As one sees on occasion in the news, there was a local story of a child with a disease that was being treated. The purpose is to elicit sympathy and/or inspiration, which is unsurprising and worthy. But it gets one thinking when considering the details and narrative frame. The reporting is often about how the community came together to raise money or otherwise help the child and the family. It’s a feel-good story that follows a particular kind of script. As important is picking the right child for the lead role in the drama.
In this case, the child was a cute, white, middle class girl. She was photogenic according to what our society deems good looking, even with her hair loss from chemotherapy. That is the basic profile of nearly every human interest story of this sort. It’s not just any kid that becomes the focus of a human interest story. There has to be hundreds of sick kids in the area that are some combination of less attractive, impoverished, and non-white. But rarely does a major news media outlet tell their stories of suffering and struggle, of overcoming the odds.
That is assuming they overcome the odds. No one reports on the poor kid who died because the parents couldn’t afford healthcare, who was slowly poisoned from lead toxicity because they lived in a poor industrial area, or some other sad demise. No one reports on the black kid who when sick the community didn’t come together because the community was majority white and the family had been excluded and isolated. What we don’t see in the news tells us as much as what we do see.
It reminds one of the studies done on news reporting of criminals. Black criminals are more likely to have their photographs shown than white criminals. This creates the perception that almost all crime is commited by non-whites. The news media teaches and trains us in thinking who deserves sympathy and who does not. The world is divided up as innocent well-off whites who must be saved and criminal poor blacks who must be condemned. News reporting is a morality tale about maintaining the social order.
There are no races. There is just racism. Races and racism can’t be separated. However, when you identify a person as African-American, you are referring to ethnicity, not race.
Ethnicities do exist and are meaningful categories of human ancestry, culture, traditions, and communities. Speaking of races serves no purpose other than promoting racism, even if inadvertently. There is nothing that race indicates that can’t be better described by ethnicity.
“In the case of a job applicant, when asked to speculate about education, ability and income, whites believed that the “black” applicant was less educated and estimated his income as about $29,000 a year. But the candidate labeled “African American” was thought to be more educated by white respondents, and making about $37,000 a year.
“In another experiment, a suspect in a crime was labeled “black” or “African American,” and whites consistently had more negative emotions and were more likely to label the “black” suspect as guilty. In fact, throughout the experiment, “black” always lost out to “African American” among white respondents—but lest you get the impression that they thought better of African Americans, let us be clear: Whites simply liked blacks less. In the study, they didn’t necessarily hold more positive feelings toward African Americans compared with other groups—just compared with blacks. [ . . . ]
“Ultimately, the Emory study speaks to a more important and pressing issue, which is the depth to which overt and even subconscious racial bias in the white majority impacts the lives of African Americans. If a loan application or a college admission form uses the term “black” instead of “African American,” it may play into a larger discrimination cycle already in motion.
“Granted, more often than not, being hired for a job isn’t going to turn on whether you describe yourself as black or as African American. But given the results of this study, and the impact on jobs and lives, one has to wonder if the black unemployment rate is just a little bit higher than the African-American unemployment rate.”
“Once biases have been catalogued objectively, there remains the problem of what to do about them. A side experiment that Mujcic and Frijters describe in their paper hints at one possible solution. They approached several bus drivers on break, showing them a picture of a subject from the original experiment and asking the driver if that rider would be allowed to stay on. In that survey, 86 percent of drivers said they’d let a black passenger stay onboard—a rate far higher than what happened out on the streets. Perhaps drivers know that they shouldn’t discriminate, but only act on that knowledge when they think their actions are being recorded. Putting policies in place that force people to step outside of their everyday rhythms and evaluate their own fairness might be a useful strategy. Or maybe it comes down to devising something that makes them feel the pressure of that ultimate motivator, social pressure.”
For the new year, here are some positive perspectives based on recent studies.
I’ll offer an excerpt about how racial bias can be lessened, but the article also discusses other issues such as empathy and altruism. This goes against what cynics and determinists are always arguing. We aren’t naturally racists. Like so many other attitudes and behaviors, racial bias or its opposite are dependent on many factors, both factors we control individually and factors we control as a society.
