To White People, Like Me
The United States has the highest incarceration rate globally, incarcerating far more of our citizens than in Russia and China combined. The Federal prison population has skyrocketed from 20,000 people in the late 70’s to over 1,414,162 in 2018. Yet most distressing is the projection that Black men born in 2001 have a 1 in 3 likelihood of being imprisoned. One in three. These facts, updated as recently as August 2020 by the Sentencing Project, paint a devastating picture of how quickly our country had expedited the injustices heaped upon an already brutalized population of People of Color.
Additionally, inadequate school systems feed a school to prison pipeline, and poor mental health and substance abuse treatment ensure a revolving door for people who often only get health care or treatment while incarcerated. There is no justice in our mass incarceration system, and every system that should support citizens, such as housing, education, and healthcare, is broken or crumbling. At the core of these institutions are bad policies and laws designed to further racial disparities between White people and People of Color. Four hundred years of White supremacy in our country has led us to a breaking point. A fundamental restructuring of our priorities must address the systemic inequalities in our Nation, including eliminating for-profit prisons, decriminalizing drug offenses, and significantly redirecting police forces’ funding to fund schools, health care, childcare, and jail diversion programs. While led by People of Color, White Christians must step up and bring the full force of our privilege to correct these injustices. Indeed, until justice is secured for all, forgiveness and reconciliation between Christian Whites and People of Color are meaningless, whether individually or culturally.
White people and particularly White Southern Christians, established and maintained a legal and social system of white privilege and superiority for over 400 years. Our country, founded on the backs of enslaved African Americans and other People of Color, used the church to reinforce this ideology week after week and sermon after sermon.
The South as a whole became the center of conservative religion, adopting a racist creed in every denomination. Theologians and laity alike learned to recite the standard biblical texts on Negro inferiority, patriarchal and Mosaic acceptance of servitude, and St. Paul’s counsels of obedience to masters. The clergy were the official custodians of the popular conscience; the majority of proslavery advocates were ministers.
So afraid of sharing the real message of liberation at the core of the Bible, a version was created for enslaved people that removed “90 percent of the Old Testament and about half of the New Testament.” Time has only cemented these beliefs into the structure of the church and the broader community. Today, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRPI) documents the correlation between those who are most likely to deny structural racism and their denomination or lack of Christian identity. On the racism scale from 1 to 10, White Evangelical Protestants score 8, slightly ahead of Catholics and Mainline Protestants with 7. White, non-Christians scored 4.  Yes, there is, in fact, a direct correlation between church attendance and racism that spans party affiliation, denomination, and income. Is it no doubt, then, that the same White people who lead these churches are also business and community leaders who don’t recognize their power and privilege in systems designed to disenfranchise People of Color?
As noted earlier, incarceration skyrocketed starting in the 70’s. Nixon’s law and order campaign resulted in Republican Governors building prisons in anticipation of the results of harsher drug laws and longer sentences.
Led by New York’s 1972 “Rockefeller Drug Laws, “which stipulated fifteen years to life for possession or sale of narcotics, every state enacted mandatory minimums. As a result, the prison population doubled between 1972 and 1984.
This trajectory continued under the influence of Conservative Christians in the ’80s. President Bill Clinton reinforced it with “the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which increased the use of federal law to sentence people to prison.” In response to how the United States can be so far out of line with the community of nations worldwide, Dr. Rima Vesely-Flad, founder of the Interfaith Coalition of Advocates for Reentry and Employment (ICARE), highlights an intersection of beliefs that go back to the core Christian values of the founding leaders that focuses on individual versus systemic change.
A uniquely American context – inclusive of Puritanism, slavery, postbellum criminal laws, partisan politics, prison industries, a vitriolic antipathy to idleness, and a constant apprehension about integration – is nonetheless a context that honors social conventions. Yet rather than addressing and repairing the deep divisions wrought by racism and punitive laws, the public conversation on incarceration has emphasized individual repentance. 
This unwillingness to look at the systems that keep people poor, particularly the devastating deterioration of families and generational poverty resulting from long sentences, continues to generate a school to prison pipeline. For-profit prison corporations project the future number of prison beds needed in an area by the 3rd-grade literacy level on the Federally standardized end of year tests. It is the perfect closed-loop system where poverty begets trauma, which produces poor academic performance, which generates low wage jobs, which delivers poor health. This system, overlaid by the over-policing of low-income People of Color, also fuels a for-profit system of incarceration under the guise of reducing crime. Indeed, every system designed to help people “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” is doomed to failure. No one aspect of a person’s life can outweigh all of the challenges that People of Color must overcome to succeed in a capitalist system that profits from keeping people poor, unhealthy, and under-educated. (For a truly sobering and more detailed education about the political strategy behind the history and impact of mass incarceration, I recommend the reader also watch Ana DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13th.)
