Friday, February 27, 2015

Recent and Other Relevant Writing

In the past week or so, I've written a few pieces. Also, recent events have made past writing relevant again. So, instead of starting a newsletter like a lot of writers I know and admire, I thought I'd just bring them all together in one place and you can read as you like.

A recurring theme is American ignorance of history writ large. Over at Rare, I wrote about why Black History is important. (Hint: because it's American history.)

Generally speaking, the way America teaches history is deplorable. The watered-down fairy-tale version of our history can be found in our folklore, grade school textbooks, and throughout our media. Race aside for a moment, how we think about war, government, technology, religion, and nearly everything else tends to be framed in false dichotomies and trivial facts without contextualizing how and why events happened, let alone how events were perceived by those who lived through them.
 But in America, despite the best efforts of many, we cannot put race aside. Racism has been omnipresent in American history, but it has been far from static. Slavery and its justifications spawned a particularly awful strain of anti-black racism in America. Racism evolved to seek selfish economic ends and justify punitive unconstitutional laws. It has justified social and economic benefits to some while depriving them to others. It has allowed a tolerance of abuse by both government and private citizens. Racism has broken apart families and even the nation itself.

Relatedly, I wrote here at TBS about FBI director Comey's attempt to view the relationship between law enforcement and black communities historically. (He failed.)

Director Comey, trying to appear magnanimous, said
 “A tragedy of American life…is that young people in “those neighborhoods” too often inherit a legacy of crime and prison. And with that inheritance, they become part of a police officer’s life, and shape the way that officer—whether white or black—sees the world.”
This is circular logic at its most odious. Law enforcement, in its zeal to fight its war on drugs and crime, extracted scores of men from communities and put them into the criminal justice system. This deprived children of fathers and robbed the communities of economic resources. This,in turn, created the young black men that engender cynicism from today’s officers who “often can’t help” it.
While there is much to be said for back-end reforms that help former inmates return to society, the law enforcement executives who go around preaching about how to fix the men and communities they helped break in the first place tests the patience of anyone who recognizes the grotesque unfairness of our so-called justice system. It’s not all law enforcement’s fault, but they are reticent to acknowledge the role they have and continue to play in “those neighborhoods.”

Friday, February 20, 2015

Reclaiming Malcolm X

This weekend marks the 50th Anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination. Malcolm has always had a deep influence on my writing, beliefs, and intellectual life. His unflinching commitment to justice and dignity are the hallmarks of his legacy.

Oh, and scaring the hell out of white people.

But seriously, there’s nothing I’ve ever read or seen attributed to Malcolm that would put him anywhere near the Progressive Left, who tend to embrace him. The late author of his most recent major biography, professor Manning Marable, attempted to rationalize his placement in the Progressive pantheon. But there was no real link in his well-researched and well-written biography. At best, he mentioned some “anti-capitalist” rhetoric  in speeches to colleges (text by Damon Root):

In a 1992 speech at Colorado's Metro State College, Columbia University historian Manning Marable praised the black minister and activist Malcolm X for pushing an "uncompromising program which was both antiracist and anticapitalist." As Marable favorably quoted from the former Nation of Islam leader: "You can't have racism without capitalism. If you find antiracists, usually they're socialists or their political philosophy is that of socialism."

In historical context, Malcolm was living in the Cold War political dichotomy. The Soviet Union and other communist nations were pitted squarely against the United States and the capitalist countries. If United States capitalism permitted Jim Crow, backed assassinations in Africa, and supported South African Apartheid, I’d be against it too. But where politics and economics converged to the detriment of American minorities, the culprits were the American government and its tolerance and furtherance of American racism, not a system of free exchange and entrepreneurship.

Indeed, many of Malcolm’s most famous and impassioned speeches dealt with American hypocrisy and the national inability to respect the laws of the Constitution that supposedly guaranteed equal rights. He wasn’t judging America for its ideals or its promise of freedom, rather than its utter and undeniable failure to secure rights for black people.  

I write this not to claim Malcolm for libertarians or, least of all, the American Right. His legacy belongs to black people and America writ large, if they bother to embrace it.

