Like so many Americans this week, I’ve been trying to digest the news of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. It has been uncomfortable. It has been painful. But it cannot be avoided. You see, I have a fifteen year-old black son, who – I’m quite certain – looks suspicious to a lot of people when he walks down Lake Street. So I have to think about these things. When we adopted Nehemiah, I had to give up the white privilege of not having to think about them.
The trial of George Zimmerman, whatever one may think about its outcome, is a symptom of a much deeper disease, which is why it has ignited such strong reactions. Our society is very, very sick. Some of us are in denial about it; some of us are dying from it; some of us are in recovery from it; and far too many just accept it, but we are all infected by it. It is far from being cured. That disease is racism.
As tempting as it is to avoid difficult conversations, I want to reflect on the reality of racism in the context of this beautiful hymn to the Cosmic Christ that we find in Colossians chapter one. It is an ancient hymn that goes back to the earliest days of the church and reflects the apostolic witnesses’ understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Their experience of Jesus completely reoriented their understanding of God. It was an experience of God as boundless, self-giving love, liberating them from the power of sin and death. It was a profound experience of forgiveness that opened up for them an entirely different way of being human together, free of fear, rivalry, and violence. Jesus was the image of this new humanity. As the mediator of salvation, Jesus was also “the image of the invisible God.” It dawned on them that salvation is what God intended for creation all along. Salvation is about bringing creation to its fulfillment. The scope of this fulfillment is universal. It is realized through the continual outpouring of the ever-renewable resource of God’s love.
Creation is interior to God – in Christ all things hold together – and all things were created through Christ and for Christ. Creation emerges from the abyss of God’s love and everyone and everything is on the inside of God’s creative project. Christ is the image of God, and all things bear that image; not just Jews, but Gentiles too; not only humans, but also the whole creation. This was the great insight of the apostolic community that gave birth to this hymn to the Cosmic Christ. This was a huge shift, an enormous leap of theological and moral imagination.
Racism results from a failure of imagination. It is the failure to see Christ, the image of God, in people of color. It is the failure to realize creation’s fulfillment through our sharing in God’s boundless love for all that God has made. Racism is a form of idolatry, making white privilege the source of our security, rather than God’s love.
There are other forms of idolatry, other failures of imagination, but racism is the quintessentially modern and American form. The truth that we don’t want to hear is that we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. As Michelle Alexander argues,
What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal. As a criminal you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.
In the past thirty years, we have witnessed an unprecedented mass incarceration of black men in this country. In that time the prison population has grown from 300,000 to more than 2 million people. During this same period, crime rates have fluctuated up and down; today they are at historic lows. Yet, black incarceration rates have soured regardless of crime rates.
Why is that? The answer is the War on Drugs and the wave of punitive sentencing laws initiated during the Reagan Administration, beginning in 1982 and vigorously prosecuted by subsequent Administrations, whether Republican or Democrat. This War has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color and is the driver behind the booming prison industry.
The War on Drugs is a manufactured crisis used to justify the militarization of police targeting poor communities of color. It was never about taking out drug lords or international cartels. It is a trillion dollar boondoggle to incentivize criminalizing black men by directing federal funds to law enforcement agencies that maximize the number of drug arrests. The result is that there are more people in prison today for drug offenses than there were for all offenses in 1980. In Illinois, 80-90% of people in prison on drug charges at any given time are from one race. Guess which one? It is pretty much the same story elsewhere.
Now, black people are no more likely to buy or sell drugs than any other race. In fact, some studies show that white youth are slightly more likely to sell drugs. Drug markets in this country are just as segregated by race and class as everything else: black people sell to black people, white people sell to white people, college kids sell to college kids. In the 1990’s, 80% of the increases in arrests were for marijuana possession. Ever been guilty of that crime? Yet, overwhelmingly, it is black and brown men who do time in prison.
This is how it works. Police are incentivized to maximize the number of drug arrests. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has eviscerated the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. All an officer needs is “consent.” Two officers pull over and step out of their car with a hand on their gun holster and approach a young black man. They say, “Son, I need you to raise your hands so I can pad you down and see if you’ve got any drugs on you.” What is a kid supposed to do? And guess what, maybe he has a little pot in his pocket. Or maybe the cops plant some on him, knock him around a bit, and haul him in. It’s their word against a suspicious looking black kid. Who are you going to believe? So the kid cops a plea bargain to a felony drug charge to avoid doing time – this time. And the cycle begins.
Consider some of the consequences. Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control than were enslaved in 1850. As of 2011, because of laws prohibiting convicted felons from voting, more black men are disenfranchised than in 1870, the year the 15th Amendment was passed to protect their right to vote. In major urban areas, more than 50% of African-American men have felony, again mainly drug, convictions. If you add the men who are in prison currently (who, by the way, are not included in calculations of poverty or unemployment), that number shoots up to 80% in some states. Once these men are released they have to check a box on every job application indicating that they are convicted felons. They are not eligible for student loans, public housing, or food stamps. They often can’t vote. Can’t serve on juries. Don’t have any capital lying around to start a business. In fact, if they get a job, their wages can be garnished to pay back the cost of court fees and imprisonment, not to mention any back-due child support accrued while they were serving time.
There are now 60 million people with criminal records in the United Sates. The result is a permanent caste relegated to second-class status. The criminal justice system has become a system of racial control to keep people of color in their place. It is Jim Crow without the signs advertising “whites only,” which only makes the discrimination and its effects that much more insidious. It is perfectly acceptable to politically mobilize people by appealing to racist sentiments under the guise of “getting tough on crime.” That is exactly what the prison-industrial complex is designed to do, diverting attention from the real sources of economic anxiety by playing on fears of changing racial demographics.
So how do we dismantle this caste system? It will not be easy. To return incarceration rates to 1970’s levels would require releasing four of every five prisoners. One million employees in the prison-industrial complex would loose their jobs. Imagine how the California prison guard union would feel about that. Private prison companies are now listed on the New York Stock Exchange and are doing pretty well. They will not accept bankruptcy without a fight.
This is the face of racism: it isn’t about the blustering prejudice of some stereotypical South Carolina cracker. It isn’t about whether or not you have a black friend. It is about politicians and corporate executives in suits rigging the system to reinforce racial and class privilege, while creating a sense of social unity by scapegoating people of color. The reaction to the Zimmerman trial must be understood within the context of racism as a social structure, not simply a personal prejudice, in a society in which the life of a black man counts for nothing.
So where do we go from here? The first step is in some ways the hardest. We have to see the image of Christ in convicted felons. We have to see the image of Christ in poor people of color. “Martin Luther King Jr. called for us to be lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and vulnerable.”
Then, we have to build a movement for social change; which is, by the way, what the church is meant to be. Like St. Paul, who rejoiced to suffer to include Gentiles as part of the people of God, we have to be willing to suffer to extend the common good to include poor people of color: even if it means sacrificing privilege. We’ve got to build schools instead of prisons, invest in jobs instead of jails. We’ve got to decriminalize drug addiction and treat it as a public health problem. We’ve got to dismantle the legal barriers designed to enforce a permanent underclass.
Instead of projecting our shadow side on to black men, scapegoating them for what ails us, we need to see Christ in them, the hope of glory, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. St. Paul said of his commission, “For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that Christ powerfully inspires in me.” May it be so for us. Amen.
 From the Introduction to The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
 See Dan Seigel’s article at http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/10/05/is-it-time-to-dissolve-the-oakland-police-department/
 Michelle Alexander, 2013 George E. Kent Lecture, University of Chicago, February 21, 2013 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gln1JwDUI64.
 Dr. Cornel West from the Forward to The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
 Colossians 1:29.