inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #126 of 174: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Wed 2 Jun 10 06:31
    
Yes, Michelle's book has a good deal of stuff on how automobile laws
can be used to stop pretty much anyone.  You don't even need the iconic
broken tail light.  You didn't come to a complete stop at that stop
sign.  You stopped too long at that stop sign.  You didn't hold good
lane position.  Basically, follow *anyone* for a block or two, and you
can find some pretext for making a traffic stop.  And then it's:

"Do you mind if I search your car?"
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #127 of 174: David Albert (aslan) Wed 2 Jun 10 06:37
    
Right.  But it goes way beyond cars.  Just about anyone is breaking
SOME law or ordinance every day whether they drive or not.

I was interested in the ACLU's getting involved in the Florida noise
ordinance.  I thought maybe it was a start.  But you don't hear a huge
movement about getting rid of ALL arbitrary laws.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #128 of 174: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Wed 2 Jun 10 07:18
    
And then there's stuff like this:

Study Finds Blacks Blocked From Southern Juries 
By SHAILA DEWAN

In late April in a courthouse in Madison County, Ala., a prosecutor
was asked to explain why he had struck 11 of 14 black potential jurors
in a capital murder case. 

The district attorney, Robert Broussard, said one had seemed
“arrogant” and “pretty vocal.” In another woman, he said he “detected
hostility.” 

Mr. Broussard also questioned the “sophistication” of a former Army
sergeant, a forklift operator with three years of college, a cafeteria
manager, an assembly-line worker and a retired Department of Defense
program analyst. 

The analyst, he said, “did not appear to be sophisticated to us in her
questionnaire, in that she spelled Wal-Mart, as one of her previous
employers, as Wal-marts.” 

Arguments like these were used for years to keep blacks off juries in
the segregationist South, systematically denying justice to black
defendants and victims. But today, the practice of excluding blacks
and
other minorities from Southern juries remains widespread and,
according to defense lawyers and a new study by the Equal Justice
Initiative, a nonprofit human rights and legal services organization
in
Montgomery, Ala., largely unchecked. 

More:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/02/us/02jury.html
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #129 of 174: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Wed 2 Jun 10 07:25
    
Yup, Michelle discusses that in the book (p 118-20) and it's basically
the same deal as discrimination in prosecution and incarceration. 
Unless someone's such an idiot that they *admit* they are excluding
blacks because they're a racist, good luck trying to get a court to do
anything about it.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #130 of 174: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Wed 2 Jun 10 08:10
    
So what strikes me about all this, especially in relation to our
discussion of Hollywood, is that what's required to get a mass movement
going is some brainstorming.  There needs to be a story line that
people can grasp.

The various elements I see after this discussion and reading the book
are:

- the drug war is the prime driver behind all everything we're
discussing.
- a series of Supreme Court decisions have essentially barred the door
to any statistical argument about racial discrimination in criminal
justic, no matter how sound and convincing.
- sentences have gotten longer for a wide variety of crimes.
- many people are being imprisoned for crimes which are victimless or
trivial.
- the impact is primarily on blacks and Latinos, but whites are in
danger of becoming "collateral damage."
- the problem is not so much actual miscarriages of justice (as
addressed by the Innocent Project) but inappropriate and extreme
punishment - in other words, the victims of this situation actually are
(for the most part) guilty of crimes.
- our society has discarded the whole concept of "paying one's debt to
society" and consigned ex-felons to a permanent subcaste, with blacks
dominating this caste in vast disproportion to their numbers.
- once you have been branded with the felon stigma, the rest of your
life will take place in an alternate universe where meeting even your
simplest needs will be a huge challenge.

So it's a complicated picture, and that somehow has to be translated
into something that a) people can quickly understand and b) they will
feel good about supporting.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #131 of 174: David Albert (aslan) Wed 2 Jun 10 08:55
    
The good news is that one could begin to solve the problem by fixing
even ONE of the above list of serious problems.  Of course, it would be
nice to magically fix all of them.  But how about we start with this
one:

> our society has discarded the whole concept of "paying one's debt to
> society" and consigned ex-felons to a permanent subcaste, 

It seems to have something more of a resonance with the public at
large.  Several different letters in recent editions of the Boston
Globe speak to this issue.  One of them is about a teacher who was put
on leave after it was uncovered that she had had a violent past as a
teenager.

