This is what I think: Can we ever solve our violence problem? Or anything else?

Yet again there has been another mass shooting in the United States.  Yet again there will be calls for more gun control or calls for more guns.  We will ask for prayers for the victims of this tragedy. There will be news stories, but then life will go on as usual.  And Las Vegas will be added to a long list of other mass shootings in the United States.  Orlando.  Blacksburg, Virginia. Newtown, Connecticut.  San Bernadino. Charleston, South Carolina.  There are many other places where mass shootings have occurred in the United States but have been forgotten.

The violence problem has no simple solutions. Rarely do we consider the complexity of questions that do not yield to answers expressed as either this or that.  We want to jump to these quick answers.  We often rely on those answers we have already come to believe are absolutely true, so that they do not allow for any other interpretation.  More gun control or more guns.  But are we more violent? How is it the United States has so many more gun deaths than other countries? And why is it likely that at the end of the day we will be no closer to a solution to the epidemic of gun violence?

Perhaps we must look deep within ourselves. Maybe we need to ask why, on the surface, we have more gun deaths than other countries.  Are we more violent? Is there something about Americans that makes us more likely to attack each other?  Why is it we have so many more prisoners than other countries? Do we break the law more often? Are we more anti-social than citizens of other countries? Is there something in being an American that makes us so much more violent than the rest of the developed world?  Why is it these instances of tragedy seem to be occurring more frequently?

While clearly the United States is diverse, a reason suggested by some for the greater level of violence seen in the United States, there are areas of the world that are more ethnically and culturally diverse, that at the same time do not appear to have as much violence or crime.  Canada, for example, has many fewer gun deaths while being quite diverse.

The challenges we face with gun violence and other types of violence cannot be easily solved.  Even if we could pass meaningful gun control, there is no guarantee that would solve the problem.  There are an awful lot of guns out there.  They would still be out there.  And while there are mass shooters who obtained legal guns, there remain an awful lot of guns that are available illegally.

Moreover, while automatic and semi-automatic guns gain a lot of attention, the gun of choice in the United States remains the handgun.  I am not aware of many discussing banning handguns.  Guns only seem to get our attention after a mass shooting.  Each and every day people in the United States are killed by guns. And each and every day it seems we become more polarized, more divided. So it seems there needs to be more than just a discussion about gun control or more guns.  The problem requires a much more difficult, but much more meaningful discussion about the state of our country. There needs to be a recognition that we face a problem that is neither Republican or Democrat but is rather a problem of our society that can only be solved if we work together.

It does appear that any discussion of our problems must include discussions about our society.  We are angry.  Almost every significant issue divides us.  And not only do these issues divide us, these issues cause us to insult each other, even hate each other.  We call those with opposing viewpoints idiots, crazy, and refer to them by even worse names.  We find it increasingly difficult that people who disagree with us might also want the common good.  They might also want what is best for the country.

Whether or not one agrees with Donald Trump, is it really acceptable to have a president who speaks about women the way he does? Do we really want to accept a news culture that seeks to find the dirtiest, meanest stories about people even if they are not true? Do we really want to be okay in a society where demonstrable facts can be stated to be untrue, and some will believe that what is true is, in fact, not true? Can we, just for a moment, seek to stop blaming and start listening?

It would be unwise to speculate on the motives of the latest mass shooter.  But if we are to have meaningful dialogue to solve difficult and complex issues, we must first realize that there are certain aspects that are unhelpful to such a discussion. There are certain “fundamental principles” that must be accepted.  And they all involve how we view human beings.

We cannot ever say there are good people who march with white supremacists.  White supremacy can never become acceptable.  Ever.  We cannot insult people who suffer from natural disasters.  We cannot reduce the killing of unborn babies to the euphemistic word “fetus.” We cannot objectify human beings sexually, for then it becomes easier and easier to objectify them in other ways too. We cannot describe all welfare and food stamp recipients as lazy, or moochers.  We cannot ignore that one is much more likely to suffer at the hands of poverty if they are a person of color.  We cannot equate all cops.  Most are hardworking, upstanding, courageous men and women who keep us safe every day by putting their own lives on the line.  We cannot ignore black Americans who are crying out for justice.  We must provide a reasonable answer to the question about why so many of those in prison are black, when whites and blacks commit drug crimes, as one example, in roughly the same numbers. Quite frankly, whenever we sin against the human dignity that all people possess, we open the door to the type of violent behavior that we see all over the world. Behavior we just witnessed in Las Vegas.  And the obvious answer to the question Cain asked God about whether he was his brother’s keeper, is yes.  We are our brother’s keeper.  We are our sister’s keeper.

If we cannot admit the dignity of all human beings, then finding a solution to this problem is not possible.  While the above list is by no means exhaustive, the list represents some real challenges.  At the heart of all of these issues is the question of human dignity.  As Christians, we believe every human being is made in the image of God.  In the gospel of Matthew, we are told by Jesus that the way we treat others is, in fact, the way we treat Jesus.  Think about that for a moment.  We are all held accountable for the way we treat others.  Every one of us.  Every time.

Certainly, there is evil in the world, because of Original Sin.  Despite sin, just imagine how different our world could be if we realized that every human being is made in God’s image, and must be treated this way. What if in discussing an issue like this mass shooting, we could begin from the premise that we have a violence problem? We want to be safe.  But at what cost? Hardening our hearts to those in our world in desperate need because we are afraid? Hardening our hearts because we do not want to be generous? Giving into our anger because the suffering of others can remind me of my own suffering, my own vulnerability?  Or, do we want to address this problem in a way that helps us to preserve the dignity of every human being?  What if we committed to hearing, listening, dialoguing with each other? What if we sought to imitate Jesus and were generous to not only those we care about, but also those we may not like.

I do not know what the solution to gun violence is.  I do not know how to solve the situation about health care in a just way.  I do not know how to create more just economic situations so that all people are given the opportunity to thrive.  But I do know that every time I set myself against another, dismissing them, either their ideas or their very persons, I am part of the problem.

Why does it become so newsworthy when Republicans and Democrats work together? I think it is because we are more concerned about our side winning, and not what is best for our country. And when winning, not what’s best for every human being becomes the goal, we all lose.

