with restless hearts

reflections, critiques, comments, and questions of a 20-something catholic in pursuit of truth and justice in a dualistic world

racial injustice and youth incarceration – a summons to love

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Yesterday I came across a short article in the Chicago Tribune that I ordinarily would have simply skimmed over, but decided to read a bit closer. It recounted an all too familiar tale – model citizen attacked and burglarized by a group of rowdy teens while riding public transit. The article does not mention race, although a picture of the victim coupled with the article’s description paints him as a young, white, heterosexual male – just about as privileged as you can get in our nation today – but despite this, the article practically begs to be read in racial terms, especially if one is familiar with racial layout of Chicago. The attack happened on the Red Line, the train route that travels from the primarily white yuppie, hipster, and just-out-of-college neighborhoods, through down town, and all the way down to the southside where the primarily black/African-American neighborhoods are. And so although the article doesn’t specifically say that the group of attacking youth were black, I’m going to make that assumption – and sadly, based on the article’s poor portrayal of the group, I think that that is a fairly safe assumption.

In the article, the Tribune and the victim weave together a narrative that highlights the teens’ tendency toward violence and crime, alleged targeting of the victim, an exaggeration of the actual physical violence, and the slow and inadequate response of the authorities.

Now, I am not suggesting that the youths’ act of violence should be condoned or excused, but I do find the victim’s final call to action to be very disturbing.

The man said he wants police and the judicial system to hold the attackers accountable.
“They need to get the word out and they have to start convicting these people instead of just taking them in and letting their parents pick them up,” he said.

Whether he means to or not, the use of these people carries serious racial implications. But what really upsets me about this is the equation of a safer community with harsher legal consequences for juveniles. The reality of the juvenile delinquency system in our country is, in my and many activists’ opinions, anything but just, and for anyone to suggest that more youth need to be incarcerated demonstrates almost a complete lack of knowledge on the issue.

I understand that statistics can be misleading and there are often hidden factors involved, but try on these for size:

  •  One in three Black men between the ages of 20 and 29 years old is under correctional supervision or control.
  • Blacks account for only 12% of the U.S. population but 44% of all prisoners in the United States are Black
  • Blacks are incarcerated at a rate that is more than six times that of Whites.
  • According to the Sentencing Project, even though African American juvenile youth are about 16 percent of the youth population, 37 percent of their cases are moved to criminal court and 58 percent of African American youth are sent to adult prisons.
  • The U.S. Sentencing Commission stated that in the federal system black offenders receive sentences that are 10 percent longer than white offenders for the same crimes
  • According to the Human Rights Watch, people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, but they have higher rate of arrests. African Americans comprise 14 percent of regular drug users but are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses.
  • A report by the Department of Justice found that blacks and Hispanics were approximately three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white motorists. African Americans were twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.

And here’s one a little closer to home

  • In Chicago, only 30% of Black males graduate from high school, of these only 3% of them obtain a bachelor’s degree by the time they’re 25.

Really, America? Don’t these numbers say that something is broken with our system, and I refuse to believe that longer and harsher sentencing is the answer – especially when we’re dealing with a population that’s already receiving disporportionally harsher and longer sentences.

The good news in all of this, though, is that after 40 years of the so-called “War on Drugs” that brought on so many of these injustices, people are finally bringing this to thoughtful conversation that is charged on a sense of justice rather than hate. One of the leading voices in this conversation is Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. I haven’t had the opportunity to read the entire book yet, but the excerpts I have read seem promising. I want to share one quote from Alexander that comes from a 2011 interview. It’s a bit dense, but it near perfectly captures the real issue at stake in all of this.

I think the fundamental question posed by this system of mass incarceration is whether we as a nation are willing to see every human being as worthy of our collective care, compassion, and concern. And I believe the fate of poor people of color in this country depends on our willingness to answer that question, ‘Yes.’

Even if their behavior we find objectionable or reprehensible, we will not stop caring. We are capable of the kind of love—what Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as unsentimental love—reflected in our policies, practices, our rules of law, our ways of being, structures and institutions. Unsentimental love that keeps on loving, no matter who you are or what you’ve done.

If we continue to look the other way and believe that some people are not worthy of our moral concern, caste-like systems will be a permanent feature of American life. It’s always possible to demonize or criminalize people along racial or ethnic lines to make certain groups of people be viewed in the public eye as bad and wrong. If we allow those kinds of tactics to cut us off from our own capacity for compassion, then we are conceding to a system that is dehumanizing millions.

And there is is again – LOVE. It certainly has an annoying habit of sneaking its way into everything. But it’s true. Like so many other issues that we have become so accustomed to viewing through the colored lenses of partisanship and politics – addressing issues of racism, juvenile delinquency, and community violence really is ultimately all about love.


One thought on “racial injustice and youth incarceration – a summons to love

  1. Thoughtful and insightful. I’m glad I stopped by here and read this post, now I’ll forward it to my son for him to read. This is the kind of information that we need to hear regularly.

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