Guest Blog: Wake Up White America

My friend Jan Brimacombe, concerned citizen and social activist, volunteers in a prison facility to help inmates read books to their children. These books and recordings are then sent home, providing much-needed connections between incarcerated children and their fathers. She participates in a group that reads, learns and discusses the complicated issues of racism every month. She works on environmental issues, in particular with the dwindling populations of Monarch butterflies as she helps people to save their habitat by planting milkweed. I am honored to post her piece (written before the tragedies in Charleston) about our responsibility as white people to be aware of how our complicated and painful racial history and current tragedies impact black communities—and she urges us to get involved in the piece below.

–Judy Patterson Wenzel

Wake Up White America

by Jan Brimacombe

I am a 72 year old white woman; wife, mother, grandmother and retired teacher. On a recent Sunday afternoon while volunteering at the Milan Federal Prison Detention Center, I counted 25 African American children visiting their fathers. Ranging in age from infants to teenagers, the children were very engaged: lively conversations, hugs and laughter, seemingly normal father/child interactions except all of these children’s fathers are incarcerated. (The negative effects on the children, families and communities of the incarcerated warrants an entire new editorial.) And this is just one small visiting room for one unit in one section of a federal prison. My informal surveys of this visiting room have nearly always revealed the majority of inmates to be men of color. This microcosm of incarcerated men seems to mirror what some in this country are beginning to acknowledge and question: the mass incarceration of black men in America.

The recent series of deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers revives an obscure genre of plays dating to the early 1900s. Anti-lynching plays were written and performed to show how lynching devastated African American families. Readings of these plays has begun at JACK, a Brooklyn Community Arts Center. After performing Blue Eyed Black Boy the troupe read Safe in May. An Ohio State University professor who has studied the history of anti-lynching plays states that being able to tell the truth about why communities are under siege is an important counterpart to being told you deserve what you get. By performing these plays today one of the actors concludes that the audience might think, Oh, my that looks like what’s happening right now.

Eric Garner dies while in the choke hold of a white police officer in Staten Island as he pleads, I can’t breathe; I can’t breathe. Unarmed Michael Brown dies amid a volley of gunshots from a white police officer’s gun in Ferguson, Missouri. Grand juries conclude non-indictment in both cases. Violence erupts in Ferguson. Protests staged in New York City. Demonstrations take place around the country. Walter Scott is shot and killed by a white police officer in Charleston, South Carolina after being stopped for a faulty car taillight. In Inkster, Michigan Floyd Dent is stopped by white police officers; video captures him being dragged from his car and then punched in the head until his injures require medical care. Violence and rioting erupt in Baltimore after Freddy Gray dies from injuries suffered while in police custody after his arrest. Like Eric Garner, Gray’s calls for medical help go unheeded by the police. At Gray’s funeral his brother remarks, Most of us are not here because we know Freddy Gray, but because we know many Freddy Grays. The perennial black/white racial divide surfaces in reaction to all these incidents.

Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Martha MacCallum of Fox News discuss the Michael Brown case. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are sensationalizing these events for their purposes. You can’t take an isolated case and say racial profiling occurs. Profiling happens to everyone. NBC News pays Al Sharpton to deliver garbage. He has the nerve to insult the American police community. How audacious of these Fox “newscasters” to claim that profiling happens to everyone, choosing to overlook the meaning of profiling in the case of Michael Brown. This interpretation of the tragedy in Ferguson fuels racism in white audiences.   

Bryan Stevenson, director of The Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery, Alabama shares these statistics in his TED Talk: one third of black men in the United States between the ages of 18 and 30 are in jail, prison, on probation or on parole. In many of our urban areas 50-60% of young men of color are in jail. 34% of black men in Alabama have permanently lost their right to vote. Milwaukee Public Radio devotes a year to reporting on black male incarceration in Wisconsin, which has the highest incarceration rate of all fifty states. The state spends more on prisons than education. By age 34, only 38% of men living in the 53206 zip code area of Milwaukee (95% black) will NOT have spent time in a state correctional facility. Why is it that law enforcement targets predominantly black neighborhoods?

Parents of black boys in the United States must teach their sons the rules of engagement during encounters with the police. Don’t forget you are black. Do not get into a power struggle. Keep your hands visible; DON’T reach for your cell phone. Make the officer feel he is in charge. Don’t move suddenly. Use sir when addressing the officer. Portland lawyers create an app titled Driving While Black to teach people of color how to stay safe during traffic stops. As a white parent of a white son I worried about him being involved in an accident as a new driver, but NEVER feared he was in danger of being targeted or mistreated by police officers. I felt secure in knowing that if my son had car trouble or was in an accident the police would be there to assist him. The contrast between my reassurance and black parents’ fears in regard to policing is stark.

After George Zimmerman’s innocent verdict in the shooting death of Travon Martin, Alicia Garza posts her outrage on Facebook. Patrisse Cullors responds and culls Black Lives Matter from Alicia’s posting. A movement is born. Garza writes in an article for the feministwire: Black Lives Matter is an intervention in a world where Black Lives are systemically and intentionally targeted for demise. Black Lives Matter is an affirmation of Black Folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression. I think back to the sixties and the Black Power Movement and the coinage: Black is Beautiful. Fifty years later African Americans continue to struggle and plead for dignity and justice in our society.

I feel compelled to ask white America to Wake Up. We must dig deeper into our souls and recognize that the oppression of our African American citizens continues to this day, as is highlighted currently by the deaths and beatings of unarmed black men at the hands of majority white police officers. Since the abolition of slavery, mechanisms have emerged that ensure the continued subjugation of African Americans: the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, Jim Crow, share cropping, segregation, the war on drugs and now mass incarceration of black men (as well as an increasing number of black women). Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is an excellent springboard for studying our country’s enduring practices of racial oppression. White America must shed its cloak of indifference and join the movement: BLACK LIVES MATTER.