This is what I think: I am a racist, and you might be too

I am a racist.  There, I said it.  Admitting to being a racist is not something I say with pride.  I am not proud.  But many decades ago I learned about my racism, my prejudice.  And I must confront the racism that lives within me.

I remember the first time I realized I was a racist.  It was an occasion when I was the only white person in a supermarket filled with black people.  For the first time in my life I was a minority.  And I was afraid.  Not because anyone was speaking badly to me, or yelling at me, or following me around the store.  In fact, everyone else did not even notice me, because they were busy shopping.

I was afraid only because the other people around me were all black.  There is no other way to put it.  And while it was decades ago, that experience shaped me profoundly.  It resulted in an awareness that I needed to confront my prejudice.  I had to admit it existed.  Prejudice was not something “out there” but rather was something within me.

And I think of this prejudice when I read about events around the world and close to home.  I remind myself of this experience when I get angry at others for acting differently than I do.  I remind myself of this experience when I feel helpless against events out of my control.

A couple of days ago I stumbled across a video that posed a question: What is it like to be you? The question has gotten me to think a lot.  I should admit I do not know what it is like to be people that are different from me.

As I look at what is going on around the world, I realize how little I know about what it is like to be someone else.  I do not know what it is like to live on a Caribbean island that might be months without power because of multiple hurricanes.  I do not know what it is like to have my house completely flooded.  I do not know what it is like for the land around my house, and perhaps my house too, to be destroyed by a raging forest fire I can do nothing to prevent.

I do not know what it is like to be a victim of crime. I do not know what it is like to be at war, or in war. I do not know what it is like to be a refugee, forced to flee my home because of evil ISIS, with nowhere to go. I do not know what it is like to live in a country with limited freedom, where speaking against the government might get me thrown in jail or worse.

I do not know what it is like to be pulled over by police for no reason, asked what I am doing in a neighborhood in which I do not belong. I do not know what it is like to be in jail. I do not know what it is like to be black, Hispanic, Asian, Muslim or Arab.

I do not know what it is like to be a cop.  I do not know what it is like to put my life on the line every single time I put on the uniform or go to work.  I do not know what it is like to be homeless.  I do not know what it is like to be without work.  There is simply a lot I simply do not know when it comes to the lives of others.

But I wonder what my life would be like if I did. I have celebrated Mass, heard confessions and listened to those in jail.  I have spent time listening and getting to know people who are homeless. I know personally those who were given hope by DACA, only to be worried now it will be taken away. I know more than a few people who have witnessed someone get shot.  I heard from people who got help for a man shot right outside their door.

I do not know what to make of the last few days in Saint Louis.  I have come to love living here.  I am glad my Dominican priory is in the city of Saint Louis.  I like Saint Louis.  I can honestly call it home.

At the same time, I am not naïve.  Like many major cities, and like many small towns, there is in Saint Louis and elsewhere a history of racism.  And I am not naïve.  Racism is still alive and well.  In a small way, I make it so.

While I get angry about broken store front windows, and feel sad for the small business owners who own these small businesses, I must remember that often I am not aware of the broken windows that are part of other areas of the city in which I live. I must remember the unequal education that comes from different schools.  Because I must remember I choose to live with people who are just like me.  And all too often, so do you.

When I get angry about the way the police are treated, I must remember that I have never been pulled over without cause, like other people have experienced. I have never been asked why I am driving in a certain area, because I do not belong there.

When I hear about how people were treated badly by the police, I must remember the many cops I know who risk their lives daily for the safety and well-being of the communities they serve.  I must remember they are people who put their lives on the line every single day. I must remember that often they are heroes.

I must remember that life is not either-or, but both-and.  How often do I fail to listen to another point of view because I do not like it? If there is a sadness I feel for my city, my country, and the world, it is that all too often the other is seen only as an enemy.

I must remember that I can be both afraid of other people and see them as another Christ. I must remember that it is too easy to leap to conclusions without knowing the facts. I must remember that it is easier to disagree with someone by relegating their opinion to extreme mocking and insults.  I must remember how in the short term it is easier to make enemies than friends.

But I also must remember that with the prejudices that live within me so does the Christ.  That I can be filled with the Holy Spirit, and not a spirit of vengeance.  I must remember to seek to understand why people get so angry they destroy.  I must remember to seek to understand people who are afraid, and want greater border security to feel safe. I must remember the fundamental belief that everyone, every person, everywhere, regardless of who they are and where they live and what they look like, that everyone, regardless, is made in the image and likeness of God, and has a dignity that comes from God.

I pray I am less racist today than I was those decades ago when being a minority made me afraid.  I pray that realizing how I have never really been a minority, I cannot know what so many minorities feel and experience in their lives, often every day.  I pray for the grace to confront the prejudice, the racism, the evil that still resides too often in what I say and do.  And I pray that others can do the same.

Catholics Need Not Apply

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Paying even a little attention to the news from the US Senate might have helped someone to recognize that the Democratic party has a religion problem.  First, a while ago, Senator Bernie Sanders had difficulty when a religious belief about the salvation of Jesus caused problems.  Then, Senator Diane Feinstein had difficulty with a judicial nominee who indicated that her religious beliefs led her to believe that if it was the case that one’s religious beliefs conflicted with the law, the judge should recuse herself.  Senator Dick Durbin asked the same nominee if she was an “orthodox Catholic.”

The nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, had written an article in the Marquette Law Review that explored the topic of a judge who, on religious grounds, objects to the use of the death penalty.  Despite the dishonest characterization of Senators Feinstein and Durbin, and organizations like the Alliance for Justice, Barrett argued that in cases where one’s religious or personal convictions made it impossible to rule on the merits of the law, the argument was made that judges should be wary of such conflicts and recuse themselves from the case.

But the bigger issue is the difficulty the Democratic party, and their members, appear to have with those who have strong religious convictions.  Unless of course, such religious convictions align with their own beliefs.  For example, the same Senator Dick Durbin used the story of Father Rey Piñeda, a priest from the Archdiocese of Atlanta who was brought to the United States at the age of two, in his statement of opposition to DACA.  Determining whether or not Father Piñeda was an “orthodox Catholic” did not seem as important if the issue was not abortion.