People should remember Malcolm for what he was and what he stood for, not just as a symbol of scaring white people. He believed in the absolute right to self-defense and personal responsibility. He believed in small business and black empowerment.  He wanted jobs and dignity for black people, and he didn’t believe the government as instituted in the United States could provide it.

Similar to what I wrote in my lengthy response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ remarkable article on reparations, the fundamental divide in civil rights today shouldn’t be about desert or what America should do. Rather, the argument should be about what America could reasonably be expected to do. Just because we elected a black president does not mean the government has gotten remarkably better at delivering on the failed promises of the past two and a half centuries.

We’re still trying to get past the very same phenomenon Malcolm was talking about in this short speech excerpt:

More than 50 years later, so much has not changed.

I don’t know what Malcolm’s macroeconomic prescriptions would be if he were alive today, and I don’t care. But Malcolm was right to be skeptical of government action. Active government aimed at bettering black lives gave us the ’94 Crime Bill—including the 100:1 crack to powder sentencing disparity—Broken Windows, and Stop-and-Frisk. It will take years to repair the damage they caused in black communities, on top of the preexisting problems of poverty, ghettoization, and crumbling infrastructure.

And we simply cannot undo the catastrophe they’ve inflicted on countless black lives. 

Before we ask the government to do anything else, it must recognize the fundamental civil rights of black Americans. Just as Malcolm recognized, whatever the laws say doesn't mean anything if the police can abuse black people and get away with it. And it is undeniable that the police violence against blacks and others continues today through hostile day-to-day interactions, militarization, and wanton brutality.

As Ossie Davis eulogized him, Malcolm was our champion, and we should continue to honor him. We do this by fighting police brutality. We do this by demanding equal rights and human dignity now. And we should do this by any means necessary.

Malcolm X, RIP

bellum medicamenti delenda est

**I don’t know the source for this video, and it has clearly been edited.  But the segments seem to all come from the same speech and thus retain their relevance as individual parts or taken together.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Addendum on Comey's Invocation of Bill Bratton

This was originally included in my piece on Comey's speech, but it was too long as it was. That said, it's still worth noting. -JPB

That Director Comey decided to invoke NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton to invoke his "seeing" each other metaphor is telling. In the wake of the Garner no-bill, the shooting death of Akai Gurley, and the #BlackLivesMatter protests, Commissioner Bratton proposed a heavily armed force meant to fight terrorism and manage crowd control during protest. Bratton said,

“[The new unit] is designed for dealing with events like our recent protests....[Those officers will] be equipped and trained in ways that our normal patrol officers are not. They’ll be equipped with all the extra heavy protective gear, with the long rifles and machine guns — unfortunately sometimes necessary in these instances.”

Apparently, Commissioner Bratton "sees" people exercising their First Amendment rights the same way he sees murderous terrorism. Additionally, he wants to make resisting arrest a felony.

Nota bene: Resisting arrest charges are so flimsy and widely abused, they are used by criminologists to measure police violence against citizens.

If Director Comey is relying on Commissioner Bratton for guidance to fix police relations with minority communities, the situation will get much worse before it gets better.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

James Comey Can't Handle the Truth

Yesterday, FBI Director James Comey gave an impassioned speech about the “disconnect” between many minority communities in America and the police officers charged with keeping them safe. He listed four “hard truths” that the police and the public need to come to terms with in order to fix the current system.

The first “hard truth” was that “at many points in American history,” law enforcement has been used to oppress ethnic and other minorities through violence, intimidation, and brutality. Well, rather, Comey said, “law enforcement enforced the status quo…that was brutally unfair.”

This is less a hard truth than it is a watered-down history lesson. Convict-lease systems, in many respects, extended slavery well into the 20th century by using vagrancy and other charges to incarcerate black men and sell them into dangerous industrial slavery. Police were used to enforce segregation and violently break up peaceful marches throughout the Civil Rights Era. And, throughout our history, blacks have been the victims of wanton police violence for any number of reasons from John Lewis to Rodney King to Michael Brown to Eric Garner and countless others in between. Since Emancipation, when they lost the protection as a master’s property, black people—particularly young black men—have had an antagonistic relationship with the police, effectively without interruption.