We aren’t fated to ignorance and mindlessness. We aren’t mere puppets of genetics and culture. We always have a choice. We always have the opportunity to learn and improve. Being realistic can mean being optimistic, depending on the reality we choose to create.
Racial bias in policing is at the forefront of our national news. So it was heartening this year to see a study that found bias could be reduced through training in mindfulness—the nonjudgmental moment-to-moment awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, and surroundings.
Adam Lueke and Brian Gibson of Central Michigan University looked at how instructing white college students in mindfulness would affect their “implicit bias”—or unconscious negative reactions—to black faces and faces of older people. After listening to a 10-minute mindfulness audiotape, students were significantly less likely to automatically pair negative descriptive words with black and elderly faces than were those in a control group—a finding that could be important for policing, which often involves split-second assessments of people.
Why the connection between mindfulness and bias? Mindfulness has the power to interrupt the link between past experience and impulsive responding, the authors speculate. This ability to be more discerning may explain why another study this year found that people who were high in mindfulness were less likely to sink into depression following experiences of discrimination.
As we reported back in 2009, numerous programs have successfully helped officers become aware of their own unconscious biases. But by specifically looking at the effects of mindfulness training—even just 10 minutes’ worth—these new studies point to innovative techniques that might help prevent fatal mistakes from being made in the future.
“Now to be clear, I do believe that every person should play a proactive role in their own success, health, and overall well-being. The part that bothers me is that many people seem to think that black people cannot do this and exercise our right as American citizens to express displeasure with policy and practices. I would argue that being civically engaged is apart of taking personal responsibility. However, according to many right wing pundits—and increasingly people within our own community—any black person who requests a government action is asking for “free stuff” or trying to keep from taking care of our own business.”
~ Black People and The Burden Of “Personal Responsibility”, carrefourblog
We need to move past this false dichotomy.
More importantly, we need to move beyond the false accusation against poor minorities. I suspect that the average poor minority works harder and is forced to take more personal responsibility than is the average white, especially the average middle-to-upper class white who tends to make these kinds of judgments from the position of white privilege.
Also, minorities promoting social justice are among the most hardworking people around. That is no easy struggle to be involved in. Black leaders and black parents embrace the ideals of personal responsibility and hard work. They talk about it in speeches and sermons, but the best of them understand this in the context of a centuries-old structural racism. That latter part gets lost in translation when the more privileged take up this judgment, including blacks in privileged positions like Cosby.
Blacks worker harder to accomplish less than whites on a daily basis. If such ideals could solve the problems of structural racism in how it impacts individuals, structural racism would have ended a long time ago. We all need to take both personal and shared responsibility for the problems of structural racism. It can’t be solved alone by the victims of racial oppression and prejudice. However, working together, we can all be part of the solution.
In saying this, I am not trying to deny or gloss over the fact that a lot of Black people are into some bad shit. Youth are killing each other, and people desperate to survive are preying on each other. Too many Black men are into the male supremacy that is rife in this society, and too many Black women combine U.S. society’s “look out for #1” ethos with accepting its outlook on women’s place. Black people do need to get out of all this shit. They need to move from being victimized by this system to fighting to get rid of this system. They, along with basic masses of all nationalities and people from other backgrounds too, need to come forward as emancipators of humanity.
But lectures about personal responsibility won’t help make that happen. This will stand in the way of people getting what’s the real source of the problems they face, and what’s the real way to get out from under them. People don’t see any way out and can begin to think it’s because they’re fucked up. And it is a fact: Black people, as a people, are not going to “make it” under this system. The only real hope for the masses in their millions is carving out a radically different future thru revolution and changing themselves as they fight to bring a whole new world into being.
There is scant empirical evidence that demonstrates a lack of work ethic among black men. To be officially counted as unemployed, onehas to be actively pursuing a job. The black maleunemployment rate is typically about twice thewhite unemployment rate. In 2007, 9.1 percent ofblack males were officially unemployed; yet, only4.2 percent of white males were unemployed. Onecan be certain that thereare many more black mendesiring work than arecurrently employed in thisjob market.
