White Catholics today condemn slavery. But are they ready to fight its new manifestation—mass incarceration?

Many people, Catholics included, argue that slavery ended long ago. But in the words of Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, “slavery didn’t end—it evolved.”

The American public’s conscience has been shocked into attention by the murders of African Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and more recently Daunte Wright and Ma’Khia Bryant. But their deaths are the tip of the iceberg of the racial injustice still rampant in the United States.

Stevenson is not alone in his thinking. His words echo a broader sentiment Pope Francis tweeted on March 21: “Racism is a virus that quickly mutates and, instead of disappearing, goes into hiding, and lurks in waiting. Instances of racism continue to shame us, for they show that our supposed social progress is not as real or definitive as we think.” While American Catholics today would unequivocally condemn the institution of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, most do not see or work against one of its most prominent present-day manifestations: mass incarceration. But in order to understand this connection, it is imperative to understand more fully the history and injustices that have contributed to this crisis.

Understanding Our History

From the founding of the United States until today, the legal system has been unjustly biased against Black people and in favor of white people. The institution of slavery legalized enslaving millions of people of African descent and allowed white slaveholders to whip, beat, rape, impregnate, overwork and sell human beings as property. Laws forbade the enslaved from marrying, practicing religion, reading or asserting any form of personal autonomy. To justify this brutal treatment of humans, white people dehumanized Black people, falsely asserting with pseudoscience that they were an inferior race. Christian rhetoric promulgated the narrative that God created a social order in which people of African descent belonged on the lowest rung.

According to Cyprian Davis’s History of Black Catholics, many Catholic organizations, clergy and families were slaveholders, and most white Catholics were apologists for slavery. Though Pope Gregory XVI condemned the slave trade in 1838, American Catholic slaveholders and members of the religious hierarchy argued that Gregory’s position did not apply to domestic slavery in the United States, and they continued the practice unabated.

After the Civil War, the 13th Amendment was ratified. It reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Though the laws had changed, white American attitudes toward Black people did not, and slavery continued in a new form: convict leasing.

As Dominique DuBois Gilliard explains in Rethinking Incarceration, former slaveholders seeking ways to establish control over the newly freed African American workforce created “an unholy trinity that resuscitated white supremacy: sharecropping, lynching, and a series of restrictive laws known as ‘black codes.’” Southern legislatures passed legislation specifically written to intimidate African Americans. Vagrancy, changing employers without permission and riding a freight car without permission are just a few examples of the kind of behavior that often resulted in a forced labor sentence.

The convict leasing system sold Black people convicted of a so-called crime to corporate prison mines, lumber camps, farms and factories. DuBois explains that Black people were forced to labor once again like the enslaved, and “whipping, keeping people chained up, brutal kinds of physical torture and mental abuse were the norm.” Much of the same behavior that kept Black people under control during slavery was amplified under this new system.

Much of the same behavior that kept Black people under control during slavery was amplified under this new system.

In Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon describes how between 100,000 to 200,000 Black people were arrested arbitrarily and thrown back into a condition almost identical to slavery—but often worse. No longer the “property” of a specific slaveholder, the imprisoned people were routinely whipped, malnourished, not treated for disease and often literally worked to death, at which point another prisoner would replace them. Blackmon estimates revenue from this form of neoslavery “poured the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars into the treasuries of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and South Carolina—where more than 75 percent of the black population in the United States lived then.” Though this system was formally outlawed in 1921, it continued unofficially until 1940.

While racist laws caused a large swath of the Black population to be convicted of a crime and then leased out as laborers, white people were not punished by the law for the crimes they committed against Black people. According to Mr. DuBois, although over 5,000 Black people were lynched across the country between 1890 and 1940, the white people who committed those crimes were not punished by the law.

After the societal and political gains made by African Americans during the short period of Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws emerged and allowed whites to regain political and social control over the Black population. Under this system codified by laws, African Americans faced institutionalized racial discrimination, racial segregation and disenfranchisement. Not only were Black people treated as second-class citizens and forced to live in subpar conditions compared with their white counterparts, but they were also the victims of violence by white terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, which inflicted punishments like castration, lynching, riots, bombings and assassinations without facing any legal repercussions.

Catholics and Civil Rights

The civil rights movement, which began in 1954, fought against this unjust treatment of African Americans. In his 2011 pastoral letter on racism, the late Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., then archbishop of Chicago, reflected on his lived knowledge of white Catholics’ participation in the racism the movement was trying to end.

Many have heard the stories of priests, nuns and lay people unwilling to welcome even Catholic African Americans into parishes and schools. There are stories of Catholic politicians working to sustain racial segregation in neighborhoods and in the workplace and tales of fear that a school would be “ruined” because Father or Sister allowed African American Catholics to enroll their children. When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched in Chicago during the summer of 1966, he described the racism and hatred he encountered as more “hostile” and “hateful” than anything he had witnessed in the South. Some of the neighborhoods he entered were home to Catholic parishioners.

