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J. Randall O'Brien Headshot

With Liberty and Justice for All?

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A few weeks ago an attorney friend and I were lamenting inequity in justice and race issues in America when she mused, "If someone offered you $20 million to become black, would you do it?" The question struck with the force of a sledgehammer on a fly.

Any attempt to remove the question from my mind would be the equivalent of trying to remove wrinkles from cardboard. The question is here to stay. Why? Because most Caucasians I know would offer a resounding "no" to the query. And why is that? Because we know our society is racially biased.

We are, this year, 60 years removed from the epochal Brown v. Board of Education decision rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, which made segregation illegal in educational institutions. The firmly embedded "separate but equal" doctrine in American education was allegedly given a decent burial. Today, however, housing demographics, population shifts, and private academies have resulted in the net effect of reversing the court's decision. Sadly, K-12 education in much of America remains largely "separate and unequal."

We are, this year, 50 years removed from the civil rights movement's "Freedom Summer" of 1964, where our American ideals of liberty, justice and equality for all inspired voter registration drives and "Freedom Schools" in the Jim Crow South. To be sure, changes in our society have been nothing short of revolutionary. For that we can all be grateful.

Yet over half a century later, one wonders if white supremacy remains rooted in the American psyche. Is there a racial caste system in America? In Michelle Alexander's New York Times bestseller The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindedness, the author argues that Jim Crow is alive and well and thriving in America's criminal justice system.

A favorite folk protest song of the '60s lamented, "Where have all the soldiers gone?" Today, with 70 percent of African-American women unmarried, we might protest too, asking, "Where have all the African-American men gone?" (No, I am not suggesting intraracial marriage only.) The answer? "Gone to prisons, everyone." OK, not everyone, but many.

Today, one in three African-American males can expect to serve jail time at some point in his life; in some places it's one in two, according to Alexander. In some states black men are sentenced to jail at a rate that's 20 to 50 times greater than white males. Are stereotyping and racial profiling factors in this horror? What about the war on drugs? Research shows that white and black use and selling of drugs occurs at similar rates, yet 49 percent of African-American males will be arrested by the age of 23. Alexander observes, "The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid." Ouch!

I have been unable to stop thinking about my friend's question. So on Friday morning, May 2, I posed this question in a Facebook post: "With liberty, justice, and equality for all. Hmmm.... Really? If offered 20 million dollars to become Black, would you do it?"

The responses were sudden, passionate and memorable. A local television station received calls and complaints, which in turn led to their interviewing me and running a segment on their evening news regarding "a racially charged Facebook post by Carson-Newman University President Randall O'Brien."

Opinions of me have ranged from "lunatic," "idiot," and "racist" to "heroic." None of that matters. What does matter, though, is that parts of our society are more offended by a post on the subject of racial inequality than they are about the actual injustice. Other parts simply did not understand the essence of the question. (I am not sure which is most troubling.) Still others, thankfully, appreciated the call to conversation and lent encouraging support.

I confess I have other questions. Here's one: Why is 11 a.m. on Sunday the most segregated hour in America?

Must we remain "separate but equal" in worship? The church, we say, is called to be "the light of the world." Should that refer to taillights or headlights? Does the church suffer from laryngitis in the face of moral issues confronting religion and society? When will the invisible God become audible? Why are God's speakers speechless? What do we do with the haunting indictment of Romano Guardini: "The church is the cross on which Christ is crucified"?

What should we expect of our legislative, executive, and judicial leaders? In the Federalist Papers, No. 51, Madison wrote, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls ... would be necessary." Who will speak the truth to power?

It seems to me we need criminal justice reform, educational system reform, and church reform. For that we'll need more than a hypothetical $20 million and a question. But it's a start.

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