Racing to Justice and Building the Beloved Community

11:27 AM

This year, I have read a handful of extraordinary books on race: Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (which I will profile soon), and, most recently, john a. powell's Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society. The three authors, all attorneys, write at length about the criminal justice system and the courts. As well, all three authors tell a story with the power to upend a comfortable world-view.

With a shelf full of publications and a 32-page curriculum vitae, john a. powell (spelled without capitals) is a scholar in the areas of civil rights and civil liberties and a host of issues including race, structural racism, ethnicity, housing, poverty, and democracy. He is the Executive Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to dual appointments as Professor of Law and Professor of African American Studies and Ethnic Studies at UC - Berkeley, Professor powell holds the Robert D. Haas Chancellor’s Chair in Equity and Inclusion.

Photo courtesy of john a. powell
I first encountered Professor powell when he came to South Bend as part of a lecture series in preparation for the City Plan. My recent reading had numerous citations of his work, so I ordered Racing to Justice to dig in a bit deeper with his thought. Professor powell's work did not disappoint. He left me mulling many things over. Elements of my thought have been upended. Professor powell has helped me see some things anew, and he has left me with unfinished work that I must pursue.

This book helps me to see more clearly why Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders, both Democratic presidential candidates, misunderstood "Black Lives Matter" protesters at the Netroots Nations conference in Phoenix, how FOX News reacted, and what the protesters were trying to say in the first place. Professor powell also suggests a new way forward.

The book left me pondering data from the Pew Religious Landscape Study for 2014 that shows Catholicism to be among the more racially diverse religious communities in the U.S., comparable to U.S. adults overall – largely because of sizable Hispanic minorities, but, upon reflection, Catholic diversity may simply be a mirage. As Martin Luther King, Jr. at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. days before he was killed: "We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America." More than 40 years later, it sadly remains true.

The book asks me to understand my personal narrative in new ways. For example, it is in my DNA that access to quality education is the primary factor in social mobility. My family has generations of teachers, my great-grandmother, my grandfather, my aunt, my Dad, my mother, my siblings, and I have all spent time in the classroom instructing students. Central to my family's story is how my paternal grandfather from French Lick, Indiana, took advantage of the opportunity afforded by the G.I. Bill to become the first on his side of my family to complete not only undergraduate studies but law school as well. Subsequently, he spent 24 years on the bench as a circuit judge. My father earned a Ph.D. Between my four siblings and I, we have ten university degrees. The G.I. Bill changed the trajectory of my family. In this we are not alone.

While the G.I. Bill and educational programs from the Veterans Administration  were tremendously effective at certain aims, as my family can attest, Professor powell calls attention to other outcomes:

These educational programs were race- and gender-neutral in design, yet in practice they increased disparities between blacks and whites and between white men and white women. In fact, no other single instrument did as much to widen the racial gap in postwar America. (p. 14)

Given that the program was for veterans, it favored men without explicit intention to exclude women, as they were less likely to be veterans. While the gaps were less than those of gender, the program disproportionately benefited white men relative to non-white men (p. 15). Similarly, other programs like the Social Security Act and the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 exacerbated disparities. His point is not to disparage these programs as to propose that we seek "targeted universalism," that we hold the process and its outcomes as equally important in the evaluation of a program.

The book's title, Racing to Justice, derives its name from Professor powell's claim that race is a verb prior to a noun (p. 53). Race is a social construct, not biological. Since race is not a biological concept, we have categorized others, we have "raced" them, prior to race actually existing. He addresses white privilege and the racialized self. Professor powell dives deeply into political, legal, social, philosophical, and psychological issues around identity and race, as well as, in the final chapter, spirituality and social justice.

Frankly, as one trained in theology, the final chapter on suffering, spirituality, and social justice was the least satisfying. I am pleased that he took up the theme. He covered a lot of ground, world religions rather than a strictly Christian or monotheistic view. In the area of theology and spirituality, he teased me with certain words that could have, within Catholic theology, been drawn in some enticing directions, but I came away from that chapter dissatisfied. In a broader sense, I came away from the book dissatisfied, in that discomforting sense that what he said was true. I guess it means that I have some work to do. I suppose that we all do.

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