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Juneteenth and Why We Keep Fighting for Freedom

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On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers in Galveston Bay, Texas informed enslaved Blacks that they were free – two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Known as “Juneteenth,” African Americans celebrate this day as the end of chattel slavery. Although emancipation was a major step in the freedom of Blacks in America, little did they know the challenges awaiting them during Reconstruction and the “Jim Crow” era. African Americans had no education, no resources, no voting rights and suffered under unjust systems such as the “Black Codes” and the sharecropping system, which ensured that workers would never profit from their land. Vigilante terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan sprung up to enforce the codes, and lynching skyrocketed. If African Americans violated the law, they were sentenced to forced labor and rented out to private companies by the state. Doesn’t sound much different from today’s prison industrial complex, does it?  

Juneteenth is a reminder that although African Americans are technically free, they still suffer under similar unjust systems, the most damaging, I believe, to be the prison industrial complex. Here are some facts from the NAACP’s “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet”:

  • In 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34 percent, of the total 6.8 million correctional population.
  • African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.
  • The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women.
  • Nationwide, African American children represent 32 percent of children who are arrested, 42 percent of children who are detained, and 52 percent of children whose cases are judicially waived to criminal court.
  • Though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32 percent of the U.S. population, they comprised 56 percent of all incarcerated people in 2015.
  • If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40 percent.

There is nothing new under sun, and we see the U.S. government enacting the same tactics it has used against freed African Americans against immigrants and those seeking asylum in the United States. Migrant detention and family separation are very reminiscent of the atrocities African Americans faced after emancipation. Immigrants have emerged as another “criminal class,” and the president’s racist rhetoric fuels this notion. We all remember Trump’s “shithole countries” comments.  

This is why in the midst of our celebrating, Juneteenth should remind us that we still have a long way to go when it comes to “justice for all,” and we should continue to be vigilant in our fight for justice. The hope is to see a country where all of its citizens are truly free and those seeking refuge are offered the opportunity to experience this freedom as well.

For more information:

PBS: What is Juneteenth?
Smithsonian: National Museum of African American History and Culture
American Immigration Council: The Criminalization of Immigration in the United States

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Why aren’t more Black pastors talking about immigration?

When was the last time you heard a sermon about immigration or detention centers in a predominately Black church?

Photo by Guillermo Arias/ AFP/ Getty Images

I can’t recall the last time either and it’s surprising to me because the Bible is filled with so many stories about those seeking refuge in other countries including Joseph, Mary and Jesus fleeing and crossing the borders into Egypt to escape Herod. What is more troubling is that Black churches in mainstream denominations rarely talk about immigration even though statistics report that Black immigrants make up 10 percent of the nation’s Black population. In New York, Black immigrants account for almost 30 percent of the Black population. Florida comes in second with over 20 percent of its Black population being foreign born. Also, after Mexico and Central America, which have the most detainees by far, the five countries from which people are detained the most are Haiti, Ghana, Dominican Republic, Nigeria and Jamaica (See full chart here).  

Trump got most of our attention when he referred to predominately Black countries as “shithole countries.” The soundbites from Sunday morning sermons from pastors of Black churches from around the country were endless; however, that’s where the majority of Black churches’ attention ended. Even the audio clips, videos and pictures of the inhumane conditions of detention centers in the United States have not proved enough to keep Black churches engaged in advocacy for immigration reform. So what’s the deal?

Overwhelmed by oppression

It could be that Black churches are so bogged down by the systemic injustices that Black Americans face that they don’t have the resources to address issues such as immigration. Police brutality, wage inequalities, health disparities, the preschool-to-prison pipeline, unjust sentencing and the prison industrial complex are enough to keep any church busy. Many pastors and congregants feel so overwhelmed with the issues that plague our immediate communities that issues such as immigration do not seem like immediate concerns. Oftentimes, they’re working hard to advocate for and meet the needs of their congregations.

Rev. Dr. George L. Parks, Jr., senior pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, agrees that Black churches are overwhelmed by systemic issues that directly affect African Americans. He also says, “Integration and upward mobility have given the so-called middle-class Black Americans a false sense of security that we are beyond those types of issues. Assimilation has desensitized us.” However, he states that “The church has a responsibility to the disenfranchised and not just to those who sit in our pews.”

Could it also be that Black churches have strayed from the social justice tradition of the churches before and during the Civil Rights Movement? Many of our denominations don’t view advocacy and social justice as part of the Gospel message. I believe some pastors are conflicted. When pastors start to talk about social justice and public policy, many are met with demands from their members to “just preach Jesus” and the pressure from congregants is too much for the them to stand up against.

Ben Ndugga-Kabuye, the Research and Advocacy Manager at Black Alliance for Just Immigration, says the Black church has strayed away from Liberation Theology, which used to be at the core of our expression of faith. He says that there is no substantial critique of the isms that impact today’s society, i.e., sexism, racism, and imperialism to name a few. Instead, the church has become a triage center where people get patched up and sent back out into the world without the church ever addressing the root causes of oppression. “The Black church doesn’t talk about immigration because we don’t know the Black refugee we worship.”