The letter writer concludes: "If more than two decades of clean living
can't erase those mistakes, what possibly can?  Your [Boston Globe
editorial] implication that people can never rise above their past
mistakes is as disturbing to me as the rest of the facts in the case."
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #132 of 174: Gail Williams (gail) Wed 2 Jun 10 09:04
    
Ironically, the narrative of redemption is seen in fiction now with a
current television series about witness protection programs.  

The only absolution seems to be by becoming a witness and leaving -- a
formalized betrayal and exile.  

Or am I missing popular tales of forgiveness and change, of the long
slow process of living it down by living right?
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #133 of 174: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Wed 2 Jun 10 09:22
    
In the book, Michelle says the most important single step is ending
the drug war.  I agree.  It's a very tough nut to crack, but it needs
cracking.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #134 of 174: those Andropovian bongs (rik) Wed 2 Jun 10 09:37
    
Taxation is the key.   The government needs the money, and the states are
leading the way.   I suspect we'll have legal, taxable pot in California
within five years.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #135 of 174: Gail Williams (gail) Wed 2 Jun 10 10:37
    
Who are the major organizers and the lead organizations in that effort
these days?
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #136 of 174: those Andropovian bongs (rik) Wed 2 Jun 10 10:56
    
Not being the pothead I used to be, my contacts are limited, but I read a
blurb in the Chron last week that a union is trying to organize medical pot
workers.   There's a potential lobby right there.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #137 of 174: Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Wed 2 Jun 10 11:56
    

I think one missing piece of the grand narrative that Mark sketched
above is the racial history. Mass incarceration is traceable, like
slavery and Jim Crow, to an effort to pit lower-status whites against
African Americans.  In fact, much of what is wrong in our society today
is traceable to that dynamic.  There's a great book on the subject -
Chain Reaction.  The book shows that racial resentment and anxiety is a
large part of why we don't have universal health care and excellent
public schools.  Countless studies have shown that much of the fury
about not wanting to pay higher taxes for welfare, public education and
health care - the basic linchpins of a progressive society - are
rooted in unconscious and conscious racial bias and resentment
(feelings of not wanting "my tax dollars to pay for 'them.'"  In more
homogenous societies, like Switzerland, that dynamic is not present. 

The pitting of lower status whites and blacks against each other gave
rise to a "get tough" movement and a War on Drugs that has decimated
communities of color, militarized law enforcement, and caused
tremendous collateral damage to whites - particularly poor whites (the
very folks who are most likely to support get tough rhetoric).  We have
managed to repeat history, yet again, by creating an enormous racial
undercaste - a group of people, defined largely by race, who are locked
into a permanent second class status, in which they can be denied the
right to vote, automatically excluded from juries and legally
discriminated against in nearly all the ways we supposedly left behind.


None of this benefits anyone.  It's extraordinarily costly, inhumane,
and perpetuates a caste-like status for people of color in the United
States.  It's an embarrassment for the so-called land of the free to be
running a system like this.  

Perhaps if more international attention were brought to bear on this
system, our elected officials would second-guess this operation.  A
number of scholars have argued that Jim Crow collapsed in large part
because the system was damaging our nation's image as leader of the
free world. One historian makes this case well in her book, Cold War
Civil Rights.  What if our hypocrisy became the talk of the world?  It
may be easy for us to rationalize this system to ourselves, given how
blind we've become, but would it be so easy for us to explain what's
going on here to rest of the world?
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #138 of 174: Gail Williams (gail) Wed 2 Jun 10 14:36
    
Yeah, the choice of looking at what is happening systemically goes
against effective slogan politics and strategic single-issue
coalitions, but it seems more honest and more powerful once the big
picture is in focus.  

Making proposed changes make sense means talking about race with
people who have some very ugly core beliefs, and who will call talking
about race "playing the race card" and worse. And here I am
anticipating a response.  

What kinds of responses have you seen to your book from those who are
less predisposed to be sympathetic, Michelle?  
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #139 of 174: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 3 Jun 10 05:28
    
Here's an article about another aspect of this problem that's
discussed in the book - the rise of the SWAT team:

<http://www.alternet.org/story/147068/swat_raids_gone_wrong_--_paramilitary_pol
icing_is_out_of_control_/>

"In 1980, 2,884 SWAT deployments were recorded nationwide; the number
today is estimated by experts at 50,000 annually or more."