The second “hard truth” concerned the research that indicated “widespread…unconscious [racial] bias.” (I never thought I’d see the day when the head of the FBI quote a ribald Broadway puppet show to explain “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.”)

Again, there’s nothing very hard about this truth. We live in a society in which much of our population can remember Segregation, racial-political assassinations, and other forms of white racial terrorism. Racism isn’t just the uncle who tells nigger jokes after a couple beers. We live in a society that had racism built-in to its foundation—indeed, its founding documents—and killed more than half a million of its own citizens for the right to keep a portion of them in bondage in perpetuity. These same portion of people, mind you, have had the federal government recognize their full panoply of constitutionally guaranteed rights for just over 50 years.

Of course Americans still have racial hang-ups! That a man with such power and gravitas couches the utterly obvious with vulgar puppets and “unsettling research” speaks to the mind-numbing power of American denial.

Director Comey continues, attempting to soften the blow,
“But racial bias isn’t epidemic in those who join law enforcement any more than it is in academia or the arts. In fact, I believe law enforcement overwhelmingly attracts people who want to do good for living[.]”
I’ve had my share of bad professors, but I don’t remember any of them ever choking any of their students to death for writing exam answers on their forearm or shooting them to death for in-class sarcasm.

The monopoly on the use of force held by police officers makes them unlike everyone else in society. If all black Americans had to deal with were clutched purses and off-color jokes from art teachers, we wouldn’t be having this absurd excuse for a “national conversation.” The fear and loathing of young black men costs too many of them their lives at the hands of police officers. That is the hard truth.

The third hard truth actually would be useful, if Director Comey didn’t immediately undermine himself trying to explain it. “Something happens to people in law enforcement….After years of police work, officers often can’t help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel.”

That police work often involves repeated encounters in minority neighborhoods using heavy handed tactics that can’t help but affect how that community views them. The community of Ferguson, Missouri—a mostly black suburb of St. Louis—had nearly 33,000 arrest warrants issued for non-violent offenses in 2013, many of which stem from traffic tickets and related court fees. The town population is 21,135. In the wake of recent protests, arrestees too poor to make bail found themselves in a Dickensian debtors prison, unable to pay for their release.

Let’s ask them about their cynicism.

Director Comey builds a straw-man to set up his fourth and final “hard truth”: officers aren’t racist because they don’t arrest enough “white robbers and drug dealers,” because if they were, it would be easy to fix. It’s because black people do drugs and don’t have jobs so they “become part of [an] officer’s life.” You see, repeated interaction with black people makes police officers cynical and if the black people just had jobs, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

As the Ferguson arrest warrants show, it doesn’t seem to matter whether black people are doing the things that would normally necessitate them becoming part of an officer’s life. Being black and poor puts them in communities that experience frequent and often less-than-cordial contact with police officers.

Director Comey, trying to appear magnanimous, said
“A tragedy of American life…is that young people in “those neighborhoods” too often inherit a legacy of crime and prison. And with that inheritance, they become part of a police officer’s life, and shape the way that officer—whether white or black—sees the world.”
This is circular logic at its most odious. Law enforcement, in its zeal to fight its war on drugs and crime, extracted scores of men from communities and put them into the criminal justice system. This deprived children of fathers and robbed the communities of economic resources. This,in turn, created the young black men that engender cynicism from today’s officers who “often can’t help” it.

While there is much to be said for back-end reforms that help former inmates return to society, the law enforcement executives who go around preaching about how to fix the men and communities they helped break in the first place tests the patience of anyone who recognizes the grotesque unfairness of our so-called justice system. It’s not all law enforcement’s fault, but they are reticent to acknowledge the role they have and continue to play in “those neighborhoods.”

Even in Director Comey’s singular moment of policy sanity, when he recognized that the voluntarily reported data from state and local law enforcement on use-of-force cases is so inadequate it’s virtually useless, he said such deficiencies create space for ““ideological thunderbolts”.…that spark arrest and distrust.”

There were no ideologues or demagogues at the scene of Michael Brown’s body as it lay in a Ferguson street for four hours in August. The protests and outrage were immediate and visceral because of the repeated, well-understood maltreatment the public received from the Ferguson police officers. Law enforcement’s reaction to those protests reaffirmed the animosity that was present well before the national media could find Ferguson on a map.

Director Comey’s pleas for officers to “see” the people they encounter belies his assertion that it’s not about racism in law enforcement:

“Those of us in law enforcement must redouble our efforts to resist bias and prejudice. We must better understand the people we serve and protect—by trying to know, deep in our gut, what it feels like to be a law-abiding young black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement. We must understand how that young man may see us. We must resist the lazy shortcuts of cynicism and approach him with respect and decency.”  

“Lazy shortcuts of cynicism” is a euphemism for “ignoring the constitutional rights of young black men.” This isn’t a small problem rectified by a gut check imagining how a black boy might see a police officer.  Abuse ignores the limits placed on officers by the Constitution’s equal protection clause and the Bill of Rights. Being young, black, and male is not enough to satisfy “reasonable suspicion” and police officers have an affirmative duty to respect that. Director Comey’s “ideological thunderbolt” boogeymen aside, such unconstitutional behavior is a widespread problem in law enforcement with or without Al Sharpton’s presence. Black and minority communities know this all too well.

As far as Director Comey’s direction that the public “give [police] the space and respect to do their work,” I would ask the director to give the police the same admonition. People should be free from interference from the police unless they are committing a crime against person or property. As the recent NYPD slowdown showed, it is possible to keep the peace even in a large city without issuing thousands of criminal summonses.

It is impossible to fix the chasm of distrust between the police and minorities so long as police continue to abuse blacks and other minorities in the communities in which they live. This is the one and only hard truth the police and the government need to face. The rest is just distraction.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Some Thoughts on Chait PC Piece

Twitter is predictably a-twitter with Jonathan Chait's latest in New York magazine on the scourge of political correctness.

It's an okay piece, as far as it goes. To generalize social media reaction: the Right is embracing it, the Left is annoyed. My reaction is: 4,700 words, really?

Chait conflates the censorious atmosphere and decisionmaking on many college campuses with the hyperbolic outrage that thrives in social media. He throws a lot of words trying to make them the same similar, but they're not.

Mute buttons, unfollows, blocks--these are all effective, defensive weapons at the disposal of any would-be commentator on social media. Yes, yes, the Left gets in a tizzy with trigger warnings (which are fine, generally, but can be taken well beyond their practical utility) and oversensitivity to comments about sexual, gender, ethnic or other differences. Sometimes they're justified, sometimes they just need to chill out. This is all true.

But say something about abortion rights or guns or God or whatever, and the Right does the same thing.

Self-righteous indignation about core values that others don't share is just how this whole social media thing works. It is at once the most democratic space and freest marketplace of ideas available. And it's extraordinarily messy.

Colleges that allow threats and intimidation of those who speak freely are curbing speech and they should be held accountable, but the general state of how colleges are run--from speech codes to rape investigations to how they invest their endowments--is a broader topic that I can't wade into here. Suffice it to say, caving to pressure to cancel a guest lecture is not a threat to free speech, broadly defined, and shouldn't be counted in the same category.

I assume some on the Right are embracing Chait's piece because they feel attacked and defensive about what they say and don't like being shouted down.

I could not care less.

The possibility of getting shouted-down is the one surviving, legitimate cost of coming into the public forum. So long as opponents are not banning books and using the government to silence or intimidate people--or tolerating violence or criminal harassment--it's their right. Indeed, the voting-with-your-feet/wallet is the entire premise of social interaction that libertarians say should guide the various decisions one makes in one's life. Don't like it? Turn it off!

There is a sense that self-selected social and traditional media consumption will make our (putatively) pluralistic society more fractured and segmented politically. Certainly, the decline of CNN and rises of more polarized media like MSNBC and Fox support this. I don't know if that's good or bad, or what the long term consequences of it will be on our political system--more gridlock and space between the major parties certainly seem likely--but this is what we all said we wanted: freedom (Right), democracy (Left), and the free exchange of ideas (libertarian).

No one said it was going to be pretty.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

UPDATE: A colleague suggested a fairer reading would say Chait was not so much feeling victimized here as he was calling for a discursive norm to reestablish itself on the political Left. I don't disagree with that, as I ascribed possible victimhood to some of the more pugnacious writers of the Right who have shared it approvingly, but I think my point holds. Lecturing the Internet on how we deal with each other is likely to have the same effect as talking at a wall.

