While in Charleston last Sunday, I visited the Emmanuel AME Church, where the citizens of Charleston mourned the senseless deaths of the victims of the latest racist rampage. Considering the character of the killer and his deranged fascination with the Confederacy, I can’t help but feel that these killings resulted in part because so many continue to harbor a romantic view of the “lost cause” that relieves them of the burden of confronting our American Holocaust. Less than a quarter mile from the church is Marion Square, a small park in which the City of Charleston long ago erected a massive monument to John Calhoun, a man who devoted all of his considerable intellectual capabilities to the defense of slavery, and hence genocide. If the Germans erected a monument to Alfred Rosenberg, the ideologist of Nazi racial laws, we would rightfully be horrified, and yet we maintain monuments to Calhoun and the Confederate generals who sent so many young men to their deaths in defense of Calhoun's worldview.
But it's not just the myth of the lost cause that is so destructive to our need to confront the legacy of slavery. We Northerners have our own myths that serve to assuage our guilt for complicity in the subjugation of Africans. In this narrative, the Union fought solely to eradicate the institution of slavery. With the North's victory, the slaves were free. Though things weren't perfect, the Civil Rights Acts of 1956, 1963, and 1964 destroyed the remaining remnants of the legacy of slavery.
Although I may be exaggerating somewhat, this fantasy continues to infect the American view of its history, and a close approximation of it continues to be taught in our schools. Too few people are aware of the re‑enslavement of African Americans after reconstruction, the decades of terrorism used by Southern white rulers to perpetuate its subjugation of former slaves and their descendants, the Northern racial laws used to segregate blacks in neighborhoods like Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant, and the complicity of the Democratic Party in the perpetuation of Jim Crow. While it is ridiculous to claim that there has been no progress in race relations during the last 50 years, this distorted view of history tacitly encourages a kind of thoughtless racism, which softened resistance to one of the most radical, dangerous and immoral social experiments in American history: mass incarceration.
During the last 30 we have chosen to try to control crime by throwing people, mostly men of color, in jail. Because criminal laws were far too lax in the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in an unacceptable level of crime, we veered wildly in the other direction, believing that the way to keep our streets safe was to throw anyone in jail who committed a crime or looked like he might commit a crime. As a result, we currently jail 2.2 million people at a rate higher than any other nation in the world, including Russia, the People's Republic of China, and Saudi Arabia. Because we are unwilling to pay the costs necessary to administer truly just criminal laws, we have created an assembly line system of justice in which we extort people into pleading guilty rather than face the possibility that they be convicted of crimes carrying far lengthier sentences. As a result, an incalculable number of inmates are currently serving time for crimes they did not commit or serving sentences far disproportionate to the crime committed. Yet there is little evidence that our insane incarceration policy is the cause of more than a small portion of the massive drop in US crime rates.
It's time for us to do more than just eradicate the symbols of racism. It's time for us to have a real conversation about race, and it’s time to end the subjugation of the American poor, Black or White, by throwing them all in jail.