"What does not change / is the will to change"
--Charles Olson, "The Kingfishers"

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A rigged system

Another day and another inexplicable grand jury ruling on police use of force.

I say this despite not being on the grand jury and not being there the day Eric Garner was choked to death by a New York City policeman -- a choke hold that is against police procedure in New York and illegal, a death ruled a homicide by the medical examiner.

But maybe calling the grand jury's decision inexplicable misses the point. It is, after all, all too explicable, given the way the law is structured, given the deference we show police and the racial animus that underlies so much of our day-to-day interactions.

I don't use the phrase "racial animus" lightly. Race infects everything we do, at least on some level. It is there in our language -- see this interesting piece on seven common, racially coded expressions that we think are harmless, but that carry subtle and not-so-subtle messages. It is there in our hiring practices, our politics, our policing. It remains a central fact of American life.

Consider this screen grab of a Facebook discussion from yesterday -- I blotted out the names and icons of the people involved. This is a fairly typical conservative/white response to the protests against police abuses triggered by the Ferguson grand jury and intensified in the wake of yesterday's announcement in Staten Island. (I am not saying that all whites or conservatives think this way, but this seemed to sum up the tenor of many of the conversations I've been hearing over the last two weeks -- both from politicians and the conservative blogosphere, and people I talk with live or on social media.)

This argument creates a false equivalency, which gets to the heart of the different ways in which blacks and whites view the criminal justice system. I say false equivalence because:
  • The accused were indicted and there is a pretty good chance they will be convicted, while the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner were not.
  • The Virginia case is a rarity when compared with the Brown and Garner cases.
  • Police are state agents acting on behalf of us, meaning their actions reflect our values. It's why shootings deaths like Brown's, or Tamir Rice's in Cleveland, and why Garner's death literally in the hands of a police officer are more than tragic, and why African Americans see police shootings not as an anomaly -- as many whites do -- but as an extension of a lived history.
Whites can pretend it is otherwise, that African Americans are overreacting (they are not), and that race no longer matters in the United States. We can pat ourselves on the back and point to the election of a black president, of a black senator here in New Jersey, and pretend we are in a post-racial era. We are not -- made clear when we look at the differences in earnings and wealth between blacks and whites, when we look at housing patterns, at the wide gulf in school spending and educational outcomes, and so on.

We can say the criminal justice system did its job -- and that is probably true. But that is only because the system is rigged in favor of police, in favor of power, in favor of maintaining the status quo.

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Saturday, November 29, 2014

More than skin deep

This CNN piece from earlier this week dovetails with some of what we have been discussing in my composition classes this semester -- that racism can manifest itself in more subtle ways than the more overt race-baiting and hatred with which we normally associate the race discussion.

The piece opens with a discussion of what it calls a "classic study:
They showed people a photograph of two white men fighting, one unarmed and another holding a knife. Then they showed another photograph, this one of a white man with a knife fighting an unarmed African-American man.

When they asked people to identify the man who was armed in the first picture, most people picked the right one. Yet when they were asked the same question about the second photo, most people -- black and white -- incorrectly said the black man had the knife.
This is just one of several studies reviewed in the story, which ultimately points out that race and racial biases affect nearly all of us in ways more subtle and perhaps more insidious than the overt hostility of the white-hooded Klansman. Duke University sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls it "racism without racists." As he explained to CNN,
"The more we assume that the problem of racism is limited to the Klan, the birthers, the tea party or to the Republican Party, the less we understand that racial domination is a collective process and we are all in this game."
I write this not to castigate anyone in particular. We all engage in this kind of subtle and often unconscious bias -- myself included. What does it mean when we say "some of my best friends are black" or that "we shouldn't throw accusations of racism around lightly"? What does it mean to say something is "ghetto" or to call something "classy"? And doesn't the meaning of the phrase "hip-hop culture" change depending upon how it is used? How about "the race card"?

