With the 2013 Martin Luther King Jr. holiday still fresh in our memories, it is a particularly poignant time to reflect on injustice and the specific American varieties of injustice that Dr. King worked tirelessly to eradicate and to bring to the attention of his fellow citizens —racism and racial prejudice. These of course are two of the same evils that Louis and Louisa Gregory confronted repeatedly before the days of Dr. King, that Shoghi Effendi and ‘Abdu’l-Baha condemned at length in their expositions and public discourse, and that Baha’u’llah planted the seeds of their elimination and whose eradication He included among the foundational social tenets of His Revelation. We know that Baha’u’llah’s Revelation set in motion a divine process destined to remove once and for all the stain of these evils from the American social fabric and the social relationships of all humankind.
In the American context, the abolition of slavery was the first step in this transformation. Only a few days ago we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln. Speeded along by a calamitous Civil War that left hundreds of thousands dead or injured in its wake and freeing over four million enslaved blacks, abolishing slavery was a huge milestone that opened the door for many forms of progress toward equality. Seven score and ten years later, a president of African descent occupies the White House and serves as our Commander in Chief. The 20th Century civil rights movement and the demise of the “Jim Crow” system of American apartheid was another step. But racism and racial discrimination are persistent afflictions that are not easily exorcised, and given their centuries-long period of infiltration in American culture and thought, it should not surprise us that like a virulent strain of flu or other virus they are adept at changing form, continuing to plague their hosts, and very difficult to shake off.
At the 2012 Green Lake Baha’i Conference and in her 2010 best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, law professor, Baha’i and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander exposes another form of these twin evils that has spawned the largest prison system among all industrialized countries and a criminal justice system designed to sweep hugely disproportionate numbers of men and women of color into its clutches. Despite research that shows both reductions in violent crime over the past two decades and comparable levels of illegal behavior across all races, nearly 90% of those incarcerated or on probation in the 21st Century United States are people of color, particularly young men of color—mostly African American and Hispanic. Professor Alexander identifies them as a new “lower caste” because once they have been branded as felons, the American legal system strips them of their right to vote, their ability to find housing, get jobs, support their families, build credit, hold office, or otherwise participate meaningfully in American society.
This is a new face of the same twin evils that Shoghi Effendi identified in 1938 as the “most vital and challenging issue” facing American society and the American Baha’i community within it. Even today racism and racial prejudice are issues that stir deep and conflicting emotions in all Americans, whether descendants of those slaves that were emancipated in 1863, or descendants of the owning and political classes that erected and profited from the centuries of chattel slavery, or new immigrants and their descendants that acquire the “virus” here and find themselves infected, confused or battling against racism in both overt and subtle forms. (For example, see the film/DVD entitled “My Name is Khan” which examines prejudice against and among South Asians and their worldwide diaspora.)
In addition to Michelle Alexander’s book, I would draw your attention to two other resources that raise our awareness around this particular injustice: a recently released documentary called “The House I Live In” (www.thehouseilivein.org) that focuses on the so-called “war on drugs” that turns out to be a huge factor in prolonging this injustice and increasing the disproportionate number of inmates of color in our prisons and a PBS documentary now available on DVD called “Slavery by Another Name” that focuses on the system of convict leasing that operated systematically in the South until the 1930s to sweep African Americans into the criminal justice system often leading to their death or mental breakdown. (Note: The House I Live In is being screened through January 23 in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center.)
In response to Michelle Alexander’s Green Lake talks and the existing situation detailed in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Charles Young has developed a format for a reflection gathering that helps each of us to process the thoughts and emotions that this difficult topic brings to the surface and find our own course of action to contribute toward dismantling this system and displaying compassion for those who have suffered from it. It addresses the issue at the level of personal growth and community building where all meaningful and sustainable action must begin. “Humanity through suffering and turmoil,” wrote Shoghi Effendi, “is quickly moving on towards its destiny. I we be loiterers, if we fail to play our part, surely others will be called upon to take up our task as ministers to the crying needs of an afflicted humanity.” For more information on the reflection gatherings and workshops that Charles has initiated, he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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