Letter to the Editor

Dear New York Times:

I’m dismayed by the Ethicist’s advice from January 10 regarding public schooling choices http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/magazine/do-we-have-to-send-our-kid-to-a-bad-public-school.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fthe-ethicist&action=click&contentCollection=magazine&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection&_r=0  in part because he accepts the assumptions that the letter writer makes in suggesting that something is “seriously wrong” with the neighborhood public school because of test scores. As a veteran public school teacher, I know that standardized test scores are only one measure of a school’s quality, and a questionable measure at that. Since the letter writer says the school seems “perfectly fine,” the Ethicist should at least be encouraging more questions: Are the teachers kind, caring, and empathetic? Is the student body diverse? Does the school serve a number of bilingual students? (We know, for instance, that bilingual children take much longer to achieve proficiency on standardized tests, yet bilingualism is an asset, not a deficit.) The ethics around school choice should be viewed with more complexity; to only look at standardized test scores as a measure of the quality of an education seems shortsighted.



The New Jim Crow Book Review

Growing up, I thought very little about prisons or the people locked up in this country.  If I did, it might have been in a very Hollywood or crime show kind of way: “Bad” people are locked up in order to keep the rest of society safe.  It wasn’t until I began volunteering in prisons when I was in college through a course I took that I thought about the reality of our criminal justice system.

Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know, but the picture it paints is a scathing critique of our heavily racialized criminal justice system.  In the introduction, Alexander tells us her book is for two groups of people, either the people who maybe don’t know much about how mass incarceration works in this country but are open to criticisms of it being racist and corrupt or people who already know the realities of the system but want the facts and details to bolster their arguments when talking with people who still think that we only lock up “bad” people to keep the rest of society safe, and the fact that we lock up so many brown and Black men has more to do with their criminal behavior and poor lifestyle choices than anything inherently wrong with our system.

I am part of this second group of people, and so reading this book certainly gave me the statistics and stories to counter the prevailing narrative of mass incarceration in this country.  And I couldn’t have read it at a more critical point in our nation’s story, this point of a wider conversation about how “Black lives matter” in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York.  It feels like I’ve had far too many conversations lately in which perhaps well-meaning, “color blind” people argue that, while it’s sad that these men died, they shouldn’t have been engaged in illegal activity, and, if there is a widespread fear of Black men, it’s justified given the violence and criminality of impoverished urban areas.

Alexander debunks this notion and shows how American’s “war on drugs” parallels other moments in our nation’s history, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow.

She begins with a discussion of Reconstruction and helps us to understand how so many white folks came to side with the wealthy landowners who sought to keep Black men and women oppressed post-slavery.  She argues that poor whites were as much a pawn in the game, that they were equally under the thumb of the owning class and so had to be taught to hate Blacks, otherwise the poor and oppressed would vastly outnumber those in power.  This history continues today, with the myth of the American Dream.  Poor and working-class people must believe that they can “make it” in a system that is stacked against them, and they must believe that anyone who doesn’t “make it” is simply lazy, criminal, or otherwise undeserving.  This myth helps to perpetuate a system which seeks to lock up vast numbers of poor Black and brown men.

Alexander provides a number of studies which find that illegal drug use is pretty much equal across racial groups and that, if there is a disparity, it tends towards white people using more than others.  However the United States is the most incarcerating nation in the world, and the vast majority of folks locked up are people of color.  “In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men.  And in major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”

Alexander further demonstrates how the war on drugs was specifically leveraged against our nation’s most marginalized groups with mandatory minimum sentencing and disparate sentences for crack cocaine use versus powdered cocaine use (the former being primarily a drug used by poor, Black communities, the latter largely used by wealthier, whiter folks).  The drug war and mass incarceration is extremely lucrative, and Alexander takes us through all the ways that states stand to gain from militarizing their police force and locking people up.  One flaw in the book is that she says relatively little about how prisons are big business in this country.  She touches on it by noting towards the end of the book how many people would be unemployed if we cut our prison population dramatically.  I feel it’s worth noting that lots of people have a vested interest in making sure we lock folks up, not just the states and local jurisdictions who get paid by the feds if they make drug arrests or get to garnish property even if they don’t convict.  A number of major corporations use prison labor, and private prisons are some of the best selling stock on Wall Street.

Alexander goes on to detail all the ways that, once someone is in the system, even if they’ve never served jail time, they are at a disadvantage for the rest of their lives.

Thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence.  The police are allowed by the courts to conduct fishing expeditions for drugs on streets and freeways based on nothing more than a hunch.  Homes may be searched for drugs based on a tip from an unreliable, confidential informant who is trading the information for money or to escape prison time.  And once swept inside the system, people are often denied attorneys or meaningful representation and pressured into plea bargains by the threat of unbelievably harsh sentences–sentences for minor drug crimes that are higher than many countries impose on convicted murders. 

Many states bar felons from ever voting, which means that a huge portion of the Black electorate is underrepresented, and employers may legally discriminate against anyone with a record, meaning that these people find it very hard to ever find meaningful employment, thus leading to a vicious cycle of recidivism.

If there’s any doubt that the criminal justice system disproportionately harms Black men, consider the issue of alcohol abuse and drunk driving.  By the end of the eighties,

drunk drivers were responsible for approximately 22,000 deaths annually, while overall alcohol-related deaths were close to 100,000 a year…The total of all drug-related deaths due to AIDS, drug overdose, or the violence associated with the illegal drug trade, was estimated at 21,000 annually–less than the number of deaths directly caused by drunk drivers, and a small fraction of the number of alcohol-related deaths that occur every year. 

However, sentences punishing drunk drivers are typically two days for a first offense and two to ten days for a second offense; while someone convicted of possession of a tiny amount of crack cocaine serves a minimum of five years in federal prison.  Why are these sentences so different?  Why, even though drunk driving is far more likely to result in death, are drunk drivers so leniently dealt with? Drunk drivers are predominately white and male.

White men comprised 78 percent of the arrests for this offense in 1990 when new mandatory minimums governing drunk drivers were being adopted…Although drunk driving carries a far greater risk of violent death then the use or sale of illegal drugs, the societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person function and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment and counseling.  People charged with drug offense, though, are disproportionately poor people of color.  They are typically charged with felonies and sentenced to prison. 

Alexander’s book is engaging and enraging.  She cites a number of studies and covers a lot of ground.  She also roots her critique in personal stories to help heighten the emotional pull of her anger.  She lays out her argument very clearly, and I have the hope that other people besides her two groups she intends as her audience would read it; I wish I could hand it to every person who ever argued with me about my volunteering in prison by saying that prisoners don’t deserve theatre workshops or every person I’ve argued with recently who, in the guise of colorblindness, condemn the protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement.  Ideally, policy makers would hear Alexander’s call as well.  As a nation, things are going to have to change if we want to truly claim racial equality.

One fact that she cites that’s worth mentioning is that the less educated a person is, the more likely they are to favor a punitive approach to crime.  Hopefully, we become more educated as a nation and, instead of claiming colorblindness, which Alexander says, as an ideal, “is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion,” and begin to dissect the ways our criminal justice is deeply racist and deeply flawed.

Don’t Stand Your Ground

I went to see Fruitvale Station the night it opened here in Oakland. I bawled by eyes out at the true story of the last day of Oscar Grant’s life before he was killed by a BART police officer on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station, my BART station, the one I use every day on my way to and from work. Fruitvale is my neighborhood where I’ve lived for the past eight years. The movie was sold out all night, and my friend articulated exactly what it felt like: It was a chance for Oakland to grieve.

We were grieving the senseless death of a young man who had his whole life before him, a young man who left behind a four year-old daughter and a loving family. We were grieving for all the young Black men who are killed senselessly in this city, in this country, killed by police officers or other young men of color. We were grieving for all the young men of color who are killed before their time.

The next night, the George Zimmerman verdict was announced, and I continued to feel heartbroken, not specifically because Zimmerman was acquitted (I know prison for Zimmerman won’t bring Trayvon back) but because, once again, it was a reminder about how this country so easily seems to allow the killing of young Black men.

The verdict has sparked a great deal of discussion—some intelligent and thoughtful, some vitriolic and unhelpful—about race in this country and about other issues: gun control and laws like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” laws.

And, somehow, I keep being sucked into these debates in venues like Facebook. I doubt my engaging with people who argue that Zimmerman was the victim will do much to change their mind, but I can’t help myself: I am trying to make sense of it all, so I just keep arguing. One such conversation went something like this: Friend: “George Zimmerman was trying to defend himself. Trayvon Martin was on top of him, banging his head into the cement. What would you do if someone was doing that to you?” Me: “What would you do if someone came at you all aggressively with a gun? Wouldn’t you also fight for your life?”

