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My book on racial justice became real when my family experienced hate first-hand.

Alessandra Harris wrote a new book describing the history of racism in the U.S. Then the topic hit home in suburban Northern California.

(Alessandra Harris/Instagram)

It’s common to hear, “If you pray for patience, God will give you an experience where you’ll be forced to be patient, like being stuck in a massive traffic jam on the freeway,” or, “If you pray for humility, God will give you an experience where you are humbled (or even humiliated).” I’m now wondering if those warnings extend to writing a book!

In 2022, I signed a contract with Orbis Books to write my fourth book and first non-fiction title, “In the Shadow of Freedom: The Enduring Call for Racial Justice.” I was inspired to write the book after doing research for my third novel, “Last Place Seen,” in which a couple are struggling to piece their lives back together after the husband’s 18-month stint in prison. I delved into the harsh reality the majority of people face post-incarceration, with literally thousands of laws that restrict almost every aspect of their lives, from housing to employment to government assistance. I became convinced that Michelle Alexander was right when she said mass incarceration is the present-day manifestation of slavery and Jim Crow segregation—a new form of social control over a large segment of vulnerable Black Americans and low-income people. 

Yet, it wasn’t until reading a 2020 interview with Alexander—marking ten years since her seminal book, “The New Jim Crow,” and the release of an updated edition—amidst the social uprising and racial justice protests after George Floyd’s murder, that I personally became convicted. 

“As I see it, the crisis of mass incarceration is not simply a legal or political problem to be solved, but it’s a profound spiritual and moral crisis, as well. And it requires a reckoning, individually and collectively, with our racial history, our racial present, and our racial future.”

Before, when I thought about the fact that slavery lasted for centuries in the United States, I wondered: How did people think holding people of African descent captive in forced labor camps was acceptable? When I look back on pictures of American apartheid in the Jim Crow South, with separate water fountains and “Whites only” signs, I again wondered: How did our society accept this blatant racism? But then I think about our criminal legal system today. 

Our country incarcerates the largest number of people in the world, and they are disproportionately Black. We routinely see videos of Black people murdered by police. The way these realities are normalized, I argue, is the same way slavery and Jim Crow were normalized. We have become desensitized to the suffering of millions of people held in literal cages throughout our communities nationwide.

Inspired by Alexander, I felt strongly that the Catholic community not only needed to learn about the history that led to mass incarceration, but we, as people of faith, needed to become part of the solution to end it. So, in 2021, I wrote an essay for America Magazine, “White Catholics today condemn slavery. But are they ready to fight its new manifestation—mass incarceration?” Still, the Holy Spirit inspired me to keep going. I felt the issue was too large for just an essay. 

After I submitted a proposal and went on to sign a contract with Orbis, I spent the rest of the year researching and writing my first nonfiction book. What I did not expect was the extent to which I would have to engage in what Alexander called for: “a reckoning, individually and collectively.” One of the biggest reckonings came with my own Catholic faith. 

Learning that the Catholic Church and its popes played a seminal role in the start of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; that the Church not only blessed but justified the enslavement of people of African descent for centuries; and that religious orders, bishops, priests, saints, and laypeople were enslavers shook my faith to the core. But it wasn’t only slavery. Writing about the atrocities inflicted on Black people in this country after slavery, from neo-slavery via convict leasing to racial terror lynching and Jim Crow apartheid, and the modern manifestations in the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, police violence, and the death penalty, I questioned if God was even for Black people. And if he was, why would he let our people suffer injustice for so long?

In December, just as I was finishing up my manuscript to send to the publisher and wrestling with these questions and with God, my son—who was a sophomore at Homestead High School in Cupertino, California—informed me that players on his basketball team were being racist and bullying him. What I would learn over the course of the next year was that at least eight students had been subjecting him to racist bullying at some point over the span of the two-and-a-half years he’d been there. The bullying included calling him a “slave,” “monkey,” and “dumb”; saying the police would kill him because he was Black; saying he didn’t have a father because he was Black; saying Black people were criminals; and a slew of almost daily racist taunts, insults, and “jokes” both during the school day, at basketball practices and games, and via text messages.

Though we eventually reported the racist bullying and harassment after a particularly egregious incident at a summer basketball league game, and despite involving teachers, coaches, the dean, and the principal, other students continued to bully and harass our son. Though I had specifically asked the dean of students to bring in a restorative justice practitioner to facilitate conversations with all the involved students and my son, my requests were denied. Instead, the measures the dean took only led to students my son thought were friends retaliating against him, calling him a snitch and blaming him for other students being disciplined. 

