Black Women & The Death Penalty

Earlier this year I was apart of a dialogue on the death penalty for Religion & Politics  The Table Dialogue where various faith leaders write responses on a pressing social issue from the perspective of their faith tradition.

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Never Murder.  –Exodus 20:13 (God’s Word Translation)

As an African American woman who identifies with the Hebraic roots of the Christian faith and who has found a theological home in womanist theology, my religious tradition informs my views of the death penalty in general and as it affects Black women in particular. As a follower of Yahshua (Jesus), the Ten Commandments are still very relevant to my life and shape my ethics. I do not separate the message of the Gospel from the cultural context that Yahshua was born into. In light of this I still observe the Sabbath and when I read in Exodus 20:13 that “we should not murder,” that applies to my brothers and sisters who are incarcerated as well. As a practical womanist theologian who works against mass incarceration’s impact on Black women and girls through the PICO National Network’s Live Free Campaign, which works to end mass incarceration and police brutality, I am grieved by how the intersections of racism, sexism and classism collide to send my sisters to death row. Do we see these women?

As a woman I am inspired by the account of the Egyptian enslaved woman Hagar, who after being unjustly cast out of the home of Abraham and Sarah with her son, encounters the “God who sees her” (Genesis 16:13). Like Hagar, African American women in the criminal justice system are usually unseen and unheard, especially those who are on death row. According to academics Harry and Sheila P. Greenlee, “The percentage of women of every race receiving death sentences is less than their percentage in the female population, except for African American and Native American women. The percentage of African American and Native American females receiving death sentences is more than double their percentage of the U.S. female population. Interestingly, this finding is not true for the other women of color.” It should also be noted that Native American women face disparities in the criminal justice system as well, and this reflects the ongoing injustice faced by the general Native American population since the inception of the United States, which prospered due to the stolen land of Native Americans and stolen bodies of Africa. Theologically I believe that sin is not only individual but also social and is embedded into the very fabric of American society. The United States’ original sin is racism, and the death penalty is just another reflection of this sin. Theologically we mustsee the millions of Black women and girls who are abused by the criminal justice system, whose lives end not only in murder on death row but also while in police custody. In July 2015 five Black women died in police custody and their names are:

Sandra Bland

Kindra Chapman

Joyce Curnell

Ralkina Jones

Raynette Turner

I would challenge advocates against the death penalty to expand their work to include advocacy concerning those who die in police custody, because in my opinion this goes hand-in-hand with the death penalty: One is formal, another is informal, but both are murder by our criminal justice system.

As a faith-based organizer I know that what must be done about the death penalty in general, and its impact on Black women in particular, is that we need to get organized. But this organization should be led by African Americans because we are the ones most affected by the injustice of mass incarceration. Ending the death penalty has to be a part of a holistic campaign to reform our broken, profit-driven mass incarceration system. African American women must organize against the death penalty in all its forms—whether it’s a sister sitting on death row for ten years or Sandra Bland who died in police custody. We have to organize with prophetic public actions, standing not for but withwomen on death row, because the most powerful movements are led by those closest to the pain.

We also must organize by withholding our money and our votes. According to the Nielsen Company study entitled “African American Consumers: Still Vital, Still Growing in 2015,” African American buying power is 1.1 trillion. According to the “Buying Power of Black America” report by Target Market News, “the purchases made by Black women are the single biggest influence on the growth of African American spending.” With this buying power we can begin to boycott those companies that utilize prison labor and those companies that invest in private prisons. According to my colleague Margarida Jorge, national director of the Women’s Equality Center, African American women are the most consistent voters for the Democratic Party. With this voting power, we should demand of all political parties, but especially the Democratic Party, that our support be tied to candidates willing to stand against the death penalty. According to research from Wesley Granberg-Michaelson in his book From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church, the average Christian in the world today is a woman of African ancestry. Black women not only have buck and ballot power; we have the power to influence the Christian church to take on the issue of ending the death penalty. For non-Black women allies the death penalty affects all of us and your voice as an ally is extremely important in supporting a movement to end this sinful practice in our criminal justice system. We all must get organized to build a groundswell that says the death penalty is unacceptable in our society. We all must see those who are on death row because they are our brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, friends, and neighbors. It is only when we see the tragedy of a criminal justice system that murders rather than reforms that we will create a society that honors the lives of all.

Onleilove Alston, M.Div., MSW, is a native New Yorker and Executive Director of Faith in NY, an affiliate of the PICO National Network, where she leads A Women’s Theology of Liberation, training women of faith to organize through a gender lens rooted in their faith. She tweets@Wholeness4ALL

Also In
The Discussion

Capital Crime Calls for Capital Punishment

By J. Daryl Charles

The United States Should Abolish the Death Penalty, as Pope Francis Implores

By Joseph A. Fiorenza

For Mormons, a Contested Legacy on Capital Punishment

By Patrick Q. Mason

– See more at: http://religionandpolitics.org/2016/01/19/lets-reform-our-broken-criminal-justice-system/#sthash.tjxLcEFr.dpuf

Is Dark Skin A Sin?

