Category: Race and the Law

Charles Blow: Plantations, Prisons and Profits

Charles Blow

By Alan Bean

If you really wanted to read the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s eight-part series on the state prison system, but only have time for one quick read, columnist Charles Blow has what you need: a quick summary of the high points. 

Here’s his conclusion:

Louisiana is the starkest, most glaring example of how our prison policies have failed. It showcases how private prisons do not serve the public interest and how the mass incarceration as a form of job creation is an abomination of justice and civility and creates a long-term crisis by trying to create a short-term solution.

As the paper put it: “A prison system that leased its convicts as plantation labor in the 1800s has come full circle and is again a nexus for profit.”

The T-P’s groundbreaking series provides a “thick description” of a deadly interplay between a tragic racial history, a shrinking agricultural economy and tax base, a paranoid electorate, underpaid and under-resourced sheriffs, and a craven political class.  This is the kind of description I attempted in my Taking out the trash in Tulia, Texas and it is great to see the mainstream media, even in these belt-tightening times, taking their responsibility, and their readers, this seriously.

Plantations, Prisons and Profits

By Charles Blow

“Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s.”

That paragraph opens a devastating eight-part series published this month by The Times-Picayune of New Orleans about how the state’s largely private prison system profits from high incarceration rates and tough sentencing, and how many with the power to curtail the system actually have a financial incentive to perpetuate it. (more…)

Jobs, housing and public safety

By Alan Bean

America’s punitive consensus is counter-productive.  We don’t want to be victimized by ex-offenders, so we exclude them from the job market and bar access to low-income housing.  Left without viable options, they re-offend.  Maybe they write a hot check, or they resort to nickel-and-dime drug dealing, or they break into the neighbor’s home and haul the loot to the nearest pawn shop.  Policies designed to lower exposure to ex-offenders, breed criminal behavior.  Street crime rises, recidivism rates soar, and incarceration rates are stuck in the stratosphere.

Mitch Mitchell, a crime reporter with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, does a terrific job of documenting the plight of the ex-offender.  For decades, politicians have been competing to see who can be toughest on crime; gradually, Mitchell’s article, suggests, they are beginning to grapple with the consequences of their punitive policies.  

Mitchell should be applauded for emphasizing the housing issue, a piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked.  Here’s the thesis paragraph: 

Finding housing and employment are crucial to an ex-offender’s successful reintegration into society, experts say. But after serving their time, many ex-offenders find that they cannot get a job without a home address and cannot find a place to live without the money to pay rent. So they may end up roaming the streets.

Ex-offenders in Texas often can’t find housing or work

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

By Mitch Mitchell

For a brief moment, Tim Baker considered that death might improve his situation.

“Suicide is natural for someone who is depressed,” Baker said. (more…)

Land’s apology doesn’t impress Black Southern Baptists

The Reverend Dwight McKissic

By Alan Bean

Stories can bring us together, and they can drive us apart.  Unfortunately, narratives related to racial justice almost always reveal a yawning gulf between white and minority perception.  I have never seen a single narrative separate America into polarized camps like the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman affair.

Richard Land, the head of the ethics division of the Southern Baptist convention, recently apologized for remarks about the Martin-Zimmerman case that have enraged Black Southern Baptist leaders.  The Rev. Dwight McKissic, the Arlington, Texas pastor calling for Land’s ouster, isn’t buying what he calls a “non-apology-apology“. 

  • Land hasn’t apologized for calling Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson “race hustlers” and “ambulance chasers” because they responded to requests for help from Trayvon Martin’s parents. 
  • Land hasn’t apologized for accusing President Barack Obama of ginning up support in the black electorate by commenting on the Martin case. 
  • Land hasn’t apologized for suggesting that black males deserve to be racially profiled because black men are statistically more likely to engage in acts of violence. (more…)

Is the Trayvon Martin case about race or guns?

IN an interview with CNN, Bill Cosby argues that the Trayvon Martin case is more about guns than race.  If George Zimmerman was scared and carried a gun to ease his fear, Cosby says, it doesn’t matter if he wasn’t a racist.  The question is, who taught him to be afraid, and who taught him that carrying a gun would solve his problem?   You can find a video of CNN’s interview with Cosby clicking here and scrolling down.

