
We’ve sinned, and we are sinning. We’re waaaaaayy worse than we ever dare to admit. Until we can come to terms with that, and own that, and admit that (to ourselves and to others), we’re going to be hard-pressed to experience genuine repentance and reconciliation. It can feel kind of hopeless to put that all out there. But this is the heart of the Gospel. We’re all way worse than we ever dare to admit… But, God’s grace is way better, and richer, and more-comprehensive than we ever dare imagine it to be! God loves us so much that he doesn’t leave us in our dysfunction and hostility. He was the first one to put skin in the game (his skin!) and make reparations to allow for renewal. Not just so we can go to heaven when we die (as amazing as that will be) — but also so we can experience transformation and elements of eternal life here on earth, as it is in heaven.
We need continued relationship… continued dialogue… continued political activism… and continued humility to overcome the dysfunctions of our society. I’m challenged to think about the uphill climb ahead of us, but I’m also praying for God’s grace to be made manifest in the process.