This is ingrained -- and unfortunate. And it has infected even the least prejudiced of us. When we talk about good and bad neighborhoods, we may be talking about crime rates, but often we also are talking -- at least on some level -- about race. When we describe black athletes as gifted, but white athletes as smart (this occurs far less frequently than it did in the past), we are using racially coded language.

Howard J. Ross, author of "Everyday Bias," told CNN that these biases are normal, but that we need to own up to them and take responsibility for them. 
"We need to reduce the level of guilt but increase the level of responsibility we take for it," he says. "I didn't choose to internalize these messages, but it's inside of me and I have to be careful."
Again, I could be wrong about this, but our use of language has embedded in it these codes -- "ghetto" versus "classy," "good" and "bad" neighborhoods, etc. And the language probably reflects our underlying beliefs. I wrote last week about the "classiness" meme as it related to criticism of the Obamas and made the point that the racism contained in the meme was subtle. Not everyone who posted it is racist, but the meme seems to have been designed, at least in part (that is a lot of qualifiers), to appeal to this racial undercurrent.

I think we need to be honest about it and admit that this inherent bias may be guiding some of our decisions and that it does affect our politics and even our policing. Was Officer Darren Wilson a racist, or the officer who shot Tamir Rice in Cleveland? I don't think so -- at least no more than most of the rest of us. But subconscious racial assumptions may have left the officers assuming the worst -- and with disastrous results. This is why we need to constantly question our assumptions and our motives. None of us are so pure as to be immune from this.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thoughts on Michael Brown and Ferguson

So, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., was justified. That is essentially what the grand jury said yesterday when it refused to hand down an indictment against the shooter, Police Officer Darren Wilson. I know that, technically, the grand jury didn't say that. It found that there was not enough evidence to indict, but that is not the message being sent. And that is why there is a lot of anger in Ferguson and throughout the country.

I don't know what happened that night. I wasn't there and I was not on the grand jury. Few of us were, so we can't say for certain that Wilson did not fear for his life -- a key component of his defense. We can't know if he was afraid -- and, even if we assume he was, we can't know on what he based that fear, whether it was tied to stereotypes of young black males or to Brown's size or a real threat.

That distinction is important, because it relates back to the question of race in America. Police, as the courts have ruled, have a right to use deadly force if they fear for their lives or the lives of others. But what triggers the fear? When race is involved, as we saw in the Trayvon Martin tragedy, it literally can color judgment, lead us to assumptions that are far from accurate.

Brown was a large black teen, a fact that carries with it certain assumptions and biases to which even the best of us fall prey. So, it is not out of the realm of possibility that race played a role in Wilson's thinking, in the way he read the situation, in his reaction. Brown's physical presence may have been enough of a threat for Wilson to create fear in the officer's mind, may have been enough for him to believe he needed to respond with fatal force.

If this was true and the fear was enough to justify the use of deadly force, then this is more than a tragedy. It was a travesty. It is part of a long history in which black bodies come to stand in for danger and that black teens are seen as predators.

That's why I am having trouble not looking at this through the lens of race. We are supposed to assume that the justice system works, that the grand jury did its job and that the evidence led it to make a fair and well-thought-out decision. We are supposed to assume that the prosecutor in Missouri, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough,  was just trying to be transparent and fair to all sides.

But as Dana Milbank, of all people, points out, "the joke of a grand-jury proceeding run under the auspices of McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor," seemed to guarantee a pre-ordained result: "his decision not to recommend a specific charge to the grand jury essentially guaranteed there would be no indictment."
McCulloch essentially acknowledged that his team was serving as Wilson’s defense lawyers, noting that prosecutors “challenged” and “confronted” witnesses by pointing out previous statements and evidence that discredited their accounts.
This, as so many commentators have pointed out, put McCullough in the dual position of prosecutor and defense attorney -- an untenable position. In August, Vox quoted Alex Little, a former federal prosecutor, as questioning the approach taken by McCullough:
(T)here is no obligation for prosecutors to present possible defenses to the grand jury. The only question the grand jury must answer is whether there is probable cause to believe a crime has occurred. That's a very low standard, and it's almost always met when the District Attorney seeks charges.