Michelle has similar statistics in the book.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #140 of 174: Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Thu 3 Jun 10 07:15
    

The reception that I've received at book events has been uniformly
positive, but then again I'm not invited to speak unless people want to
hear what I have to say!

Radio shows have been a different story.  Interestingly, the most
hostile responses I've received have been from two black ministers who
host their own radio shows, and from working-class whites who've called
into mainstream radio shows that I've done.  Both of the black
ministers reach audiences that are overwhelming black.  Their message
is almost identical to the message of the most hostile, conservative
whites:  young black men who won't play by the rules, who won't stay in
school, and who won't act right have brought all of horrors of the
criminal justice system on themselves; they're responsible for
destruction of the black family.  And the destruction of the black
family is the reason so many black families remain mired in poverty and
it's the reason that so many black neighborhoods are riddled with
crime.  Black men have abandoned their families -- "acting like boys
instead of men," as Obama put it in his 2009 Father's Day speech -- and
until they open their hearts to Jesus and change their ways, nothing
will change.  Black men, they say, have no one to blame but themselves.

That's the narrative.  For those who are most committed to this view,
there's little hope of having rational dialogue.  When I tell them that
research shows that black men actually do a better job of maintaining
relationships with their children following a separation (due to
divorce, imprisonment, or any other factor) than men of any other race
or ethnicity, I'm told that I'm wrong.  When I tell them that the
overwhelming majority of the increase in black imprisonment has been
due to convictions for relatively minor non-violent crimes and drug
offenses - the sorts of crimes that occur with equal frequency in white
communities, I'm told that I'm wrong.  When I tell them that the
criminal justice system operates to create an enormous caste of people
who literally can't survive or find housing, I'm told - no, if you try
hard enough anyone can make it.  I'm just making excuses.

Those who are most committed to the
"black-men-have-done-it-to-themselves" narrative deny the facts and
angrily insist that I'm trying to make excuses.  What's interesting is
how similar the language is, even though it stems from different
motivations.  The views of the black ministers seem rooted in black
pride and a commitment to self-determination -- "black men should stand
up and lead, not look to the white man to save us" -- whereas the
white folks tend to express sentiments like "black people should stop
whining and looking for hand outs."  On the surface the statements are
very similar, but they come from different places.

What I find encouraging, though, is that most people (of all races)
seem to want to learn more.  I've spoken on lots of different types of
radio shows and most people who call in express shock that people
convicted of drug offenses are barred from public housing for a minimum
of five years and barred from food stamps for life.  They can't
believe that people released from prison are saddled with thousands of
dollars in debt, and may be required to pay back fees or the cost of
their imprisonment as a condition of parole -- even though getting a
job is next to impossible.  The more they hear, the more they seem to
want to know - to better understand.  I get inspired by seeing the
light bulb go on, as people start to dig deeper and begin to make the
connections for themselves.  

This response makes me believe that those who have been indifferent
can be inspired to care -- really care -- if they pause to consider
what is really going on and the staggering amount of unnecessary
suffering that has been caused.

   
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #141 of 174: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 3 Jun 10 07:31
    
Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, official received wisdom was that
environment was everything.  Since 1980, we seem to have gone to the
opposite extreme.  It's all about personal choices and individual
merit.  But the higher truth is that it's all of those things.

There's an old R&B song titled "You Can Make it if You Try."  The
sentiment may be true, but it's hardly the whole story.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #142 of 174: There are more things in heaven and earth..... (robertflink) Thu 3 Jun 10 09:46
    
Good point.  Much in our culture is framed as "either/or".  This may
serve to give us warm fuzzies for being "deciders".  It does little to
engage practical problems in a complex world.  

Incidentally, the "either/or" approach is often bought by those that
it hurts the most.  Simplicity may be the thing we all worship the
most.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #143 of 174: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 3 Jun 10 10:00
    
I imagine you get that in a lot of cultures, but Americans of all
creeds and colors do seem to love to think that way.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #144 of 174: Betsy Schwartz (betsys) Thu 3 Jun 10 11:42
    
We had an author a while back, Silja Talvi , who wrote similarly about
women in the prison system  ( http://www.womenbehindbars.org/ ). There
are a great many women (of all colors) in the prison system, many
serving extremely long sentences for relatively small crimes involving
drug addiction - possession or petty theft. Many have untreated mental
health issues.  

