Wednesday, April 24, 2013
I'm still trying to digest the implications of this - the fact that a large section of our domestic narcotics problem originated in a foreign war. What do you guys think?
Monday, April 22, 2013
Sunday, April 21, 2013
Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow was one of themost important books we have read in this class because it deals with an issue that blacks are facing today, and more alarmingly an issue that is continuing to worsen while laregely going unnoticed. In a supposed “post-racial society” where people point to black exceptionalism like Oprah and Barack Obama as examples of black’s escaping the expectations of inner city blacks, Alexander’s work is important for the fact that it brings us back to reality.
Friday, April 19, 2013
We've talked a lot about colorblindness in this class, and I think Alexander does a solid job highlighting the flaws with this paradigm. In saying "our blindness [...] prevents us from seeing the racial and structural divisions that persist in society: the segregated, unequal schools, the segregated, jobless ghettos, and the segregated public discourse," Alexander agitates the notion that the United States has attained equality, for equality in spite of race is not equality at all (228). On a more personal note, Alexander's mention of segregated schools reached me on a deep level. Having volunteered or worked in the DCPS system for about two years, I have become increasingly sensitive to how important reading in particular is for future-building. I'm going to link two short articles from Forbes and the Indiana state government website that talk about reading levels as early as third grade and their effect on how states perceive and project crime statistics.
P.S. I have small problems with the ways in which both of these articles contextualize the given information, but the basic information is in keeping with what I have read elsewhere.
A couple weeks ago I flew out to the University of Oregon to interview for a fellowship as well as to visit the Law School as an admitted student. While I was there I attended a talk that I found very interesting which I believe relates somewhat to Alexander’s argument in The New Jim Crow. In her section describing how the system of mass incarceration works in chapter 5, Alexander brings up the issue of the difficulty defendants have in finding meaningful legal representation. Alexander states:
“Once arrested, defendants are generally denied meaningful legal representation and pressured to plead guilty whether they are or not. Prosecutors are free to ‘load up’ defendants with extra charges, and their decisions cannot be challenged for racial bias.”
The issue Alexander discusses here ties directly into the issue discussed at the talk I attended in Oregon, the issue of legal access. Legal access refers to the ability of an average citizen to obtain information about their legal rights, essentially to gain proper legal representation. This is an area where the US consistently ranks poorly on Freedom House rankings. It is largely due to the overwhelming cost of quality legal representation. Most students out of law school, though they may have had the most admirable of intentions before entering, seeks high paying jobs at major firms. It is somewhat understandable that law graduates do this as they often rack up massive amounts of debt to obtain their legal education and look for jobs that will help pay off those debts quickly. Nonetheless this results in a small portion of law school graduates, particularly top tier graduates, going to work as public defenders.
Those few who do wind up going to work as public defenders find themselves overwhelmed with cases, particularly in poor urban areas that are the target of the discrimination Alexander describes. Though these defenders may have every desire to provide the best possible representation to their clients, the sheer workload they face makes it next to impossible logistically. The result is a legal system which is structurally designed in a way that prevents the defendants targeted by the system of mass incarceration from obtaining meaningful legal representation.
The system I have described at least made economic, if not moral or social, sense when the legal field was booming in the 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s. Today, however, the legal industry is in a state of disarray. Articles abound with predictions of the end of the traditional legal system in the US and the end of jobs for lawyers (as someone entering law school next year I have been unable to avoid hearing from just about every person I know that I won’t be able to find a job). There is evidence to back up these gloomy predictions, last year only about 50% of law grads found jobs within 9 months of graduation. The cause of this ‘crisis’ is primarily an over-saturated legal market with more lawyers than there are law jobs.
Didn't I start this post describing the shortage of legal professional available to represent the defendants Alexander describes? Wasn't there a story about overworked public defenders somewhere in that mess of text above here?
Yes, that’s the paradox. At a time when only 50% of law grads are able to find a job because they are entering a over-saturated job market there remain millions of defendants in desperate need of proper legal representation. Why is this? The answer is unclear. Part of it is an unwillingness among law grads to take jobs as public defendants in urban area. Part of it is an unwillingness of states to provide equal funding to public defendants as that to to district attorneys. Part of it is the lack of an effective way to pair these graduates with the defendants who need their expertise.
Some programs are popping up to connect members of the unemployed legal market with the underrepresented defendants. These are often not public programs though. They are funded largely by private contributors and universities who want to find jobs for their graduates in order to improve their employment statistics. Where funding does not come from is from state and local governments. There has been little to no effort in the public sector to tap into the saturated legal market to provide representation to defendants who need it. Alexander did not explicitly mention this in the sections we read, but I think it is part of the problem she addresses when she points out the need for public support for reforming the justice system. If the legal market remains over-saturated for an extended period, more programs may pop up. We can hope so anyways, but it is unlikely to happen if people are unaware of the issue.
Side Note: Another issue I wanted to bring up, but found more difficult to tie into our current discussions is a recent supreme court decisions. Essentially what happened was that in a unanimous opinion littered with conflicting concurring opinions with varying rationale, the Supreme Court nullified the ability of a 1789 law to be used as a means of bringing international human rights violations to the US court system. Its a major setback for international human rights. If you want to know more about it there is a solid New York Times opinion piece on it. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/18/opinion/the-supreme-courts-setback-for-human-rights.html
Earlier in the semester, I posted about my being native to the city, and if you've travelled outside of Foggy Bottom into my neighborhood, or the "lower income" part of the District also known as Ward 8, you'd probably agree with this hypothetical. While in recent years, gentrification has become more evident, prior to this influx of White residents, the city has largely existed in segregation; the White population remained in the limits of the Northwest quadrant in neighborhoods like Dupont Circle, Woodley Park, Georgetown and Tenleytown. There's shopping, grocery, restaurants, florists, metro access, you name it-- they've got it. However, on a drive down Martin Luther King Avenue, the only thing you can bet on seeing on every block in a liquor store and a carry out. Needless to say, MLK Avenue runs through Southeast.
