Category: Race

Were the Tulsa shootings racially motivated?

By Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

As of yesterday, two suspects have confessed to the Tulsa, Oklahoma shootings that left two injured and three dead over the Easter weekend.  The two suspects — Jacob England, 19, and Alvin Watts, 32 — were arrested Sunday morning and confessed shortly after their arrest.

Late Thursday, According to the New York Times, England wrote an angry post on his Facebook page about the deaths of his father and fiancée:

Mr. England’s father, Carl, was shot on April 5, 2010, at an apartment complex…and the man who was a person of interest in the case, Pernell Jefferson, is serving time at an Oklahoma state prison.

Mr. England is a Native American who has also described himself as white.  Mr. Jefferson is black.

“Today is two years that my dad has been gone,” Mr. England wrote, and then used a racial epithet to describe Mr. Jefferson. “It’s hard not to go off between that and sheran I’m gone in the head,” he added, referring to the recent suicide of his 24-year-old fiancée, Sheran Hart Wilde. “RIP. Dad and sheran I Love and miss u I think about both of u every second of the day.”

Hours later, England and his roommate, Watts, drove a pickup through a predominately black neighborhood in Tulsa and started to randomly shoot pedestrians.  Mr. England admitted to shooting three of the victims and Mr. Watts admitted to shooting the other two.

Many within the Tulsa community believe the actions of England and Watts were racially motivated.

The city of Tulsa has a history of racial tension.  In 1921, the city was the site of one of the deadliest race riots in U.S. history.  The riots began when a young black man was arrested after he was accused of sexually harassing a white woman.  His arrest sparked a violent confrontation between the black and white communities.  According to documents from the Tulsa Historical Society:

In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Black Tulsa was looted and burned by white rioters.  Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa.  Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, took imprisoned blacks out of the hands of vigilantes and imprisoned all black Tulsans not already interned.  Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days.

Twenty-four hours after the violence erupted, it ceased.  In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins.

Historians estimate that over 300 people were killed in the riot and more than 8,000 were left homeless.

Now, 91 years after the deadly riot, race relations in Tulsa remain rocky.  Many, including the Tulsa NAACP chapter and Tulsa City Council member Jack Henderson, want the gunmen to be prosecuted for a hate crime.

“Somebody that committed these crimes were very upset with black people,” said Jack Henderson, “That person happened to be a white person. The people that they happened to kill and shoot were black people — that fits the bill for me.”

Police officials and prosecutors, however, say it is still too early in the investigation to call the shooting rampage a hate crime.

Will Trayvon Martin’s death spark the movement to end mass incarceration?

After news spread about the killing of 17-year old Trayvon Martin, many began comparing Martin’s case to the 1955 murder of 14-year old Emmett Till.  Although some are critical of the comparison, arguing that comparing Martin to Till suggests nothing has changed since the 1950s, Ibram Rogers argues that we must look at the context of their deaths and what their murders symbolized.  Till’s death was a symbol of racism in the Jim Crow South.  Martin’s death is a symbol of racial profiling and the criminalization of black men in 2012.  Just as the death of Emmett Till galvanized the civil rights movement, Ibram wonders: “Will the anger over Martin’s death spark the New Abolitionist Movement against mass incarceration?” MWN 

Probing the Comparison – Trayvon Martin/Mass Incarceration and Emmett Till/Segregation

by Dr. Ibram Rogers

Protests are blooming this spring. Black Americans are enraged and emboldened, shouting entreaties for justice, justice, justice.

Stoking even more rage—or rather placing the rage in historical context—has been the continuous comparisons made between the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, murdered recently by a neighborhood watchman of a majority White gated community in Florida who is claiming self-defense, and Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago native murdered by Mississippi segregationists in 1955 for speaking “inappropriately” to a White woman.

A blog in The New Yorker on the Martin tragedy was entitled “Emmett Till in Sanford.” Hundreds of protesters gathered at a park in Sanford, Fla., on March 22, and dozens of them sported t-shirts with Martin’s photo next to a Till photo. These Martin-Till shirts have become widely popular among activists around the nation.