“It’s funny, the American dream is sort of steeped in this myth of work hard, be self-sufficient and push yourself forward, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that kind of thing. But much of the wealth in this country was not built on that, in no way, fashion or form,” Williams says.
“The foundation of American White supremacy sits tenuously on a rickety base of lies and deceptions about how Whites gained their wealth and status. A century and a half after slavery the median wealth of White families is $100,000; for Black families, it’s $5,000. The belief that Whites achieved this 20-1 wealth advantage by HARD WORK is an absurd and a historical fantasy.”
Indeed, a wave of research over the last 20 years has documented the lingering effects of slavery in the United States and South America alike. For example, counties in America that had a higher proportion of slaves in 1860 are still more unequal today, according to a scholarly paper published in 2010. The authors called this a “persistent effect of slavery.”
One reason seems to be that areas with slave labor were ruled for the benefit of elite plantation owners. Public schools, libraries and legal institutions lagged, holding back working-class whites as well as blacks.
Whites often don’t realize that slavery didn’t truly end until long after the Civil War. Douglas Blackmon won a Pulitzer Prize for his devastating history, “Slavery by Another Name,” that recounted how U.S. Steel and other American corporations used black slave labor well into the 20th century, through “convict leasing.” Blacks would be arrested for made-up offenses such as “vagrancy” and then would be leased to companies as slave laborers.
[ . . . . ]
WE all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. We’re in a relay race, relying on the financial and human capital of our parents and grandparents. Blacks were shackled for the early part of that relay race, and although many of the fetters have come off, whites have developed a huge lead. Do we ignore this long head start — a facet of white privilege — and pretend that the competition is now fair?
Of course not. If we whites are ahead in the relay race of life, shouldn’t we acknowledge that we got this lead in part by generations of oppression? Aren’t we big enough to make amends by trying to spread opportunity, by providing disadvantaged black kids an education as good as the one afforded privileged white kids?
Can’t we at least acknowledge that in the case of race, William Faulkner was right: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Yeah, he’s black. Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t think anybody wants to suppress the story of an undersize, pudgy engineering nerd who made himself into a gritty, overachieving captain on a Big Ten champion team and who is also black. I bet the national media would love a story like that. I suspect they just don’t see it.
The gulf in physical talent between Novak and other players was glaring. Now, look at Morgan, with his gigantic biceps. If you don’t know him and you are using a simple heuristic, you probably think he’s a pretty good athletic talent, even if if is a little short. You don’t think about the fact that he gained that muscle after intense weight training. (Announcers never mention it.) And so one player is surrounded by a narrative of hustle, smarts, and toughness, and another player with the exact same qualities is not.
The situation is far better than it was three or four decades ago, when announcers would liken the skills of black players to animals. Today, they have some awareness of racial stereotyping. What’s left, I think, is far more characteristic of how racial bias typically works. Bad intent does not come into play. White people simply have certain preconceptions, and preconceptions make you see the things you expect to see and miss the things you don’t.
The fact is that I can travel through east Baltimore or any urban inner city (BLACK) neighborhood for under 10 minutes and introduce you to the hardest-working Americans in our country. I know a guy that guts houses for $50 a day, a rack of uncertified tax preparers, too many single moms with triple jobs, some freelance freelancers, infinite party promoters, squeegee kids, basement caterers, back-alley auto mechanics, dudes of all ages selling bottled water and a collection of Mr. Fix Its, all living in a two-block radius. We are all American dream chasing, all trying to start our own business, all working our asses off.
Legal or illegal, the inner cities of America are our nation’s hotbed of side hustles. Even people like me with college degrees need multiple streams of revenue to survive, and I gained that work ethic from living in the inner city. Seeing my grandma work 10-hour shifts showed me I could do the same.
There are a million grinding grandmas like mine, and Darnell Baylor isn’t the only person who gets paid for 40 hours a week but works 80. Every person I know is on his schedule and gained that work ethic from the inner city. If Duncan were exposed to a different way of life, he’d probably be running a Fortune 500 company.
