The Moral Elephant in Black America’s Room

What would happen if moral virtue hailed supreme in low-income black neighborhoods?

One has to wonder how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would respond to the state of black America in 2013. From the nonsense that regularly spews from the mouth of rappers like Lil Wayne to the black-on-black violence that continues to plague many black urban and rural neighborhoods, we are moving further away from King’s dream. Did MLK die so that rappers like Lil Wayne could saturate their music with misogyny and materialism? Did MLK die so that young black males could sabotage their lives and the lives of others in their neighborhoods?

Moreover, what continues to baffle many of us is the curious absence of a discussion about the promotion of moral values in low-income communities as a way to undermine the mass incarceration epidemic in the black community because of the government’s failed drug policies.

Maria Lloyd, Business Manager for Your Black World Network, recently wrote a column outlining a few of the social consequences of the mass incarceration of African American men resulting from failed federal drug policy including the proliferation of HIV/AIDS, unemployment, and mass incarceration. In fact, a December 2012 recent Justice Department report observes that “nearly half (48%) of inmates in federal prison were serving time for drug offenses in 2011, while slightly more than a third (35%) were incarcerated for public-order crimes.” Lloyd continues,

Among African-Americans who have grown up during the era of mass incarceration, one in four has had a parent locked up at some point during childhood. For black men in their 20s and early 30s without a high school diploma, the incarceration rate is so high — nearly 40 percent nationwide — that they’re more likely to be behind bars than to have a job.

The war on drugs, like the war on poverty, has been lost and many argue that both “wars” need to be called off. The resultant mass incarceration of black males has had a significant impact on cycles of poverty, family breakdown in the black community, and the removal of able bodied men from the labor market. While these issues are true, what also needs to be addressed is state of moral virtue in black America. We have to wonder what would happen if moral virtue hailed supreme in low-income black neighborhoods that were vulnerable to failed drug war policies. Given the known consequences of federal drug policy, what would happen if people chose not to put themselves in positions to get busted on a drug charge? What if black leaders decided to undermine the prison industrial complex by providing a vision for a virtuous black America where incarceration rates plummeted not because laws changed in the short-term, although that needs to happen, but because men and women in black communities across this country protested and resisted the government’s “war” by living more virtuously?

This is what the Bible means by living above reproach (1 Timothy 3:1-7). As legislators work to change federal drug policy, it seems that the best short-term strategy to deal with the mass incarceration of black men is the promotion and practice of a lifestyle where there would be no cause or occasion of criminal activity connected to drug use or distribution. No drugs, no arrests. No arrests, no mass incarceration. This proposal will sound fanciful to some but it only sounds unreasonable if you believe that black men are not capable of virtuous living. This is the moral elephant in the room. It might be time to subvert the inconsistency of federal drug policy by taking the high moral road that is often less traveled. While we call for needed changes in federal drug policy we also need to call black men and women to virtuous living.

Anthony Bradley is an Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at The King’s College, NYC. This article first appeared on the Acton Institute Power Blog and is used with permission.