Othering of immigrants – even Black ones

Yes, the “us” versus “them” is prevalent in the Black church too even when it comes to Black migrants. Oftentimes, the othering we fight against as Black Americans is the same tactic we use to defend our lack of political involvement when it comes to immigration. I have heard many times that Black Americans don’t feel compelled to advocate for migrants because “They don’t like us either” or when it comes to immigrants from Latin American, “They’re just as racist as White people.”

To give an example, @JmaihN7 on Twitter who is originally from Kenya, but now lives in the United States shared with me the following, “An African American pastor once told me that people like me shouldn’t be in this country enjoying the freedoms fought for by the African American slaves.”  

I’ve also heard that immigration is “not our fight.” However, for every person who believes immigration is not the Black church’s fight, there are pastors who are connecting with other communities. Rev. Sydney Williams, senior pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Morristown, New Jersey, says, “I want to see more of our local outreach programs benefiting Hispanic families rather than exclude them.” He also says, “…what are Black congregations doing to welcome our brothers and sisters from Central and South America? They are very much part of the African diaspora whether they consciously embrace it or not.”

Many Black Americans are familiar with the prison industrial complex and the preschool-to-prison pipeline that destroy the lives of youth and families. Migrants seeking asylum are becoming a new criminalized class. Family separations and the deplorable conditions of detention centers should move us to want to do something – at the very least preach about it. We need to pay attention. In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” 

For more information:

Sojourners (Preaching on Immigration)
Black Alliance for Just Immigration
Interfaith Immigration Coalition (Migrant Sunday Liturgy)

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Self-Care for Activists

In 2014, Erica Garner led a protest march in New York City after a grand jury decided not to indict a police officer involved in the death of her father, Eric Garner.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

In 2014, Erica Garner led a protest march in New York City after a grand jury decided not to indict a police officer involved in the death of her father, Eric Garner. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

In January of 2015, I had the honor of sitting in front of Erica Garner at the BET Honors award show in Washington, D.C. Erica Garner is the daughter of Eric Garner, a man who was killed by a New York City police officer after the officer used an illegal chokehold on Garner. The tragic death of her father ignited her passion for social justice work. She became very vocal about the unjust killing of her father and about police misconduct.

CNN reported in December of 2017:

Erica Garner became a prominent activist in the wake of her father’s death, pushing for   political change and social justice broadly aligned with the Black Lives Matter    movement.

She told CNN’s Don Lemon in 2014 she believed her father’s death had more to do with police misconduct than race.

“I can’t really say it’s a black and white issue,” she said. “It’s about the police officer and abusing their power.”

Sadly, three years after the death of her father, Erica Garner died after suffering a heart attack at 27. She was the mother of two children. I am thankful I had the opportunity to meet her and tell her how her family’s story impacts my work; however, Erica’s sudden death and the deaths of other young activists like her brings to the issue of self-care in activism and justice work.

Oftentimes when we get involved in advocacy and justice work, we fail to think about the toll it takes on our physical, mental and emotional health. That’s why over the next few weeks for our “Wellness Wednesday,” we’re going to share self-care tips for activists on our Facebook, Twitter and IG pages. Follow us, and stay tuned.   

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You Can’t Separate Immigration from Family Values

Whenever an election comes around, people want to know about candidates’ position on “family values.” Most of the time when people talk about family values they mean where a candidate stands on marriage or abortion. Very rarely does this coded language include genuine concern about families because if it did, we wouldn’t see the continued abuse of migrant children and families at the border under the Trump’s administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

Photo courtesy of CNN

CNN released heart-wrenching photos of migrant families at the McAllen, Texas Border Patrol station that show children sleeping outside on the ground, some covered by Mylar blankets. Another photo shows a woman clutching a child and leaning against a wall. All of the photos confirm the horrific conditions migrants face at the hands of the U.S. government.

The article states:

An official from the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection, responded to the photos in a statement saying in part: ‘As multiple DHS officials have been warning for months, the border security and humanitarian crisis continues to worsen. Current facilities and funding are inadequate for migrant flows.’ The official cited the administration’s request for additional resources to house migrants, and legislative changes to stem the flow of migrants.  

Investigations into the conditions at holding stations and in detention centers have already uncovered inhumane conditions and gross abuses. We’ve heard audio of children crying for their parents and families, and we’ve seen the videos of children who’ve been reunited with their parents and the concerning behavior they demonstrated after the trauma of being ripped from their families for months. On Mother’s Day, the Phenomenal Women Action Campaign and Families Belong Together mobilized mothers all over the country and launched the Phenomenal Mother Movement in an attempt to stand in solidarity with migrant families and raise awareness.  

When are we going to get real? If we don’t think about the conditions of migrant children and families in these holding stations and detention centers and demand answers from the administration, then we can’t honestly say we care about family values. You can’t compartmentalize immigration and family values.

If you want to learn more about how you can help, please check out the following organizations:

Families Belong Together

Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign


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