In her 2010 book, The New Jim Crow, attorney and author Michelle Alexander makes the case that the 1980s war on drugs was really a war on young black men. “Three strikes and you’re out” was the strident rallying cry of the day; and laws were configured and prison sentences were levied in an inequitable way. The prison population exploded, and a hugely disproportionate number of those incarcerated were young men of color.
There was, and is, a systemic racist strain in the American culture that conspires to render young black men invisible. Some would argue that the shooting of unarmed black men – from Emmett Till in 1955 to Michael Brown, Akai Gurley and Tamir Rice in 2014 – represents an extension of this societal need to have young black men disappear. That for the sake of public safety some need to be sacrificed, which is racial profiling of the worst order.
It is tempting to blame the police. But that would only perpetuate a cycle of scapegoating between police and black men. Scapegoating may reduce tension for a short bit of time, but it doesn’t resolve anything. Scapegoating only produces more scapegoating and fuels the gun violence that has become a national pandemic.
Two weeks ago, six bishops from Bishops United Against Gun Violence and some others met in Chicago to plan an outdoor event at General Convention in June 2015, which would be a witness against gun violence. Our primary purpose was to create common ground for people to gather and to provide a physical and theological space for people to stand and learn — at General Convention and in our local contexts. We also made a commitment to promote relationships with local police, reflecting a deep belief that stronger relationships make for safer communities.
There is an abundance of common ground when it comes to gun violence. Over 90% of the American population, including a sizable majority of gun owners, is in favor of universal background checks. There is common ground on the desire to reduce gun violence. Our fierce commitment to find common ground reflects an even deeper commitment to reduce the temptation to scapegoat, and to end the egregious systemic practice of rendering young black men invisible.
The Rt. Rev. Mark Beckwith
Member, Bishops Against Gun Violence
December 19, 2014