This is the third time I’ve started this post. I’ve been thinking about it in general for weeks, specifically for days, I’ve been bursting at the seams with all I want to say and yet I’m incapable of putting it effectively into words. My thought process is so complicated, so convoluted, that I feel unable to distill it in any meaningful way. So, I’m going to do what you all expect here at The Edifying Word and talk about some books. I’m going to mention three books that have been truly transformative in shaping how I think about this issue. These books, together with current events, have helped me come to some important conclusions. I’m uncomfortable with how long it has taken me to reach these conclusions, but I’m trying to focus on growth: life is a journey and as long as I’m still living I’ll still be learning, growing, and improving.
So, first conclusion: The criminal justice system in this country does not provide impartial justice, particularly to people of color. I should have known this, you say. I studied criminal justice at a top university, where I learned the following, among other things (thank you, my bestest friend and classmate for neatly summarizing this for me):
- The school to prison pipeline disproportionately affects minority inner city youths.
- Black men receive disproportionate prison sentences.
- The drug wars disproportionately affect/ed minorities.
- Poor, diverse communities are disproportionately affected by crime (broken windows theory).
There’s a lot of “disproportionate” in that list. By definition that cannot be justice. Knowing these things, it seems illogical that I could walk away from school with faith in this system. But I did.
And that faith remained until 2018 when I read two books: The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton, and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Before reading these books, I could delude myself into thinking that all of this “disproportion” was unfortunate but unintended, that the system was working from within to remedy these wrongs, actually seeking justice. Anthony Ray Hinton spent 30 years in prison–28 of those on death row–for a crime he did not commit. That the police and prosecutors instrumental in his conviction knew he did not commit. After reading his book, I moved on to Just Mercy, written by Bryan Stevenson, the attorney who ultimately helped Hinton win his freedom and who has dedicated his professional life to helping people like Hinton. Hinton and many others were intentionally targeted by the very people who were supposed to provide justice because of their race. It is incomprehensible to me, and sickening. I came away from both of those books with a sincere loss of faith in the criminal justice system in the United States. I saw it for the first time as truly broken.
This brings me to the second conclusion. The system is racist because our society is racist. It’s a hard pill to swallow. I viewed racism is an “other” kind of thing — a past thing, a very black and white “racists are bad people who hate,” without a recognition of the inherent sociological structures that perpetuate racism in the United States. (As a side note – it’s no wonder, because that’s really how things were taught to me as a kid – the Civil Rights Movement fixed us, right? Even today I read “I Am Rosa Parks” to my six year old and it presented inequality very clearly as a thing of the past. Segregation by law, sure; inequality, no.) Which brings me to the third book, A Drop of Midnight by Jason Diakite (which I previously wrote about here). Reading this book earlier this year is the first time I really saw societal racism. I’m not sure what it was about Diakite’s experiences, about his writing, that finally caused me to see what’s been in front of me my whole life, but I know after reading his book I lost the illusion of a free, just, equal America. Diakite’s memoir is about his search for identity as the Swedish-born-and-raised, half-white, half-black son of American parents. His portrayal of the United States as a racist society was eye-opening, compelling, and disheartening. I don’t think I’d ever considered before that a Black person not from the United States wouldn’t want to come here because of racism.
The first two books show overt racism. I needed to see this blatant hatred, this flagrant miscarriage of justice, to see finally understand the system is broken. But I needed to understand the structural racism, the biases and internal judgments that are often unintentional and not born of hatred, to see the true scope of the problem, and that’s what Diakite’s book provided for me.
There’s a lot more to be said about all of those books (Hinton’s book, incidentally, is what finally pushed me over the edge to be anti-death penalty, which, as a Catholic, is kind of embarrassing, but that needs a post all of its own). But for now, I think the above is enough. I’m grateful for my education, and I believe there are many, many very good, well-intentioned people in our country’s criminal justice system. I respect and support the police; just this weekend my parents brought dinner to my brother’s precinct to show their support and I respect and admire that. We need laws, police, the court system. But we have a long way to go before we have a system capable of achieving justice for all.
How do we get there? On a structural, practical reform level I can’t begin to say. On the most basic, human level it’s very clear to me: all humans are equal and derive their worth from being created children of God. Until we all recognize the inherent dignity of every human being and treat them accordingly, we will fail at implementing justice. And that, friends, is a spiritual battle.
Check out the books I mentioned, and give them a read. You won’t be disappointed.
The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
A Drop of Midnight by Jason Diakite
Thanks for providing thoughtful commentary on an important subject while simultaneously providing literary suggestions for multiple age groups -you accomplished so much in one post!
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Thank YOU for being my sounding board as I waded through the crazy thought process it took to get to this post!
Well written, Kristen. May I just add, that as an atheist, I view the necessity to “recognize the inherent dignity of every human being and treat them accordingly” as a spiritual, moral and ethical battle. ^Robert
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Thank you! And yes, I agree – it’s definitely also a moral and ethical battle. My morals and ethics are grounded in my faith, but I do recognize that’s not the case for everyone. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment 🙂
Great article, Kristin. I think many of us are struggling to articulate our thoughts on racism. It’s a complex subject but one we should all grapple with in order to understand both the causes and solutions. A few years ago, it looked like the world was finally moving towards a more tolerant and inclusive society; I thought we were making progress. Unfortunately, it looks like we have now gone backwards and we are looking at a world full of anger and division.
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