(pictured above: Keith Howard speaks as fellow panelists (from left) Rodney Stilwell, Wrenwyck Williams and Greg Davis listen.)
Panel leads candid conversation
More than 100 local residents – both black and white – attended a candid discussion Sunday at United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church about racism and oppression in modern day America.
The “Is There a New Jim Crow?” panel discussion explored inequities in criminal justice, education and the business world and was the third in a series of talks hosted by the Diversity Partnership, a modest assemblage of members from First Baptist, a Fifth Street church with a predominantly white congregation, and United Metropolitan, which is predominantly black. All three discussions were sparked by “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” a book by Michelle Alexander, who spoke at Wake Forest University last October.
Panelists included Public Defender Greg Davis, Keith Howard, an assistant professor at Charlotte School of Law; Rodney Stilwell, senior chaplain of Forsyth Jail & Prison Ministries; and Wrenwyck Williams, an author, public speaker and the former president of Market Australia.
Panelists weighed in on the presence of a “new Jim Crow,” a system of oppressing people of color, in the criminal, educational and business sectors in North Carolina and beyond.
“You’ve got to look closely between the lines to see it for what it is,” Stilwell said of the new Jim Crow, which he said has taken the form of a criminal justice system that favors punishment over rehabilitation. “…I thank God for the church being one of the few places that we can talk about it, because we need to talk about it.”
Howard elaborated on another factor in the equation, the School to Prison Pipeline. The Pipeline, which he described as “a system of laws and policies that push young people out of schools” and into the criminal justice system, is driven, in part, by a collective paranoia Americans have about violence in schools brought on by the prevalence of school shootings in recent decades, Howard said. African Americans are disproportionately represented among those who are sent to subpar alternative schools where obtaining a viable education is difficult at best, or arrested in connection with transgressions that take place on school campuses, a pattern that impedes their ability to succeed later in life, Howard said.
“What you see here is a lot of behavior in schools that is being criminalized and that’s when you really begin to talk about the new Jim Crow,” explained the UNC School of Law alumnus. “The majority of this behavior is really innocuous behavior.”
Davis spoke about mandatory minimums for sentencing, which he said robs judges of their discretionary abilities and harms the African American community. The discrepancy between punishments for possession of cocaine and crack, which carried much longer sentencing requirements before President Barack Obama signed The Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, is one of the most heinous examples of the detrimental nature of mandatory minimums, Davis said.
“When the mandatory minimum laws were passed, we started attacking them right away, saying that there was a disparate effect on the African American community,” he said. “…I think there’s a purpose behind the passing of these laws – to keep people suppressed – and that’s what I think of when I think of Jim Crow.”
Jim Crow exists in the corporate sector as well, said Williams, who spent three decades in Corporate America, but many of the offenses in the corporate sector are “pedestrian” in comparison to the affronts that are being perpetrated against communities of color in the criminal and educational arenas. As a member of what he describes as the “yuppie generation” of educated, accomplished African Americans, Williams said he was often shielded from the stark realities many of his brethren faced on a daily basis.
“In the pursuit of financial success and social acceptance, I slept through this revolution,” he confessed. “I was aware of its existence but unaware of the destructive magnitude that it possessed.”
Like a small amount of tooth decay, the new Jim Crow must be addressed and eradicated or it will continue to fester, Williams said.
What residents in the local community can do to address the problems outlined in the discussion was among the chief concerns raised by audience members during the question and answer session that followed.
“The answer to me is we are to think globally and act locally to make a difference in somebody’s life,” said Stilwell, who has served Forsyth Jail & Prison Ministries for nearly 30 years. “If each of us can find our niche and light our candle, then the darkness will not be as big and as bad and as dark as it was.”
Electing lawmakers who truly care about the communities they represent is paramount if positive change is to be achieved, Davis added.
“Until we start electing people who are more concerned about getting results than getting reelected, we are going to continue to have a perpetuation of this problem,” he declared. “It’s more popular and it gets more votes to say ‘I’m going to be tough on crime,’ and ‘tough on crime’ means ‘tough on you’ – every black man in this room is a suspect.”
Diversity Partnership member Mary Grissom told those present that the group is committed to fostering real change in the community and invited anyone who wanted to help be a part of the solution to join them.
“You can make a difference and it doesn’t take a lot of money,” said Grissom, a retired educator. “…I’ll tell you what you can do to help us, and you’ve done the first part – you are here, and I want to thank you.”
First Baptist and United Metropolitan have partnered for more than a decade on a basketball camp for youth in grades 5-8 that teaches skills of the sport and spreads the message of Christianity. The Partnership also hosts regular Table of Eight events, intimate gatherings where small, diverse groups forge friendships or relationships over dinner or dessert.
“The intent of the Diversity committee is to build a bridge between the racial groups anchored in Christianity that allows us to have dialogues and work together in the community,” explained B.G. Norman, a member of United Metropolitan. “…It’s a gathering of people who I would like to say have like minds. We realize the importance of demonstrating our Christianity, and that goes beyond the borders that any of our complexions may have.”