Lenny and Loraine didn’t beg for drugs, they performed for them. And Lenny continued to work hard years after his crack addiction faded. The Candy and Cigarette lady should be celebrated for her innovation. And I’d bet that even if the cops rushed and ended her industry, work ethic and creativity would lead to her creating a new one.
She still works hard but will be only judged for not following traditional rules, which is unfortunate because there are so many hardworking people like us who are forced to create our own industries as a direct result of being isolated by society. To me that poses a bigger question. Why employment inequality for African-Americans is always identified as laziness?
But even if we ignore the unfairness of racial profiling, not to mention its blatantly unconstitutional nature given that whole Equal Protection Clause thing, sitting smack dab in the middle of the 14th Amendment — and even if we momentarily put aside the evidence that profiling is not justified by crime data, and can actually be counterproductive — several points have been overlooked by those who think they have either the moral or factual basis to lecture black folks about so-called pathologies in the black community. And they are points worth noting, because they indicate that not only are the Negrophobic critics of black America largely wrong about black folks (few of whom they actually know) and black communities (few of which they have ever actually spent time in), but even more interestingly, they appear to be ignoring a number of data points suggesting serious cultural rot in the white community, to which they might wish to turn their attention. Especially seeing as how they love to inveigh about “personal responsibility.” What better way for white people to take personal responsibility, after all, than to stop hectoring blacks and perhaps begin to clean up our own behavioral back yards?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying black folks shouldn’t take “personal responsibility” whatever that means, I’m saying black folks aren’t the ONLY ones who need to take some “personal” responsibility. And we certainly don’t have to be told the same thing over and over again like we are stoopid or children, or both. I don’t condone what Reverend Jesse Jackson was caught on tape saying about President Obama talking down to black folks but I understand.
Why are black folks the only ones being told they need to “take personal responsibility” for their actions? Black folks aren’t responsible for creating the current mess we find our country in. Why are black folks the only ones told they “need to stop making excuses and blaming others for their problems”. I don’t hear anyone telling democrats to stop making excuses for being whimps. I don’t hear anyone telling republicans to stop making excuses for being obstructionist. I don’t hear anyone (well almost) telling President Obama to stop making excuses.
Yet Obama had the gall to attempt selling these Morehouse men the following economic snake-oil. “You’re graduating into an improving job market,” he claimed. “You’re living in a time when advances in technology and communication put the world at your fingertips. Your generation is uniquely poised for success unlike any generation of African Americans that came before it.” Many of these African men do not have control over events within the labor market. There are entrenched racist, gendered and class-related employment barriers that are resistant to personal effort and responsibility on the part of these prospective racialized, despised and stereotyped jobseekers.
I look forward to the day when Obama will tell it like it is to ruling-class white men, that there’s no longer time for excuses for their promotion of institutional white supremacy (and other forms of oppression). Furthermore, I would like to see the display of intestinal fortitude on the part of the president in declaring to largely white graduating classes that they should not blame immigrants for taking away “their” jobs, social assistance or welfare recipients as the reason for high taxes or the capital gains tax as an impediment to job creation.
“His commencement address would have been more helpful if he affirmed those young leaders and then challenged them to use their skills to become vigorous and relentless fighters against racism, classism, sexism, economic and political exploitation. The dirty little ‘secret’ of his very own presidency is that he is the ultimate example of how constrained Black achievement really can be, if it is not accompanied by a vigorous fight against structural and institutional racism. . . .”
“Either that President Obama thinks black grads at one of the nation’s best colleges really need to be lectured about such matters; or, alternately, that White America is so desirous of exculpation for the history of racial discrimination that we need him to say such things, and he knows it, thereby leading him to feed us the moral scolding of black men we so desperately desire, and which he must know will be transmitted to us by way of media coverage of his talk.”
“But when the president speaks to the black community, there’s often a dive into the politics of personal responsibility,” he continued. “I cringe at that, as if effort and excuses have been the problem.”
“No,” Touré asserted. “It’s been structural racism.”
“The accumulated impact of historic discrimination and the advantages of white privilege and the systems perpetuate all that,” he continued. “Going into personal responsibility suggests you can make it if you try, and he knows it’s more complex than that.”