Syracuse professor Boyce Watkins wrote that Martin “has become a modern day Emmett Till.” University of Maryland law professor Sherrilyn A. Ifill insightfully compared Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, to Mamie Mae Till, who courageously allowed an open casket funeral and circulated pictures of her son’s tattered face around the world. Mamie Till’s public fight to get justice for her son is one of the untold sparks of the Civil Rights Movement.

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson dismissed the “facile comparison” as “a disservice to history—and the memory of both young men. It is ridiculous to imply that nothing has changed.”

Robinson is correct and incorrect. The link is a service and disserve to history. The widely touted comparison of Martin to Till is profound and “facile.”  (more…)

Kids left behind: Mass incarceration and the impact on U.S. children

By Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

When we talk about mass incarceration in the United States, we often focus on the problematic effect it has on those who are imprisoned within the system.  But the consequences of mass incarceration reach far beyond the 2.3 million Americans who are currently behind bars.  When one person is sent to prison, that person and everyone in his or her social world — parents, siblings, spouses, kids — feel the impact.

When children lose a parent to incarceration, the results can be devastating.

According to a recent report by Sadhbh Walshe of The Guardian, there are currently 10 million children in the United States with a parent who has been in prison or on parole or probation.  The majority of these children are children of color.  Among black children, 1 in 5 has a parent in prison.  By contrast, only 1 in 111 white children has an incarcerated parent.  As a result, mass incarceration has become one of the primary forces driving unequal outcomes for poor children of color.  As Walshe points out:

“These children are often deeply traumatized by the experience.  Their school work suffers, they can become emotionally withdrawn or aggressively act out.  The negative consequences tend to be exacerbated if they are unable to maintain meaningful contact with the parent they love while he or she is in prison.”

A report by the Sentencing Project revealed that kids of incarcerated parents are more likely to drop out of school, have disciplinary problems, and become incarcerated themselves.  Moreover, these children often lose contact with their incarcerated parents.  As of 2004, 59% of state inmates and 45% of federal inmates had never been visited by their children.  More than half of all prisoners in the U.S. are located 100-500 miles away from their homes.  This distance only makes visitation more difficult for the families of prisoners.

To reduce negative impacts on children, the Sentencing Project suggests prison programs that promote parent-child bonding, reentry assistance, and sentencing reforms that revise “tough on crime” policies that leave people locked up for excessive periods of time.  Placing prisoners closer to home and implementing better visitation policies would also help.

However, Walshe makes a great point: “Unless we stop using incarceration as a one-stop shop for all social ills, stop being “tough on crime” and start being tough on the causes of crime, it’s impossible to see how this cycle of despair will ever end.”

We’re Still Talking about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, and That’s a Good Thing

By Lisa D’Souza

News reports and discussions about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin continue.   The Sanford police have provided information about George Zimmerman’s statement to themZimmerman’s friend has spoken out on his behalf.  This week, both The Diane Rehm Show and Talk of the Nation aired shows discussing the tragedy with experts and callers.  With a federal investigation underway and the autopsy results still sealed, we will learn more as the days and weeks unfold.

Why was George Zimmerman suspicious of Trayvon Martin?  What happened in the 20 minutes that elapsed between Zimmerman’s first seeing Martin and the shooting?  How do Florida’s self defense and gun laws affect police decisions?

And the big question: what about race?  Some have remembered the similarities between Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin’s deaths.  President Obama encouraged us all to do some “soul searching” about not just this incident but the history and context in which it happened.  In response, Newt Gingrich decried the insertion of race into the discussion of this case.  When we can admit that black males are just over 6% of our nation’s population, and yet they are more than 40% of our murder victims (and this data likely doesn’t include the deaths of black men that are not prosecuted due to self-defense claims made by the killer), then we must acknowledge that a discussion of race, violence and criminal justice is long overdue.

It is good that one month after his death, we are still talking about Trayvon Martin.  Let us hope that we remember him for a long time, and that his memory moves us to act so that his tragic and untimely death is the last one of its kind.

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 Change.org 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.]

