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Time for Another Civil Rights Movement?

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The U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s had a profound impact on the U.S. Inspired by Gandhi's successful movement and led by Martin Luther King Jr., a band of young African Americans trained in nonviolent civil disobedience ended legalized racial segregation in the southern United States. When these peaceful marchers were attacked by police dogs, water hoses, and clubs, the power of their nonresistance immediately discredited their attackers and led to segregation's demise. They prevailed through the force of will, not the force of arms, and we continue to be inspired by their achievement.


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Did the Civil Rights Movement end racial discrimination? Clearly not; sadly it took on different forms. It is as though the racism and discrimination that suddenly became unacceptable went underground, morphing into new ways of using racial hatred to achieve desired ends. The Southern Strategy developed by the Republican party, beginning with Goldwater and Nixon, to become the predominant political party in the southern U.S. is one example.

In recent decades, another destructive form of racism seems to be manifesting in conjunction with this country's incarceration binge. With 5 percent of the world's population, the United States now has more than 25 percent of the world's prisoners, and many of these are African American. This is a failed policy, but it is destroying the fabric of African American communities more than others. One in every fifteen African American men lives in a prison or jail cell.

If you are an African American male between the ages of twenty and thirty-four, the ratio is one in nine. Doing time is now so prevalent among young black men that, for many, it has become a rite of passage into manhood. One young man, the only male in his family who has not been to prison, told me he is chided for this failure.

These figures reflect many things beyond the rate of crime, such as lack of resources to hire the expertise needed to insure due process. They reflect laws that disproportionately fell on African Americans, like the penalty for possessing crack cocaine having been 500 times as severe as the penalty for powder cocaine, the latter being the type most often used by whites. It also reflects a little discrimination slipping into the criminal law process at each step of the way, from who is arrested and what they are charged with, to how long their sentences are and who gets parole.

I have a continuing question for which, as yet, I have found no satisfactory answer. Why is there no civil rights movement growing out of today's racial and social injustices? Why it is that churches, all churches, but especially African American churches are not again leading the fight against such discrimination when black communities are being hit so hard? I realize that many people are working to address this problem, but not enough community leaders, major organizations and politicians looking for votes are doing so. Why?

Perhaps addressing the continued prejudice with anger has been seen as the only way possible, and that path is not acceptable. If so, that is not only understandable, it is commendable. On CSPAN, I heard Condaleeza Rice say that her father had declined to participate in the nonviolent marches because, if a policeman came at him with a billy club, he was going to respond in kind.

But the disparity in the rate of incarceration provides an opportunity to frame the call for systemic legal reform in a positive way, again employing the power of nonviolence. Calling for the institution of restorative justice as the norm is a legal reform that would positively affect everyone, no matter what their race, but would especially help minorities and the poor.

Restorative justice is a model of justice that seeks restoration and healing, not punishment and revenge. It is inherently fair and grounded in equality, unlike the complex, often contradictory and biased rules that govern criminal law. As restorative justice is a relatively simple process. facilitators can be trained without any requirement that they have a professional degree or attend law school. As expensive representation is not required, participation does not disadvantage those who have limited resources.

Because African Americans are being disproportionately harmed by our punitive system of justice, they could provide a powerful voice in an effort for systemic legal reform. They can not only recite how damaging the present system is, by working for the implementation of restorative justice, they can offer a positive alternative.

Support for restorative justice reform is still small, but growing. If African American leaders across the nation were to call for systemic legal reform to address the unfairness of the present system by implementing restorative justice processes throughout the system, they would constitute a major force. This could be the next civil rights movement.

Posted on GenuineJustice.com on 11-26-10.

 

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