10856651_826008774130194_8062477244597007895_oI am black, but [AND] comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept. Song of Songs 1: 5-6

As the Executive Director for Faith in New York, an affiliate of the PICO National Network, I organize faith communities to take action for justice concerning issues that threaten the health of our communities. One of our campaigns is Live Free New York, which is a part of a national movement in which people of faith are working to end mass incarceration, gun violence, and police brutality through policy change and direct action.

Mass incarceration is an issue with many tentacles, and in New York, one tentacle is school suspension rates that are through the roof for black children. What many in the black community don’t understand is that according to data from the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, as presented in a recent New York Times article: “black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide are suspended at a rate of 12 percent compared with a rate of just 2 percent for white girls and more than girls of any race or ethnicity. … An analysis by Villanova [University] researchers of data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health indicated that black girls with the darkest skin tones were three times more likely to be suspended than black girls with the lightest skin.”
In the black community, we usually see colorism as regulated to beauty and dating choices, but research shows that colorism (defined as a practice of discrimination where those with lighter skin are treated more favorably than those with darker skin), affects educational and economic opportunities, as well as who is swept into the mass incarceration system and how long they reside there. Colorism is an implicit bias; research shows a connection between implicit bias and mass incarceration. From the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity:

“Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness.”

The implicit bias of colorism affects prison sentences. Villanova researchers studied more than 12,000 cases of African-American women imprisoned in North Carolina and found that women with lighter skin tones were sentenced to 12 percent less time behind bars than women with darker skin tones. Mass incarceration is showing that we can no longer ignore colorism in our communities. What many are not aware of is that black woman of child-bearing age are one of the largest groups entering prison for the first time. While the New Jim Crow was coming through the front door and removing black men from our communities, it was going through the back door and quietly removing black women. We are unaware of the impending crisis that the incarceration of black mothers, daughters, and sisters is going to cause in our community.

As a person of faith and someone who has studied colorism for more than 15 years, I recognized that throughout American history, black skin has been deemed sinful, with false theologies such as the “curse of ham” where Genesis 9:20–27 was incorrectly interpreted to deem all people of African ancestry as eternally cursed and sinful. In the famous passage from Song of Songs, we see that most English Bibles translate the verse to state, “I am dark BUT lovely,” which is an apology for darkness, whereas the correct translation in the original Hebrew is “I am dark AND lovely,” which is not an apology but a bold declaration of beauty. This is a small change that makes a huge difference in the message the reader receives about dark skin. The implicit bias of colorism or anti-blackness is fostered through all aspects of human activity: religion, relationships, business, and politics. As a black faith leader, I struggle with the fact that although the black church has been a healing agent of justice for our community, it has also been one of the institutions that promoted colorism through historically inaccurate icons of Jesus and other religious figures that support the idolatrous notion that whiteness is next to Godliness.

As the black community grapples with the effects of incarceration on generations of black men, we now have to grapple with the incarceration of black women and the fact that colorism and the disdain for blackness is a contributing factor to who enters prison and how long they stay there. When black is deemed sinful and thus regulated to incarceration, what is the future of melanin, that powerful chemical we all possess but that blacks possess most explicitly? When even our holy books are translated and interpreted in a way that deems blackness as sinful and something to be apologized for, how can we truly say #BlackLivesMatter? If we are honest even in the black community, #BlackLivesMatter as long as they are not too dark or too poor. The research on implicit bias, colorism, and mass incarceration are all intersecting to challenge American society, but especially the black community to deal with the long-term, deeply held belief that blackness is inherently sinful. Instead of waiting for American society to absolve blackness of this imagined sin, what would it look like for the black community to stand empowered declaring that blackness doesn’t just matter but is beautiful, powerful, and worthy of freedom? Only when we stand in empowered blackness can we fight strategically and powerfully to end mass incarceration.

 

Poetry Challenge Day 30: The New Jim Crow

Today is the last day of my 30 Day Poetry Challenge! I can’t believe I am done. Today I am in Cincinnati, Ohio for the Children’s Defense Fund National Conference
which is convening thousands of child advocates, faith leaders, Social Workers, community organizers and activist to build a movement to protect children in our country. This morning at 6:00am young leaders convened outside the convention center for a time of silent reflection on African-Americans, especially young men in the prison system. What many may not know is that the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world and it is overwhelming inhabited Black men. Author Michelle Alexander calls this phenomena the New Jim  because many of these men were led to prison due to economic and racial circumstances. After getting out of prison most ex-offenders lose voting rights and can’t get jobs which means they are basically a separate class. The poem below was inspired by poems I read this morning that were written by young people in prison, their poems touched me and reminded me that I was born and raised in one of the 12 communities in NYC that sends the most people in the state to prison. To read my poetic reflection:

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