“I want our president this president, to tell America to tear down the American Berlin Wall that keeps black men separated from opportunity,” Touré concluded. “That sort of big brother-in-chief would get us closer to the mountain top.”
Leola Johnson, an associate professor and chair of the Media and Cultural Studies Department at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., said the Obamas’ speeches “are actually not aimed at black people.”
“They’re actually for white people, liberals especially,” she said. Liberal bloggers were brimming with praise for Obama after the Morehouse speech. “It’s the legacy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and that whole group of white liberals who want to say it’s not just about structural problems that black people aren’t doing well, it’s about their own values.”
Kevin Powell, an activist based in New York who travels the country encouraging black men to take responsibility for their lives, said he has no problem with Obama challenging the black community, but . . .
“You also have to challenge the system, just as you challenge the people. It’s not an either/or,” said Powell, president and founder of BK Nation, an organization focused on education and civic engagement.
Specifically, rich high school dropouts remain in the top about as much as poor college grads stay stuck in the bottom — 14 versus 16 percent, respectively. Not only that, but these low-income strivers are just as likely to end up in the bottom as these wealthy ne’er-do-wells. Some meritocracy.
What’s going on? Well, it’s all about glass floors and glass ceilings. Rich kids who can go work for the family business — and, in Canada at least, 70 percent of the sons of the top 1 percent do just that — or inherit the family estate don’t need a high school diploma to get ahead. It’s an extreme example of what economists call “opportunity hoarding.” That includes everything from legacy college admissions to unpaid internships that let affluent parents rig the game a little more in their children’s favor.
But even if they didn’t, low-income kids would still have a hard time getting ahead. That’s, in part, because they’re targets for diploma mills that load them up with debt, but not a lot of prospects. And even if they do get a good degree, at least when it comes to black families, they’re more likely to still live in impoverished neighborhoods that keep them disconnected from opportunities.
African-Americans college students are about as likely to get hired as whites who have dropped out of high school. So says a new report from a non-profit called Young Invincibles, which analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census and examined the effect race and education levels have on unemployment. “We were startled to see just how much more education young African-Americans must get in order to have the same chance at landing a job as their white peers,” said Rory O’Sullivan, deputy director of Young Invincibles, in a statement.
I’m a Midwesterner and specifically an Iowan. Like anyone else, I have a natural tendency to defend this place I consider home. Take for example when a commenter, Skepoet, said in a comment that the Midwest lacked diversity. I responded with pointing out a multicultural tradition in the Midwest.
At the same time, I always want to be as honest as possible, with myself as much as with others. I’ve come to realize, from further study, a major part of history outside the South that demonstrates how pervasive racism is in our society. I speak of sundown towns. I learned that even in my beloved Midwest, even in Iowa, sundown towns weren’t unusual. It wasn’t an accident that so many blacks ended up in the inner city. They were forced to live there when they were forced to leave the towns they had moved to following the Civil War. As I wrote in one post:
“A problem of freedom involves the opposite of being a part of a free people. Free societies/communities have often defined themselves by who is excluded. He references James Loewen’s work on sundown towns in this regard.
“I was generally aware that sundown towns existed, although I’m not sure I’ve ever heard them called that. They are basically towns where blacks weren’t (and, in some cases, still aren’t) welcome after dark, so unwelcome that their lives could be in danger (such as being arrested, beaten, or lynched). I was even aware that towns unfriendly to non-whites have existed all over the United States. Racism is pervasive throughout American society. Still, I was surprised by how pervasive these sundown towns supposedly were, especially in the far North and far West.
“There was an era following the Civil War where an anti-racist idealism prevailed. It took hold most strongly in the Republican majority areas outside the South. Blacks were very much welcomed into towns across the country and blacks took up the new opportunities available to them. What I never knew before was that blacks had settled in so many small towns and rural areas outside of the South. Like Loewen before he did the research, I just assumed most areas always were lacking in minorities.”
I learned that this might have happened quite close to home.
“For example, a nearby town is West Branch in Cedar County. My brother and his family live in West Branch, and he has noted the old boys network that keeps that town from changing, despite all the other small towns nearby experiencing lots of change. A longtime friend of mine grew up there for much of her early life and she recalls the racism that was common there.”