For the most part, according to Cyprian Davis, neither Black nor white Catholics were at the forefront of the civil rights movement or protest organizations. Unlike the Black Protestants, Catholics overwhelmingly believed it was inappropriate for either clergy or religious to engage in demonstrations. With official governmental support behind it, the 1963 March on Washington was the first time the Catholic Church was significantly present at a massive public demonstration under the leadership of Black civil rights leaders. At the request of Martin Luther King Jr. the first massive participation of Catholic priests and sisters occurred in Selma, Ala., in 1965.

Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow that “the Civil Rights Act of 1964 formally dismantled the Jim Crow system of discrimination in public accommodations, employment, voting, education, and federally financed activities,” and in 1965, the Voting Rights Act barred discriminatory barriers that prevented African Americans from voting.

Martin Luther King Jr. wanted more than just the end of the separateness of Black and white people.

But Martin Luther King Jr. wanted more than just the end of the separateness of Black and white people—he wanted income equality and the end of poverty for all Americans. As Alexander puts it, toward the end of his life “King was proposing nothing less than a radical transformation of the Civil Rights Movement into a populist crusade calling for the redistribution of economic and political power.”

Conservative critics blamed Dr. King’s philosophy of civil disobedience as a cause of crime, and the rhetoric of “law and order” was mobilized to quell protests and what they claimed was an increase of crime as a result of desegregation in some cities. This call for law and order grew louder after the wave of riots that ignited in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Both before and after Dr. King’s murder, there was a political divide around the root causes of African American poverty. Political conservatives argued that the continuing inequality and poverty that many Black people experienced was not caused by structural factors related to race and class but instead caused by “Black culture,” which resulted in street crime, illegal drug use, delinquency and an over-reliance on government relief programs like welfare.

Political liberals countered that argument by insisting that social reforms would remedy the root causes of criminal behavior and that anti-poverty efforts had the effect of anti-crime programs. The conservatives’ law and order rhetoric resonated with many of the white working-class voters, including Catholic immigrant communities, many members of which felt threatened by the progress of Black Americans and felt the brunt of integration.

Waging A War

During his presidential run, a major theme of Richard Nixon’s conservative campaign was law and order, which used highly racialized imagery of Black crime. In 1971, two years after he won the election, President Nixon called for a “war on drugs” and declared illegal drugs “public enemy number one.”

Ronald Reagan’s presidency furthered that war by funding it with billions of dollars and sending newly militarized police forces almost exclusively into inner city Black and Latinx communities. President Reagan announced the War on Drugs in 1982, when less than 2 percent of the Americans polled believed it was the most important issue facing the nation. At the same time, the Justice Department announced it would cut in half the number of specialists assigned to prosecute white-collar crime and would instead shift its attention to street crime and enforcing new drug laws. While the budgets for federal law enforcement soared, the budget for the National Institute on Drug Abuse and anti-drug funds for the Department of Education were drastically cut.

Alexander explains that as the drug war was starting in the early 1980s, many inner-city communities were facing near economic collapse. Globalization and deindustrialization led to a drastic fall in the rate of industrial employment among African Americans, from 70 percent in the 1970s to 28 percent in 1987. When crack cocaine emerged in the United States in 1985, African American communities in the throes of economic desperation experienced a sharp increase in violence as drug dealers fought for control of the new drug markets, and drug addiction rapidly claimed scores of people.

The Reagan administration began a media campaign to garner public support for the drug war by amplifying the crack “epidemic.”

The Reagan administration began a media campaign to garner public support for the drug war by amplifying the crack “epidemic.” Alexander explains how racial stereotypes of crack babies, drug-dealing gangbangers, welfare queens and the Black male predator infiltrated American media. With growing support over the next decades, new legislation was passed that allocated $2 billion to the drug war, and the military was authorized to participate in narcotics control efforts. Legislation added racially biased mandatory minimum sentences for the distribution of crack, created the so-called three strikes law and eliminated federal benefits like student loans and public housing, and instituted a lifetime ban on eligibility for welfare and food stamps after a felony drug conviction, even if it was just for possession of marijuana.

Between 1980 and 2000, the population of the incarcerated jumped from 300,000 to more than 2 million. Though the crack “epidemic” was used to push through and justify the drug war, Alexander points out that 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests in the 1990s was for marijuana possession. To support this growth, funding for public housing was decreased under Clinton’s administration by $17 billion while funding for prisons increased by $19 billion. Between 1999 and 2005 a new prison opened in the United States every 10 days.

