I met Jazz Hayden, the subject of this story, the same way Sharon Kyle met him, and in precisely the same company. The only difference was that I met Jazz in Chicago instead of LA. In other words, this story is kind of personal. Hayden, a reformed criminal with a record as long as your arm, understands the dynamics of what Michelle Alexander calls “the New Jim Crow” from the inside out. Recently, his efforts to undermine the NYPD’s infamous “stop and frisk” style of policing, Jazz took to photographing officers in action. They didn’t like having their picture taken, and now Jazz faces criminal charges that could place him back in prison. Please read this account and join me in signing the Change.org petition at the bottom of the story.
In November of 2011 Dick and I attended an event in south Los Angeles where we met three friends face to face for the first time. Even though we were meeting for the first time in persom, I characterize them as “friends” because we established a bond online as we all worked to support the work of Michelle Alexander. All three live in New York and all three are progressive activists. When we learned that they’d be attending a conference in Los Angeles, Dick and I extended an invitation to have them come to our home in Mt. Washington for dinner during one of the evenings they were here in town. (more…)
The Southern Baptist Convention is poised to elect its first African-American president. Is this a big deal, or a cynical ploy?
As this Morning Edition article makes clear, Fred Luter isn’t just a prominent African-American preacher; he’s a transformational figure who stuck with his New Orleans congregation when the sanctuary washed away with Hurricane Katrina. Luter is that rarest of preachers, a man who rose from the streets, understands poverty, and spikes his call to conversion with a strong dose of compassion.
In other words, the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t just placing a token black man in an honorary position to deflect attention from the denomination’s racist past; Luter rose to prominence the hard way and deserves all the accolades he is receiving.
But there is another side to the story embodied in the passionate minority report filed by Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. McKissic is as theologically conservative as a Southern Baptist can be. He preaches against “the gay lifestyle” with notorious gusto, but he is even more passionate about racial injustice.
Fred Luter notwithstanding, Rev. McKissic sees little evidence that the moral fervor of the overwhelmingly white SBC “messengers” who will attend this year’s convention extends to civil rights.
This impression was reinforced in a particularly painful way when Richard Land, head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, launched into a racially tinged radio rant that made him sound like the reincarnation of George Wallace circa 1962.
Land lost his radio program over his diatribe (largely because his racist comments turned out to be an unacknowledged quote from an obscure right-wing zealot), but he kept his post with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Land has apologized for dismissing prominent civil rights preachers as “race hustlers” and suggesting that Barack Obama only addressed the Trayvon Martin case in a desperate attempt to improve his standing with black voters.
Is Richard Land truly repentant? McKissic is hedging his bets. And for good reason.
As law professor Michelle Alexander points out, New Jim Crow racism differs markedly from Old Jim Crow bigotry. Richard Land has renounced his denomination’s support for Old Jim Crow segregation and the overt commitment to white supremacy that was part of that package. But when it comes to the New Jim Crow realities associated with mass incarceration and the creation of a black male undercaste, the high-profile Baptist preacher is essentially clueless.
As Michelle Alexander points out, you can’t understand the dynamics of the New Jim Crow unless you are willing to sympathize with the plight of poor young black men who are making all the mistakes Fred Luter made as a young man on the mean streets of New Orleans. Luter loves these guys, even as he laments key features of their lifestyle. So does Dwight McKissic. White Baptists like Richard Land has come to terms with a long-dead Martin Luther King Jr., but isn’t ready to acknowledge the full human dignity of the pre-conversion Fred Luter.
For savvy black Baptists in the SBC like Dwight McKissic, that’s a big problem.
The Southern Baptist Convention is expected to elect its first black president on Tuesday: Fred Luter, a former street preacher who turned a dying New Orleans church into a powerhouse. His election is a milestone for the 167-year-old denomination at a time when minorities make up a growing share of a shrinking membership.
Luter, who is running unopposed for president of the nation’s largest Protestant body, is a departure from his predecessors. He was the middle child of a divorced mother, and until a motorcycle accident landed him in the hospital at age 20, he had little interest in God.