Mark Osler and Jeanne Bishop begin their CNN opinion piece by seconding Cosby’s motion.  They aren’t saying that racial profiling wasn’t involved in the Martin case; but Florida’s Stand Your Ground law is the big issue:  “This law is grounded in a factual error and a deeply flawed principle,” Osler and Bishop believe. “The factual error is that a proliferation of handguns makes us safer. The flawed principle is that somehow the right to bear arms needs to be enlarged to a right to resolve disputes with guns.”

Trayvon Martin case also about guns

Jeanne Bishop and Mark Osler

(CNN) — As criminal attorneys, we know that tragic cases very often bring festering social issues into public view. Bill Cosby was right: The Trayvon Martin case brings to the surface troubling questions not only about race but also about the role of handguns in our society. (more…)

“The undignified don’t deserve dignity”: Mississippi’s first hate criminal goes to prison

Two weeks ago, a white high school student named Deryl Dedmon pled guilty to the murder of James Anderson, a black man.  Dedmon dodged the death penalty by admitting that the crime was racially motivated.  In so doing, he became Mississippi’s first hate criminal.

Two accomplices, John Aaron Rice and Dylan Butler, also admitted their involvement in the racially-motivated murder.

Newsweeks Tony Dokoupil traveled to Mississippi to find out what Deryl Dedmon, the young man behind the wheel of the Jeep Cherokee, meant when he admitted to being “young and dumb, ignorant and full of hatred.”

“What I discovered,” Dokoupil reports, “was deeper, scarier, and more complex than a single country boy gone bad or even simple, pre-civil-rights-era racism.”

Dedmon’s friends don’t see him as a racist and don’t think the murder should be classified as a hate crime.  Even more disturbing, from the writer’s perspective, many of their black friends seemed to agree.

The kids in Dedmon’s social circle don’t think they’re racist at all. Sure, many use the N word, sometimes even in anger. But they say they don’t mean it in a racist way, any more than the town’s monument to the Confederate dead is meant as a call to arms. “It’s heritage, not hate,” says Trevor, echoing a common defense of Southern pride. The trips to west Jackson, he and others believe, were driven by social status—reveling in the lawlessness of poor neighborhoods—not skin color.

The article published in Newsweek and on the web in The DailyBeast, represents the most in-depth analysis of this tortured tale to appear thus far.  It will come as no surprise that the murder of James Anderson was the culmination of a long series of trips from predominantly white Rankin County to the poor black neighborhoods of nearby Jackson.  Unlike the black friends the white defendants knew from school, the denizens of West Jackson were regarded by Dedmon and his friends as the semi-human citizens of a Third World country.  It was okay to threaten, attack, beat and eventually kill people in poor black neighborhoods because, well, they’re niggers.

But our black friends back in Rankin County, well, they’re okay.

 In the version told by Dedmon’s social circle, racial hatred did not bring them to Jackson so much as boredom and drunken teenage aggression, mingled with a kind of moral outrage at the shabbiness of life in the Metro Inn area. Yes, the people there are almost all black, and the white teens call them “niggers.” But that has more to do with their status than their skin; the undignified don’t deserve dignity, they say. “White, black, red, or yellow,” says the Bunyanesque friend from the car wash, who did not go to Jackson that night, “what I’m prejudiced against is stupidity. I don’t like stupid people.”

If you hate black people because of their color, you’re racist; if you hate poor, inebriated black people because you have contempt for their lifestyle, that’s just being a decent American.

This is what happens when centuries of slavery and Jim Crow oppression empty into half a century of silence.  Until the early 1970s, the official position in the state of Mississippi was pure, unfiltered white supremacy.  By the late 70s the subject of race was off the table.  You could spout the old line behind closed doors, but in the public arena the past wasn’t mentioned.  Until recently, Mississippi school children weren’t even taught that there was a civil rights movement.

Confused white males like Deryl Dedmon were left to figure things out for themselves.  Dedmon’s behavior was unusual, to be sure, but the sentiments voiced by his friends, black and white, are standard issue.

That’s why I call my book, Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas.  So long as the defendants in the Texas Panhandle town I called home for nine years were sufficiently “trashy”, constitutional protections and the canons of common sense didn’t apply.  The war on drugs is rooted in the same principle.