After another player on the basketball team called my son a “monkey” at basketball tryouts in late October, my husband and I had had enough. The next day, we demanded to meet with the principal and the dean, and my husband told the principal he would be addressing the students trying out for the basketball team. When he did, my husband made clear to the students in no uncertain terms they were not to mess with our son any further. All of the students who had bullied my son for months made the basketball team after tryouts, though the principal repeatedly stated there was “zero tolerance” for racism or bullying. Apparently, the administration and coaches had quite a lot of tolerance for it.

I was filled with so much anger. I had written a book discussing centuries of anti-Black racism, and now, in the 21st century, my son was still having to deal with it. What made it worse in some ways was that most of the students who were bullying my son are Asian—including some first-generation Americans. It made me realize that the hate is so deeply entrenched in American soil that a person does not even have to be White to harbor anti-Blackness. Having racist attitudes or acting them out toward Black people is somehow a path to assimilation. In many ways, my son’s experience made me lose hope that the United States will ever—or at least in my lifetime—see a day when anti-Black racism is no more. 

My husband and I filed a formal complaint with the school district in November 2023, as we had completely lost faith in the school to handle the situation. The district hired an outside investigator to investigate our complaint, which is still pending six months later, as of the time of this writing.

After everything my son experienced, and having to relive it in the hours-long investigative meetings, he got to the point where he could no longer attend the school. At the end of January, we transferred him to a small private school, even though we had no budget for an annual $20,000 tuition payment. 

In March, my husband and I attended the school district’s board meeting. We waited four hours before we could make three minutes of public comments. In mine, I mentioned that my husband and I were both born and raised in the South Bay and Peninsula before it became known as “Silicon Valley.” What our son experienced was the most egregious racism we had personally seen there, and we blamed the school and the district’s culture of tolerating racism that they knew was present on campus. I said that never in my life would I have imagined being forced out of the school district my family specifically moved to in order for our kids to attend Homestead and receive a good education.

Being forced to make that move and incur debt in order to protect our son from racism made me think of my book and the stories of African Americans in the Jim Crow South who faced abject terror with the reality of lynching, Black Codes, sharecropping, and convict leasing. The Great Migration was the relocation of more than six million Black Americans from the South to the North, Midwest, and West during the 20th century. African Americans too often bear the cost of racism inflicted upon them. We too often have no recourse but to pick up our bags (literally or proverbially) and flee racism. In my book, I tell stories of individual lynching victims, like Mary Turner, who was eight months pregnant when lynched in 1918, and the mass destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa in 1921, which was the first aerial bombing of an American city in history. Thirty-five city blocks, including 1,256 homes and virtually every business and community structure, were destroyed. Ten thousand residents became homeless, losing all they owned, their houses, and their businesses. Many also lost their lives or loved ones and to this day have never been compensated.

My book seeks to expose the intertwined roots and contemporary impacts of anti-Black racism leading to unjust legislation, police violence, and mass incarceration. But it’s often something as simple as a student being bullied, experiencing racism, living in poverty, having parents with alcohol or substance use disorder, or not having adequate social support at school or home that can lead to their dropping out, which disproportionately leads to incarceration. The following statistics about young Black youth being targeted for incarceration are startling:

  • One in five African-American males born in the 21st century will spend time in jail or prison.
  • 60% of Black boys who drop out of high school will spend time in jail or prison.
  • 30% of Black boys who graduate high school will spend time in jail or prison.
  • 49% of Black boys will be arrested before they turn 23.
  • One in four African-American children have a parent who is or was incarcerated.

My hope and prayer for those who read my book is that they will have a reckoning, individually, spiritually, and collectively, so we all take steps to rid our hearts, minds, and country of anti-Black racism once and for all. I’ll continue to seek healing and justice for my son, and I won’t stop speaking about the need for racial uprisings, like those in 2020, to continue until our country truly becomes the land of the free.

Alessandra Harris is an essayist, analyst, commentator, religion writer, and novelist known for her hard-hitting writing and advocacy for mental health and racial justice. She has degrees in comparative religion and Middle Eastern Studies. Her fourth book, “In the Shadow of Freedom: The Enduring Call for Racial Justice,” is out now with Orbis Books.

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