An increase of funds for police departments allowed them to become militarized quickly. Alexander reports that between January 1997 and October 1999, the Pentagon “handled 3.4 million orders of Pentagon equipment from over eleven thousand domestic police agencies in all fifty states.” Among this equipment distributed in those two years alone were 253 aircraft, 7,856 M-16 rifles and 181 grenade launchers. Over the decades since the drug war began, the  Pentagon’s 1033 program has distributed over $7.4 billion worth of military-grade property to law enforcement agencies—equipment that police have used not only to target Black communities in drug raids, arrests and service of warrants, but they have also been used against unarmed Black Lives Matters protesters.

The history of Black people being convicted of crimes while white people overwhelmingly were not continued with the drug war.

The history of Black people being convicted of crimes while white people overwhelmingly were not continued with the drug war. A Human Rights Watch report states that while white people are five times more likely to use drugs, Black people are 62.7 percent of the drug users admitted to prison. The report states: “In seven states, for example, blacks constitute between 80 and 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison. In at least fifteen states, black men are admitted to prison on drug charges at rates that are from 20 to 57 times greater than those of white men.”

Mr. DuBois’s research also confirms that white youth are seven times more likely to use cocaine and heroin than Black youth and three times more likely to sell drugs. But the drug war was not carried out in white suburbs, high schools or college campuses, where drug use commonly takes place. And when one compares the draconian prison sentences of Black drug dealers to the fines and lawsuits—but no prison time—faced by Big Pharma and the corporate executives responsible for the opioid crisis, the contrast can be seen even more clearly.

Since drug use is primarily a private behavior that flies under police radar, in order to efficiently wage the drug war, the Drug Enforcement Agency trained the police to proactively search for drug use and sales in Black communities. Launched in 1984, Operation Pipeline trained state and local law enforcement offices to use pretextual stops to search for drugs. Officers would use any minor traffic violation as a pretext to stop someone, obtain consent from the driver and search the vehicle for drugs. As a result, tens of thousands of motorists, disproportionately Black, are stopped for minor traffic violations, although research Alexander cites estimates that 95 percent of these stops do not result in the discovery of drugs.

These stops also allowed police to stop and search African Americans in their neighborhoods if they looked “suspicious,” asserting there was probable cause. The many abuses against Black people committed by police during searches or arrests became increasingly difficult to redress because of the creation of qualified immunity law, which protects law enforcement in civil rights cases.

A new study in 2020, undertaken by the Stanford Open Policing Project, found that Black drivers were about 20 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers, and once stopped were searched about 1.5 to 2 times as often, though they were less likely to be carrying drugs, guns or other illegal contraband when compared with their white peers.

Living ‘Truly Human Lives’

Like the enactment of Jim Crow after slavery, incarceration was used as a new system of racialized social control in response to the civil rights gains of the 1960s. Today, millions of Black Americans are either in prison or under supervision such as parole or probation. For those in prisons, they are physically pushed to the outskirts of society and held out of the public’s gaze. They face physical and sexual violence by both prison guards and other incarcerated people, are separated from their families and forced to work for on average between $0.86 to $3.45 per day.

Alexander sums it up by saying, “Hundreds of years ago, our nation put those considered less than human in shackles, less than one hundred years ago, we relegated them to the other side of town; today we put them in cages. Once released, they find that a heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon them.” Like what Black people experienced during the Jim Crow era, the formerly incarcerated today are discriminated against in employment, education and housing and are often denied the right to vote.

Several popes have continued to preach that active justice is central to the Catholic faith.

Several popes have continued to preach that active justice is central to the Catholic faith. The words in Saint Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical “Populorum Progressio” regarding the treatment of people in developing nations can be applied to African Americans in the United States today. Paul VI taught we need to build a “human community where men can live truly human lives, free from discrimination on account of race, religion or nationality, free from servitude to other men.” He reminds Catholics in that encyclical that it is an unacceptable “less than human condition” to have “oppressive political structures resulting from the abuse of ownership or the improper exercise of power.”

In 2009, Pope Benedict’s “Caritas In Veritate” was closely connected to the magisterium of Paul VI. In it, Benedict discussed how every society creates its own system of justice. But the charity of Christians requires the faithful to give others what pertains to them in justice first, before we can, out of love, give them more. “Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity.” Likewise, Pope Francis firmly stated, “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”

Catholics must become involved in envisioning this new way forward. We must work in concrete ways on behalf of racial justice. A first step must include demilitarizing the police, directing those funds instead toward education, addiction and mental health treatment programs and community violence prevention. Nothing short of the dismantling of mass incarceration and complete transformation of the criminal justice system is needed. The formerly incarcerated must be given an opportunity to fully re-enter society.

Though the obstacles to racial justice are formidable, in Racism and the Catholic Church, the Rev. Bryan Massingale writes that hope is required for change to occur: “Hope is the expectation of a new future that is neither a simple rearranging of the old furniture nor a continuation of former ways in different configurations.” For true progress to happen, Catholics cannot repeat history and sit on the sidelines of today’s racial justice movement. They must follow Christ’s footsteps and preach deliverance to the captives and set free those who are oppressed.