The Democratic party is simply uncomfortable with strong religious conviction.  Faith, it seems, should be something that is only for one’s private, unexpressed self.  Using this logic, a person who believes that Jesus is universal Savior (most Christian religions) could not possibly be able to fulfill duties to non-Christians.  Catholics, argue Feinstein and Durbin, are unqualified to be judges, precisely because of their religious beliefs.

As Sohrab Mohari wrote in a New York Times Op-ed piece entitled “The Dogma of Diane Feinstein”, Senator Feinstein’s questioning represents a tired line of reasoning among nativist Americans responsible for violence and bigotry against Catholics.  The question should not be should a person of faith be denied a position to serve simply because they are a person of faith, but rather, does one’s personal and religious convictions make it impossible to give people the rights they deserve.

That same article points out the difficulty with Senator Sanders line of questioning.  His contention from questioning is that Russell Vought, because he once wrote that Muslims “stand condemned” for rejecting Jesus.  Not appear that all Christian religions would choose to word the belief in this manor. The question, however, should not be about his belief, but whether or not this belief renders him unable to do his job in a way that makes sure there is fair treatment for Muslims.

Even the understanding of stare decisis is a concept that is not always applied correctly.  “Settled Law” has been overturned.  There have been moments where rulings that serve as precedent have later been abandoned, precisely because it was viewed that the precedent was wrong.  Plessy v. Ferguson, an 1896 court case allowing state-sponsored segregation was overturned by the 1954 decision Brown v. the Board of Education.  Dred Scott v. Sandford was a previous court case that certainly could have formed a precedent, a stare decisis for other court rulings.  Hirabayashi v. United States certainly cannot be morally considered a precedent upon which other rulings could be based.

The point is not to suggest that there are no areas of settled law or precedents, upon which future rulings can be based.  And, Barrett did not suggest that this either.  In fact, she recognized (as a third-year law student) that there could very well be times where religious and personal convictions might be such as to render a person unable to apply the law.  In these instances, recusal is the option.

But this is not enough for today’s Democratic party.  There was the public debate about whether someone who wants to be a Democrat can ever be one who sees abortion as an immoral choice.  But it is hard to see how the Democratic party can become a truly national party with such positions.  Most of America does have religious convictions.  The election of Donald Trump should serve as a wakeup call that there are Americans who value their religious convictions and believe they should enter the public marketplace of ideas.

Questions about judicial rulings, legal positions, the interaction of church and state as it applies to law and the Constitution are appropriate questions for a judicial nominee to be asked.  But questioning the fitness of one who believes in religious dogma or considers themselves orthodox members of their faith is not.  The country’s constitution was written by people who came to this country precisely because of religious persecution.  In writing the establishment clause, they were not concerned with personal belief usurping the government, but the other way around: they did not want the government to infringe on the free exercise of religion.

To that end, everyone, regardless of religious belief, should be concerned about Senator Feinstein’s line of questioning.  For many people of faith, “the dogma lives loudly in them”.  And people of faith do not become “second-class citizens” simply because of their religious beliefs.

The Solar Eclipse was Magnificent

I did not know what to expect.  I joked that the “Path of Totality” sounded like a good name for a band.  I laughed when I heard that Bonnie Tyler was going to sing “Total eclipse of the heart” during the total eclipse.  I observed that at least the Chiquita banana company (the Chiquita Banana Eclipse since the sun would look like a Chiquita banana) and the makers of Slim Jim (the path of totality reminds us of their favorite snack) used the moment in the way of capitalism.

I understood the significance of seeing a total solar eclipse, but my mind was occupied about whether or not the students viewing the eclipse would keep their eclipse glasses on during the time when it was not safe to look directly at the sun.  But soon it became clear they were as caught up in the eclipse as everyone else here.  Our path where I teach provided 79 seconds of totality, or the period of time when the moon fully covered the sun.  It was spectacular.  (Be sure to check out coverage and pictures provided by the Saint Louis Review, the Archdiocesan paper of the Archdiocese of Saint Louis.)

I had seen pictures and simulations of what the eclipse would look like.  They were nowhere near as magnificent as the real thing.  Over and over again what struck me was how magnificent creation is.  So many things were awesome.  With solar eclipse glasses, it was possible to stare at the sun.  Think about that for a moment and let that sink in.  Staring at the sun. It made me realize, really, how little I ever really thought about the sun.

There was the realization that we are always in motion: the earth around the sun, the sun around the moon.  There was the reminder of just how small we are in the universe.  The was the knowledge that this eclipse works because of the wonderful beauty of the creation of our universe.  The moon is 400 times smaller than the sun, but since it is 400 times closer, it covers the sun.  And in seeing the corona of the sun around the moon, there was the acknowledgment that it is always there, the corona.  But given the brightness of the sun, this is the only time we can see it.  Despite all of our technology, the sun remains too bright for us to be able to see it except in an eclipse.

It was a spiritual experience for me.  Seeing the corona reminded me that often, despite God’s constant presence, I do not always see it.  Reflecting on the magnificence of the universe reminded me of just how magnificent God is.  The vastness of the universe is puny in comparison of the magnificence of God.

And it reminded me just how fleeting life is.  How easy it was to miss the awesome moment.  For many, it is a “once in a lifetime moment.” It has been centuries since Saint Louis experienced a total solar eclipse.  And I could not help but think, “How awesome is it that I live during this time?”

I was one that thought the hype might mean I would be disappointed by the actual eclipse.  But from the first moments I noticed the moon covering the sun, it was awesome.  And I mean that word.  Awesome.  I was filled with awe.  I was given a privileged moment to see the grandeur of God’s creation, and in so doing, I was filled with the knowledge of the grandeur of God in my own life.  If God to such great care with creation, how much greater would this care be for humans, made in his image?  I was overwhelmed by the realization that am loved beyond all my imaginings.

