Let me tell you, most guys who get punched in the face deserve it. I would say maybe eighty percent of them fully deserve what’s coming to them. Maybe the other ten percent could’ve used a good tongue lashing instead. This guy was one of those people I wished I could’ve taken out myself. Every second word out of his mouth was faggot and he’d uttered a variety of rotating racial slurs. He smelled like a decomposing liver.
For most Indians the only special place in front of a library might be a heating grate or a piece of sun-warmed cement but that’s an old joke and I used to sleep with my books in piles all over my bed and sometimes they were the only thing keeping me warm and always the only thing keeping me alive.
Jesse WildShoe died last night and today was the funeral and usually there’s a wake but none of us had the patience or energy to mourn for days so we buried Jesse right away and dug the hole deep because Jesse could fancydance like God had touched his feet. Anyhow we dug the hole all day and since the ground was still a little frozen we kept doing the kerosene trick and melting the ice and frost and when we threw a match into the bottom of the grave it looked like I suppose hell must look and it was scary. There we were ten little Indians making a hell on earth for a fancydancer who already had enough of that shit and probably wouldn’t want to have any more of it and I kept wondering if maybe we should just take his body high up in the mountains and bury him in the snow that never goes away. Maybe we just sort of freeze him so he doesn’t have to feel anything anymore and especially not some crazy ideas of heaven or hell.
Clearly a much better set of options could be provided to African Americans—and poor people of all colors—today. As historian Lerone Bennett Jr. eloquently reminds us, “a nation is a choice.” We could choose to be a nation that extends care, compassion, and concern to those who are locked up and locked out or headed for prison before they are old enough to vote. We could seek for them the same opportunities we seek for our own children; we could treat them like one of “us.” We could do that. Or we can choose to be a nation that shames and blames its most vulnerable, affixes badges of dishonor upon them at young ages, and then relegates them to a permanent second-class status for life. That is the path we have chosen, and it leads to a familiar place.
Who is more blameworthy: the young black kid who hustles on the street corner, selling weed to help his momma pay the rent? Or the college kid who deals drugs out of his dorm room so that he’ll have cash to finance his spring break? Who should we fear? The kid in the ’hood who joined a gang and now carries a gun for security, because his neighborhood is frightening and unsafe? Or the suburban high school student who has a drinking problem but keeps getting behind the wheel? Our racially biased system of mass incarceration exploits the fact that all people break the law and make mistakes at various points in their lives and with varying degrees of justification. Screwing up—failing to live by one’s highest ideals and values—is part of what makes us human.
The founders of Historians Against Slavery see themselves as being supported by ample scholarly precedents as well as by these counterpart organizations. Back in the 1960s outstanding scholars of American slavery and antislavery who [were] deeply influenced by the Civil Rights Movement such as Kenneth Stampp, John Hope Franklin, Winthrop Jordan, Benjamin Quarles, and Gerda Lerner initiated a major re-writing of U.S. history that placed the problem of chattel slavery and its legacies where we find them today—as central components of the American experience.
This article argues that contemporary antislavery activism in the United States is programmatically undermined and ethically compromised unless it is firmly grounded in a deep understanding of the African American past. Far too frequently those who claim to be “the new abolitionists” evince no interest in what the original abolitionist movement might have to teach them and seem entirely detached from a U.S. history in which the mass, systematic enslavement of African Americans and its consequences are dominating themes. As a result contemporary antislavery activism too often marginalizes the struggle for racial justice in the United States and even indulges in racist ideology. In an effort to overcome these problems, this article seeks to demonstrate in specific detail how knowledge of the African American past can empower opposition to slavery as we encounter it today
Dealing with this system on its own terms is complicated by the problem of denial. Few Americans today recognize mass incarceration for what it is: a new caste system thinly veiled by the cloak of colorblindness.
We may improve some school districts, prolong affirmative action for another decade or two, or force some police departments to condemn racial profiling, but we will not put a dent in the prevailing caste system. We must face the realities of the new caste system and embrace those who are most oppressed by it if we hope to end the new Jim Crow.
Walter made me understand why we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent. A system that denies the poor the legal help they need, that makes wealth and status more important than culpability, must be changed. Walter’s case taught me that fear and anger are a threat to justice; they can infect a community, a state, or a nation and make us blind, irrational, and dangerous. I reflected on how mass imprisonment has littered the national landscape with carceral monuments of reckless and excessive punishment and ravaged communities with our hopeless willingness to condemn and discard the most vulnerable among us. I told the congregation that Walter’s case had taught me that the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill? Finally and most important, I told those gathered in the church that Walter had taught me that mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion. Walter genuinely forgave the people who unfairly accused him, the people who convicted him, and the people who had judged him unworthy of mercy. And in the end, it was just mercy toward others that allowed him to recover a life worth celebrating, a life that rediscovered the love and freedom that all humans desire, a life that overcame death and condemnation until it was time to die on God’s schedule.
The predictions of “super-predators” proved wildly inaccurate. The juvenile population in America increased from 1994 to 2000, but the juvenile crime rate declined, leading academics who had originally supported the “super-predator” theory to disclaim it. In 2001, the surgeon general of the United States released a report labeling the “super-predator” theory a myth and stated that “[t]here is no evidence that young people involved in violence during the peak years of the early 1990s were more frequent or more vicious offenders than youths in earlier years.” This admission came too late for kids like Trina, Ian, and Antonio. Their death-in-prison sentences were insulated from legal challenges or appeals by a maze of procedural rules, statutes of limitations, and legal barricades designed to make successful postconviction challenges almost impossible.