“Loewen briefly discusses Cedar County in his discussion of presidential hometowns (as Hoover lived in West Branch as a child). West Branch did and does have a large Quaker presence and the Quakers sought to help blacks after the Civil War. According to the census data, there were 37 black residents of Cedar County in 1890, but only 2 in 1930.
“This appearance and disappearance of blacks happened all over around this time. During the 20th century, blacks increasingly became concentrated into big cities. Loewen was unable to find any legal documents, newspaper accounts or oral history about what caused the blacks to leave Cedar County, but he did find plenty of evidence to explain what happened in other places. In some cases, white mobs forced entire black communities to vacate a town, a county or larger area (Oregon was a sundown state in that there were anti-black laws enforced to keep any new blacks from becoming residents). Whether through official decree or unofficial policy, many of these places remained all white for most or all of the 20th century, some still remaining all white to this day.”
This is the history. Now for the present reality of that persisting history.
Iowa ranks worst in the country when it comes to racial disparity of marijuana arrests. Much of the Midwest also fits in with this same sad pattern. These are the very states that so often rank well on many other social measures. What makes me most sad of all is the fact that Johnson County, in which I live, is the third worst county in Iowa.
This supposed multicultural-loving Iowa City that is my hometown obviously needs some work living up to its own ideals. The racial influence (read ‘black’ population) from Chicago coming in from I-80 is turning out to be too much for the local population, even here in this liberal college town.
I don’t know why such a problem exists in a place like this. The police here don’t seem abusive or oppressive. What has led them to racially profile to such a degree? And what has caused them to think this was acceptable or even expected of them?
By the way, the same day I came across the above info, I also noticed an article about Iowa City being listed in the top 100 livable cities. There were 5 cities in Iowa that made the list:
“Cedar Rapids was named 29 while Ames ranked 31 and Iowa City was 46. Des Moines ranked 69 and West Des Moines ranked 76.“
This is extremely typical. Iowa City, in particular, is always making these kinds of lists. One of the best cities for retirement, for raising family, for going to college, for economic growth, and on and on. Yes, Iowa City is a great town for a town of its size. It has great public transportation, bike lanes, lots of trails and parks, a lovely downtown, and high civic participation. I could go on and on about why I love this place.
This most recent list is about most livable which includes a wide variety of factors. But the question is:
I wrote the first post of what will eventually be part of a long series. The opening salvo was about racism without racists.
The series shall be primarily focused on violence and more generally on the corollaries of injustice, oppression and disadvantage. I’ll also include some other issues for analysis — besides race: region, culture, IQ, poverty, economic inequality, social mobility, pollution/toxins, and other environmental factors. These will be contrasted, when relevant, against genetic explanations.
I plan on being systematic about this series. I will present lots of data and analysis, lots of quotes and citations. I’m going to be thorough. Each post in this series will have a theme, a different angle on the same set of interlinked problems and issues.
However, I’m going to be busy with work for a couple of weeks and won’t be able to make much headway with this project. To offer one more taste of what I’ll be exploring further, let me share a passage from a book I’ve been reading, a book I highly recommend. The book is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. The section of the book is titled “Bad Deal”. It begins on page 87 in Chapter 2, The Lockdown.
Before I get to the passage itself, let me briefly explain why it is so significant.
One thing the author explains in this book is how little most people know about the system of police enforcement, courts and prisons. The media (news, tv shows and movies) do us a great disservice in not portraying the reality of what actually happens to people when they find themselves caught in a criminal system that seems to care little about whether you are innocent or not.
If you are poor as most are who find themselves targeted by police and prosecutors, there are few people to offer you help and guidance. Poor people certainly can’t afford lawyers and they would be naive to expect to get a lawyer offered them as happens on tv and in the movies. Most likely, you are on your own in a situation you can’t understand and no one will explain it to you. You have to make decisions that will effect your entire life with little information upon which to base that decision. The consequences are immense and, once set into motion, unalterable.
After you get a criminal record, the challenges and difficulties are numerous and diverse.
