by Alessandra Harris
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…