Over the past few years, America has witnessed several high profile cases of police killings of unarmed black men and women. The names of the victims include Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, and Philandro Castille. Almost all of the high profile shootings have resulted in police officers being found not guilty in a court of law, sparking outrage and organizing from groups like Black Lives Matter and Black Youth Project. Opponents of Black Lives Matter have responded by organizing Blue Lives Matter, which has served as an apologist for police killings and an advocate for the revitalization of the“law and order” rhetoric of the later half of the 20th century.
Many Republican and Democratic lawmakers across the country have celebrated the bipartisan work accomplished over the past few years to fix what they see as some of the “unintended consequences” of the “tough on crime” movement in the 1980’s and 90’s. The problem is that in many cases, these consequences were intended. Politicians knew what they were doing when they imposed lifetime barriers to housing and employment for people with criminal backgrounds and subsequently ruining people’s lives. They increased sentencing and implemented policies that gave ex-offenders the same limited rights that a black man or woman had in Mississippi in the 1950’s and much of these laws were passed soon after legal segregation ended.
There are major policy changes necessary to end the mass incarceration and criminalization of black and brown people because these systems are deeply embedded in America’s racist society. Yet there are things that white private citizens can do to stop directly contributing to the sustained criminalization of black and brown people (both police shootings and incarceration). The reality is that white (and black) people are responsible for much of this criminalization through their reliance on police to solve problems, their demonizing of prisoners and drug use, and their inability to understand the rippling effects of mass incarceration. As a Christian, I believe that the church can and must play a major role in changing the narrative and dialogue around criminal justice and become a critical agent in fighting against the 21st century enslavement of black and brown brothers and sisters. There are 6 ways to avoid contributing to the criminalization of black and brown people:
- Get to know your the community you are living in: Many white churches plant themselves in poor and minority communities without the intention of truly getting to know the neighborhood including the people that dwell there. As a result, they live through fear and rely on law enforcement to solve disturbances including drug abuse and alcoholism, many of them relating to mental illness. When you build relationships and understand the dynamics of a community, you will learn people’s experiences and struggles, which will cause you to respond to situations differently. Knowing your community saves lives and prevents people from being further criminalized.
- Don’t rely on the police: Police officers are incapable of and unqualified to solve many of the problems in minority communities. While police play a vital role to enforce the law, they are too often relied upon to be social workers, teachers, counselors, and general problem solvers. While many white people frequently call the police for problems and are generally greeted with positive responses, black and brown people do not have that luxury because they are viewed as automatic threats to law enforcement. Police have criminalized countless numbers of black and brown people for drug abuse and other disturbances that are mental health related. Police, not being experts on mental health, shoot first and ask questions later. Relying on the police is contributing to this system of criminalization and state execution of black and brown brothers and sisters.
- Educate yourself on systemic racism: White people must educate themselves about systemic racism if they want to “help” or be a part of the solution. Without knowledge, ignorance and oppression will prevail. When sympathetic whites understand systemic racism and the policies that enforce it, including the war on drugs and mass incarceration, they can be more informed about ways in which oppression manifests itself in small and minor ways.
- Recognize your bias and role in criminalizing others: As a white person, you must recognize your bias and role in contributing to systemic racism and the criminalization of blacks. Whether or not you intend to do so, when you label black people as “thugs”, hold your purses in elevators, double-lock your car doors when driving in “urban” communities, and suggest that people in poor communities need repentance, you are contributing to and supporting a culture that sees people of color as dangerous threats. Furthermore, you are agreeing with and supporting the idea that their lives don’t matter. The bias you have is what law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and other agents in the criminal justice system live by and put into practice.
- Think about how prison destroys people’s lives: Prison is a form of slavery. It is an inhumane system that prevents people from exercising rights and deprives people from being human. While there are certainly people whose crimes are so heinous that they need to be removed from society, prison is not a necessary option for most people. Don’t be quick to call the police and/or press charges on peopled engage in suspicious or disturbing acts. You may be ruining one’s life.
- Think about alternative responses: It is important that you think critically about alternative ways to address crime. Support diversion programs and funding for research that seeks to discover more adequate responses to gang violence and drug abuse. Learn from communities of color about the challenges around criminal justice and listen to the solutions that they suggest.
In the age of social media, there is more awareness and understanding to the age-old reality of police brutality and criminalization of black and brown people. As groups like Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project, and others pressure elected officials and the public to do something about the state sanctioned violence against black people, it is essential for white people to stop contributing to the criminalization of black people. Attending a Black Lives Matter rally or claiming to be an ally on social media does not prevent you from absorbing the same oppressive worldviews that our criminal justice system lives by. You must be intentional and willing to recognize and address how your ignorance and privilege contribute to the criminalization and oppression of black and brown people.