‘No Human Is Wise Enough to Decide Who Should Die’

On the state Supreme Court, Utter dissented two dozen times in cases where his colleagues upheld a death sentence. (Often, those sentences were thereafter reversed in the federal courts.) His chief criticism was the unequal application of the law. He would write time and again of how one defendant had received a death sentence while others, whose crimes were worse and whose circumstances were less forgivable, had not.

–Ken Armstrong, ‘No Human Is Wise Enough to Decide Who Should Die’

A Ruling Passion: Abolishing the Death Penalty

Mr. Walls was my student at the end of his very long sentence, finishing his last high school credits and feeling grateful to be leaving prison with a diploma. On the first day of my Civics class, he grabbed a front row seat and did far more than the assigned work. One day he spoke to me in the hall about his interest in the abolition of capital punishment, asking me if he could address the class. He got to know people well when delivering books to people on Death Row in another institution. “Most of them were poor and black,” he told us. He went on to argue that the death penalty solved nothing: it did not deter crime, it did not bring the victims back, and it added layers and layers of loss and grief to the families and loved ones of the people who were executed. He talked to anyone or any group who would listen: he wrote letters to the editor and letters to legislators. He worked on this issue all the time. I called it his “ruling passion.”

News of Nebraska outlawing capital punishment is welcome, as is the continuing conversation about the efficacy of lethal injections and the spotlight on what happens to people when it goes wrong. I am heartened by knowing that other states are considering a ban on what Mr. Walls called “killing people legally.” Innocence projects around the country are discovering just how many people are innocent; the fact that we still kill innocent people is chilling. I am also encouraged to read information from Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Marc Hyden, the national coordinator, and other right-leaning opponents have been persistent for years in claiming that capital punishment is “out of line with the conservative ideas around respecting human life, upholding fiscal responsibility and limiting the scope and power of the government.” [1]

Keeping people on Death Row and carrying out capital punishment raises other questions. In an article from Harper’s magazine, Kenneth E. Hartman writes about his experiences of Christmas in prison from his early years in the 1980’s when even the guards got into the spirit of celebration with inmates. He then traces his holiday experiences through the next decades when not only did prison populations swell to unbelievable levels, but punitive attitudes grew to new and cruel heights. Hartman says the new philosophy of corrections is a “more aggressive approach to crime and criminals that holds that rehabilitation to be both pointless and fruitless.” In other words, these are throwaway people beyond any redemption.

Sent to a new facility, Hartman asks a staff member if the canteen could sell eggnog, something he had enjoyed during the holidays in another prison. The staff member says it would be impossible and asks, “What would the victims think?” Hartman replies that he doesn’t know. [2]

Exactly. No one knows what victims think or feel because only a very few are part of the process. If offenders and victims were given a chance to talk face to face, would each victim or member of victims’ families all want the person put to death? Would they want people on Death Row to suffer terribly every day for the rest of their lives? Or, would they want the space and opportunties for them to heal through the process of facing and taking responsibility for their crimes, thereby recovering their full humanity?

I am impressed with the conservative groups who are working to abolish the death penalty because it interferes with their core values. It speaks of their integrity to match actions with beliefs. People who want capital punishment and work hard to keep it going, even in the face of the recent horrors with lethal injections gone terribly wrong, need to be able to say that it is perfectly acceptable to kill people who might be innocent; be able to say that it is acceptable to kill people because they are too poor to hire a good lawyer; and be able to say that it is acceptable to mete out the death penalty on people of color far more than to white people. American citizens need to recognize—and honor–the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, including torture.

In an article in the New York Times called The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison by Jessica Benko, I was struck by the stark contrast of Norway’s highest security prison lying in the middle of blueberry fields, where the people inside are allowed fresh air and sunlight every day. We have the grim situation in this country where 80,000 people live in solitary confinement, many not seeing anything other than a small patch of sky for decades. Inmates in Norway are treated with compassion and respect, and the goal is to do as much as possible to prepare people to get out. Benko at the New York Times interviewed Ragmar Kristofferson, an anthropologist who teaches in a correctional training facility. “If you treat people badly, it’s a reflection on yourself,” he says. “In officer-training school,” he goes on to explain, “guards are taught that treating inmates humanely is not something they should do for inmates but they should do for themselves.” [3]

In Norway, if someone does something terrible, he or she is not automatically a terrible person. In the United States, if you make a mistake and commit a crime in this country today, you become that mistake—and can lose your life.  If we treat people humanely and with respect, they tend to respond humanely and respectfully. If more people could personally know and have relationships with people facing the death penalty, I think our attitudes would drastically change. Our current ruling passion in many parts of the country is to punish—and punish severely with strong voices fanning the flames of revenge and retribution. The problem of obtaining drugs to execute people is creating conversations in a few states to bring back the gas chamber, the electric chair and even—the firing squad. The violence toward people behind bars with very long sentences for non-violent crimes, the murders of black people by police, the 80,000 people in solitary confinement and our thirst for the death penalty are all part of our retributive thinking. That thinking needs to be balanced by more voices of reason, compassion and mercy. Abolishing the death penalty would support offenders’ families and it would support victims’ families if they were part of the process. If we could make our policies more compassionate and do it for ourselves as Norway does, it would move us all into a more humane country.


1. Khan, Naureen, With Nebraska Leading, Conservatives Reconsider the Death Penalty, Aljazeera America, June 2, 2015.

2. Hartman, Kenneth E., Christmas in Prison: Greeting the Holidays in an Age of Mass Incarceration. Harper’s Magazine, December, 2014.

3. Benko, Jessica, The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison, The New York Times, March 26, 2015.