This was a moment I will treasure.  It was really a once in a lifetime moment. (Though I just might travel the distance to be in the next path of totality in seven years.)  While the eclipse was a once in a lifetime moment, the love of God for all humanity is an eternal moment.  And in that brief 79 seconds, I was reminded of more about God than I could scarely absorb.  And for that, O God, I give you thanks.

Blaming “all sides” for Charlottesville violence is wrong

It is hard to imagine there is anyone in the United States that is not aware of the events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday.  It has been a topic of conversation for many since last Saturday.  As with most significant events, there have been comments from many since the events in Charlottesville unfolded.  The conversation continues in large part because of the statements, tweets, and answers to questions by President Donald Trump.

Many found his statement on Saturday to be quite inadequate.  He blamed the violence on “many sides”, a statement that was almost immediately criticized, not just by Democrats, but also by Republicans.  Senator Cory Gardner, Republican from Colorado tweeted, “Mr. President – we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”  Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina indicated that Trump had “missed an opportunity” with his Saturday statement.

By Monday, Trump had specifically condemned white supremacists and Neo-Nazis, but by Tuesday was speaking a line more consistent with his Saturday statement.  While Mr. Trump denied he made a moral equivalency by speaking of violence on both sides, his words did just that, even if he did not explicitly state as much.

Trump has said that there were good people on all sides. In so doing, he seems to suggest it is possible for a person who holds the views of white supremacists to hold these views because they are a “good person.”  And it is commonly accepted by reporters that some of the antifa, or “anti-fascists”, did have and use clubs against those who protested the removal of Confederate statues.

By equating the violence by the white supremacists with the violence of the antifa, the president not only missed an opportunity but made it harder to believe that he really finds racism unacceptable.  President Trump was slow to condemn David Duke during the campaign.  Years ago, he took out a full page ad in the New York Times against the “Central Park Five” who were convicted, despite DNA evidence which excluded them as being able to have committed the crime.  While later exonerated of the crime, some saw the full-page New York Times had as increasing the anger at the four black men and the one Hispanic man charged with the crime.

The problem with the president’s “many sides” argument is that it lessens the abhorrent beliefs of white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, KKK members and others who believe there are the humans, and the less than humans.  This is an issue where there can simply be no confusion.  There is simply no room in this country for these beliefs.  The best that can be said is that people who hold such beliefs are ignorant, but even that seems too soft a statement.

The president should have condemned the white supremacists immediately.  He should continue to condemn them every time he is asked about them.  He should speak out against David Duke, Richard Spencer and anyone who believes that whites are superior to other human beings.  And he should do so without dividing.  There is nothing “good” about Hitler or what he believes.  There is no way to justify the views of a “master race”, or a concern about a country comprised of people of many races.

While I could see a value to using Confederate statues as teaching moments about the horrors of slavery, I can also easily understand how such statues, the Confederate flag, and other symbols of the Civil War are impossible to view in any other way than as an endorsement of slavery.  Most Confederate monuments were erected after the “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson.  This Supreme Court ruling made possible the Jim Crow laws that allowed racial segregation in public facilities.  Another spike in monuments occurred in the late 1950s and the 1960s with the rise of the Civil Rights movement.  So, I can see how it can be impossible not to see the symbols used by white supremacists as reminders of the time when it was perfectly legal to have sections for whites and blacks that never mixed.  I can particularly understand how when these memorials are attached to government legislative bodies that they can become particularly problematic.

Another spike in monuments occurred in the late 1950s and the 1960s with the rise of the Civil Rights movement.  So, I can see how it can be impossible not to see the symbols used by white supremacists as reminders of the time when it was perfectly legal to have sections for whites and blacks that never mixed.  I can particularly understand how when these memorials are attached to government legislative bodies that they can become particularly problematic.

It is ironic that General Lee, whose statue in Charlottesville was the cause for the rally himself opposed statues honoring Confederate soldiers because he believed it would slow the necessary healing needed in the country from the Civil War.  When asked to be present at a ceremony at Gettysburg, part of his response published in the Republican Vindicator on September 3, 1869, contained this statement: “I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”

Moreover, it is often this quote from a letter written to his wife that is used to show that he opposed slavery.  “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages.”  The problem, though, is that this quote does not tell the whole story.  He continues by writing this:

 “I think it however a greater evil to the white than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

In other words, blacks are better off being slaves, being beaten is good for them, and only God can put an end to this.  General Lee could be seen as a product of his time.  But when the president indicated that taking down Thomas Jefferson’s statues might be next, as he owned slaves, he demonstrates his lack of knowledge about Jefferson.  On September 10, 1814, in a letter to Thomas Cooper, Jefferson wrote this:

I am not advocating slavery. I am not justifying the wrongs we have committed on a foreign people, by the example of another nation committing equal wrongs on their own subjects. on the contrary there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity. but I am at present comparing the condition & degree of suffering to which oppression has reduced the man of one color, with the condition and degree of suffering to which oppression has reduced the man of another color; equally condemning both.

Further, consider Jefferson’s second draft of the constitution in June 1776.  “No person hereafter coming into this country shall be held in slavery under any pretext whatever.”  He advocated for the abolition of the slave trade.  “The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state. But previous to the infranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa.”  Or consider his draft of the Virginia Constitution in 1783.  “nor to permit the introduction of any more slaves to reside in this state, or the continuance of slavery beyond the generation which shall be living on the 31st. day of December 1800; all persons born after that day being hereby declared free.”

George Washington owned and bought slaves.  But Washington made provisions in his will to free his slaves.

Many historians claim that the election of anti-slavery Republicans by large margins in the North led to the action of secession.  And it is hard to believe otherwise.  Consider the first reason given by Georgia for its secession:

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic.

Slavery as a reason for secession was articulated by Mississippi.  “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.”  The elimination of slavery in northern territories served as the violation of states’ rights, though southern states did not support states rights when it pertained to not returning slaves to the southern states.  It is hard to imagine states seceeding if the election of the Republican party by such a large margin in 1860 did not occur.

South Carolina, the first state to secede, gave as its stated reason the election of abolitionists in such numbers that slavery was threatened.

