Racial Castes, in the Present

We see racial castes at work in our country today through all sorts of institutions, and the voices that support those institutions are becoming loud. What was, until recently, structured predominantly around race but without any of the language indicating that, is now starting to show a little bit of its true color, and that color is white. Joe Walsh, a Republican Congressman from Illinois tweeted, “This is war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.” This clearly expresses a sentiment that there are castes, that Obama and Black Lives Matter “punks” aren’t part of the real America, even if America was built on a foundation of black bodies (and indigenous peoples) who have been told for centuries that they don’t belong and they don’t matter. Joe Walsh is echoing the sentiment of racists that have directed this country’s path since its inception. The Washington Post reports similar statistics to what we read in The New Jim Crow: “Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with 2.2 million behind bars…And while black Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 37 percent of the incarcerated population. Forty percent of police killings of unarmed people are black men, who make up merely 6 percent of the population, according to a 2015 Washington Post report,” (emphasis added). The Sentencing Project is an excellent resource for understanding just how deep this discrimination grows. In their thirties, one in every ten black males will be locked up on any given day. White youths are three times less likely to be held in juvenile detention when compared to Native American youths. While these are examples of institutions, we have events happening on a daily basis that demonstrate the intentional movements of certain people or groups which target the continuation of these racial castes.

The words “Law and Order” are often used when Jeff Sessions is being discussed, a red flag to those who understand the background of the movement of using “Law and Order” as a justification for growing government institutions that have structural racism. He’s served over 20 years in the US Senate and has a previous background in the Department of Justice. He has also been a delegate to the annual Alabama Methodist Conference, according to Newsweek. While he worked as a federal prosecutor, he failed in his nomination to be a judge. The same article cites Ted Kennedy speaking out at that time, saying that Sessions was a “…throwback to a shameful era, which I know both black and white Americans thought was in our past.” The reports of racism are not limited only to Ted Kennedy. “During that Senate hearing, a former assistant U.S. attorney named Thomas Figures, said Sessions called him “boy” and told him to watch himself around “white folks.” Figures also accused Sessions of opposing the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Council.” BBC further reports that, “He had also joked about the Ku Klux Klan, saying he thought they were OK until he heard they smoked marijuana.” Much of his efforts have been focused towards immigration. In addition to his support of “the wall,” Sessions also believes that much of our economic struggle originates in letting too many legal immigrants into the country. As they move towards confirming Sessions, the acting Attorney General Sally Yates was relieved of her duties. The White House released a statement through Sean Spicer that described her actions as political and a betrayal of the DOJ and the US citizens. Reuters reports that, “Yates said late on Monday that the Justice Department would not defend the order against court challenges, saying that she did not believe it would be ‘consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right.’” She was fired hours later. The recent confirmation of Sessions and the handling of Sally Yates are both examples of the struggle to take power by a group heavily invested in maintaining racial castes in the United States.

Reflection: Power, My Hope and My Fear

My hope, with regards to power, is that I might use what power I have to transform our society into a place that is a greater reflection of what we are called to as followers of Christ. Proverbs 14:31 (ESV) reminds us of what that calls does, and doesn’t, look like: “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.” There is verse after verse that calls us to stand against oppression and injustice if we are God’s people and so that is what I must use my power to do. The challenge in this hope is specificity: rather than speaking in generalities and taking no action I had to look for tangible ways by which I might become part of God’s redemptive nature, to effectively help bring about change for generations of people. Some of our most vulnerable people are actually our children. In Cincinnati, we are second in the nation for the highest child poverty rate of 53.1%, just behind Detroit’s staggering 59%. (2012 American Community Survey) I couldn’t help but ask myself what hope one could have in the future if, as a small child, you must fight pangs of hunger while facing insecurity in house and struggle to be clothed properly. In order to transform my city, we were going to have to transform the experience of our city’s youth. And so that became my hope, that I would be able to use my talents and power alongside others who hoped to transform the path of Cincinnati’s children and thus, transform their lives.

There is a certain amount of fear that comes up around this. How do I help in ways that don’t further victimize those we are coming alongside? How do I make sure we are working with people to help break us all free from an oppressive system that disables their self-sufficiency and sense of purpose rather than reaffirming that their salvation lies in the good will of affluent, mostly white people? Psalm 3:2-6 (NIV) is a reminder of where my hope lies even when I feel like we are coming against unchangeable things: “Many are saying of me, ‘God will not deliver him.’ But you, LORD, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high. I call out to the LORD, and he answers me from his holy mountain. I lie down to sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me. I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side.’” And so I equip myself as much as possible with the knowledge available from those who have come before us as well as studies from the sciences. I also rely on the Spirit to lead us in way that is fruitful and abundant.