Is this the death of the American Dream?

Brandon Bernard’s last words were “I wish I could take it all back, but I can’t.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, looking at the witness room windows. “That’s the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day.” By all accounts Bernard was a reformed man after spending half of his life on death row for being an accessory to murder when he was eighteen years of age. Bernard was the ninth man executed by the federal government since July.

Brandon Bernard, the ninth man executed by the federal government since July, spent more than half his life on death row. He was convicted for his role in the murders of two youth ministers in 1999, when he was 18.
Credit EPA, via Shutterstock

My views have changed on the death penalty. I used to think it necessary to deter crime and fulfill the demands of justice, especially in instances where lives were taken. I no longer believe this to be true for many reasons. But chief among them is that I don’t know that we qualify to take anyone’s life. How is it that somehow as fallen, sinful individuals who govern and operate in sinful systems we get to determine who lives and who dies. This becomes increasingly problematic when the disparities with which Black men are put to death in our nation in comparisons with whites is examined.

For example Bryan Stevenson’s writes in Just Mercy, “The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole. One in every fifteen- people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.” There are many responses to these kinds of statistics. A common refrain, that I’ve heard goes something like this; “Well don’t do the crime if you aren’t prepared to do the time.” This reduces the complicated statistic above to an overly simplistic answer. It dismisses the facts that we have a problem surrounding race and crime in this nation, it is a by-product of the systemic issues that continue to haunt our national legacy. The United States made a lot of promises, for people of color, Black people specifically, it has yet to keep those promises. Sure, you may cite a few exceptions. But the exception defines the rule that Black people continue to be disenfranchised when it comes to justice in America.

Stevenson observes, “We have shot, hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and lethally injected hundreds of people to carry out legally sanctioned executions. Thousands more await their execution on death row. Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison. Hundreds of nonviolent offenders have been forced to spend decades in prison. We’ve created laws that make writing a bad check or committing a petty theft or minor property crime an offense that can result in life imprisonment. We have declared a costly war on people with substance abuse problems. There are more than a half million people in state or federal prisons for drug offenses today, up from just 41,000 in 1980. We have abolished parole in many states. We have invented slogans like ‘Three strikes and you’re out’ to communicate our toughness. We’ve given up on rehabilitation, education, and services for the imprisoned because providing assistance to the incarcerated is apparently too kind and compassionate.” This profoundly illustrates the problems that we have with our justice system that is but on example of the inequalities perpetuated in our nation.

Several years ago, I felt challenged to become more vocal about the concerns of Black people in our nation. Which prompted me to educate myself and then take steps to speak up and speak out about the inequalities and injustices on display in our country. Although I have been thinking, reading, and listening to my brothers and sisters and friends of color on these issues for decades, I feel like that over the past five years, I have engaged in the more difficult tasks of reflecting and contemplating my own biases and blind spots more deeply, and came to understand that there was still much work to do in my own understanding of what others experience and live with daily. In addition to reading and reflecting, I felt led to reach out to my friend Ally Henny, because I wanted to listen and learn and in the process better understand. The step that I took was to host a series of conversations where I could literally listen and learn from my friend. For the most part, there was a positive response, as many encouraged my efforts. However, there were a few detractors. One in particular that resulted in an online debate that I reluctantly agreed to, I say reluctantly because I didn’t feel as if much would be accomplished. However, it was illustrative of how much misunderstanding and outright willful ignorance still exist around this particular subject of white privilege and systemic racism. It exists in substantial and powerful ways in every aspect of our culture. Yet when it comes to attempting to understand and dismantle it, the white community with but few exceptions continues to defend, excuse, and dismiss it. 

My conversation with Ally Henny about White Privilege

It seems the constant refrain to the ample evidence of this manifestation of white supremacy in our society and culture, is “Not me!” or “Not all white people!” In one particular exchange I was challenged with the loaded question as to whether or not “black people could also be guilty of racism?” I responded “no” and I stand by my statement. Because although individuals, both Black and white, may manifest prejudices and biases, there is a systemic nature to racism that is sustained by systems and culture. Systems that are sustained and perpetuated by white normative culture. 

And while so many persist in denying the existence of collective racism in favor of individual prejudices, in so doing we miss opportunities to advance the true potentials of our founding, articulated by the axiom, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…” The true meaning of these words are indeed a gift from God that we must once again commit to pursuing. 

In 1931, James Adams coined the phrase The American Dream, defined as a “dream of a land where life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” Of course, the issue with this definition is that it ultimately defined success as a sign of true virtue, basing the pursuit and the achievement of The American Dream on a meritocracy that was created, defined, and now sustained by white people for white people. A meritocracy is “a system in which the talented are chose and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.” Yet the issues with this kind of system in America is that the opportunity to achieve this American Dream is based on a fair and equitable system. It isn’t, because for all of our history it is white people who have defined what is meritorious and deserving of opportunity and advancement.

The answer for many in the white community has been to respond with embracing the idea of “color blindness” which is simply another way for advancing the systemic nature of racism while providing cover for white supremacy in an age of progression. In his book One Human Race: five stages to empowering transformative change, Dr. Jeff McGee unpacks this notion of “Colorblind racism” that perpetuates systems of inequalities. He writes, “Colorblind-racism undervalues the importance of race discussion and impedes efforts to debunk norms and the status quo…By ignoring discussions on race and inequalities, and recognizing and appreciating the cultural differences, the perpetuation of white privilege continues to plague leadership standards in areas of social justice, community, development, education, and others.” This illustrates as to why the same problems in our nation continue to cycle around race, it is because we are unable or unwilling to dismantle the systems that perpetuate it. We cannot change what we refuse to acknowledge.

As a Christian, I am convinced that there are implications of the gospel of Christ for every aspect of my life, including how I respond to these issues that plague our nation. We need a national repentance for our sins, a repentance that involves actions to make reparations for the past and the present in order to secure a more harmonious future for all of our children.

As I reflect on Mr. Bernard’s last words, I am reminded of two other people who were executed by the State. One was a thief and the other was a teacher, they were executed together. In his last moments the thief recognized that what the teacher was more than just a mere teacher. The thief understood that the claims of the teacher to be the Son of God were actually true, prompting him to request “Remember me.” To which the compassionate teacher replied as only one who was truly the Saving Son of God could, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” If we are indeed Christians who follow in the steps of our Lord Jesus then how we respond to those being executed by our own State should mirror that of our Lord.

Bryan Stevenson tells the story in Just Mercy about the particularly trying moment after the Supreme Court of the United States had denied a stay of execution to Jimmy Dill. Dill had been convicted of murder after his victim had been shot in a botched drug deal. The victim initially lived and was transported to a local hospital. After some time, the victim was released and Dill was charged with assault and attempted murder. Shortly thereafter, the victim was abandoned by his caretaker and died of causes unrelated to the shooting wound. Dill’s charges were upgraded to first degree murder and he was sentenced to Alabama’s death row. Finally, the word came that all of Stevenson’s appeals on behalf of Dill had been exhausted and that Jimmy Dill would be executed that very evening. Stevenson writes, “For the first time I realized that my life was just full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger…In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice. I looked at my computer and at the calendar on the wall. I looked again around my office at the stacks of files. I saw the list of our staff, which had grown to nearly forty people. And before I knew it, I was talking to myself aloud: ‘I can just leave. Why am I doing this?’ 

“I do what I do because I’m broken, too. My years struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.” 

Unless we collectively summon the courage to correct these issues of brokenness within our nation, we will eventually be broken by them.

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