It's the same problem that you're addressing, in many ways, but sliced
across a different population. We've got a giant underclass in this
country with limited legitimate work available,  and a prison system
that is locking up people at the highest rate in the *world*, and a
social system that guarantees permanent failure for most ex-cons. And
we have movements pushing for more and longer prison terms, and a
widening gap between below-subsistence-wage service workers and those
who land white-collar jobs. 

I think what's happening to Black men in this country is just one way
to slice the bigger problem. 
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #145 of 174: Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Fri 4 Jun 10 21:55
    
I think the way we, as a society, typically conceive of choice and
personal responsibility is misguided.  

We seem to think people who "choose" to go to college, build a career,
get married, and have a family are morally superior -- "good,
hardworking, smart people."  By contrast, those who drop out of high
school, get arrested, can't find work or hold down a job, and have
children out of wedlock are morally inferior -- "criminals who lack
family values and are nothing but trouble."

Of course, many of us face moments in our lives that are truly forks
in the road, times when we consciously make big choices that affect our
destiny, and we act with an understanding that we are making moral
choices, not just practical ones.

But when I look back at my life, I find those moments don't come along
very often.  I can't claim moral superiority because I went to
college, got married and had kids.  After all, I never considered NOT
going to college. In my family it was expected  -- understood -- that I
was going to college.  It never dawned on me that I might choose
differently, and it certainly never crossed my mind that I might drop
out of high school.  

To what extent, then, can I take credit for my decision to go to
college?  How is my decision to "stay in school" a moral one?  How can
I possibly know what type of decision I might have made if no one in my
life expected me to go to college or had been to college?  And to what
extent can I claim better "values" because I gave birth to my children
after getting married?  Would I have made the same "choice" if all the
boys I grew up with were headed to prison before they reached voting
age?  Would I have expected marriage, waited for it?  Would marriage
have seemed like a possible "choice" -- an option at all?

And to what extent can I take credit for not being a "criminal"? 
After all, I am a criminal, I've just never been caught. 

I'm not arguing here for moral relativism.  And I'm not arguing that
we don't each bear ultimate responsibility for our own actions.  I'm
just saying that the only person that any of us is in a position to
judge is ourselves.  Of course, we can serve on juries and judge the
facts and determine whether or not a crime has been committed. And we
can make judgments about whether a certain law or policy is likely to
create social harm or benefit.

But moral judgments about the relative value of human beings and
judgements about whether people are "good" or "bad"  -- those judgments
are better left to one's God, if you have one.  

I find it extremely humbling when I meet people who are in prison with
life sentences because they couldn't bring themselves to rat out a
loved one - a brother, friend, or cousin.  They would be free today, if
they had just given up a name or made up a story.  But they didn't.  
They couldn't bring themselves to betray someone they cared about. 
That's loyalty.  Would I be that loyal?  Would I choose a life sentence
rather than condemn a friend to decades in prison for a minor drug
crime?  

I'd like to believe that I would be that loyal, just like I'd like to
believe that I would have risked my life during the Civil Rights
Movement, marching unarmed past the Klan.  There are lots of things I'd
like to believe about myself, I'm just not sure they're all true.  

For example, would I risk eviction from public housing -- risk
homelessness -- by allowing a friend or loved one to stay with me after
being released from prison?  Would I be that generous?  I like to
think so, but perhaps not, especially now that I have kids.  I'd likely
say sorry, so sorry, but I can't take the risk. 

And what about the young boy who skips school to sell dope because he
overheard his mother say she didn't have enough money to pay the rent
again?  He wants to help his mom, make everything okay.  Is that kid "a
no-good drug dealer" or a loving son?  I know that kid, and he's a
good kid.  A better kid than I was when I was his age.

And what about the kid who never knew his father, and his older
brother is in prison.  He "chooses" to join a gang -- his surrogate
family.  Is he a "bad" kid or a kid who wants to be loved and cared
for? Both? Don't we all need families -- caring support systems?  If
so, how much of joining a gang for some kids is a "choice" and how much
is survival?

This is not to say that youth in ghetto communities are simply
"products of their environment."  No, we as human beings are not simply
organisms responding to stimuli.  We have a higher self, a capacity
for transcendence.  But our ability to exercise free will and transcend
the most extraordinary obstacles does not make the conditions of our
life irrelevant.  Most of us have difficulty sticking to a diet or
breaking a bad habit, even in our relatively privileged lives.  

