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?"
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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?
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.
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.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 2 Jun 10 10:37
Who are the major organizers and the lead organizations in that effort these days?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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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