If he takes that approach, then he's already decided to abdicate his role in the process as an advocate for justice.

So when a District Attorney says, in effect, 'we'll present the evidence and let the grand jury decide,"'that's malarkey. If he takes that approach, then he's already decided to abdicate his role in the process as an advocate for justice. At that point, there's no longer a prosecutor in the room guiding the grand jurors, and — more importantly — no state official acting on behalf of the victim, Michael Brown.
That, said Vox last night, "could have made an indictment less likely."

So why go to the grand jury? Some are saying McCullough did not have a choice, that it was politically problematic for him not to seek an indictment. But, as Milbank says, "it appeared he wasn’t even trying to get an indictment" and that "he had a long record of protecting police in such cases."

So, when the no-bill came down last night, Milbank said, "he prefaced it by blaming the press and social media for whipping up emotions in the case with inaccurate information." More importantly,
He hid behind the grand jurors, as if he hadn’t orchestrated their decision with the finesse of conductor Christoph Eschenbach: “Anyone suggesting that somehow it’s just not a full and fair process is just unfair to these people” who “gave up their lives” to deliberate.
The point is that the grand jury is not a jury. It is, as I wrote on a friend's Facebook wall earlier today,
an arm of the prosecution.
Normally, the prosecutor presents HIS case to the grand jury. He acts as an advocate for the victims (in theory) and the state, which is supposed to speak for the victims, and uses the GJ as part of the prosecutorial arm (it is not the same thing as a jury).
There is no right to a defense during a grand jury proceeding. That comes during a trial.

Complicating matters further, the interests of the state and the defense were intertwined, leaving the victim out in the cold with no one to guarantee him, Michael Brown, a fair hearing.


None of this is meant to lay a blanket of criticism across all police officers. I have the utmost respect for them and the job they do. And, as I told my class tonight, 95 percent -- and probably more -- are conscientious and committed to protecting the communities they serve. But they also are human and they are subject to the same foibles -- the same prejudices, the same fears, the same momentary lapses -- as the rest of us. They are trained to be better, and in most cases they are. But they are human and when they fire a gun and a life is taken, the public has a right to expect a fair and open investigation. As of now, it is unclear that Bob McCullough provided that.


This collection of essays, by the way, are a necessary read. They offer a variety of viewpoints on the question of police culpability.


Some other thoughts (I posted a version of this to another friend's Facebook thread, but wanted to share it here):
I was thinking this morning about how we construct narratives. TV news' need for striking and dramatic images tends to draw the eye away from more peaceful protests to violence because the violence is visual. Then the media uses the imagery to help reinforce its preconceived notion that the violence was inevitable so that it can stop looking at the underlying causes of the rage that resulted in the violence.

What helps drive this is the majority's almost blind trust in the police -- something the minority community lost a long time ago. The default position for most is to assume that police must take a military position, that their job entails cracking down on unruly and dangerous masses -- especially the darker ones -- and that the police must act like the military to do so. It is the norm, as is the TV-cop-show-inspired militarization of the relationship between police and the public. In many communities (not all -- there are thousands of good cops out there), we have moved from "protect and serve" to an occupational mindset. This attitude frames the reaction to photos of police in military gear, which we no longer question. (See my essay on this in Dinosaur, which is only available in full form if you buy the magazine.)

I also think the lessons of the civil rights movement about the impact of violence on the broader public's acceptance of protest have been lost -- because we have (through public policy and not-so-benign neglect) created a series of minority bantustans throughout the country, which allows anger to fester, where jobs in the legitimate economy are scarce, where the money that can be made is tied to drugs and other illicit activities; and because the society as a whole has become more accepting of violence as a tool of redress, whether real, as in our shoot-first foreign policy, or metaphorical, as in the way we have endorsed name calling and personal attack and innuendo as legitimate modes of argument.