As a White Christian with a long career in nonprofit social justice work, it is truly depressing that virtually every benchmark or goal to improve my community worsened over the past 30 years. The affordable housing crisis grows despite City and County support of community development corporations. The educational achievement gap is the worst in NC despite local and state investment in literacy, mentoring, and afterschool programs. And finally, police brutality towards Black citizens increased, even after policies were re-written to demand wearing body cameras, de-escalation training, and new Use of Force policies that prevent shooting someone from behind or into a moving car. It is enough to want to hide in my home and close the door, and in fact, that is what many of us with the privilege of having a safe home have done, even before the pandemic. However, I believe we White Christians, benefiting from these policies regardless of our own beliefs, must put aside our fear, angst, and weariness to act with our power and privilege and bring about the systemic changes needed to heal our country’s deep racial divide. We need not wait for an invitation. We have the opportunity to join together to support the Poor People’s Campaign led by Bishop William Barber II. Addressing the Alliance of Baptist Fall Gathering, Bishop Barber challenged the on-line audience to consider Hebrews 10:39, “But we are not those who shrink back from the structure and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved.” Bishop Barber went on to remind us that the Hebrew word “kul,” is the same word for voice and vote and that “voting is a theological issue.” He admonished his audience to remember that it’s not just about being “woke”, it’s about acting. And he called for “a political Pentecost,” recognizing that Jesus came to preach good news to the poor. The Poor People’s Campaign, which started in North Carolina with Moral Mondays, challenged the injustices of the Republican-led NC Legislature and led to the civil disobedience and arrests of hundreds of people. At the core of its success is the intersectionality between social issues and diverse groups impacted by unjust laws and an economic system that impoverishes, incarcerates, and ignores the needs of the majority of the people in NC and the entire country. Bishop Barber’s words inspired me and the majority White audience of progressive Baptists. Now we must continue to work to repair our broken systems by advocating for just policies, to act in nonviolent protests to bring attention to police shootings of unarmed Black people, and to support structural budget changes in local, state, and federal budgets. That means using our voice and our vote to let people in power and elected officials know that we stand in solidarity with both the Black Lives Matter movement and the Poor People’s Campaign.
It is not enough to simply apologize for our wrongs and the wrongs of our ancestors and ask for forgiveness. How can forgiveness or reconciliation happen when, after an apology, the People of Color who were harmed by systems of oppression go back to the same conditions that take away their dignity and impoverish their lives? Only with justice secured can forgiveness and reconciliation matter. On this point, I may differ from Bishop Barber. He has spoken of the use of forgiveness as a nonviolent protest in itself, “Forgiveness can be a socially constructive act: it creates a new social order that breaks from the old.” It would certainly not be for me to judge a Black person as to whether they choose to forgive someone for a wrong. I strongly feel that it’s not White people’s place to ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness and reconciliation should come as a result of an action. Indeed, our Nation’s problems stem not from a lack of money but a lack of moral courage. White people with privilege, agency, and connections, in partnership with people of Color, must work unceasingly to make these changes happen. People like me and you.
Bishop William Barber II. “Poor People’s Campaign.” Presented at the “Devoted to Justice”: Alliance of Baptist Fall Gathering 2020, October 10, 2020.
Coogan, Michael David, Pheme Perkins, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Carol A. Newsom. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books: New Revised Standard Version. 5th ed. Place of publication not identified: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020.
Jorgensen. “Forgiveness after Charleston: The Ethics of an Unlikely Act.” The Good Society 26, no. 2–3 (2018): 338. https://doi.org/10.5325/goodsociety.26.2-3.0338.
The Sentencing Project.org. “Trends in US Corrections,” 2016.
Vesely-Flad, Rima. “The Social Covenant and Mass Incarceration: Theologies of Race and Punishment.” Anglican Theological Review, n.d., 22.
Foundation in Theology, Vanderbilt University
Pillar Assignment II:
“The Relationship of Justice and Mercy Under Conditions of White Supremacy.”
“To White People, Like Me”
October 10, 2020
 “Trends in US Corrections,” The Sentencing Project.org, 2016.
 Rima Vesely-Flad, “The Social Covenant and Mass Incarceration: Theologies of Race and Punishment,” Anglican Theological Review, n.d., 546.
 Robert P. Jones, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020). 77.
 Vesely-Flad, “The Social Covenant and Mass Incarceration: Theologies of Race and Punishment.” 554.
 Vesely-Flad. 555.
 Vesely-Flad. 555.
 Michael David Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books: New Revised Standard Version, 5th ed. (Place of publication not identified: Oxford University Press, 2018).
 Bishop William Barber II, “Poor People’s Campaign.”