Tuesday, May 5, 2015

If You're Not Mad Already, This Will Help

Round Up the Usual Suspect

It's the System, Stupid

Rick had to shoot the evil Major Strasser so that Ilsa, the woman he loved, and her husband, Laslo, a member of the Resistance, could get on a plane to escape Casablanca and continue the struggle. When the police arrived at the airport, Vichy police Captain Renault instructed, "Round up the usual suspects."

The death of Freddie Gray while in police custody which was followed by peaceful protests, followed by street riots, has led some evangelicals to identify the usual suspect - systemic racism. 

Pastor Don Hyun, a Korean American church planter in Baltimore wrote for The Gospel Coalition: 
These protests and riots...are the collective groaning of years of brokenness from systemic sin in our city under a brewing simmer that had finally reached this boiling point. In a city experiencing the gentrification of its neighborhoods, urban renewal often comes at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised. We are observing the collective despair of a city that has been like a powder keg waiting to explode, and the tragic events with Freddie Gray have been the match to light the fuse. 
As much as we may rightly despise the personal offense of the rioter, do we also condemn the sinful systems of the city that contributed to these events? 
Dr. Mike Higgins, whose blog for his congregation in St. Louis was published at the Reformed African American Network, wrote:
While there are some differences between Ferguson and Baltimore, especially when it comes to the larger area that Baltimore authorities have to cover, there is one basic sameness; Blacks in Ferguson, like blacks in Baltimore, like blacks in most US cities, do not trust the police. They know that not every police officer is racist or even close. This mistrust and resentment is not so much towards the individual cop as it is the systemic racist force that police departments sometimes reflect.
We must also condemn the division caused – and the damage done – by the vague communication, race or class driven bias, and dehumanizing actions of authorities. When members of our community suffer at the hands of people in power, we all suffer. When those who seek answers are treated as if they will never be heard, we have all been ignored...
...I believe black folks are tired of cities paying more attention to their sports teams than they do to joblessness, bad housing policies, racial profiling, abusive policing, increasing incarceration rates amongst blacks, and a justice system that tends to favor whites...The message is clear still: people of color have long been deemed unworthy of equal treatment, and there is no tactic, no plan or scheme that can be crafted to hide this fact.
John Richards, a writer, was published at RAAN:
Baltimore is a Black city through and through. A majority of its residents are Black. Many of the officials and politicians who represent Baltimore City are Black... 
... Black elected officials should not serve as evidence that we live in a post-racial society. Not when 1 in 3 Black men can expect to find their way to prison at some point in their lives. Not when private prisons use third-grade reading data to plan for future prison beds. Not when the economic disparity in urban communities like Baltimore tell us that people live in “food deserts”, neighborhoods where there aren’t many healthy food options.
There’s been so much talk about the Black community’s relationship with White officers, but what can be said of the Black community’s relationship with Black officers? It hurts to think that three Black officers were involved in Freddie Gray’s death. It indicates that there’s a possibility to esteem one’s shared vocation more than one’s shared humanity—and, in this instance shared ethnicity...
Doug Wilson, not my favorite flavor of ice cream, is right when he observes that, while people say that Baltimore calls for a conversation about race, it is nearly impossible to have an honest one:
In light of the recent events in Baltimore, everyone wants to have an honest conversation about race. The difficulty is that in this honest conversation about race, nobody is allowed to say anything that is true...if you really want an honest conversation about race, stop saying what you are expected to say, and start saying what you actually think. 
So, here's a little honesty on my part about some systems where reform may be needed:

1.Legal system. Mr. Richards says that one in three Black males will at some point end up in prison - compared with 1 in 6 Hispanics and 1 in 17 Whites. (This is apparently true while his claim about 3rd grade education and prison building, according to the very source to which he linked, is not true.) It may well be true that Blacks are more likely than Whites to be arrested for the same behavior, but it remains that the primary explanation of the statistic is that Blacks commit more crimes. 

However,a factor that may be overlooked when noting how many black citizens end up in trouble with the law is the legal system itself. Consider drug laws. Could they need major revisions? William F. Buckley, more than anyone else responsible for the modern conservative movement, argued that drug laws should be repealed in part because the goals of criminalization had failed. Moreover, drug laws did more than criminalize possession and usage for drugs; they increased crimes such as theft and murder. Nowhere are crimes related to drugs more prevalent than in predominantly Black inner cities.

We don't arrest people for possession, use, manufacture, or sale of alcohol (Prohibition failed), but we do regulate these activities. We don't arrest people for alcohol abuse, but we do arrest them for driving under the influence; we do hold them responsible for accidents; and we do throw the book at them for deaths they cause. If they want to stop their destructive use of alcohol, we help them, but we don't put them in jail for their abuse.  

How many black males would be spared prison time if there were serious reform of drug laws?

2.Prison system. In general we as a society want to be tough on crime. We demand mandatory and lengthy prison sentences. "Lock 'em up and throw away the key." Unless we, or a family member, or someone we know ends up incarcerated, it's "out of sight out of mind." We have given up on prisons as "correctional institutions." So we build more prisons, hire more guards, and spend more money. But what if there were alternatives to prison for some crimes? And are lengthy sentences for people who will eventually be released wise? Lengthy sentences create hopelessness which leads to despair and hardness. Prisons become schools for criminal behavior. Prison records make it hard to find employment which leads to more crime. 

This is not a call for softness or sentimentality. Most prisoners are not nice guys just waiting for a second or third chance. But, how many Black males might benefit from changes to the prison system?

Police system. Police stand between society and lawless chaos. They have to deal with the bad guys, and they face dangers most of us never experience. 