Then God changed him, he told NPR earlier this year.
“I grew up in the ‘hood, and my mom worked two or three jobs. So I hung out with a lot of bad guys, did a lot of crazy things I should not have done,” Luter said. “And so, when I gave my life to the Lord and saw what God did in my life, then I wanted all those guys I ran the street with to experience what I was experiencing.”
Soon, Luter was preaching on the streets in New Orleans. In 1986, he was invited to take over Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. Under him, its congregation grew from a couple of dozen people to 7,000 — the largest Southern Baptist church in Louisiana. Then Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, destroying the sanctuary.
“It would have been easy for Fred Luter to have said, ‘I think God’s calling me elsewhere,’ ” says Russell Moore, dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. “And he could have gone to a very comfortable pastorate anywhere in the country.
“And yet, he stayed,” Moore says. “And he stood with the people of New Orleans and said, ‘We’ll be back, we’ll rebuild’ — and became a spiritual anchor.”
‘The Future Of The Country Is Urban’
Luter’s decision to stay, and his personal charisma, propelled him to national prominence in the Southern Baptist Convention, says pastor David Crosby.
Crosby leads First Baptist of New Orleans, which shared its space with Luter’s congregation while they rebuilt. He adds that Luter brings something else desperately needed to this denomination, which has seen its numbers drop: He understands how to reach the only growth area of religion.
“The future of the country is urban; the future of the Southern Baptist Convention is also urban,” Crosby says. “We’ve got to learn how to operate and do our mission and thrive in the urban environment. And Fred brings that. He knows it instinctively.”
The SBC has made some progress in that area. Two decades ago, the denomination was “as white as a tractor pull,” as one critic put it. Now it’s 20 percent minority. Richard Land, who heads the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says Luter’s election shows how far the Southern Baptists have come from the days when they supported slavery.
“It’s as historic a moment as Southern Baptists have had,” Land says, “because the president of SBC is not just an honorific — it is a position of real power.”
Maybe — and maybe not, says Dwight McKissic, senior pastor of the largely African-American Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.
‘A Historic Moment’
“This is a great job, but it’s somewhat symbolic and ceremonial,” he says.
McKissic says the two-year presidency is a good first step. But he says African-Americans are absent from all the real positions of power.
Some say there’s a latent racism in the denomination. And many were troubled by a recent broadcast on Land’s radio program in which he said President Obama and black leaders were using the death of Trayvon Martin for political purposes.
“This is being done to try to gin up the black vote for an African-American president who is in deep, deep, deep trouble for re-election,” Land said on the air.
“It was like someone took a knife and stuck it in my heart,” McKissic says. “It validated suspicions that many black Baptists have had all along, that this is how a good number, if not the majority, of Southern Baptists felt.”
Land has apologized and asked for forgiveness.
“I don’t want anything I’ve said, or any mistakes I’ve made, to detract from — in any way — from what is going to be a truly historic moment — a historic moment in which I rejoice,” he says.
Luter has forgiven Land; he says it’s time to look forward. He notes that if he’s elected, it will be because white Baptists voted for him.
“It won’t be because of the handful of black folk that’s going to be there,” Luter says. “So, it will say something to the country and to the world — that the Southern Baptist Convention is not just talking this thing, we’re actually walking this thing.”
Alan Bean couldn’t miss the headline splashed across the top of his hometown paper one summer morning in 1999. It spoke of big news for the 5,000-person burg in West Texas: a big drug bust that landed a sizable portion of the town’s black community behind bars.
“Tulia streets cleared of garbage,” the banner headline read. Like many aspects of the American war on drugs, the wording smacked of insidious racism.
Bean recalled his reactions to that news story a few days ago, to a roomful of people at a Fort Worth hotel. The event, examining the 40-year-old war on drugs and its disproportionate impact on minority communities, was hosted by the Tarrant County Libertarian Party but drew speakers from several parts of the political spectrum.