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

Nor was the Civil War about tariffs.  They were lower in 1860 at any point since 1816, and the tariff law at the time was written by southerners and passed in 1857.  While most Southerners did not own slave, most supported it.  A Washington Post article in 2011 quoted Georgia Supreme Court Justice Henry Benning: “The consequence will be that our men will be all exterminated or expelled to wander as vagabonds over a hostile earth, and as for our women, their fate will be too horrible to contemplate even in fancy.”   In other words, the whites would be exterminated by the blacks if slavery were outlawed.

Let there be no mistake.  The Confederacy was about slavery.  The overwhelming majority of US exports in 1860 were the result of slave labor in the south.  The inability to expand slavery into other territories was a reason for secession.  While there were attempts to cast the cause of the Civil War as something other than slavery, the explicit statements by early states about secession clearly see the threat to the elimination of slavery as the primary reasons.  Jefferson Davis, in his farewell address to the US Senate viewed the threat to states’ rights as one to be about slavery.  He discussion about states’ rights is about the institution of slavery.

By equating white supremacy to the wrong acts of violence on other sides, Mr. Trump stood with hatred.  Sure violence is wrong.  But to refuse to call out consistently, powerfully, and repeatedly is more wrong.  At moments of national crisis, it is the role of the president to strive to bring about unity.  By continuing to emphasize division, the president not only missed an opportunity, but chose to believe that white supremacy, neo-Nazis, David Duke, Richard Spencer, and anyone who aligns are beliefs that are equal to those who stand against racism.

We live in a country where there is still “separate but equal.” And when the president fails to condemn persistently, forcefully and continually those who want to continue “separate but equal” in a most egregious way, he fails all Americans who seek to strive for something more.

Because of Jesus, the Logos, Words Matter

It was just too much.  Today’s tweets about Mika Brzezinski were just too much.  I am tired of hearing Trump defenders excusing immoral behavior.  I did not like it when Democrats and women’s organizations did not condemn President Clinton for his extra-marital affairs, and I do not like it now.  And that despite Clinton delivering surpluses in his budgets.

Words matter.  Remember the words of President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks? Remember when President Ford said, “Our long national nightmare is over.”  Remember when Presisent Nixon said he was not a crook?  When President Clinton said he did not have sexual relations with that woman? Remember when President Roosevelt said, “The only thing you have to fear, is fear itself?” Or when President Kennedy encouraged us to ask what we could do for our country?  Remember when then-candidate President Trump said this? “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” While I did not like it then, I too felt that when things came right down to it the president would become more civil.  I was wrong.  Not only has the president not become more civil, he has become worse.

And then there is President Trump.  Remember when then-candidate President Trump said this? “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” While I did not like it then, I too felt that when things came right down to it the president would become more civil.  I was wrong.  Not only has the president not become more civil, he has become worse.

It should not have come as a surprise.  Remember what he said about Megyn Kelly? “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”  Kelly’s great crime? She quoted Trump.  There was his statement about Carly Fiorina when she was running for president. “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that.” There are his unsettling comments about his daughter Ivanka.  There are the comments this week about the Irish reporter.  “She has a nice smile on her face so I bet she treats you well.”  Trump’s poor comments about women are so numerous that Telegraph reporter Clare Cohen has been tracking them.

Being “polite”, Trump in a 1991 Esquire interview he did not mind the media as long as the female reporters were physically attractive.  He told ABC News he expected his wife to have dinner on the table when he came home.  When he was a guest on the view, he said this about his daughter, Ivanka.  “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.”  Trump has insulted Rosie O’Donnell, compared women to buildings, called New York Times Gail Collins a “dog”, insulted Cher (and Ariana Huffington), and attacked Hillary Clinton’s sexual performance.  And these examples are only a fraction of what he has said.

He routinely personally insulted his opponents.  Low Energy Jeb, Crooked Hillary, Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted, Carson was a pathological child molester, and Crazy Bernie were all used to denegrate his opponents.  And he praises the likes of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un.  The world is constantly reduced to those “wonderful” people who like Trump, and people who are constantly insulted when they offer even the slightest criticism.

And what has been “the Trump effect”?  There was a student in Ladue, Missouri, who was told to get to the back of the bus.  Seventh graders in Michigan chanted “Build a wall!” at a Latino student. A Rolling Stone article put it well, “Trump is the perfect candidate for a seventh-grade kid; bad behavior and repeating what Trump has said seems to be a part of testing limits.”  I can attest that anecdotally I have heard more divisive language and actions from students since Trump became a candidate.

And none of this is about policy.  This is about the moral example expected from a political leader.  We would not (and should not) tolerate such behavior from children, let alone the president.  This is about a president that rarely tweets about substance, but tweets about every perceived slight or insult.  News stories that truthfully recount events people can witness, if they criticize Trump, they are “fake news”. Time and again he demonstrates that he is more concerned about what people think of him than what he does.

Is it unreasonable to expect the president to have manners?  Is it too much to ask the president to be respectful when he talks?  Ask these questions and the response is childish.  “I’m not the only one, they do it too.”  Deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders essentially defended the president by essentially saying “they started it.”  To be sure, President Trump is not the only one to have spoken badly about other people.  But most apologize when they are called out for such behavior.  Trump does not seem to believe he has done anything wrong.

This current situation is just as sad to me as the parent who recounted to me how happy she was when she saw her 4th grade son reading the newspaper.  Then she realized he was reading the Clinton deposition.  All of a sudden the newspaper needed to be censored before she could let her 4th grade son read it.

I do wonder what Trump would need to do to lose the support of his diehard supporters.  He insulted a decorated war hero.  He has been caught in numerous lies.  He said he would pay lawyer fees for any supporter who got in legal trouble for physical violence against those who opposed him.  He seems uninterested in Russian interference in the election, but is obsessed with the slightest perceived insult about himself.  How does he even have the time to watch this much news?

The president must stop.  He. Must. Stop.  And while the criticism of the president’s tweets is one of the few bipartisan things we have seen, the question becomes when the criticism moves to action.  The president hurts his chances for significant change because the tweets are too distracting.  He does not seem to care that he needs to build relationships, especially in the Senate, because the Republican majority is small.

