This week on On Being, the guest is Professor MichelleAlexander. One of the authors of the book, “The New Jim Crow”. I may have mentioned it. It was recommended to me by a lawyer in the justice department in the County where I worked. Then, this year, I bumped into someone I hadn’t seen in years and she handed it to me. It is an amazing story, that I’ve been witnessing for 30 years, but never really understood.
I’ve been hearing about a “drug problem in the inner city”, “The War on Drugs”, “Racial Profiling”, “Deadbeat Dads”, over policing and over arming the police, and a massive rise in imprisonment. This breakthrough work puts all of that together into a coherent narrative that touches all of us. The interview starts out pointing out that there is no connection between incarceration rates and crime rates. Putting more people in jail doesn’t reduce crime and we don’t need more prisons because of an increase in crime. Crime has been under control for decades. Who we arrest and who we imprison and who gets their rights reduced is more political than logical.
The On Being website is award winning, I don’t need to add a lot to this conversation. You can hear the produced show, or read it, and you can get the unedited version. They usually add extras too. I’d rather let Michelle’s words stand on their own.
Vincent Harding was such an important figure in my life. He passed too soon. But I think what’s he pointing at there is kind of what I was trying to get at before, which is that this whole idea of every person mattering, this is a radical, revolutionary project that we’re embarking upon.
I think the first step is saying I’m willing to be awake, that I’m not going to tell myself the same old stories. I am willing to wake up to our current racial reality, our current political and economic realities. I’m willing to wake up, and I’m also willing to acknowledge my own complicity in the systems.
She includes her own story. She didn’t grow up believing people in her community were being treated unfairly and then became a lawyer as some sort of vendetta against that corrupt system. She grew up seeing progress. She was a young lawyer when Obama won the Presidency for the first time. As she walked home from that celebration, she saw a different young black man face down in the gutter with his hands cuffed behind his back. She later talks of how, if Obama had grown up in the same neighborhood as that kid, our now President could be someone who didn’t have the right to vote due to a felony conviction.
She also had a great story about speaking at churches:
I really believe that this notion of us-versus-them, drawing lines and labeling one another all turns on this notion that we can define who the bad guys are, and rest assured that they’re not us. I believe if we’re going to achieve the shift in consciousness that is necessary, we are going to have to be able to say, and mean, we’re all criminals. We have to acknowledge that all of us have done wrong in our lives. That criminals are not them, over there. They’re us. They’re all of us. All of us have done wrong.
All of us have broken the law at some point in our lives. I often say, even if you haven’t experimented with drugs, even if you didn’t drink underage, if the worst thing you’ve done in your life is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, well, you’ve put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of their living room. But who do we shame and who do we blame? I’ve spoken in churches and I’ll say to a large congregation, “We’re all sinners.” And everyone will nod their head, oh, yes, we’re all sinners. And then I’ll say, “And we’re all criminals.” And everyone just stares at me kind of bug eyed, like, what? You’re calling me a criminal?
And it was interesting. A young man came up to me after I spoke in one church and he said, “Isn’t it interesting how eager we are all to admit that we violated God’s law, but how reluctant we are to admit that we’ve violated man’s law?” And I think that there is a way in which we kind of give lip service to this idea that we’re all sinners, or we all make mistakes. But we have a difficult time acknowledging, oh, we’re all criminals. Those people that have been shamed and blamed and stigmatized, actually, we are on so many levels not really better than them. We may be luckier than them.
Her ideas are not new. The ways we marginalize are not new. They have just been applied in new ways.
Yeah, it’s funny, because I just recently read a quote by James Baldwin, and I wish I had it memorized perfectly. I don’t. But it had something to do with — along the lines of, “You think that I need to be forgiven, but it’s you who must be forgiven.”
Krista Tippett doesn’t need to work too hard in this interview. Michelle does not need to be drawn out or have her thoughts disentangled. But Krista is a master of what she does, as in these question:
How do you think this shapes — I want to say this calling of yours, this knowledge, but also this calling — how do you think it shapes your presence in minute ways, in the course of your days? What do you see that you didn’t see before? How do you move through the world differently? I realize that’s a huge question, so maybe just talk about yesterday or today.
Yeah. I don’t know. I talk a little a bit at the beginning of the book that once my own eyes were opened, there was no way I could unsee. There was no way that I could be blind anymore to what I had been in denial about for so long. And I think on many levels there are days when I think, oh, life might have been easier if I’d never woken up. And I think that’s one of the reasons why many of us stay asleep, because we sense that if we really woke up to the full reality and opened ourselves to seeing and witnessing and being present for the unnecessary suffering that exists, and that we’re complicit with, that our life won’t be as easy. More might be required of us, and we’re having a hard enough time making it through the day as it is.
But I have to say that waking up and seeing things as they are has also led me to just the most rewarding relationships and work that I could imagine. And I’m grateful to be awake and consciously committed to trying to birth a new America, and no longer lost in this fantasy, this American dream world that if you just get the two-car garage and keep plodding along this path, that somehow we’re going to make it to where we all want to go. So I have to say that I’m grateful. The relationships that I now have, and the work that I’m now involved in is much more rich and meaningful than the path that I had been on before.
And how do you think all of this has shaped, evolved your sense of what it means to be human?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this notion of “revolutionary love” and what that means. And it’s something that I spoke with Vincent Harding quite a bit about. And I think for me what it means to be fully human is to open ourselves to fully loving one another in an unsentimental way. I’m not talking about the romantic love, or the idealized version of love, but that the simple act of caring for one another, and being aware of our connectedness as human beings, and also the reality of our suffering, and the reality that we make a lot of mistakes, and we struggle and we fail.