Former narcotics cop: “End the drug war, spend money on schools instead.”

In the New York Times opinion piece below, former narcotics cop Neill Franklin discusses the need to end mass incarceration and the failed war on drugs. Franklin, now the executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, was a police officer for 34 years with the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department. Alan and I had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Franklin speak at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference this February. MWN

Spend Money on Schools Instead

by Neill Franklin

If we have any hope of healing the deep wounds of race in this country, we’ve first got to stop the bleeding caused by mass incarceration and the other ill effects of the failed “war on drugs.”

Thanks to our ramped up “war on drugs,” when I walk in my old neighborhood I see houses where one or both parents are behind bars or on probation or parole. It didn’t use to be that way.

Our prohibition policies, and the “us vs. the man” mentality they have caused in our communities, have badly damaged how young black men are perceived — and not just by white people. As an African-American narcotics cop in Baltimore, even I fell victim to fear and apprehension when I encountered a group of black teenagers on the street. Making drugs like marijuana illegal has made them incredibly lucrative, and it’s not hard to see why many teenagers choose to enlist in the dope game and play for the chance at moving up the chain and raking in tax-free money rather than donning a McDonald’s uniform.

Even if our drug policies aren’t successful in reducing drug use, they are successful in turning whole communities into criminals. Nearly one in three black men can expect to spend time behind bars. For many black teenagers, getting arrested is a rite of passage.

But it wasn’t always this way. (more…)

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…)

Money, morals, and mass incarceration

by Dr. Charles Kiker

This post is in affirmation of and response to Dr. Alan Bean’s blog on the Friends of Justice site, “‘The Power to Make Us One’: Heather McGhee’s One-People America.” In that post Dr. Bean acknowledges that racially charged language only serves to make white people defensive regarding the plight of black people in America, and thus is counterproductive in bringing about either racial reconciliation or the end to mass incarceration.

In the February 10th edition of The New York Times two entries caught my attention. One was an article by Sabrina Tavernise, “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say.” The finding of those studies, in a nutshell, is that the education gap between the children of well-off families, regardless of race, and poor families, regardless of race, is widening, while the education gap between the children of white families and black families is narrowing.

And it is well known that the level of education is a reliable predictor of income success or lack thereof.

The other was an op-ed piece by Paul Krugman, “Money and Morals.” Not surprisingly, Krugman argues that the big problem for working class families is not moral decay, but “A drastic reduction in the work opportunities available to less-educated men.” Krugman states that “entry-level wages of male high school graduates have fallen 23% since 1970” when adjusted for inflation. To make matters worse, benefits have been drastically reduced. (more…)

Racial bias and the selection of death penalty juries

The New York Times editorial below explores the relationship between race and the selection of death penalty juries. The editorial mentions a 2011 study conducted at Michigan State University that found a significant racial bias in the selection of jurors. In the 166 cases reviewed by researchers, “prosecutors dismissed more than twice as many blacks from the jury (56%) as others (25%).” Moreover, the disparity was even greater when the defendants were black.

The Curtis Flowers case is a prime example of this type of racial bias. Curtis, an innocent man, has been tried six times for the same crime. His first two convictions were overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct. Discrimination in jury selection led the Supreme Court to overturn Flowers’ conviction after his third trial. Trials four and five ended with hung juries. At the end of the sixth trial, Curtis was convicted and sentenced to death. Although Mr. Flowers has spent over 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, we can only hope that the growing awareness of racial bias in jury selection will help bring justice for Curtis and others facing similar situations. MW

Race and Death Penalty Juries

North Carolina courageously passed the Racial Justice Act in 2009, making it the first state in the country to give death row inmates a chance to have their sentences changed to life without parole based on proof that race played a significant role in determining punishment.

A state court is now hearing the first challenge to a death sentence under that law. Marcus Robinson, who has been on death row since 1994, must prove that state prosecutors discriminated against blacks in selecting juries, affecting the outcomes of cases, including his. His lawyers presented a notable study by researchers at Michigan State University showing this kind of bias. (more…)