18 “The Spirit of God is upon me, because I have been anointed to proclaim good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of God’s favor.”
Almighty God, we hear your word. Guide us and the nations of the world into the ways of justice and truth, and establish among us all that favor which is the fruit of righteousness, that they may become the realm of justice and peace promised by you to our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Dr. Lewis E. Logan, Pastor and Founder of RUACH Christian Community Fellowship here in Los Angeles, lists four justice-crying issues for the African American community in Southern California. As we explore these issues I am going to pose questions to you. It is my hope that you will engage with me in conversation.
1) Mass Incarceration
Michele Alexander in her book “The New Jim Crow” highlights the racial dimensions of the War on Drugs. She argues that federal drug policy unfairly targets communities of color, keeping millions of young, black men in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. She begins her book by disproving claims that racism is dead. Those who believe that full equality has been achieved would do well to notice that extraordinary number of blacks are still barred from voting because in nearly every state, convicted felons cannot vote. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans have served time in prison as a result of drug convictions and have been branded felons for life. Voting is also barred for those currently incarcerated. Alexander exposes our system of mass incarceration as a system comprised of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control criminals both in and out of prison. The greatest instigator of mass incarceration was the War on Drugs and according to Alexander has created a “rebirth of a caste” system in America. Alexander points out that nearly 90 percent of drug felons are black, when studies have shown that whites are more likely to engage in drug activity. Policies that punish crack cocaine more harshly than powdered cocaine (blacks being associated more with crack) lift up discriminatory approaches to drug crime. Alexander provides numerous statistics that suggest that poor black men are on the whole, stopped more often by police, arrested more often, imprisoned more often and serve longer sentences for similar crimes than white males. Alexander draws parallels between mass incarceration today and past systems of racialized social control like Jim Crow. Both systems legally discriminated against citizens of color and were formed by the racist views of those in power. She ends her book with a simple question: How best should the public respond to a social crisis of this magnitude? I would ask you all this morning: What would Jesus do with our current war on drugs? What would he have to say about the spectacle of mass incarceration? And let me begin by asking how many of you have had some kind of first-hand experience of our criminal justice system?
a) What is the root of the problem?
b) How would Jesus bring an end to the War on Drugs and the systems of oppression that has developed around it?
c) How can a predominantly Africa American congregation challenge and hope to change the public consensus that “being a criminal equals being black”?
d) How can we make talking about race once again become honest and transparent?
e) I believe Jesus would say to us and is saying to us: Ending mass incarceration will require a grassroots movement of people, white and black, criminal and non-criminal, demanding peace and prosperity for all. 1
Pitting black issues against immigrant issues is a false dichotomy. Black immigrants, African Americans and other communities of color are closely intertwined. Historically and currently these groups win when working together for social progress, even though there are times when attempts are made by politicians and those with power to divide these groups through politics and trade-offs. When we take into account the realities of anti-immigrant policy, including voter-ID laws and legalized racial profiling, particularly like those found in states like Arizona, it is clear that immigrant rights are a racial-justice issue, tied closely to the social and political priorities of African Americans. The diversity of our immigrant identities in the black community is often obscured. Some have adopted the identity of “African American” when they arrive as first-generations from Jamaica or Senegal or when they were brought here as children from Haiti or Belize, or when they came from Ghana on a student visa and others do not. They continue to see themselves as Cameroonians or Kenyans and even take umbrage at being referred to as African Americans. Advocating for civil rights while choosing not to complicate the definition with what it means to be black, can lead us to the mistaken idea that immigrants and African Americans are mutually exclusive groups. The immigrant-rights movement particularly here in LA has largely focused on Latino/Latina issues, at times obscuring the realities of the many different faces of immigrants in this country and leading many of us to draw the mistaken conclusion that immigration should be a low priority for our black brothers and sisters.
a) According to recent statistics blacks are leaving LA in record numbers and are moving to places like the Moreno Valley or out of state. Why do you suppose this is happening?
b) What does it mean to be black in Latin America? (Learning to speak Spanish.)
c) True or False? Immigrants threaten African-American jobs? False! (This is not the case. The real employment threats in the black community are union busting, substandard education and systemic racial discrimination.)
d) True or False? Black immigrants are subject to this same race-based discrimination as other races? True! (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black immigrants in 2011 had the highest unemployment rate of any foreign-born group in the United States. They also earn lower wages compared with similarly trained immigrant or native-born workers.) 3
It was my privilege to attend the graduation ceremony at Dorsey High School last Wednesday evening. Joseph Gordon, one of the kids who grew up at the Mary Magdalene Project beat the odds and graduated on time with his class. This was indeed a proud moment for his parents and for me. The ceremony itself was wonderful and the graduates all decked out in their robes and caps looked like a sea of green across the football field. Now, I don’t ever remember hearing a probation officer praised or thanked at a graduation ceremony before, but I was told that every LAUSD high school has one assigned to it. The officer at Dorsey seemed to have a tremendous impact on students assigned to his/her caseload. I do know that African Americans are more likely to attend high-poverty schools—that is, public schools where more than 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches—and are less likely to graduate from high school and subsequently attend college at rates lower than any other racial group. Next fall students from Dorsey High will be matriculating at USC, Stanford, a host of California State schools and Santa Monica City College to list but a few and Jo-Jo plans to attend the culinary arts program at LA Trade Tech. A recent report on black education found that the 47 percent national graduation rate for black males is nearly 28 percentage points lower than that for white males. In 10 states, the report said the graduation rate gap exceeds 30 percentage points, led by Wisconsin, with a 51% gap between the graduation rates of white males and black males. In at least three states black males were more likely to graduate from high schools than their white counterparts, according to the report. And each of those states—North Dakota, Vermont and Maine—have relatively small black populations. “This underscores the fact that when black males are given access to schools and resources similar to those given to white males, their performance levels improve,” the report said. The report points out that most schools with black majority enrollments do not have libraries, an adequate supply of textbooks and computers, art and music programs and science labs. It also concludes that when black students attend schools with talented, caring teachers, well-trained support staff, and challenging curricula, black males graduate at rates similar to white males. It was extremely difficult to find comparable studies on black female students. Black males in large metropolitan school districts are particularly at risk for dropping out of school, according to the report. Only 19 percent of both black and white males graduated from high schools in Indianapolis, the lowest rate of any large school district in the study. 4
3) So what is it that makes high schools work?