Aside from Sidwell Friends, Banneker and The School Without Walls, all of which are in Northwest DC, High Schools in the district fail to prepare students for college. There are growing numbers of Teach for America members in schools who do not know how to reach the children and they are being promoted in order to make it seem like the school systems are improving. Thus you have large numbers of young Black males who have either not made it to college or have dropped out because they were not prepared academically. Their fathers? They may or may not be present in their lives, but let's focus on this generation.
Now there's Black males hanging out in their "low-income" neighborhoods during most of the day and night. If they're working, it's for minimal pay, because we all know that a high school diploma isn't enough to gain employment for a decent salary. Like your average college student, they probably smoke weed. BUT, there's patrol cars and jump outs in this neighborhood because a congregation of Black people means trouble, apparently. One of the guys gets arrested for possession of an illegal substance, does a small sentence and then is released. He's lost his job and is having trouble finding another one because of the felony. There are no small businesses or retail stores in HIS neighborhood that might hire him, but there are liquor stores. So now he's drinking, if he wasn't already. Finds a job in Georgetown, but can't afford the uniform or the travel expenses to and from work, so he starts selling drugs in order to get himself on his feet.
A crime alert is issued for a suspect near Foggy Bottom snatching iPhones, he's Black and thus fits every detail of the description "Black Male", and is stopped, questioned and frisked. No iPhone, but they find more drugs, and he's arrested yet again. If he had a child or family, the struggle and need for money would increase, and thus the cycle continues.
REFORM. REHABILITATION. Unlock the cage.
My favorite reading so far has been Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" because I have found it so enlightening. Although I have long recognized the generality that the US has a lot of jails and a lot of people filling them, I never been aware of systematic racism involved. I am now conscious of the fact that mass incarceration unfairly targets black communities and that going to jail for petty, non-violent crimes can ruin lives by barring individuals from mainstream society. The cycle that has arisen from The War on Drugs is more than disturbing.
The War on Drugs began before I was born and I was not aware of its existence before doing the reading. This approach to ameliorating the drug situation in the United States is so characteristic of American policies for "fixing" problems. The War on Drugs creates more problems just as abstinence-only education causes more teen pregnancies and prohibition caused more organized crime. By ignoring the root causes of social problems and by inflicting the most serious punishment for these non-violent acts, the drug problem is not alleviated in the United States.
Our class discussion reminded me of the first time I visited the Netherlands in 2008. I was visiting my sister while she studied abroad, and I ended up learning a lot about the country while I was there. Although the Netherlands is perhaps best known for its legalization of marijuana, what I found more shocking was the over all approach to drug problems. In opposition to the US policy, the dutch policy focuses on "diversion to care". If a person is found with drugs the approach is to seize the drug with no further prosecution. If prosecution takes place, the goal is not to punish but to enter the drug user into a rehabilitation program so that he or she can re-enter society. In addition, there is a public program in the Netherlands to provide drug users with clean needles as to prevent the transmission of such diseases as HIV. This approach may seem very radical to Americans, but statistics demonstrate that it is an effective program:
|Social Indicator||Comparison Year||USA||Netherlands|
|Lifetime prevalence of marijuana use||2005||40.6% (ages 12 and up)1||22.6% (ages 15-64)2|
|Past year prevalence of marijuana use||2005||10.3% (ages 12 and up)1||5.4% (ages 15-64)2|
|Lifetime prevalence of heroin use||2005||1.5% (ages 12 and up)1||0.6% (ages 15-64)2|
|Incarceration Rate per 100,000 population||2008||756 3||100 4|
|Per capita spending on criminal justice system (in Euros)||1998||€379 5||€223 5|
|Homicide rate per 100,000 population||2009||5.06||1.16|
As you can see, a comparison between drug policy in the United States and the Netherlands is astounding in many ways. Why wouldn't the United States use an approach that is more effective, if the concern is to help the drug problem in the United States?
My response to this question is that the War on Drugs in the United States combines some seriously flawed notions of capitalism and racism. An increase in jails and the incentive given to police officers to round up as many drug users as possible has created many issues. Most importantly, as Alexander points out, this unstoppable system specifically targets people of color and destroys communities. It is astounding that, although white men are just as likely or more likely to do drugs, it is black men who are targeted.
The United States and the Netherlands are different, in my opinion, because they have two different objectives. The Netherlands wants to rehabilitate drug users and enter them back into society. The United States wants to destroy drug users and hide them away from society --- especially if those drug users come from low-income communities of color. The War on Drugs demonstrates just one way that institutionalized racism still exists in America.
Why do you think that the United States and Netherlands approach drugs so differently?
Thursday, April 18, 2013
The role of white people in the black freedom movement between the 1950’s and 1970’s and even now is one that I honestly ponder on. As a white person, I wonder what is the role for me. To what extent should I lend my voice and hand to the movement? I certainly do not by any means desire to degrade people of color, rather I desire to foster an environment that allows for them to be seen and treated as fully equal with any other human being. At the same time, I understand that the black freedom movement is a black one. The rhetoric and actions in the black freedom movement can certainly influence, aspire, and strengthen other movements, but in the end, one must not forget its uniqueness and goals.
In Alice Walker’s Meridian, the character, Lynne Rabinowitz, interested me the most because I gained some insight to the role of whites in the 1960’s black freedom movement (although I by no means view Lynne as acting the sole representative as to how whites acted in the movement). One passage from the book stuck with me [Trueman’s thought after Tommy shuts him up for mentioning Lynne’s name]: