Proclaim freedom for the prisoners: Black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate of White Americans, and people of color make up 67% of the nation’s prison population—despite being only 37% of the general population

“He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” Luke 4:18 (NIV) Today’s briefing is a guest post by Aaron Griffith. Griffith is Assistant Professor of History at Sattler College, where he teaches American history and the history of Christianity. He is the author of God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America (Harvard, 2020) and has written for Christianity Today and Religion News Service.
The past several months have seen a flood of protests of unjust police violence against Black Americans and broader calls for a reckoning with the inequality present in America’s criminal justice system. Black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate of White Americans, and people of color make up 67% of the nation’s prison population—despite being only 37% of the general population. The US holds the largest prison population in the world. According to The Sentencing Project, Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than White men. 

There are several historical factors that explain the formation of these inequalities within American criminal justice. Scholars have pointed to the long history of influential public assumptions about the “criminal” nature of Black Americans, from Emancipation to today. These in turn drove expanded policing of Black communities. “ Colorblind” rhetoric in American law-and-order politics has cloaked racial inequality in criminal justice from the Civil Rights era on, and uprisings against police brutality in Black communities often result in further expansion of law enforcement power. 

There are pronounced racial divides in how Americans understand our current state of policing. As PRRI polling has shown, 82% of Black Americans see recent police killings of Black persons as part of a broader pattern, but only 44% of White Americans report the same. 

While this divide is striking, the same polling actually shows that, as a whole, the public’s recognition of our nation’s pattern of racist, violent policing has grown some of the past few years. 

Cell phone cameras and social media have made it possible for more people to record and share instances of police violence; such livestreaming videos, for example, let the public witness the murder of George Floyd by a police officer for themselves. These videos have been amplified by news coverage which, coupled with coverage of increased protests and activism, have likely driven increasing recognition of current unjust police practices against the Black community.

Churches should be sites for spurring on further transformation of hearts and minds on criminal justice matters. However, PRRI polling also shows that some Christian communities are particularly resistant to seeing police violence against Black people as a systemic problem. 

White evangelical Protestant attitudes on this question have not moved over the last five years. In both 2015 and 2020, 72% of White Evangelicals reported that they view unjust killings of Black men by police as isolated incidents.

While a growing number of White mainline Protestants and White Catholics do recognize our nation’s pattern of police violence against Black Americans, majorities in both groups continue to believe that instances of police brutality against Black people are isolated incidents (53% and 56% respectively). 
Why do so many White Christians discount police violence against Black people as merely isolated incidents? As I argue in God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America, White Christians, especially evangelicals, have largely come to see America’s anti-crime politics and policing efforts as a natural part of their religious and political world. Romans 13 becomes a convenient proof text to justify punitive law enforcement efforts , with its exhortation for Christians to “be subject to the governing authorities” and its warning that “rulers hold no terror for those who do right.” In this view, crime is too simply equated with sin, and viewed as a problem that is best solved by a ramped-up disciplinary state presence (as opposed to other programs or services that might address underlying social problems). White Christians are also easily captivated by the colorblind rhetoric that often accompanies law-and-order politics, but actually obscures racial disparities. 

More than 90% of all Americans report that belief in American laws and institutions is fundamental to being “truly American.” This makes sense: laws govern our lives together. But our faith is misplaced in institutions and laws which persistently treat some unfairly, with devastating consequences. Black people have been subject to racist, unequal, unjust policing and incarceration practices for generations. Our commitments to equality and justice must be matched by an unflinching commitment to just policing practices.
In order to overcome their captivity to punitive politics and willingness to overlook systemic injustices, White Christians must first listen. We must listen to history, taking into account the deep roots of our nation’s criminal justice system in the White supremacist soil of our nation. We must also listen to the critical voices of the present, especially the stories and perspectives of brothers and sisters of color who call the church to see, understand, and resist the pervasive violence and racism that persists in our justice system and nation. Christians must become able to question assumptions about what appears “criminal,” what kinds of bodies, neighborhoods, and behavior seemingly deserve surveillance or confinement. As Dominique DuBois Gilliard has written, “We must interrogate our hearts and minds to unearth the stereotypes, prejudices, and fears that lie dormant or that we clandestinely hold…the ways [we have] conformed to the patterns of this world.” And ultimately, Christians must see Jesus anew, as someone put to death by the authorities on an instrument of state violence and who, yet, proclaimed freedom to the captives and oppressed. 
Pray: that your community’s eyes would be opened to the problems and racial disparities within American criminal justice.

Preach: about experiences of captivity and incarceration of God’s people throughout scripture and in this moment. Consider Jesus’ own identification with victims of state violence through his execution on a Roman cross, and the victory over instruments of law and order in his resurrection.  

Act: urge leaders to enact policy that lessens your community’s reliance on policing; holds officers accountable for misconduct; and invests in alternatives to incarceration. Convene a group of people from your faith community to read and reflect on the history of race and policing, as well as theological texts focused on these issues. Dominique DuBois Gilliard’s Rethinking Incarceration (2018) builds on work by Michelle Alexander & Bryan Stevenson to advocate for a christocentric engagement of the criminal justice system.

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