- Have students complete a challenging program of study with an upgraded academic core and a major focus of study.
- Increase access to challenging vocational and technical studies, with a major emphasis on using high-level mathematics, science, language arts and problem-solving skills.
- Give students access to a system of work-based and school-based learning planned cooperatively by educators and employers.
- Set the highest expectations imaginable and then hold them to it. 5
4) Police Brutality/Profiling
We would all have to be comatose to not be aware of the national debate raging about police use of deadly force, especially against minorities. To understand why and how often these shootings and deaths occur, The Washington Post is compiling a database of every fatal shooting by police in 2015, as well as of every officer killed by gunfire in the line of duty. The Post looked exclusively at shootings, not killings by other means, such as stun guns or deaths in police custody. About half the victims were white, half minority. But the demographics shifted sharply among the unarmed victims, two-thirds of whom were black or Hispanic. Overall, blacks were killed at three times the rate of whites or other minorities when adjusting by the population of the census tracts where the shootings occurred. The dead thus far range in age from 16 to 83. Eight were children younger than 18, including Jessie Hernandez, 17, who was shot three times by Denver police officers as she and a carload of friends allegedly tried to run them down. The Post analysis also sheds light on the situations that most commonly gave rise to fatal shootings. About half of the time police were responding to people seeking help with domestic disturbances and other complex social situations: A homeless person behaving erratically; a boyfriend threatening violence; a son trying to kill himself. For the vast majority of police and sheriff departments a fatal shooting is a rare event. Only 306 agencies have recorded one shooting so far this year, and most had only one, The Post analysis shows. However 19 state and local law enforcement agencies were involved in at least three fatal shootings. Los Angeles Police Department leads the nation with eight, the latest occurred May 5, when Brendon Glenn, a 29-year-old homeless black man, was shot after an altercation with LAPD officers outside a Venice bar. 6
a) What does our scripture passage for today – God has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed – have to say to us about our relationship with law enforcement? There is indeed work to be done. What does our reliance on the police for domestic concerns say to us about being a neighbors keepers?
Last week Leon in his message asked: If we were arrested for being Christian would there be enough evidence to convict us? I have spent some time this week pondering his question. The answer is troubling. Then I got to thinking to myself, are we clear about “our vision and mission” here at St. Paul’s? What do we offer others an opportunity to participate in? I believe that more than any other principle or tenant of our faith or values justice is what Jesus loved the most and it was his expectation of us that we would live this out in his name. His anointing would be our anointing, too. I would love nothing more than to stand up here this morning and tell Jesus that we have followed his commands and lived his model and the world is decidedly a better place in which to live, but I cannot do that. There is so much more to be done before we can even get close to making that kind of a statement. Are we trying to live into our Mission Statement found this morning on the front page of our bulletin? So church, what will it be? What will our message of sight and liberation be? Will people be able to look at this little church on the corner of Coliseum and La Brea in Los Angeles, CA and say to themselves: Yes! St. Paul’s! That’s where justice lives! May we work to make it so! Amen.
Grant us, O God, a vision of our church, and our community as your love would make it:
- a city where the weak are protected, and none go homeless, hungry or poor;
- a neighborhood where the benefits of civilized life are shared, and everyone can enjoy them; – a community where different races and cultures live in tolerance and mutual respect; – a church where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love.
And give us the inspiration and courage to make it so, through Jesus Christ our guide and our light. Amen.
2 (Black Immigrant Caucus (888) 204-5987 (602) 333-2017 Black Alliance for Immigration Issues (Gerald Livewah)
3 African Diaspora Dialogues (ADD) and African American-Immigrant Dialogues (AAID): ADD is a joint project with Priority Africa Network, a coalition of 25 Bay Area African immigrant, faith-based, community-based and service providing organizations. BAJI and PAN collaborate with local organizations in Los Angeles and other cities to create safe spaces for U.S.-born African Americans and African, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latino immigrants to come together to discuss issues of race, racism, identity, immigration and globalization. Project participants also dialogue about the misconceptions and stereotypes that U.S.-born African Americans and African immigrants hold about each other. AAID is a similar program that brings African Americans together with diverse immigrant communities around similar issues. Both dialogues are geared toward bringing communities to the table to discuss their common interests, common experiences and common public policy agendas.
4 Study: Graduation Rate Gap Exists Between Black, White Males, by Tim Weldon, CSG Policy Analyst. The report (www.blackboysreport.org) was prepared by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, which tracked the performance of African-American males in public school systems over a five year period.