But that does not mean that the policing system is beyond criticism. Bruce Bagus wrote at Reformation21 of fishing next to a Black couple on the Chesapeake:
The husband...lived his whole life on Pennsylvania Avenue, epicenter...(the) riot. He had finally moved away in despair, however, but was still passionate about the place...his hatred of the drugs, gangs, violence, and prostitution that plagued the nighttime sidewalk outside his front door was clear. But the issue that finally drove him out was the apathy and corruption he observed among the police assigned to his community...(He) was exhausted by the injustice of living under a police presence authorized to use up to deadly force who appeared to care very little for the good of those they were supposed to serve, some openly abusing their power for selfish gain. He wanted the police to do their jobs and do them well, lamented the breakdown of trust and hope...
Baugus reports the comment of the now famous Black mother who pulled her son off the streets: 
Toya Graham, mother of the would-be rioter, thinks throwing rocks and bottles at police officers is "stupid" and not the way to seek the justice she and her neighbors want out of their city officials. When asked the next day why she drove her son off the streets, however, she tellingly explained, "that's my only son and I don't want him to be a Freddie Gray."
Flip comments like "my son would never do something so stupid" are just that...Whether this mother's fear of the police for her son is justified or not--and whether the charges brought against these six officers are warranted or not--the people who live in the neighborhoods along Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore...have seen and heard enough not to trust the authorities they need to make their communities livable.
He goes on to commend the police, but to suggest that changes may be needed:
The police in America's violent cities have a very dangerous and nearly impossible job to do and deserve our respect and support as they do it, including decent pay and reasonable protections under the law. Stoning them, literally in the streets or metaphorically in the courts, just piles injustice on injustice. But refusing to hear or take seriously the complaints our neighbors have been making for decades is also unacceptable, and to act as though this problem is all one-sided is theologically and morally naïve...
I heard a veteran policeman point out on a Public Radio show that we have no idea to what dangers police are exposed every day. True. But I don't feel that way when I see the cop sitting on the side of the road with his radar gun to catch people coming home from work or out running errands or see him writing tickets to old folks and school moms. I expect that is the way many Blacks feel about the phenomenon of Driving While Black. 

I have written before that police might consider showing more respect for the Constitutional rights of citizens to move about freely, initiating fewer confrontations, and limiting taser use. Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems there is little doubt that reform of policing systems could improve police relations with communities, not least predominantly Black ones. Russ Douthat, writing about police unions pointed out that the Baltimore case points to the need for reform but how difficult it is to achieve it. 

Family System. I have read Black evangelicals who have said that Whites ought not to bring up this topic, but I do not know why. Honesty requires saying that the family as an institution is in crisis among all races but more among Blacks than any other ethnic group, and that the family system needs reform. Consider this statistic: 72% of Black mothers today are unwed. That compares with 8% in 1965. In 1950 17% of Black children lived in a home with a mother but not a father while in 2010 50% did. In 1950 53% of Black women were married and living with their husband, while in 2010 25% were.

White and black conservatives are quick to point out that there is a cause and effect relationship between these statistics and the welfare system. No doubt that is true. But the welfare system cannot suddenly dismantled in order to try to fix the problem. More important, the question right now is, What can be done to encourage and enable Black people to marry, to have stable homes, to care for their children?

When I watched and cheered Toya Graham as she took on her son, I kept thinking, "But what if that son had a father at home?" Maybe the kid would have been home. But, if he were on the streets, what if the father had gone, grabbed his son by the scruff of the neck, and dragged him home, where a serious talk would ensue? The institution of the family is going the wrong direction (check out statistics for Whites) and needs change for all races but most acutely for Blacks.

Education System. Blacks are particularly harmed by the failings of the public schools to educate children. The Baltimore City school system consists of 88% Black, 8% White, and 7% Hispanic. Apparently the system is improving in preventing dropouts. The question is, however, how well are these children being educated and prepared for life and employment? Lousy education systems are one factor in Whites, businesses, and industries leaving communities and in their not coming or coming back. 

The question is what can be done to reform the education system? Decreasing the power of the teachers' unions and making teachers and bureaucracies more accountable surely will help. But what else?

Perhaps Mississippi, where I have spent more of my life than any other state, can illustrate the question. Mississippi has a population of almost 3 million with 37% black. The Black public school population is 51%. The percentage of Black males graduating from high school is 51%. Bureaucracies probably contribute. Teachers' unions do not. So what can be done to educate Mississippi's largely poor black children?

Recently what has occupied some White politicians and (mostly) White parents is Common Core. A great campaign was carried on to convince the Governor to veto a bill that that had passed both Houses of the Legislature that these politicians and parents felt did not do the job of abolishing Common Core and telling the state Superintendent of Education what to do. The Governor vetoed the bill, and this is tauted as a great victory for education in Mississippi. (I have read some of both sides on Common Core and don't consider myself to have a dog in this fight.) But my question is, What are you going to do about the children in the 100% Black public schools in the Delta or the 97.5% Black Jackson city schools? What is it that they need to learn? How are we going effectively to teach it to them? Besides getting rid of Common Core (or as some want to do getting rid altogether of federal aid to education), what are you going to do to educate the children? To improve the quality and effectiveness of education?

The education system, especially in predominantly Black communities, needs systemic change.

I am doubtful about "systemic racism." Slavery was systemic racism. Segregation was systemic racism. But Baltimore suffers from systemic racism? It is controlled by Black people, has a Black Mayor, a Black Police Commissioner, a Black Prosecutor. Three of the six indicted policeman are Black. Systemic racism does not explain the death of Freddie Gray.

We live in world in which almost anything a minority person does not like can be called racism and where innocent words and actions are labelled racist microagressions. In such a world the whole concept of systemic racism tends to become meaningless. The system explains the acts and the acts prove the system.

I do believe that there are systems that have problems. Specific problems with specific systems can be addressed - and ought to be. 

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