The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Covenant #3: Correcting the system of unequal justice

Before I continue looking the ten covenants, I wanted to stop to answer some explicit or implicit questions, and clarify my own personal position.
I honestly think that a commonly held (and seldom publicly expressed )belief among whites is that if the average white person were black, they’d do better than the average black person. “Why can’t your community X?” and “Don’t black parents want Y?” point out quite real flaws and problems in the community…but just as abuse in childhood manifests in adult difficulties, the history of grotesque abuse among blacks descended from slaves makes the community roughly equivalent to a 40-year old who spent 30 of those years in chains and the next 7 being told the chains were good for them.

When you talk about the accomplishments of Asians, make very certain that you compare groups properly.  Asian immigrants can reasonably be compared to African immigrants—not to the descendants of slaves.  And African immigrants, on the average, do pretty well.  They have gigantic   advantages that Right wing radio loves to parrot: borders, language, culture. They know who they are, have their names, know their ancestors, are connected with mythologies that represent them at the center of the universe, like every other people on this planet—with the exception of black Americans.  They also came to America believing it to be a land of opportunity: and the perceptual filter of belief is a major determinant of the results you get in life.
Do you want to know if you’d be doing better than the average black American?  Here are a couple of ways to see.  Let’s assume that, on the average, white Americans are doing about 10% better on a number of fronts.  If you, as a white person, are doing 10% better than the average American, you’d be doing about 10% better than the average black American.  In other words, you’d be doing about average.  Don’t like that one?  How’s this: if you have your act together in all three major arenas, body, mind, relationship, you’d be doing better than the average black American.  On the other hand, you’d better take a look around at the percentage of white America that can’t handle these three basic arenas—all of them would fall pray to the exact same problems that plague black Americans.  Want another way of knowing?  If you are the kind of person who is angry and  frustrated with black Americans?  I can promise you that that same narrowness of perception would induce you, if you were black, to HATE white people.  And that hatred would eat at you, gnaw at your immune system and capacity to resist stress, and lower your ability to function as well as your life span.  My honest opinion.
The Covenant is not just a call for political action.  It is a call for action on EVERY level, from the personal to the community to the national political.  I would think that every person would find the aspects that suit their own temperament and interests. Personally, I’m much better at thinking about individual than group action.  However, the creators definitely wish to cultivate young people who wish to enter the law, and into political life.  Politicians must be held accountable for their choices and actions—but this is a problem that human beings have had as long as there have been group dynamics.  Nothing unique here.

Covenant #3:  Correct the System of Unequal Justice.

Definitely have some opinions here.  So far as I know, every analysis of crime and the justice system ever performed comes pretty much to the same conclusion: if you are black, male, or poor you will do more time, for the same crime, more often than if you are white, female, and rich.  This is just a fact.  Adjust for all and any data you want: prior arrests, or whatever, and if you are black, male, or poor, you are screwed.  You will be stopped by the police more often, arrested more often, convicted more often, and given more time, serve more of it, and have less   safety net to welcome you back to society.

Do I need to go through the litany of unequal sentencing?  Or laws that appear to be targeted at certain communities (can you say “Crack”?)  I hope not, because all my life I’ve looked at this one, and it’s one of the reasons I am so incredibly furious with the insanity of our drug laws.

Again, I think this boils down to that 5-10% racial disconnect, traceable to basic neurobiological amygdalic response, and present in such interesting statistics as black male sexuality in film.  It is just a human thing, and black Americans are on the wrong end of the percentages, outnumbered 10 to 1. The police who arrest them, the juries that judge them, the judges who sentence them, the lawmakers who create the legal context in which their lives are evaluated…all are members of the same group who, for hundreds of years, told them they were nothing and then fought for every scrap of ground as those freed slaves pushed for their rights.
There are  many reasons we obey the law.  Some relate  to  an innate sense of decency.  Some are connected to fear of incarceration or embarrassment. Some are connected to our image of the justice system as a good and fair thing, a humanizing thing, a vital part of the society we all belong to. 

If you are white, male, lean-bodied, heterosexual and middle class or above it is probably all but impossible to understand the very different way the average black American views the justice system.  For you, it is the thin blue line between you and chaos.  For black Americans, it is all too often an organ of the oppressor.  The law is disproportionately populated with high-testosterone, territorial, hierarchical stress-eating types.  Under stress we become even more hierarchical.  Warrior-types are quite visually oriented, and the easiest visual difference to make is the one between whites and blacks.  I don’t doubt for an instant that, if the situation were reversed, blacks would be screwing whites over just as badly—and unconsciously, protesting all the time that there is no evil intent.  There doesn’t HAVE to be any “intent” at all, don’t you understand?  We are motor-set to oppress and dominate one another, and unless you are conscious, and make a conscious commitment to rise above those 3rd-chakra urges, that tendency will creep into everything you do, every law you make, every vote you add to the box.  Only consciousness can rise above these basic tribal urges. 
Of course the disproportionate incarceration rate horribly impacts economics and political opportunity, for obvious reasons.  The Coveant suggests actions that, again, range from the personal to the political.
Encourage children to behave and do well in school
Plan family and neighborhood activities for children of all ages.
Form adult clubs  in the neighborhood to plan activities.
Support children whose parents are incarcerated.
Encourage religious institutions to provide support for adults returning to the community from prison.
And most of all, hold all leaders and elected officials responsible and demand that they change current policy.
The next covenant deals with specific policing issues, so I’ll wait for tomorrow for that one.  But yes, the Covenant holds those at the top responsible for institutionalized problems that have created a nightmare from which black America only started emerging in the 1970’s.  And yes again, parents must be responsible for their children, individuals for their actions, churches for their communities. 

Look around you at the people who struggle with their weight, their finances, their marriages.  Now place them under the additional stress of being black in America.  Any sense of security you have that the average white would do any better at all should go right down the drain, friends.
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