Perhaps I am too idealistic in thinking the office of the president can be dignified in the age of social media and 24 hour news coverage.  Perhaps I am naive to think that we can ever return to civil discourse.  But didn’t Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill sit down at least some of the time to have a drink?  Wasn’t there a time when Democratic candidates could be pro-life and Republicans were able to discuss reasonable immigration solutions?

Can there be a time when we can disagree about solutions to problems without resorting to insults?  Trump did not begin the divide and polarization.  But he has taken it to a new level.  And he has made it personal and degrading.  More often than not he directs it at women.  At some point we need to regain civility.  We must.  We have too many significant issues facing us for which no solution can be found if we do not find a way to disagree without personal vitriol.

But I cannot change anyone else.  I too, fail to speak kindly all of the time.  I insult others.  I over react, I exaggerate and I fail.  But I do not like it.  I am ashamed of it.  And when I am aware and can do so, I apologize for it.  I try to admit when I am wrong about something.  I have tried to indicate those rare instances when I have agreed with Trump.  I have never referred to the president in any other way than by his name.  I have tried to have evidence and facts when I criticize a position.  I try not to resort to personal insult.

It is time for a moral awakening.  I have people with whom I have very sharp disagreements.  But they are still my friends.  While I do not always listen well, I try.  it was just a little while ago there was a commitment to greater civility in the wake of the shooting of Rep. Stephen Scalise and others.  And even the president seemed sincere in calling for greater unity.  But he cannot credibly call for unity when he speaks so badly about others.  He cannot claim to want to be the president for all when he tweets insults the way he does.

I commit to change.  To be more civil.  To be more polite.  I want to hear and act on the words of Saint Paul in Ephesians 4:29.  “No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear.”  I really want to do this myself.  I really do want to say only the good things people need to hear.  I want to remember that every other human being is made in the image of God, and is a temple of the Holy Spirit.  I want to be the person begins to process where we all “encourage one another and build one another up.” (1 Thess. 5:11). I would hope President Trump could do the same.

How an unqualified Betsy DeVos might actually set school choice back

In general, I believe a president should be able to surround himself with people that support the agenda he was elected on by the citizens who voted.  It seems to me the appropriate place for disagreement and discussion about policy best occur when it is done by elected officials, where every 2, 4, 6 or 8 years voters have the opportunity to weigh in on their evaluation of their elected officials’ performance.

But on the confirmation, yesterday of Betsy DeVos, as Secretary of Education, 2, 4, 6 or 8 years of her being in this job are 2, 4, 6 or 8 years too many.  It is not because I disagree with some of the policies that she might support.  In general, I do wish there were mechanisms to allow students in failing schools to leave the school and choose to go somewhere else. I do wish that those for whom paying private school tuition is a significant economic burden could get some tax relief.  My problems are not about policy.

My problems are about an absolutely unqualified person to be the Secretary of Education.  Ms. Devos did not know even rudimentary educational terms, concepts or laws.  If you are going to advise states and help them, you need to understand whether or not the type of measurement you are going to use is standards (proficiency) or by the level of improvement by each individual student (growth).

If you are going to advise and assist states, you need a fundamental grasp of the current educational law.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is not a new idea.  It has been the law, under a couple of names since 1975.  The basic reason for the law is the belief that all children, regardless of ability, deserve a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).  Not only is this law not new, it has been tried and upheld in the courts as the right thing to do under the constitution.

These two concepts are basic undergrad concepts.  It is unbelievable that Devos was unprepared for even these basic, rudimentary questions.  How will she protect constitutional rights of students if she does not understand the basic laws in place to do so?  How can she help local states and school districts get better if she does not even know how to define what better means in education?

And when she was able to influence educational policy, what were the results?  Consider what the Michigan Board of Education president said to Education Week about her.  “Under the guise of expanded choice, the DeVos’ have been the agents of a purposeful effort to dismantle the traditional public schools and teachers unions even if the choices that are created don’t educate kids,” he said. “I’m pro-choice and pro-charter if it’s quality and about educating kids. They’re for choice for choice sake, as a vehicle to try and destroy the existing public school infrastructure.”

Even Republicans who supported her had to get promises from her that she would not push strongly for a federal voucher program.  And when the Michigan experience is considered, the results are poor at best.  There is little accountability for the $1 billion spent on charter schools in Michigan.  Moreover, there is not any state that has as many for-profit charter schools as Michigan.  Consider this for a moment.  A for-profit charter school.  Our students, children who have no choice about whether or not to go to school, are customers, sources of profit for a company.  And, consider further that graduation rates have been quite poor, especially in Detroit schools where many of these charter schools are.

Even the data collection agencies that DeVos’ supporters cite show that charter schools in Michigan have not lifted more students to high achievement.  In fact, for the twenty years of charter schools in Michigan, almost two of every three charter schools are well below state standards.  In fact, they are not performing any differently than the public schools they criticize.  And when considering some of the most challenging students to teach, charter schools do not do any better in Michigan.  The difference? Less accountability and more profit for the charter school operators.

To be sure, there are some high-performing charter schools.  But, there are some high performing public schools too.  In many ways, the poor education is received in areas of high poverty, where there is little real school choice, unlike the wealthy who have for some time been able to choose where their children go to school.  And what is the value of deconstructing the public accountability that schools should have if it is not available to the students who need it most?

And when standardized tests are considered in high schools, 14 of the 16 charter high schools did worse than the Detroit Public School high school.  While neither ACT average was great, the claim that students would do better if their parents had a choice, that the existence of such a choice would cause schools to improve, has not been the case.

If schools were run like businesses, there would be an important emphasis on data.  But it is the reliance on data, this lack of accountability that is precisely the problem in the programs that DeVos’ has pushed.  Rather than look at high-performing charter schools, looking at hard data, DeVos advocated creating even more for-profit charter schools with no oversight or accountability, just profits for those who ran them.

And this lack of oversight championed by DeVos will not help the school choice movement, it will hurt it.  If there is no proof that charter schools perform better than public schools, and that they might even do worse, who would reasonably support school choice?