At the podium, Bean acknowledged that he’d known nothing of the lopsided statistics when he picked up the paper that morning. The drug bust in his small town would change all that, though, and suddenly push him to the front lines of a war that locks up seven black men for every white man incarcerated in the United States, devastating minority neighborhoods while white enclaves, where drugs are every bit as prevalent, are left mostly unscathed. The more Bean read and researched, the clearer the drug war’s racism became to him. (more…)
Michelle Alexander was on the Colbert Report on Tuesday night. Colbert, as always, is hilarious and Alexander is characteristically eloquent (when you spend two years talking about the same subject you get your talking points down cold). But the most significant aspect of this exchange is the crowd reaction. They are clearly blown away.
After news spread about the killing of 17-year old Trayvon Martin, many began comparing Martin’s case to the 1955 murder of 14-year old Emmett Till. Although some are critical of the comparison, arguing that comparing Martin to Till suggests nothing has changed since the 1950s, Ibram Rogers argues that we must look at the context of their deaths and what their murders symbolized. Till’s death was a symbol of racism in the Jim Crow South. Martin’s death is a symbol of racial profiling and the criminalization of black men in 2012. Just as the death of Emmett Till galvanized the civil rights movement, Ibram wonders: “Will the anger over Martin’s death spark the New Abolitionist Movement against mass incarceration?” MWN
Protests are blooming this spring. Black Americans are enraged and emboldened, shouting entreaties for justice, justice, justice.
Stoking even more rage—or rather placing the rage in historical context—has been the continuous comparisons made between the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, murdered recently by a neighborhood watchman of a majority White gated community in Florida who is claiming self-defense, and Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago native murdered by Mississippi segregationists in 1955 for speaking “inappropriately” to a White woman.
A blog in The New Yorker on the Martin tragedy was entitled “Emmett Till in Sanford.” Hundreds of protesters gathered at a park in Sanford, Fla., on March 22, and dozens of them sported t-shirts with Martin’s photo next to a Till photo. These Martin-Till shirts have become widely popular among activists around the nation.
Syracuse professor Boyce Watkins wrote that Martin “has become a modern day Emmett Till.” University of Maryland law professor Sherrilyn A. Ifill insightfully compared Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, to Mamie Mae Till, who courageously allowed an open casket funeral and circulated pictures of her son’s tattered face around the world. Mamie Till’s public fight to get justice for her son is one of the untold sparks of the Civil Rights Movement.
Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson dismissed the “facile comparison” as “a disservice to history—and the memory of both young men. It is ridiculous to imply that nothing has changed.”
Robinson is correct and incorrect. The link is a service and disserve to history. The widely touted comparison of Martin to Till is profound and “facile.” (more…)
Check out the video below from the Million Hoodies March for Trayvon Martin in NYC on March 21. The speaker, Brian Jones, is a teacher, actor, and activist. He discusses the connections between Trayvon’s killing, mass incarceration, and the New Jim Crow. MWN
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. is inspired by Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
In fact, he is so inspired that he will give you a copy of the book so long as you want one and promise to read it. All you have to do is send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “I want it. I’ll read it.” At the end of the month, Pitts will draw 50 names and send an autographed copy of the book (free of charge) to those 50 individuals.
Pitts isn’t doing this as some publicity scheme. He isn’t getting reimbursed by his employer or Michelle Alexander’s publisher. He is paying for the books out of his own pocket. “I chose to do it that way,” Pitts says, “in order to impress upon you how vital I personally feel it is that you read this book.”
If you have not yet read “The New Jim Crow,” now is the time! MW
In June of 2010, I wrote in this space about a book, The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, which I called a “troubling and profoundly necessary” work. Alexander promulgated an explosive argument. Namely, that the so-called “War on Drugs” amounts to a war on African-American men and, more to the point, to a racial caste system nearly as restrictive, oppressive and omnipresent as Jim Crow itself.
