This is the second of two articles about the 2014 NCC Christian Unity Gathering. To read about NCC President and General Secretary Jim Winkler’s Inaugural Address, please click here.
Resistance to changes in incarceration and immigration policy in the United States is rooted in fear and white racism, according to a prominent Evangelical Left official.
“The real issue in this country that underlies most of the other issues is the demographic changes in America that are taking place,” asserted Sojourners President Jim Wallis. “America’s original sin is still white racism.”
Wallis was one of several panel speakers addressing mass incarceration at the National Council of Churches Christian Unity Gathering held May 19-20 outside of Washington, D.C. The Sojourners president was joined by Iva E. Carruthers of the progressive African American faith organization the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of Children’s Defense Fund, and Harold Dean Trulear, director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Prisoner Reentry Project of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation.
“Slow genocide, holocaust in slow motion — these are strong, strong words and we need to hear them,” panel moderator Sharon Watkins, General Minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), affirmed of words used by panelists in describing U.S. prisons and drug policy.
Wallis, an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches USA, argued for “restorative justice” as an alternative to “retributive justice” based on “race, economics and power.” Referring to ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws and the Treyvon Martin shooting case, Wallis charged that “Racial fear and hatred is now legally justified.”
“This issue, on my short list of the ones that unite us, the next one – after immigration – I think, is mass incarceration,” predicted the author of God’s Politics.
“White America, particularly older White America, is just not ready for that and most of the politics in this town are attempts to stall the changes that demographic revolution is making,” Wallis appraised. “Denial of voting rights – we all know what’s going on there. We all know why gerrymandering is going on. Suppression of votes is partly to prevent change from demographics. Mass incarceration policy that is going on now is also intended to prevent the changes of a demographic transformation taking place in America. It’s part of, I believe, a strategy to prevent the changing of this country.”
Noting the ethnic diversity of his son’s high school class, Wallis asserted that America “is afraid” of the upcoming generation and that older whites believe “it won’t work.”
An Emphasis on Race
Panelists offered sweeping and strongly worded characterizations of the U.S. corrections system, referring to a “slow genocidal consequence of a multilayered system of structural racism” and a “new American Apartheid”. Victims’ rights went largely unmentioned, with the communities of incarcerated persons – and those convicted of crimes themselves – portrayed as the primary victims.
Carruthers framed a morning panel discussion by charging that mass incarceration has resulted in a “virulent societal crisis” that “reveals the heart of America’s moral center, and that mass incarceration has indeed become the most revelatory racial and human rights justice issue in the United States.”
“We must leverage our collective moral agency to fundamentally address mass incarceration and the human rights issue,” Carruthers determined, asserting that this injustice is creating “a new caste system” disproportionately harming millions of African American and Hispanic families.
Conservative think tanks and the American Legislative Exchange Council were broadly assigned blame, although Carruthers allowed that there were antecedents to those groups in establishing U.S. drug policy. Privatized contract prison operators were singled out as especially grievous interests.
“It is in the interest of [private] prisons that recidivism rates remain high,” Wallis concluded.
“Many of us were in the civil rights movement often singing kumbaya – there were others who were having a different point of view,” Carruthers ominously stated.
Carruthers claimed that U.S. drug policies were not drafted primarily with the consequences of drug use in mind, but rather who was associated with those drugs. Quoting the diaries of deceased Nixon Administration Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, Carruthers read: “[Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
“The consequence of the war on drugs is a holocaust in slow motion,” Carruthers exclaimed, quoting “The Wire” producer David Simon.
“The cradle-to-prison pipeline is the new American Apartheid,” insisted Children’s Defense Fund President Edelman. “It is still lodged at the intersection of race and poverty that we have never quite wiped out.”
Charging that the American dream was “breached with very massive birth defects,” Edelman alleged that “it was built on native American genocide, slavery and exclusion of all women from our democratic processes and the exclusion of all non-propertied men, including white men.”
“Some of us believe that we may be at the beginning of a second post-reconstruction era and we need to wake up,” Edelman shared, noting that a majority of U.S. children under the age of 2 are nonwhite, and that within five years a majority of all U.S. children will be nonwhite.
“That combined with a President in the White House that doesn’t ‘look like us’ is running a lot of folks around like extremists who want ‘their country’ back,” Edelman charged, adding that voter suppression was going on “at every level” and a Supreme Court majority is “trying to re-entrench old habits.”
A Narrow Coalition
Despite singing a song titled “Draw the Circle Wide” during a midday celebration service, panels were mostly representative of progressive activist groups and church agencies. Christian prison outreach and criminal justice reform organization Prison Fellowship was not a presence at the unity gathering, despite the close proximity of the organization’s headquarters.
The hope of building a broad coalition was frequently expressed, but panelists seemed unwilling or unable to set aside criticism of potential allies. Reporting that tea party groups voiced concerns about recidivism and the status quo of U.S. prison policy, Exodus Transitional Community Founder Julio Medina added “but of course, it is for fiscal reasons, not compassion.”
Unlike immigration reform, speakers did not seek a single, sweeping piece of legislation to address mass incarceration.
“This is going to be individual steps,” determined Bill Mefford of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. Mefford pointed to successful passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the Second Chance Act and Fair Sentencing Act as precedents, with bail reform as a possible next step.
Some panelists offered suggestions on how individual churches could impact prisons. United Methodist Pastor and Children’s Defense Fund Organizer Janet Wolf reported that less than 20 percent of those in prison get a visit from those outside. Trulear reported that prisoner visitation reduces recidivism, with clergy visits more effective than any other category, closely followed by visits from fathers.
The Howard University professor suggested churches could transport families to visit incarcerated persons at prisons far from cities or mass transportation. The conference focus, however, was largely on political advocacy.
“The Church must move from charity to justice,” Wolf predicted, adding that “charity keeps us content.”Google+