Tony Dokoupil’s five-page article can be found here.  Highly recommended.

Did Kenneth Chamberlain have to die?

By Alan Bean

While the Trayvon Martin case dominates the headlines, this story hasn’t received the attention it deserves.  As usual, the facts are messy.  Police officers, accompanying a medical team responding to a medical alert, end up shooting a 68 year-old ex-marine to death.  The New York Times story below is over a month old.  More recently, Democracy Now devoted a segment to the tragedy.  Apart from that, the mainstream and alternative media have shown little interest.

The similarities between the Kenneth Chamberlain and Trayvon Martin stories are striking.  In both cases, men with guns manufactured crisis conditions that could have been easily avoided.  In both cases, an innocent man died.

It is difficult to assess how race played into either narrative.  George Zimmerman thought Trayvon Martin was suspicious.  Maybe it was the way he was walking or the way it was dressed.  It now appears that the 9-1-1 operator introduced the race issue, but Zimmerman was responding to visual cues of some kind.  I’m not sure how suspicious a skinny kid with iced tea and skittles can look.  But Zimmerman wasn’t seeing a kid with iced tea and skittles; he saw someone who didn’t belong in his neighborhood–an alien element.

One obvious difference between these tragic tales is that one involved police officers while the other involved an armed civilian.  The difference is more apparent than real.  Zimmerman, for reasons that are not yet clear, saw himself as a kind of reserve police officer.  If officers can pull over and question suspicious people, George thought he ought to be able to do it too.  Legally, he might have been on solid ground–that’s the scary thing about the Trayvon Martin case.

When it becomes necessary to question suspects, there are good reasons why we call police officers.  They have the training, experience, and procedures to handle potentially volatile confrontations with disciplined grace and professionalism.

At least that’s the theory.  Although the facts remain a bit unclear, it appears that the police officers responsible for Kenneth Chamberlain’s shooting intentionally and foolishly escalated the tension in the room.  This happens all too often.  Sometimes its an innocent civilian who takes the bullet; sometimes its the police officer.  But when fear overrides common sense, bad decisions are made. (more…)

Juan Williams changes the subject

By Alan Bean

Some stories get too big to be ignored.  So imagine that you are an editor for the Wall Street Journal, the voice of sensible capitalism, the vast majority of your readers are white and conservative, in that classy, New York sort of way, and you are compelled to address the furor over the Trayvon Martin case?  You go to the bullpen and call Juan Williams to the mound.  Williams is the black guy that makes white guys feel good.  If a white editor opined that we should be giving less attention to Trayvon Martin while concentrating on black-on-black crime (the real problem) you might be facing a token backlash.  Your readers would applaud this sentiment, but a few outsiders might take exception.  But Mr. Williams is black, so he can’t be a racist.

Here’s the heart of William’s argument:

The race-baiters argue this case deserves special attention because it fits the mold of white-on-black violence that fills the history books. Some have drawn a comparison to the murder of Emmett Till, a black boy who was killed in 1955 by white racists for whistling at a white woman.

This is a magnificent misreading of the outrage.  When people compare Trayvon and Emmett, they aren’t saying the two cases are identical, or even that they are about the same kind of injustice.  The Till case sparked the civil rights movement.  Rosa Parks had Emmett Till on her mind when she refused to relinquish her seat to a white man.  Some are hoping the Trayvon Martin story sparks a similar revolution.  This time (contra Williams) the emphasis won’t be on white-on-black crime; the focus will be on racial profiling and the easy association between black skin and danger.

Hence the iconic emphasis on the hoodie. (more…)

Learning from messy narratives

By Alan Bean

The Trayvon Martin case is following a predictable trajectory.  Calls for the arrest of George Zimmerman centered on the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain’s unprovoked vigilante pursuit of an unarmed citizen.  Now comes the inevitable backlash as the Sanford, Florida police department leaks reports that Martin had been suspended from school after being connected to an empty marijuana baggie.  The unspoken message is that Trayvon Martin really was the flipped-out druggie Zimmerman initially reported in a 911 call.

In addition, Zimmerman’s attorney is suggesting that Martin initiated the physical altercation that lead to his own death.