This because, although white Americans are far and away the nation’s biggest dealers and users of illegal drugs, African Americans are far and away the ones most likely to be jailed for drug crimes. And when they are set “free” after doing their time, black men enter a legal purgatory where the right to vote, work, go to school or rent an apartment can be legally denied. It’s as if George Wallace were still standing in the schoolhouse door.
The New Jim Crow won several awards, enjoyed significant media attention, and was an apparent catalyst in the NAACP’s decision last year to call for an end to the drug war. The book was a sensation, but we need it to be more. We need it to be a movement.
As it happens and not exactly by coincidence, Alexander’s book is being reissued in paperback this week as we mark the birthday of the man who led America’s greatest mass movement for social justice. In his battle against the original Jim Crow, Martin Luther King, in a sense, did what Alexander seeks to do: pour sunlight on an onerous condition that exists just beyond the periphery of most Americans’ sight.
I want to help her do that. So here’s the deal. I’ll give you a copy of the book — autographed by the author, no less — free of charge. You don’t even have to pay for shipping. All you have to do is tell me you want it and promise me you’ll read it. (more…)
In a recent episode of Fresh Air on NPR, Dave Davies interviews attorney and author Michelle Alexander. In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander argues that, as a result of the war on drugs, the U.S. has created a system of mass incarceration which disproportionately targets people of color.
“The war on drugs,” Alexander states, “was part of a grand Republican Party strategy, known as the Southern Strategy, of using racially coded get-tough appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working-class whites, particularly in the South, who were resentful of, anxious about, threatened by many of the gains of African-Americans in the civil rights movement.”
The “wave of punitiveness” and get-tough policies that followed the declaration of the war on drugs had an incredible impact on communities of color. Although African-Americans make up about 13% of the general population, they make up nearly 40% of the prison population. “In major American cities today,” Alexander points out, “more than half of working-age African-American men either are under are correctional control or are branded felons.” (more…)
Charles Lane is excited. Crime rates have been falling across America and, if present trends continue, the safe streets we enjoyed in the 1950s will soon return.
Lane sees mass incarceration as a curious paradox. It’s too bad we had to lock up 2.3 million people to “take a bite out of crime”, he seems to say, but that’s the way the corn bread crumbles.
You get the impression that Lane, like most moderate liberals, has formed his conclusions about crime and punishment after reading a single book, in Lane’s case Franklin Zimring’s The City That Became Safe. How did America solve its crime problem? We rolled up our sleaves and fixed it, Zimring says.
Fine, but how did we solve the crime problem? What sort of tough, decisive political decisions did our leaders make? There can be only one answer: we locked up millions of poor black males.
If Zimring and Lane think that’s a viable solution they need to read Michelle Alexander’s description of the post-prison experience in The New Jim Crow. Have we solved the crime problem by creating (intentionally or by accident) a new racial caste?
The disaster that is contemporary American criminal justice does not look so disastrous in most places, which is why there has been no sustained political demand for large-scale reform of the justice system. Major changes in the system’s structure . . . require a critical mass of voters (also legislators and appellate judges) to support a program that carries little benefit for them.
Why should Charles Lane worry about problems that are largely invisible from the gentrified and suburban neighborhoods of Washington DC or New York City? If the streets of the Big Apple are safe again, what’s the problem? (more…)
In 2010, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, rocked the civil rights community back on its heels. Alexander accused the criminal justice reform movement of seeking legal solutions to a moral problem, of fighting for affirmative action while abandoning the victims of a brutal and counter-productive drug war, of telling pretty stories about wrongfully convicted poster-boys while ignoring the social nightmares unfolding in poor communities of color.
If the way we pursue reforms does not contribute to the building of a movement to dismantle the system of mass incarceration, and if our advocacy does not upset the prevailing public consensus that supports the new caste system, none of the reforms, even if won, will successfully disrupt the nation’s racial equilibrium. Challenges to the system will be easily absorbed or deflected, and the accommodations made will serve primarily to legitimate the system, not undermine it. We run the risk of winning isolated battles but losing the larger war.