Mark Twain’s ability to make sweeping social commentary through unassuming characters is on display throughout his classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The novel’s protagonist, Huck, assists a runaway slave named Jim without much abolitionist thought. Huck has no issues with the institution of slavery and maintains his cultural assumptions of slaves even as he helps one escape.
Nevertheless, Huck’s conscience suffers at times from his collaboration with Jim. In one instance, he finds Jim moaning to himself. He doesn’t wonder why—he knows Jim misses his wife and children. Still, Huck tells the reader, “I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for ther’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.”
That scene always moves me. Jim, who runs away to escape being sold from his family, thinks of them and mourns. His pipe dream in freedom was to work for the purchase of his loved ones. But at this point in the book, the journey seems dubious and his hope fades. Huck notices his grief and marvels at a black man longing for his family in the same way a white person might—and deems it unnatural.Director Ava DuVernay points out that the dehumanization of blacks existed, not only in slavery, but also in the language of abolition.
Twain’s scene is short yet it reveals much of the thinking that supported chattel slavery, specifically the dehumanization of blacks. Blacks were sold and herded across the South in a self-reproducing labor-force. Separated like livestock, they were considered too “simple” to even grieve as white folks might.
Director Ava DuVernay points out, however, that the dehumanization of blacks existed, not only in slavery, but also in the language of abolition. In her 2016 Netflix documentary 13th, DuVernay looks at the 13th Amendment which ended slavery in 1865. Specifically, she examines a clause embedded in the amendment which states:
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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Thus, emancipation came with a criminality loophole that proved useful in maintaining an economic system dependent on free labor. DuVernay argues that immediately following the Civil War, the image of the congenial Uncle Remus was replaced with the predacious black. As a result, freed slaves were arrested en masse for minor crimes like loitering and were sentenced to involuntary servitude.
DuVernay doesn’t link Reconstruction or the Jim Crow era with mass incarceration even though she paints a picture of terror justified by the notion of black criminality. Instead, she correlates rising incarceration rates with 1970s politics.
The Civil Rights social movement was perceived by many white southerners as a disrespect for “law and order.” In an effort to win southern Democrats, Republican candidate Richard Nixon promised to fight crime and uphold “law and order.” DuVernay quotes John Ehrlichman, a Nixon advisor:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities […] and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
Nixon’s war on crime and drugs was in part a rhetorical assault on blacks for his own political maneuvering. His presidency was marked by rising incarceration rates; as a result, the U.S. prison population rose from 357,292 in 1970 to 513,900 by 1980 (an increase of 43.8%).
Nixon was followed by a chain of “tough on crime” administrations that also proposed policies to disproportionately target the “super-predator.” Nixon’s southern strategy became a full-scale offensive against drugs under Ronald Reagan. The result was disparities in arrests and sentencing for the possession of drugs prevalent in minority communities. Approximately 759,100 people were behind bars by the time Reagan left office in 1989 (an increase of 47.7% over 1980).
Campaigning as a “new kind of Democrat,” Bill Clinton continued the anti-crime ethos of previous administrations with his 1994 Crime Bill. The bill included the infamous “three-strikes” provision, the militarization of local police forces, and nearly $9 billion for prison construction in states that passed “truth in sentencing” laws. Clinton left office with a U.S. prison population of 2,015,300 people (an increase of 165% since 1989), 878,400 of whom were minorities (or 43.6% of the total prison population).
DuVernay’s 13th is timely. Even those who might question her strong connection between the “War on Drugs” and mass incarceration would agree that our country’s rate of imprisonment is problematic. Today, the United States, which holds 5% of the world’s population, claims 25% of the world’s prisoners, or nearly 2.5 million men and women. And this number might very well increase in the years to come.
America has just elected a president who campaigned as the “law and order candidate.” By doing so, Donald Trump echoes Nixon’s rhetoric. He lumps predominately black neighborhoods into one “crime-ridden” community. He praised New York’s stop-and-frisk policy (a law ruled unconstitutional for its links to racial profiling). Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions, has accused the Obama administration of weakening “some of our most important criminal-sentencing policies.” Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is connected to the racist, anti-Semitic, and misogynist “alt-right.” If the “law and order candidate” morphs his campaign message into actual policy as president, what will that mean for new crime bills, law enforcement practices, incarceration rates, and minority communities?
That question is an important one for Christians seeking after ethnic reconciliation and love of their neighbor in a Trump era. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is troubled by the idea of assisting a runaway slave until he remembers that he was never properly Christianized—he could justify his help to Jim by his lack of Sunday school attendance.
Chattel slavery was not often at odds with America’s culture of Christianity. The reasons were theological, political, and social. For one, “good Christians” obeyed their civil authorities, and the authorities of pre-Civil War America sanctioned slavery. Similarly, southern white evangelicals in the 1960s were known to actively oppose the Civil Rights movement, choosing instead to protect a system of white supremacy. Many saw personal salvation, and not systemic reform, as the solution for black anxiety.
Today, the white evangelical vote for Trump is reported at 81 percent. Even those disputing that number might agree with this: the 2016 presidential election has not softened the prevailing notion of the anti-social justice conservative white Christian. If so, that narrative must change for the Gospel’s sake.
NPR recently asked Richard Spencer, a leader of the “alt-right” movement, if he believes “that people of different races inherently do not get along.” He responded with his own set of questions: “Do we really like each other? Do we really love each other? Do we really have a sense of [community]?”
Those are good questions for the Church. We can answer in part by our awareness of and concern for racial justice issues like mass incarceration. Let’s ask questions on who is arrested in our country and why. Let’s challenge any criminal justice practice that insists on the inherent criminality of some and not others. Christians should sound the alarm against any federal or local policy that enforces racial disparity in arrests, sentencing, and incarceration.
Finally, let’s prove the sincerity of our concern by our personal rejection of demoralizing assumptions of minorities, our continuous repentance of the sin of partiality (James 2:1), and our striving to live out the unity that Christ has purchased for His church (Ephesians 2:14-19). May today’s Huckleberry Finns grieve alongside those who mourn, defeat dehumanizing mindsets against their fellow image bearers, and oppose prejudiced systems precisely because they’ve been properly Christianized.