Millennial had the opportunity to interview Ralph McCloud, the director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the official domestic anti-poverty agency of the USCCB, on some of the important topics that have emerged as part of the national conversation in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing and the protests that followed in Ferguson, Missouri.
It seems as though one of the things motivating people to protest is the sense that racial bias is leading to unequal and unjust policing. Do you see this as a major problem in the country? If so, what can be done to address it?
Racism continues to be a major problem in the country. Unjust stops, arrests, the use of militia-type tactics on citizens and discriminatory sentencing policies have led to a growing distrust among African Americans and other people of color toward police and the judicial “system.” There is a feeling that we will not be treated fairly and because of that, there is growing polarization, mutual disrespect and alienation on all sides… until it erupts unfortunately in a tragedy. You know there’s a problem when police view neighborhoods as war zones and kids feel like they’re under occupation.
Is there an issue of systemic or structural racism that is motivating those protesting?
Why is it the norm when dealing with people of color and alleged “criminals” to utilize violence? Why do we consider certain types of communities disposable? It’s a fact that racism shapes American attitudes and policies around criminal justice. It is systemic and structural, but on many levels and by many systems… We spend a great deal of time and energy applauding the gains we’ve made, but we ignore how far we still have to go. This isn’t just a law enforcement issue; it’s also about health care, education, economic opportunity, political participation. There are systems and structures in the United States keeping people from living up to their God-given dignity. Violence has never been solution to our problems.
What role does material inequality play in undermining efforts to reduce racial divisions and achieve a more unified, just society? Do you see a connection between economic injustice and the protests in Ferguson?
Without question. In Ferguson, I see folk denied access and opportunity. Violence is the reaction of a society that refuses to address the growing divide between those who have and those who are disposable, what Pope Francis calls the throw-away culture.
People of color are more likely to be denied access to those things they need to reach their goals, what you might call the American dream. Historically, when people are denied opportunity, frustration and anger reach a boiling point. People want to exist in a peaceful society, where they can raise families, contribute, educate their children, and be safe. When these goals are out of reach for lifetimes and generations, despair sets in.
What can be done to bring greater economic justice and reduce poverty in America?
This tragedy should make us rethink the evil that rampant inequality is inflicting on our communities, the use of violence to enforce it, and the “roping off” of opportunity to growing parts of our society. Whether its people of color, immigrants from the wrong country, or a growing group of people below the poverty line, we have to ask whether it’s appropriate to police the margins with violence and punishment. This type of punishment starts with impoverished communities and poor education, continues with lack of economic opportunity, and ends up in a prison and immigrant detention cell.
A preferential option must be shown to those communities where high poverty exists. Intensive efforts must be made to stimulate economic development, to educate tomorrow’s work force, to give families a sense of ownership and pride in their communities. Will we treat people, as Pope Francis has asked us to, as artisans of their own destiny or will they be objects of punishment and exclusion?
The protests in Ferguson have increased calls for criminal justice reform. One element is sentencing reform. Can sentencing reform be done in a way that brings greater safety and security to the people living in economically depressed areas while reducing unfairness in the system and helping those who have committed relatively minor crimes from falling into a life of crime? A number of existing proposals seem to disregard the impact on the law-abiding citizens in these areas who want greater safety and security for their families and who are disproportionately the direct or indirect victims of these crimes. The preferential option for the poor seems to create an imperative to drive down crime rates and drug abuse in poor areas, but also to eliminate unfair sentencing and counterproductive penalties that will result in more crime. Is this type of reform possible? A second element of criminal justice reform might be to help rehabilitate those who are imprisoned and help to reintegrate them into society. Would this be helpful? What reforms might be useful in this area?
It’s a fact born out in American history that more prisons don’t make our communities safer.
When you look at the current sentencing guidelines, for drug offenses in particular, huge disparities exist. The pall of criminalization keeps extending over more and more groups of people on the bottom while at the top we’ve witnessed rampant impunity. Who are we criminalizing and why? Who do we fear and why? We need to ask questions that get to the root of the problem.
The culture of our prisons isn’t one that leads to success on the outside. We need to assist persons who have made mistakes and who want to do better to get on a path to success, which includes employment, education, housing, voting privileges, etc. Restorative justice is becoming popular to help heal both the victims and the perpetrator of crimes. Another approach is to look (pre-sentencing) at what unique needs the perpetrator had going in—drug and alcohol use, anger issues, depression, family problems, low educational achievement, etc. and make sure those issues are dealt with before re-entry, making rehabilitation a condition of release. It is also critically important to acknowledge the faith component of rehabilitation. Inmates need access to those things that will strengthen and sustain their faith life.
All of this can only happen when local communities come together in trust—trust inter-racially, trust inter-economically, trust neighborhood to neighborhood. Sadly, Ferguson is any city USA and any city USA can be Ferguson.