The Internet is vast and there will always be shrill commentators on all sides. I don't find this quality particularly dangerous on the web, as social norms and associations will shift as practices either change or endure. I find Chait's piece mostly harmless, but the discursive equivalent of a longread about the crassness of blue jeans.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Justice Sotomayor on the Oklahoma Lethal Injection Protocol

Last night, the State of Oklahoma put a child killer to death by a questionable lethal injection protocol. I understand not mourning the loss.

Admittedly, as I've gotten older,  I have become anti-death penalty generally, but my policy preference does not trump the constitutionality of the practice. Clearly, some form of capital punishment is constitutional. However, that does not mean that all forms of capital punishment are permissible.

As a nation that is to be governed by laws, and until we ban capital punishment entirely, how the state carries out these increasingly problematic executions must be examined for constitutionality--specifically the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Sotomayor, joined by the three Democrat-appointed justices, makes a strong and well-reasoned constitutional argument why last night's execution should not have happened.

You can read it here, courtesy of the Marshall Project.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Contra the "Individual Responsibility Trumps Racism" Shibboleth

I'm not a Redditor. I think I'm a tad too old or, at least, too old fashioned to utilize the medium as it is intended. However, I wanted to share a comment on a Reddit thread about poverty, racism, and individual responsibility that I think hits all the right notes. (I know the author but the comment was flagged for me by a mutual friend.)

An excerpt:
If you were to design a situation where I maximized my true utility of choices to leave poverty, I often made bad ones. But I was given two gifts without any effort: I have a high, high, high capability for analytic intelligence and my mother was a wonderfully stable human being. 
But lots of people didn't have those: people that worked harder, people that were kinder, people that made better choices. The gravity of the situation pulled them back, given all those attributes. I will always remember a coworker of mine a McDonalds: nice girl, kind, harder working than I ever was in school. She studied every day at after-school tutorials for two years to pass a Science TAKS test - she never did. I showed up hungover, I got perfect score. 
I have earned many things in life - my analytic intelligence was not one of those.
It's best taken in its entirety so please, go read it here.

The excerpt above reminds me of another one, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, that is one of my favorites:
But the game *is* rigged. Let me tell you how I came here. I write for a major magazine and this is a privilege. I would say that it is earned, except that many people earn many things which they never receive. So I shall say that it was earned and I was lucky.(via The Atlantic)
Yes, individual responsibility is important for people to escape unfortunate circumstances. But that doesn't mean that those who failed to get out lacked it, nor that those who did were living up to the noble ideal that fits your public policy worldview.

Mia Love and others of the economic right would have you believe that the structurally protected racial inequalities that have been baked into the American system since jump are best defeated by hard work and determination in lieu of systemic analysis and reform.

Such is a recipe for a different kind of American exceptionalism--that the exceptional and lucky people who succeed in spite of the myriad obstacles placed before them are the aspirational normal. Further, the continued unfairness that makes life harder for millions of marginalized Americans should be dismissed and ignored because Jim Crow is dead therefore everything is fair (enough) now.

I don't know if this nonsense comes from resentment, naivete, or general ignorance, but it's nonsense nevertheless.

Entrenched poverty comes from a lot of sources: the effect of broader society and preexisting public policy being two prominent among them. That neither of these typically appear in right-of-center solutions to ongoing socio-economic problems (save antipathy to demonized social welfare programs) is a big reason why the right's base is primarily old, white, and increasingly out of touch. The GOP's short-term electoral success masks a shrinking social relevance and resonance that is a demographic nightmare in the longer term.

Since the days of slavery, there have been exceptions to the crushing social and economic power of the dominant American order. That didn't make any of those societies just or "good enough." That circumstances have improved over those years is not evidence that American society is fixed or has recovered from hundreds of years of prejudice, racism, and inequality.

Individual responsibility is a necessary but not nearly sufficient condition for widespread social betterment. The arguments about socio-economic progress cannot continue to be simply about individual responsibility OR institutional racism, because such arguments are valid only in a world divorced from current American reality.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

PS--in case you didn't click through before, read all of the Reddit post here.