There are often severe restrictions about where you can live and with whom you can associate. Your drivers license might be revoked which makes very difficult normal life activities: shopping, taking kids to school/daycare, getting to work and keeping a job, and making the regular visits to one’s parole officer (even if you don’t have money to get on a bus because for example you can’t find or keep a job without having a car, missing a parole meeting can send you back to prison). There are expensive penalties and fees that many states demand parolees pay or else, in some cases, returning to prison.
However, at the same time it can be very hard to find a job for few employers want to hire ex-cons even if you were only convicted of a minor offense such as possessing a small amount of marijuana, and yet some states require employment as a requisite of parole. If you’re lucky to find a job, your paychecks can be garnished, sometimes almost entirely or even entirely. Furthermore, you are no longer eligible for government assistance and public housing, and so there is nothing to stop or discourage a downward economic spiral (quite the opposite actually). Under such conditions, it is easy to end up unemployed which often leads you to losing your housing and, if you become homeless, it could lead you to losing custody of your children (the most important part of many people’s live, often the one thing keeping the a struggling person from giving up entirely).
To rub salt into your wound, you may also permanently lose your right to vote and serve on juries. You will be treated like a second-class citizen. None of this would motivate and help you to rejoin normal society again. It is as if the entire world is against you. The punishment never ends. It doesn’t matter if you are innocent or not. It doesn’t matter if your crime was minor or victimless. Once assigned the status of a criminal, you are stigmatized for life. You become a part of the underclass or maybe even the permanent undercaste. Basically, your existence becomes a living hell.
Keep in mind also that most of these targeted poor people are poor minorities, mostly poor blacks. Numerous studies have shown that it is a racially biased system at every single step of the way, from policing to imprisonment. This is even worse when one considers, as the author does, how many innocent people become victimized by the very system that is supposed to protect victims. This is how families and entire communities are destroyed, many poor black communities with the vast of their male black populations (and much of their female black population as well) tangled up in the justice system or else in the school-to-prison pipeline.
To see some nice graphs, check out a previous post of mine: Prison Insanity. As violent crime has sharply decreased, the prison population has sharply increased. More specifically, even as violent crime has decreased among blacks and even though whites use and carry drugs more, the racially prejudiced War on Drugs has caused the black prison population to increase. That is an important point as the justification for imprisoning so many blacks is because of violent crime.
Without further ado, the following is the passage in question (key points in bold).
* * * *
Almost no one ever goes to trial. Nearly all criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining— a guilty plea by the defendant in exchange for some form of leniency by the prosecutor. Though it is not widely known, the prosecutor is the most powerful law enforcement official in the criminal justice system. One might think that judges are the most powerful, or even the police, but in reality the prosecutor holds the cards. It is the prosecutor, far more than any other criminal justice official, who holds the keys to the jailhouse door.
After the police arrest someone, the prosecutor is in charge. Few rules constrain the exercise of his or her discretion. The prosecutor is free to dismiss a case for any reason or no reason at all. The prosecutor is also free to file more charges against a defendant than can realistically be proven in court, so long as probable cause arguably exists— a practice known as overcharging.
The practice of encouraging defendants to plead guilty to crimes, rather than affording them the benefit of a full trial, has always carried its risks and downsides. Never before in our history, though, have such an extraordinary number of people felt compelled to plead guilty, even if they are innocent, simply because the punishment for the minor, nonviolent offense with which they have been charged is so unbelievably severe. When prosecutors offer “only” three years in prison when the penalties defendants could receive if they took their case to trial would be five, ten, or twenty years— or life imprisonment— only extremely courageous (or foolish) defendents turn the offer down.
