Almost 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is only natural to wonder what he might teach us in these profoundly troubling days. It is worth remembering that, especially in the last three years of his life, his most strident calls were for economic justice. “I have a dream today that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” As the minister and scholar Michael Eric Dyson reminds us, these 34 words are more famous than anything else King ever said. These are the words we carry in our hearts. But this was far from the full message. It is now commonplace to observe that the United States is the prison capital of the world. We incarcerate more people per capita than any other nation on earth, with Russia a not so close second. This monstrous reality has fallen most heavily on African Americans and Hispanics. While he did not live to see that our criminal justice system would become perhaps the leading civil rights issue of our day, Dr. King knew intuitively what must happen if we are ever to move beyond Jim Crow: civil rights laws alone could not address three centuries of racism and economic exploitation. He was killed in Memphis, where he had gone to lead a strike of sanitation workers, and his next destination was to be Washington D.C. where he was mobilizing a Poor People’s Campaign. Three weeks before the end of his life, he spoke of how in the 1860s Americans had been given land if they moved west to build their economic future even as blacks remained slaves. Listen to Martin Luther King in this video. He is tired, impatient, even close to anger. Anticipating a Poor People’s Campaign, he said, “Now when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.” Is this not a call for reparations? For most Americans, the idea of reparations is a non-starter. It seems at best impractical. But consider the perspective of African Americans who cannot get a job due to a marijuana arrest on their records as we move to the legalization of marijuana. They are witnessing young white men creating businesses to sell a substance that blacks went to jail for possessing. The growing marijuana industry as an argument for reparations is a small slice of a much deeper problem. Even if we cannot devise a clear-cut reparations policy as such, it is worth keeping front and center the idea of helping people overcome the challenges of almost three centuries of oppression. Ta-Nehisi Coates tells us why: “Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America…But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much – if not more than – the specific questions that might be produced.” In this, he is surely right. Let us remember today that as King called for the brotherhood and sisterhood of us all, he knew this could not be achieved without economic justice. If only to help us discuss this fundamental truth, it worthwhile to discuss what society can and should do in the way of reparation. Dr. King surely would have approved.
The Drug Policy Alliance Conference included a Town Hall Meeting on “The Case for Reparations: 50 Years After the Drug War and Mass Incarceration, What Does America Owe Us? Ira Glasser, board chair of the DPA and one of the panelists, argued that the GI Bill of Rights offers both a model and a cautionary tale in considering reparations as a response to the War on Drugs. Here are excerpts from his remarks. The War on Drugs is just the latest form of racial subjugation. We’re talking really about the history of 300 years, and there is no way of talking about repairing harm without talking about all of that. When you get to get this age, you get to be a historian. When you start talking about things, you find out that nobody knows anything. They’re not coming from the same place you’re coming from and they’re not sharing the same premises because they don’t share the same facts. People don’t know what the GI Bill of Rights did. It provided tuition for college, high school, vocational school, training schools. It provided living expenses for people going to school. It provided low-cost loans without a down payment, low-cost mortgages without a down payment for people to buy homes when they came back from the war. It provided low-cost loans for people to start businesses, credit for people to start businesses, for people who had no assets. And it didn’t do that with a means test. They did it for everyone. Because everybody had suffered the disadvantage, everybody was going to get the repair. And they didn’t do it just for the people who were in combat. They did it for people who were on active duty for 90 days or more. 90 days! And you compare what that repair was targeting with what we’re talking about and you have to conclude that if it was a moral obligation to pass the GI Bill of Rights, that moral obligation is multiplied by a factor of thousands for the people we’re talking about. This [case] has never been made to the white liberal audience who thinks they’re with us. They don’t know about it. You have to get past their sense of defensiveness. They feel like you’re accusing them of racism when you tell them they have a moral obligation. They wouldn’t feel that way if they had had an accident in a car. The idea of repairing the damage that the state of official law and policy has done is not an alien concept. It’s established in our country. It’s established in our culture. It’s established in our law. So you have to ask yourself: why is it received so radically? It’s racism in this context. And the answer has to be that it is very different when you’re talking about people of darker skin color. One more thing. In order to get the GI Bill passed, Congress needed the votes of southern Democrats. This is 1945–46. And in order to get it passed, part of the way it was passed was the understanding that the federal government would get it passed, but it was going to be administered locally. Local white folks would get to decide who got these benefits. There were 67,000 mortgages enabled by the GI Bill of Rights in the first year after it was passed, and fewer than 100 went to people who were not white. There were 100,000 people in the first year, black people, who applied for the education benefits. Fewer than 20% got them. Looking at the GI Bill of Rights, you get a rationale for what we’re trying to move toward that’s very powerful and compelling. But at the same time, the way the GI Bill of Rights was administered and played out describes the problem that we have even with the white liberal audience of people that we think should be with us. We need to find a way to translate that sense of moral obligation to them even if they are not racists.
The likely confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions to be U.S. attorney general is deeply troubling. He believes people who possess marijuana should be arrested. He has recently opposed reform of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and appears to support privatized prisons. Surely clemency is beyond the pale. But the real difficulty goes far deeper than his views about particular policies. He threatens to take us back to the days before we became aware of our national collective responsibility for mass incarceration. It is only seven years – how much longer it seems – since Michelle Alexander told us in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness that the United States puts more people in prison per capita than any nation on earth and relegates African American and Hispanic communities to third-world status. Her landmark book exposed the War on Drugs, exploding in the 1980’s, as the primary cause.
Regardless of our politics, surely we can agree that 2016 was a brutal year. What made it so ugly were the steady expressions of hatred against every imaginable group – African Americans, Mexicans, Muslims, Middle-Eastern refugees, Asians, LGBTQs – and a litany of others. It is not an exaggeration to brand 2016 as “The Year of the Scapegoat.” We use here theologian René Girard’s definition of scapegoating: “the strange process through which two or more people are reconciled at the expense of a third party or who appears responsible for whatever ails, disturbs, or frightens the scapegoats.”
I have a confession: I have harbored an instinctive aversion to René Girard since the first time I read his seminal work Violence and the Sacred. I resist sweeping theories that attempt to account for the entire nature and destiny of humankind. It seems like an arrogant enterprise. So when right-wing, millennial commentator Tomi Lahren tells Daily Show host Trevor Noah that Black Lives Matter is the new KKK, I took it like a kick to the stomach. The first reason is because it seems unconscionable to compare a protest group to a network of individuals that systematically terrorized, raped, tortured, and murdered African Americans for over a century. The second reason is because it forced me to concede, and not for the first time, that Girard got a few things right. Viewed through his theory of scapegoating, Lahren’s theory, while still outrageous, also makes complete sense. Furthermore, Girard’s theory of Christ offers insight into how I, outraged as I am, might respond both to Lahren and the reactionary culture that birthed her. Two key concepts are essential to Girard’s thought: mimesis and scapegoating. Even if philosophy is not your cup of tea, once you grasp these two concepts, you are well on your way to having a functioning Girardian lens. Let’s begin with mimesis:
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