In the end, we should be discussing whether the use of force by police deserves more scrutiny on a regular basis (and not just when there is a high-profile shooting); whether we need to re-evaluate the role of police and whether this militarization is necessary or wise; how we can break up these bantustans and provide broader housing and economic opportunities for all (it is going to take more than expanding the pie); and how we can devalue violence as a mode of redress. Instead, we are going to continue to discuss the torching of a convenience store and we will use it to ignore the real issues in play.
 As a postscript, I want to add that
the focus on arson is similar to the repeated playing of the videotape that purportedly shows Brown robbing the convenience store. It shifts the blame for underlying issues of race and power to one in which we can dismiss Brown -- or brown people -- as unworthy of our respect or support.
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Monday, November 24, 2014

Doubling down on my no-endorsemenet stance

Back in the fall of 2013, I wrote a blog post critical of an endorsement editorial published by The Star-Ledger. The paper's editorial, which backed Gov. Chris Christie for re-election, can be summed up this way: The governor sucks, but Barbara Buono sucks more, and, besides, we like his views on school reform.

My response was simple: Stop making endorsements. If you feel that you have to endorse someone who does not live up to your standards, then maybe you need to rethink the entire process.

Not everyone agreed with me. Some said the newspaper endorsement was a long and necessary tradition -- one I used to subscribe to -- while others said that we should reserve the practice for those cases when a choice was clear.

I've thought about this on and off since my 2013 post and have wondered whether I was too harsh. In the end, I don't think so -- and today's odd, pre-endorsement endorsement on MyCentralJersey.com (home of The Courier-News and The Home News-Tribune) underscores my thinking. In it, MyCentralJersey.com essentially endorses a Republican Assemblyman without making an endorsement, pushing him to throw his hat in and saying he had qualities that would make him a good candidate. (The editorial also attacks the current redistricting rules as corrupt and overly partisan because the Legislature gets to pick the tie-breaking vote on the panel -- which is not accurate. The 13th member is appointed by the Redistricting Commission if there are seven votes in favor of the appointment. If not, the state Supreme Court chooses.)

Here is what MyCentralJersey has to say about Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, the subject of today's editorial. Bramnick, it says, "is a funny guy," who wants to remind public officials that they "should lighten up a little in trying to get things done."

MyCentralJersey calls that "a message public officials would do well to heed."
Most New Jerseyans would love to find a politician they can laugh with rather than laugh at. That doesn’t mean treating the serious business of government and politics lightly. It does mean giving residents a sense that real people are in charge, people with an independent mind and a sense of humor and not just a collection of vaguely shady characters serving themselves and their benefactors instead of the public.
The governor would seem to fit the bill, but he
has turned out to be just as manipulative and abusive with his power as those of whom he had once been so critical. He earns points with the public for his own self-deprecating humor, but there’s a phony quality to it that’s been exposed by his thin-skinned arrogance and bullying nature.
Bramnick is different, the editorial says. He's a politician, to be sure, but he "also spends a lot of time talking about humor and civility in politics, not exactly common topics among lawmakers."

This, MyCentralJersey says, is of paramount concern. So, it goes on,
Here’s hoping Bramnick does indeed toss his hat into the gubernatorial ring for 2017. Maybe he can be what Christie has only pretended to be — a leader who can distance himself from the usual political nonsense and govern the state responsibly. We’d still like to think that’s possible. Hey, don’t laugh.
My point here has nothing to do with Bramnick. He may very well turn out to be the best candidate for the job. My criticism is with MyCentralJersey, which has complicated future endorsements. Imagine you are another Republican down the road who loses out on an MyCentralJersey endorsement to Bramnick; you could make the case that the fix was in before you even attended an editorial board meeting.

As I said last year, we should move away from the personal endorsement and focus more on laying out the issues that matter, telling the reader why and then explaining where the candidates stand. Essentially, we should frame the debate, but let the voters decide what is most important.

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Otherness and the immigration debate

Apropos my post from last week on classiness and race, I recommend this Charles Blow column deconstructing the opposition to President Barack Obama's executive order on deportation.

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