The pressure to plead guilty to crimes has increased exponentially since the advent of the War on Drugs. In 1986, Congress passed The Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established extremely long mandatory minimum prison terms for low-level drug dealing and possession of crack cocaine. The typical mandatory sentence for a first-time drug offense in federal court is five or ten years. By contrast, in other developed countries around the world, a first-time drug offense would merit no more than six months in jail, if jail time is imposed at all. 70 State legislatures were eager to jump on the “get tough” bandwagon, passing harsh drug laws, as well as “three strikes ” laws mandating a life sentence for those convicted of any third offense. These mandatory minimum statutory schemes have transferred an enormous amount of power from judges to prosecutors . Now, simply by charging someone with an offense carrying a mandatory sentence of ten to fifteen years or life, prosecutors are able to force people to plead guilty rather than risk a decade or more in prison. Prosecutors admit that they routinely charge people with crimes for which they technically have probable cause but which they seriously doubt they could ever win in court. 71 They “load up” defendants with charges that carry extremely harsh sentences in order to force them to plead guilty to lesser offenses and— here’s the kicker— to obtain testimony for a related case. Harsh sentencing laws encourage people to snitch.
The number of snitches in drug cases has soared in recent years, partly because the government has tempted people to “cooperate” with law enforcement by offering cash, putting them “on payroll,” and promising cuts of seized drug assets, but also because ratting out co-defendants, friends, family, or acquaintances is often the only way to avoid a lengthy mandatory minimum sentence. 72 In fact , under the federal sentencing guidelines, providing “substantial assistance” is often the only way defendants can hope to obtain a sentence below the mandatory minimum. The “assistance” provided by snitches is notoriously unreliable, as studies have documented countless informants who have fabricated stories about drug-related and other criminal activity in exchange for money or leniency in their pending criminal cases. 73 While such conduct is deplorable, it is not difficult to understand. Who among us would not be tempted to lie if it was the only way to avoid a forty-year sentence for a minor drug crime?
The pressure to plea-bargain and thereby “convict yourself” in exchange for some kind of leniency is not an accidental by-product of the mandatory-sentencing regime. The U.S. Sentencing Commission itself has noted that “the value of a mandatory minimum sentence lies not in its imposition, but in its value as a bargaining chip to be given away in return for the resource-saving plea from the defendant to a more leniently sanctioned charge.” Describing severe mandatory sentences as a bargaining chip is a major understatement, given its potential for extracting guilty pleas from people who are innocent of any crime.
It is impossible to know for certain how many innocent drug defendants convict themselves every year by accepting a plea bargain out of fear of mandatory sentences, or how many are convicted due to lying informants and paid witnesses, but reliable estimates of the number of innocent people currently in prison tend to range from 2 percent to 5 percent. 74 While those numbers may sound small (and probably are underestimates), they translate into thousands of innocent people who are locked up, some of whom will die in prison. In fact, if only 1 percent of America’s prisoners are actually innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted, that would mean tens of thousands of innocent people are currently languishing behind bars in the United States.
The real point here, however, is not that innocent people are locked up. That has been true since penitentiaries first opened in America. The critical point is that 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 murderers. This is the way the roundup works, and it works this way in virtually every major city in the United States.
70 Mauer, Race to Incarcerate, 35- 37. 71 See Angela J. Davis, Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 31-33. 72 See Alexandra Natapoff, “Snitching: The Institutional and Communal Consequences,” University of Cincinnati Law Review 645 (2004); and Emily Jane Dodds, “I’ll Make You a Deal: How Repeat Informants Are Corrupting the Criminal Justice System and What to Do About It,” William and Mary Law Review 50 (2008): 1063. 73 See “Riverside Drug Cases Under Review Over Use of Secret Informant,” Associated Press, Aug. 20, 2004; Ruben Narvette Jr., “Blame Stretches Far and Wide in Drug Scandal,” Dallas Morning News, Nov. 14, 2003; Rob Warden, How Snitch Testimony Sent Randy Steidl and Other Innocent Americans to Death Row (Chicago: Northwestern University School of Law, Center for Wrongful Convictions, 2004- 5); “The Informant Trap,” National Law Journal, Mar. 6, 1995; Steven Mills and Ken Armstrong, “The Jailhouse Informant,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 16, 1999; and Ted Rohrlich and Robert Stewart, “Jailhouse Snitches: Trading Lies for Freedom,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 16, 1989. 74 See Adam Liptak, “Consensus on Counting the Innocent: We Can’t,” New York Times, Mar. 25, 2008; and Adam Liptak, “Study Suspects Thousands of False Confessions,” New York Times, Apr. 19, 2004.