We Have Much Left to Do

All photos: Black Lives Matter Protest, Washington, D.C., June 6, 2020. Photos by Eric Bondand/FCNL.

Thoughts on Post-Civil War, Post-Civil Rights, Post-George Floyd American Justice

It’s no secret that the justice and penal systems in the United States are inextricably linked to racism. From modern-day slavery (mass incarceration) to modern-day lynching (lethal force used by police to harass, harm, and kill Black people), the current situation, though branded as ensuring public safety, is in fact steeped in hate and inequality. “Public safety” is often a euphemism that cloaks the current situation, which originated in a system of degradation that built our nation’s economy.

Slavery in the United States was the original mass incarceration. By the 1860s, when 3.9 million Black people were enslaved, the country was on the brink of a critical tipping point: the American Civil War (1861-1865), which would eventually abolish slavery. As we now know, abolition did not immediately ensure equality for Black people. Many formerly enslaved individuals would struggle to lift themselves out of poverty, as racial discrimination continued to limit their opportunities for education, employment, and housing.

Today, many former slaveholding states still have some of the highest populations of Black residents in the country. They share two additional disturbing statistics: the highest poverty and incarceration rates, particularly among Black people. In fact, the majority of the two million individuals behind bars throughout the United States are Black.

The author, José Santos Woss, 2019. Photo by FCNL.

Regretfully, we as Quakers are complicit in the creation of our country’s mass incarceration system. Early Friends were no strangers to prisons, as they followed their evangelist leadings in ministering to the imprisoned. 

Quaker reform efforts focused at first on the atrocious conditions that were common in prisons and jails. In the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, in both the United Kingdom and the United States, prisoners were held in large rooms—often 30 to 40 together. Prisoners had to pay fees for their food and for all services, such as unlocking their irons so that they could attend their trials. Reformers also thought solitary confinement would be a proper Quaker way for penitence. 

When viewed through the lens of equity and justice, these early reform efforts show mixed outcomes. But even though there were some unwanted results, early reform efforts do not entirely account for so many people being behind bars today. The 1971 “war on drugs” launched by Richard Nixon, raised a Quaker, resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of people who were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. Most of those incarcerated were Black and other People of Color. 

Twenty-three years after the war on drugs entered our collective consciousness, the 1994 crime bill, formally known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, shifted the focus of the justice system from compassion and rehabilitation to a stance of being “tough on crime.” As a result, misdemeanors and violent offenses are often treated similarly within our legal system, and today prisons continue to be overpopulated. The bill also helped make mass incarceration a big business for many corporations. The United States now leads the world in incarceration. This is certainly not a title to be proud of, nearly 160 years after the abolition of slavery.

The unfortunate irony is that very little has changed. Sure, slavery is illegal, but mass incarceration is not. It may be frowned upon to lynch a person by slipping a noose around his neck, but some think that kneeling on a neck is acceptable. No matter the method, there is apparently little regard for Black life in those who believe they are administering justice through such means. 

This should come as no surprise, given historical context. As Olivia Waxman reported in Time in 2017, the economics that drove the establishment of police systems in the South were rooted in the intent to uphold slavery. Southern police systems were established to assist with catching runaway slaves, preventing slave revolts, and later enforcing segregation and racial inequality. It is no wonder that a system born of racism, subjugation, and punishment for pursuing basic human freedoms persists as an instrument of oppression. 

The unfortunate irony is that very little has changed. Sure, slavery is illegal, but mass incarceration is not. It may be frowned upon to lynch a person by slipping a noose around his neck, but some think that kneeling on a neck is acceptable. No matter the method, there is apparently little regard for Black life in those who believe they are administering justice through such means.

So where does that place a Black, Latino, Quaker social justice advocate like me? 

For starters, I was not always a Quaker. My grandmother came to the United States from the Dominican Republic and established roots for our family in the New York City neighborhood of Inwood. She wanted to give my mother a better life. Ironically, that community also provided my first exposure to the inequality that breeds the very injustices I write about. I have since spent my life trying to build that better life, for myself and others. 

I knew from a young age that the Roman Catholic faith tradition in which I was raised would not lend itself to, nor feed, the work to which I am committed. I must have been a teenager when I first learned about the scandal of sexual abuse committed by priests. I realized that a faith built on sacraments yet devoid of Christ-like values (as I saw it back then) was no spiritual home for me. 

While some aspects of Quaker history may be flawed (including Friends’ connections to problems with our so-called justice system in addition to the fact that some Friends owned enslaved people), Friends are currently taking meaningful action to stem the tide of racial injustice that pervades every facet of this country. It is these efforts that moved me to become a Quaker. 

I first began to understand racial justice work within the context of faith when I was a fellow at American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). There I saw an organization committed to justice that was backed by the Religious Society of Friends. I see the same faith in action at the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), where I work today. A major turning point for me, and a moment when I started to become a Quaker without realizing it, was at a 2016 session of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting dedicated to anti-racism. For the first time, I saw white people moved to tears as they tried to wrestle with the issue. I saw Black Quakers sharing their experiences. Some small conversations (on big topics) lasted past midnight. I knew that this was a faith committed to racial justice and action, not just to sacraments and creeds.

The direct connection to God stirs Friends to act to build a society we seek. But we must move beyond our meetings and work for justice alongside the very communities that are struggling to improve their lives. Black people continue to face daily inhumane, deadly actions at the hands of those charged with “keeping us safe.”

Because of these unjust actions, there is so much pain in our communities. The evil we witnessed last year at the hands of Derek Chauvin has left an indelible mark on the world, but our country needed police reform long before then. It needed it before Philando Castile was shot in his car after a routine traffic stop. It needed it before Eric Garner yelled out “I can’t breathe” while dying from a policeman’s chokehold. 

In light of these ongoing, gross human rights violations, this work can be as infuriating as it is exhausting. On a personal level, the deluge of stories sometimes causes me to wonder whether I might one day be shot by the police, and whether I’d survive if it happened. 

The recent conviction of Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd is not justice. Justice would be George Floyd living his life today. While it was a welcome, albeit momentary, reprieve to see Derek Chauvin stand trial for murdering George Floyd, we have much left to do to create a society with equity and justice for all. 

The fact remains that Derek Chauvin’s knee exists in every fiber of our country. Black women are three times more likely to die during childbirth. Black prospective homebuyers continue to be turned down disproportionately for home loans in certain neighborhoods. Black mothers are being jailed for falsifying their addresses to get their children into better schools. 

The United States needs a new approach to policing and incarceration, and we need it now. The implicit bias in a white supremacist society aligns Blackness with criminality, diminished worth, and danger. True justice will require in-depth review of the systems that got us here, and accountability on the part of those seeking to perpetuate the systems. 

As Quakers, we believe that restorative justice requires us to look at the whole person, not just the crimes they have committed. FCNL and our partners have successfully lobbied the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (H.R. 1280). While this bill will not cure police injustice, it will limit the unchecked power of police by banning the use of chokeholds, instituting a national “necessary” standard for the use of lethal force, and ending the militarization of civilian police departments.

I am grateful to work with an organization that supports a system that treats juveniles as children, not as adults, and one that is not biased by race, immigration status, or economic class. This speaks to the larger movement of Friends and other people of faith advocating for crime prevention efforts that address the complex, systematic catalysts for crime, which are often rooted in social and economic injustice.

José Santos Woss

José Santos Woss is the director for justice reform at the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL). He co-chairs the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, an alliance of more than 40 national faith groups advocating to end mass incarceration.

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