The Social Justice Blind Spot: Part 3, "I Was Able to Change the Laws, But I Couldn't Change the Hearts"

Below is how in Reviving Old Scratch I made Michelle Alexander's point from Part 2, digging a bit deeper into how moral and spiritual problems create social justice issues.

In this passage, I dwell upon the German word "Zeitgeist," the "spirit of the age," the moral and spiritual atmosphere of a culture at work in every action and decision. The point I make is that while statistics can measure social inequity, they struggle to capture the invisible forces--the Zeitgeist--that produce these sad metrics. We see the evidences of injustice all around us, but we have trouble putting our finger on the invisible causes:
I recently took a bus trip with twenty preachers from my faith tradition through historic locations in the American civil rights struggle in Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham. Ten of the preachers were black and ten were white, and we took the trip to talk about race relations in our churches and in the nation. One of the things we spoke about is how the struggle for racial justice has changed since the 1960s. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the sit-in movement, the Freedom rides, and Freedom Summer, direct-action campaigns were aimed at concrete and visible locations of Jim Crow segregation. From segregated seating on buses to obstacles to voter registration. And with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in ’64 and ’65 these overt locations of injustice were removed from American society. Apartheid officially ended in America. And yet, America continues to be a highly segregated society and racial injustices persist. From police shootings to poverty to mass incarceration to the quality of schools, we are awash in the sad statistics that reveal the racial injustices still plaguing America. But with the official ending of apartheid in America, where, today, are we to find the sources of these injustices? To be sure, there is still much work to be done on the policy front to make our society fairer and more just. Caring as I do about the criminal justice system in America, there are many things still to fix, from mandatory sentencing to capital punishment, to say nothing about how the rich have access to quality legal representation in a way the poor do not.

However, as we rode through the South, those twenty preachers and I suspected that these policy fixes were only small tweaks in what was a larger, more spiritual problem—a problem with the American Zeitgeist. As one of the black preachers said, “It’s not the laws that are the problem, but the unfair implementation of the laws.” For example, stop-and-frisk laws are not, as they sit on the books, inherently racist. The problem comes when those laws are applied unfairly, used mainly against African Americans, sweeping greater numbers of them into the criminal justice system. Today we don’t mainly detect systemic racism by examining written laws and policies. Today we detect racism by outcomes, in things like poverty or incarceration statistics. Something is happening between policy and outcome.

According to the preachers on the bus, it’s the Zeitgeist. On the books, apartheid may have ended in America, but we are still plagued by a spirit of racism. Racism is what causes policies to be implemented in a biased way. But racism isn’t a law or policy. Racism is a Zeitgeist, a spirit, an anti-Jesus force at work in the world.

Which puts the political activist in a bit of a pickle. March and protest all you want, but racism, as a spirit, can’t be fixed by passing laws. Political activism is largely impotent in addressing the spiritual problems facing America and the world. A new president or a new Congress isn’t going to heal what ails us. If the Zeitgeist is the problem, then the battle is no longer merely political. The battle is inherently spiritual in nature.

For example, during our bus trip the twenty preachers and I spent time with Fred Grey, who was the lawyer for Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Outside of Thurgood Marshall, Grey is the most significant civil rights lawyer in American history, the lawyer who filed seminal school integration lawsuits and who represented the victims of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study. During our time with Brother Grey, he said something that gets to the distinction between the spiritual and the political and our stubborn lack of racial progress since the ’60s.

“I was able to change the laws,” he said, “but I couldn’t change the hearts.”

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