I argued that I too would fight for my life. And I would if I had to. I have a black belt in Karate: I’ve learned knife and gun disarms; I have several techniques that I can use to break boards; I love to spar. However the truth of the matter is that, if I could, if I was in Trayvon’s situation, if someone came at me with a gun and didn’t just want my money, I would run. I would run as fast as I can, which, honestly isn’t very fast at all, but I would do whatever I had to to get out of there. And I would never be in George Zimmerman’s situation. I say this for many reasons, not the least of which is that I would hope to never be racially profiling someone as a potential criminal, but also because I have zero desire to carry a gun and aggressively confront someone whom I suspect of being a criminal.

I hope that I don’t ever have to fight for my life. But “hope” isn’t entirely the right word. I am not naïve to the ways the world works, and I know that I might be targeted for violence for any number of reasons regardless of my actions. That said, I do more than “hope;” I also actively try to avoid situations that might lead to violence, and I can’t help but wonder about the kind of mindset that leads people into escalating aggression and violence. I fear that a macho mindset, a culture that says it’s not okay to back down or deescalate a conflict is winning out. The George Zimmerman trial has sparked a lot of discussion about race relations in this country, but I also think we need to talk about the violence of machismo.

I was thinking about this culture of “don’t back down” after watching Fruitvale Station. When the Oscar Grant killing initially happened, I couldn’t bring myself to watch the cellphone videos of his murder that went viral. I wasn’t there, and I don’t pretend that the movie, which is not a documentary, is the exact truth of what happened. However the dynamic portrayed is one I’ve seen with my students or with others, especially young men: After Oscar and his friends are pulled off the BART train for fighting, a BART officer begins aggressively shouting and physically restraining the men. The men shout and argue back; there’s no backing down, no trying to reason or to simply wait. In the movie, Oscar calls the officer a “bitch ass nigger,” which is what leads to him being restrained on the ground. The macho male officer continues to shout and yell; the power of his authority takes him over, and his aggression creates a heightened climate of fear and anger. When the rookie cop, in real life Johannes Mehserle, steps into this angry, violent situation, he seems flustered, not thinking clearly. In real life, Mehserle claims he mistook his taser for his gun, and this is what led to the murder. It’s not hard to see this in the movie: the situation had taken on such an angry, aggressive tone that the rookie cops seems scared, caught up in the physicality of the confrontation, in need of doing something to justify his being there, to look in control and tough. The cop in charge’s aggression takes over the whole situation, pushes it to become what it became. It’s not hard to imagine that, had it just been the rookie cop and the female officer handling the situation and not the aggressive officer in charge, the killing would never have happened; the rookie cop wouldn’t have been pushed to feel the need to use the extreme measure of tasing Grant.

I’m not arguing that Mehserle’s horrible decision was justified, and I’m not arguing that Grant is at fault for his murder. Similarly I’m not arguing that Trayvon Martin deserved to be killed because he fought back. But I am saying that we live in a culture that, all too often, prizes fighting back and aggression over reason and discourse; we live in a macho, patriarchal culture where physical toughness wins the day. And of course this valuing of machismo is ultimately what led Zimmerman to feel driven to be the vigilante hero he obviously felt the need to be, to keep goading Martin even though the police told him to back off.

This valuing of the macho is particularly easy to see in the language commonly used when someone backs down. They’re a “pussy” and a “faggot,” or a man who is seen as weak is called a “bitch,” which carries a very different meaning than when directed at a strong woman; in this case, this language is meant to demean the man for “being womanish.”

I see this macho attitude with my students too. I have witnessed countless stupid interactions between, particularly, male students: One does something unthinking or careless to another. Often the precipitating event truly is a mistake: Someone mishears or is simply clumsy. The other student comes back annoyed or angry and so is met with annoyance and anger. When I’ve intervened, I’m told, “I didn’t mean to do it,” and my response is always the same: “So then it should be easy to just say you’re sorry.” But too often, my students simply don’t know how to apologize. They don’t know how to deescalate these situations that then become fights or at least barely contained anger as they go about the rest of their day. They’re hostile instead of apologetic, aggressive rather than communicative.

It’s not just men who engage in this dynamic; women and girls do too, but it seems very clear to me that this attitude comes out of a particularly male mindset.