A certain amount of speculation is unavoidable in this case.  We know that Zimmerman decided to leave his vehicle, against the advice of the 911 operator, with the clear intention of confronting Martin.   We know that Martin was aware that he was being followed because he was on the phone to his girlfriend at the time.  We know a physical altercation preceded the shooting because of the grass stains on the back of Zimmerman’s shirt and his bloody nose.  We know that Zimmerman used deadly force to resolve the situation.

Frankly, I was surprised that it took so long for the champions of the status quo to start spinning the story to their own advantage.  For two weeks, black civil rights groups and bloggers have had the mainstream media all to themselves.  That couldn’t last.  It never does. (more…)

Requiem for Trayvon

ImageBy Lisa D’Souza

Last month, a 28-year-old man shot a 17-year-old high school student in Florida.  The teen, Trayvon Martin, was unarmed.  He  was walking back to his dad’s home where he’d been watching basketball with his family.  He’d run out to buy some candy for his brother.

George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old who considered himself a neighborhood watchman, was driving along when he spotted  Trayvon.  Some 20 minutes later, Trayvon was dead. Zimmerman admitted to police that he had shot and killed Trayvon.  The police readily accepted Zimmerman’s claim that he acted in self-defense saying they had no evidence to dispute Zimmerman’s statement.

The 911 calls have now been released.  So has a statement from the witness who spoke to Trayvon by phone as Zimmerman followed him.  They tell a different story.  Zimmerman got out of his car to confront Trayvon, pulled his gun, and shot him.  Witnesses heard crying and calls for help that stopped after the sound of a gunshot.  Police found only a bag of candy and a can of iced tea in Trayvon’s pockets.

Still, no arrest.  It will not surprise you to know that Trayvon is black.  Zimmerman is not.  And their town, like so many in America, has a history of racial tension and wounds.

So, what can people of conscience do?  We can mourn for Trayvon, pray that his soul rests in peace, and pray for his family in their time of grief.  And we must do more.

We must also press for justice in this case.  We can sign the petition calling for an investigation and prosecution in this case.  And we must do more.

We should echo the words of Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, “[W]e don’t want there to be another Trayvon.”  Trayvon is not the first person to be killed simply for being a black man.  If we want him to be the last, we need to figure out why the belief that a black male is dangerous permeates our culture.  When we ask this question and search far and deep for the complex answer, we may then begin to ensure that there are no more black men who meet Trayvon’s fate.

This would be the very best way to honor Trayvon’s memory.  This is the only way to make sure there aren’t any more deaths like Trayvon’s.

[Update:  The Department of Justice announced 3/20/12 that it will investigate Trayvon’s killing.]

The source of American punitiveness

by Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

Since the 1970s, the prison population in the U.S. has increased by 700%. Consequently, there are now over 2.3 million people behind bars. Friends of Justice believes that this shift toward mass incarceration was driven by a punitive public consensus. This punitiveness resulted in tough-on-crime policies that promote harsh punishment over rehabilitation and leave prisoners locked up and left out.

There are many theories that attempt to explain why the U.S. shifted toward punitive criminal justice policies over the last 40 years. A recent study by Unnever and Cullen (2010) explores the social sources of punitiveness among Americans by examining the efficacy of three prominent theories: the escalating crime-distrust model, the moral decline model, and the racial animus model.

The escalating crime-distrust model suggests that punitiveness is driven by the combination of an individual’s fear that crime is increasing, belief that his or her safety is at risk, and distrust in the government’s ability to protect him or her from crime. This theory also argues that an individual’s belief that courts put the rights of offenders over the rights of victims further contributes to a punitive attitude toward crime. The moral decline model suggests that punitive attitudes stem from an individual’s belief that society is in a state of moral decay. Therefore, only harsh policies toward crime will restore social cohesion. The racial-animus model argues that racial and ethnic hostility and intolerance is tied to punitiveness in the criminal justice system:

 “A sizable proportion of the American public perceives the crime problem through a racial lens that results in an association of crime with African Americans, especially Black men. This lens, mostly unique to Whites and especially to those who are racist, colors their view of crime. For these Americans, when they think about crime, the picture in their head illuminates a young, angry, Black, inner-city male who offends with little remorse. For them, this offender is the “superpredator” Black male.” (more…)