As a society, our decision to heap shame and contempt upon those who
struggle and fail in a system designed to keep them locked up and
locked out says far more about ourselves than it does about them.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #146 of 174: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Fri 4 Jun 10 22:04
    
I still remember the very first time I heard the song "There But for
Fortune" by Phil Ochs.  I was about 15 at the time.  I got it right
away, and it changed the way I looked at things forever.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #147 of 174: David Albert (aslan) Sat 5 Jun 10 01:37
    
> As a society, our decision to heap shame and contempt upon those who
> struggle and fail in a system designed to keep them locked up and
> locked out says far more about ourselves than it does about them.

In one of the educational philosophy books I read growing up, I
learned that kids who say "Tommy did such-and-such" are often really
saying, "... and I didn't, so I'm good and you should love me."

It's the same thing here.  People who put down those who have "made
bad choices" perhaps aren't trying to hurt those people so much as to
say "Look at me -- I'm good; I rose above that; I deserve praise and a
decent standard of living."

If all those people saying that HAD a decent standard of living, and
could COUNT on that decent standard of living, maybe they'd feel less
of a need to insist upon it.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #148 of 174: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sat 5 Jun 10 08:03
    
Right, I think a lot of the moralizing on this issue is all tangled up
with our economic anxieties.  

We stigmatize others in part because we want to believe that you'll
only end up at the bottom of the heap if you do really stupid or
depraved things.  We all want to think "well, I don't do that, so I'm
safe."

The fact that we've set up our law enforcement bureaucracy so that it
mainly imprisons blacks and Latinos just reinforces the feeling.  "See?
Those aren't people like me."
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #149 of 174: Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Sat 5 Jun 10 14:37
    
"I'm just saying that the only person that any of us is in a position
to judge is ourselves."

I'm not sure I'd go that far, but I would say that the number of
people I know well enough to be in a position to judge is probably
pretty small, certainly less than a dozen.

For most others, we're going off of reputation, first impressions, and
mental shortcuts. It's nearly impossible not to do this, both because
it's built in and because it's impractical. There's a high error rate,
and yet we can't get by *without* making judgements.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #150 of 174: Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Sat 5 Jun 10 17:25
    
David and Mark, I agree completely.  And Brian, you've given me
something to think about.  Here's why I think we can really only judge
ourselves:

In my experience, I'm often wrong about what I think I know about the
people closest to me.  In recent years, I've been shocked to learn
things about my mother that I never would have guessed, and there were
things that I learned about my father after his death that changed my
view of him entirely.  Even with my closest friends, I find that I
sometimes make assumptions about their past experience or current
motivations that turn out mistaken.  When I'm honest with myself, I
have to admit that there's more that I don't know about the people I
know best, than I do know.

Of course, we can and should make judgements about what types of
behavior is good or bad, helpful or harmful.  But judgments about the
value of an individual, their moral worthiness or blameworthiness --
that's a different story entirely, in my view.

When I was a law clerk for Justice Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court,
I drafted his dissenting opinion in Callins v. Callins.  In that
dissent, he announced that he would "no longer tinker with the
machinery of death;" he would vote against the death penalty in every
capital case that came before him.  Decades earlier he had voted with
the majority to reinstate the death penalty in the United States. But
after many years of trying to develop rules and standards by which the
death penalty could be administered fairly, he came to the conclusion
that the whole enterprise was utterly futile.  It was impossible to
devise a fair and reliable system of capital punishment.  Most
commentators understood his position as a purely pragmatic -- i.e.,
death is different, mistakes happen, bias is inevitable, and we can't
risk bias and error in a capital system.

But I found deeper meaning in his opinion.  After years of trying to
develop rules, processes, and standards for judging the moral worth of
human beings -- their fitness to live -- he found the task impossible. 
Of course, we can develop evidentiary rules and standards for judging
whether a crime occurred, but we cannot -- with any reliability --
judge the moral worth of a human being and say with any confidence
whether they deserve to live or die.  The task of judging the moral
worth of other human beings seems doomed to fail, which is perhaps why
so many of the world's religions advise against it.

All of this feels a little tangential to my book, but perhaps it's
not.  Our tendency to want to judge people as fundamentally good or
bad, superior or inferior, and to rank people in terms of their
intrinsic goodness or badness is profoundly related to the emergence of
caste-like systems not just in the United States, but everywhere in
the world.
  

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