And this is sad.  There are good reasons to support school choice.  But there must also be accountability that the money is given to educate students is, in fact, helping students to grow.  If charter schools provide the chance to improve students’ learning, lessons gained from them might be applied to other schools, even traditional public schools.

For that is the great promise of charter schools: the chance to try new ways to educate students, and then to measure the outcomes to see if students are better off or not.  School choice has every promise of making parents become more involved in school, as the next school is not a default choice, but is one where ownership is developed because of parents’ choosing what is best for their children.

And so while Trump supporters hail the unqualified choice of DeVos, with the illusion that school choice and vouchers and other initiatives will sweep the nation, there is the very real fear that an extremely unqualified Secretary of Education will make things worse in these very areas.

Some thoughts on the election

This was probably one of the most brutal elections many people remember.  Often it seemed to be characterized by anger, and a constant demonizing of the other.  It was not pretty.  Many simply hoped that it would come to an end.  In one way, it has.  The election occurred and Donald Trump is the president-elect.  But in a completely different way, the election exposed deep and ugly chasms between the way we see and think about each other.  For some, it is not so much that racism was exposed, for example, but rather that it was more extensive than previously believed.

And so what is to be done, now that the election is over?  What is it that we are supposed to make of the current state of the country?  Because the results of the election also demonstrated just how complex everything is.  There were people who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 who voted for Trump this time around.  If conversations around Facebook and other places are any indication, there were many instances of anger and painful insults.

It does seem that what is not understood is how is it possible that someone could have voted for the candidate running against the person we support.  And often without understanding all of the reasons we mimicked the vocabulary that was used.  People were ignorant, stupid, “lib-tards” and racists.  A criticism of one candidate often let to the assumption the other was supported.  But the bottom line is that perhaps the chasm between us in this country has never been greater.

Pope Francis addressed this when he identified the illness and disease of the day.  “I believe the greatest illness of today is cardiac sclerosis,” he said.  In other words, the hearts of people have simply become too hardened to see or hear the word of God in their lives.  Is it that this election exposed this cardiac sclerosis present in each one of us?

It is so easy to see the shortcomings of others.  But what the political process revealed is that too many of us simply cannot see the face of Christ in others.  We ignore the face of Christ in the unborn child whose dignity and rights become less important than that of the mother who chooses to abort her child.  We ignore the face of Christ when we label entire groups of people as rapists, criminals or murderers, with not understanding of the reality of people seeking a better life.  We classify people of one faith as terrorists, because a small number of their membership does really awful things.  We fear accepting refugees fleeing the very terrorists we ourselves are afraid of seeing.

How many undocumented immigrants have we gotten to know?  How many Muslims have we actually met?  How often have we listened to the pain women who have had an abortion feel after it is over?  How many refugees have we come to meet to hear their story and learn their plight?  Is it that we admire Pope Francis, that we like the idea of Pope Francis, but not enough to imitate Pope Francis in his commitment to serving the poor?

If nothing else, this election asks the prodding, prophetic question about whether or not we believe Jesus said what he meant in Matthew 25, when he told us he was the unborn child, the immigrant, the refugee, the one in prison, the hungry, the homeless, indeed the person in need?  Do we serve Jesus by serving these people, or do we ignore them?

It seems important to understand that we need to seek and find the dignity of Christ in all people.  We need to be open to listen and hear people with whom we profoundly disagree.  We need to find again the compromises that do not dismiss other people’s opinions and beliefs, but to hear them, and by doing so allowing our hardened heart to become softened.  While listening to others may not cause us to agree with them, at the very least maybe it will help us in growing in our own understanding of an issue.  Providing a variation of the inisight of love from Saint John, is it possible for us to hear the voice of God if we cannot hear the voice of each other?

Giving Up Something or Doing Something: The Wisdom of Pope Francis

It is a common question for Catholics to ask each other during Lent, “What are you giving up?” But is Lent simply a question of willpower, or is there something more? Perhaps the question is better put in the way Pope Francis frames it: What are you going to do for Lent? For whatever practice of penance we undertake, it should lead us to accept God’s love and mercy and to become ever more charitable.

Justice for All?

“The city has paid about $5.7 million since 2011 over lawsuits claiming that police officers brazenly beat up alleged suspects. One hidden cost: The perception that officers are violent can poison the relationship between residents and police.” Baltimore Sun, Undue Force, September 28, 2014

To understand the current situation with protests in communities with large populations of African Americans we need to understand the larger context which many who feel disenfranchised face in their day to day lives, and have faced for a long time. It is not simply a question of race, but race cannot be easily dismissed either. The Baltimore Sun last September ran a story documenting settlements for police misconduct. And another article suggests this is a problem in most large US cities. The report by the justice department documented in Ferguson, would lead a reasonable person to believe the deck was stacked against African Americans there, some of whom spent time in jail simply because they could not pay their fines.

Most strikingly, the court issues municipal arrest warrants not on the basis of public safety needs, but rather as a routine response to missed court appearances and required fine payments. In 2013 alone, the court issued over
9,000 warrants on cases stemming in large part from minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, or housing code violations. Jail time would be considered far too harsh a penalty for the great majority of these code violations, yet Ferguson’s municipal court routinely issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to timely pay related fines and fees. Under state law, a failure to appear in municipal court on a traffic charge
involving a moving violation also results in a license suspension. Ferguson has made this penalty even more onerous by only allowing the suspension to be lifted after payment of an owed fine is made in full. Further, until   recently, Ferguson also added charges, fines, and fees for each missed appearance and payment. Many pending  cases still include such charges that were imposed before the court recently eliminated them, making it as difficult
as before for people to resolve these cases.

It is easy to see why, in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and in fact in many other large cities where crime is high, there is a mistrust by African Americans toward the police. Large settlements seem to imply guilt, even if I have never experienced such brutality. An unfair justice system means my chances just might be better if I run than if I take my chances with the police and the courts. Consider the effect of living in such a situation if one is poor. A parking ticket, something many have received all over the United States, could lead to extra fines, fees, a suspended license and even jail. Even if the bias is subconscious (which seems unlikely given the emails uncovered), it is not hard to see why certain residents of Ferguson would not trust the police and the court system. The Justice Department report says as much.”Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement both reflects and reinforces racial bias, including stereotyping. The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans, and there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race.”