All this has led me to think about the one time where I was confronted, provoked to fight, and had to decide how to react. This happened many years ago when I was in college. I was home over winter break, and I’d gone bowling with my then sweetie and my sister. In the lane next to us was a group of three, two men and a woman, who seemed itching for a fight. They began teasing my boyfriend, making homophobic comments and suggesting that he was gay. At one point, one of the men cocked his wrist at Dusty in a stereotypically gay fashion, mocking him. Dusty, knowing full well what the man was implying but not interested in fighting, responded, “What is that? Bowler’s wrist?” trying to lighten the mood, not trying to take the bait or get in a fight. The other man bluntly said, “It means you look like a faggot.” Dusty’s response was, “Well, I’d rather be gay than a tough guy.” The original man got in Dusty’s face and seethed, “Are you trying to start something?” Dusty said very calmly, “No, I’m really not.”

These kinds of exchanges went on as we bowled a few games: they taunted us, and we tried to simply diffuse the situation, not getting angry or aggressive back. At one point, the young woman challenged me to a fight. When I said, “No thanks,” she said, “Are you a pussy?” And I said simply, “Yes, I am. I don’t want to fight.” And I really didn’t want to fight. The confrontation was silly, over nothing; it really came out of this group’s need for aggression.

The night ended with a high-speed chase through the streets of a sleeping Kalamazoo, Michigan after the group waited for us to leave the bowling alley. As terrifying as this was, the night could have had a much worse ending. They had used all the right language in insulting our non-macho lack of aggression. Others, who felt insulted by this, who would have been angry at being called a “faggot” or a “pussy,” would have brawled outside the bowling alley in anger.

I believe in the emotion of anger, but I think it also needs to be tempered with compassion and reason. At the time, I was angry about these folks’ homophobia, but what would fighting have accomplished to address it? I am angry with the posts on Facebook or the “news media” claiming anyone who disagrees with the George Zimmerman verdict is just “race-baiting.” I’m angry that Martin was killed in the first place, that the Oakland police department continues to kill unarmed Black men. But at the same time, as we confront these realities, I hope we don’t devolve into our own violence.

This is not specifically a call for non-violent action; though it could be. My intention is more to interrogate the culture of macho violence that leads us to not treat other human beings like human beings in moments of anger, to feel like we need to get the last word in or one-up the other person we’re in conflict with, to not back down because it would make us seem weak or afraid.

We’ll never know exactly what would have happened if George Zimmerman had backed off when told to, if Trayvon Martin had walked away when confronted by Zimmerman, if the BART police had calmly waited for backup to take Oscar Grant and his friends into custody, or if Grant had stayed calm in the certainty that he was doing nothing wrong. But we do have our own choices to make all the time about how we respond to conflict. I personally can be kind of hot-headed, and I especially don’t like when folks in authority try to abuse their power. I can be spicy and quick to talk back, and I need to remember that this usually doesn’t help anything. We also need to remember that there’s no shame in apologizing, no shame in listening and striving for understanding rather than trying to win.

Why I’m Voting Yes on California State Proposition 34

“Repeals death penalty as maximum punishment for persons found guilty of murder and replaces it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Applies retroactively to persons already sentenced to death. Requires persons found guilty of murder to work while in prison, with their wages to be applied to any victim restitution fines or orders against them. Creates $100 million fund to be distributed to law enforcement agencies to help solve more homicide and rape cases.”

I have long been an opponent of the death penalty. I grew up in Michigan, where we did not have capital punishment, so when, in college, I began volunteering in various prisons co-facilitating improvisational theater workshops, I met men who, in other states, may have been on death row. To a person, everyone I met struck me as being interesting, creative, smart, even kind and compassionate. Yes, they had all done terrible things in their lives; they’d hurt people, but age, education, and time to reflect had all given them a much bigger sense of the world. Some of the men I met mentored younger prisoners; they did HIV/AIDS counseling, worked in the libraries, wrote, had found God, and more and wanted to make a positive difference in the world. Many had families, children or wives they loved. In short, all these men were complex human beings, and it struck me how absolutely wrong it is to, as a state, to commit murder through capital punishment.

The death penalty doesn’t work: It doesn’t reduce rates of violent crime, but what’s more, it sanctions murder, sending hypocritical mixed messages about the value of life. It disproportionately targets poor people of color, and it costs a lot of money. It doesn’t bring back lost loved ones; it only adds to the grief by taking away someone else’s son or daughter, sister or brother, father or mother. The United States is one of the only developed countries to follow this brutal and barbaric practice, and it’s time that California, a leader in the nation in so many ways, does away with the backward practice of executing people.