Writing in a blog on the Washington Post, Max Ehrenfruend documents this statistically.

Some readers might have felt that there was nothing unusual about these practices. After all, don’t cops everywhere do what they can to issue traffic tickets? That was Bret Stephens’s question in his column in The Wall Street Journal. “Using ticket revenue and other fines to raise revenues is one of the oldest municipal tricks in the book,” he writes. “That turns out to be as true in Milwaukee, Nashville and Washington, D.C., as it is in Ferguson. So are we talking about institutional racism or just the usual government bloodsucking?”

Since there might be some lingering confusion on this point, it’s worth noting again that yes, indeed, we are talking about institutional racism. The report described a “focus on revenue” that “was almost wholly a focus on black people as revenue,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic. “Black people in Ferguson were twice as likely to be searched during a stop, twice as likely to receive a citation when stopped, and twice as likely to be arrested during the stop, and yet were 26 percent less likely to be found with contraband. Black people were more likely to see a single incident turn into multiple citations.”

Fourteen percent of Ferguson’s budget revenue was the result of these fines, so many that there is one for every man, woman and child in the city of Ferguson. And it is as much as 50 percent of budget revenue in other suburbs. (Compare that with just 2 percent of revenue in the city of Saint Louis.) It is not hard to see, then, how anger might be fermenting under the surface and when released might get ugly.

It is true that more whites are killed by police than blacks. But it is also to be expected since there are five times the numbers of whites in the United States than blacks. Consider this quote from the website Politifact.

Candace McCoy is a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. McCoy said blacks might be more likely to have a violent encounter with police because they are convicted of felonies at a higher rate than whites. Felonies include everything from violent crimes like murder and rape, to property crimes like burglary and embezzlement, to drug trafficking and gun offenses.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that in 2004, state courts had over 1 million felony convictions. Of those, 59 percent were committed by whites and 38 percent by blacks. But when you factor in the population of whites and blacks, the felony rates stand at 330 per 100,000 for whites and 1,178 per 100,000 for blacks. That’s more than a three-fold difference.

McCoy noted that this has more to do with income than race. The felony rates for poor whites are similar to those of poor blacks.

This complicates the debate. For when someone like Michael Medved says more whites than blacks are killed by police, he is right. When blacks say they are disproportionately targeted by police, it is easy to see how they might come to that conclusion. And when we observe that economically poor whites and blacks are convicted at roughly the same rate, it is easy to conclude that poverty makes it less likely someone has a good defense, as they often have to rely on overworked public defenders to provide their defense. Would O.J. Simpson have been found free if his defense team was a public defender?

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the United States has more prisoners than any other country in the world. We have more prisoners per capita than any other country in the world. More than one of four of all prisoners in the world are in the United States. And even at that, our prisons are overcrowded. We have 600,000 prisoners more than China, which has a significantly higher population, and almost 1.5 million more than the next country, Russia.

The Economist has numbers that are even higher. But when there is closer examination of what is behind the numbers, what they report is most interesting, and in fact quite sad. In an article in 2010, the Economist documented the case of the 65 year old jailed for suspicion of smuggling orchids into America. “Prosecutors described [him] as the “kingpin” of an international smuggling ring. He was dumbfounded: his annual profits were never more than about $20,000.” As his legal bills grew beyond what he could pay he plead guilty and was sentenced to 17 months in prison. For selling orchids from Latin American suppliers who were not always accurate with their paperwork.

“In 1970 the proportion of Americans behind bars was below one in 400, compared with today’s one in 100. Since then, the voters, alarmed at a surge in violent crime, have demanded fiercer sentences,” writes the same author in the Economist. Today it is one in 100. And consider California, where almost 4,000 people are serving life sentences for non-violent and crimes that are not serious due to the “three strikes and your out law.”

White collar crime provides another avenue for jailing large numbers of people.

Innocent defendants may plead guilty in return for a shorter sentence to avoid the risk of a much longer one. A prosecutor can credibly threaten a middle-aged man that he will die in a cell unless he gives evidence against his boss. This is unfair, complains Harvey Silverglate, the author of “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent”. If a defence lawyer offers a witness money to testify that his client is innocent, that is bribery. But a prosecutor can legally offer something of far greater value—his freedom—to a witness who says the opposite. The potential for wrongful convictions is obvious. – The Economist

And the challenges are that even thought some studies document that blacks and whites use and sell drugs are roughly the same rate, blacks are far more likely to be arrested for these crimes. There is even an old saying concerning drugs. White people do the crime, black people do the time. As the Brookings Institute writes, “An estimated one-third of black male Americans will spend time in state or federal prison at some point in their lifetime – more than double the rate from the 1970s and over five times higher than the rate for white males.”

Drug crimes have driven the steep rise in prison population growth. In 2011, for example, just under half of all arrests were drug related. Even though the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prison population. What’s more, despite spending more than $1 trillion on the “War on Drugs”, the results of this new “get tough” policy has not reduced illegal drug use. According to the World Health Organization, the United States has more illegal drug users than anywhere else in the world. Clearly prison has not been a deterrent to crime.

The effect of this policy has been the particularly difficult for the black community. Consider this from Virgin Airlines owner and billionaire Richard Branson.

About 40,000 people were in U.S. jails and prisons for drug crimes in 1980, compared with more than 500,000 today. Excessively long prison sentences and locking up people for small drug offenses contribute greatly to this ballooning of the prison population. It also represents racial discrimination and targeting disguised as drug policy. People of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than white people — yet from 1980 to 2007, blacks were arrested for drug law violations at rates 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates.

Add to this the reality that many states have signed agreements with private companies, often with a clause to maintain a certain population, it is not difficult to see how we have arrived at the exploding prison population. My limited experience of working with those in jail also suggests that the hope that these issues, like addictions, might be treated, is not considerably likely.

Perhaps the beginning is the admission of a problem. Even if at the very basic we could admit the recent spike in prison populations has not led to a reduction in the crimes it was intended to address, providing greater economic opportunity, and a commitment to serve the common good might be a good start.