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“Until Justice Rolls Down Like Waters”: Something Much Bigger Than What One Police Officer Or One Prosecutor Does

Once again we find ourselves reckoning with the reality that we live in a country where justice is applied unequally. But the truth is – unequal justice is no justice as all. To keep our “eyes on the prize,” it might be helpful to step back and envision just what it is we mean by the word “justice.”

Back in 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the memorial service for the four little girls who had died in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Imagine with me for a moment if he had said these words about the killing of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, or Tamir Rice.

And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.

When Dr. King quoted the scripture that says “Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” he was referring to something much bigger than what one police officer or one prosecutor does. And it was something much more audacious than what happens in a court room.

Now don’t get me wrong. Dr. King said we should not “merely” be concerned about the murderers. Holding people accountable for their crimes is certainly a part of justice. But the truth is…he had a finger to point at all of us for our complicity.

Too many of us in this country have bought into the idea that jail = justice. If we just send the perpetrators to prison, we can wipe our hands clean and assume that justice has been done. That’s one of the reasons this country has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Yes, I know that its also because of the failed “war on drugs.” But that war was based on the idea that we can effectively deal with a problem by locking people up. So it is our addiction to prison as the solution that is at the root of the problem.

The idea that jail = justice is not something that is simply embraced by conservatives. It finds a home with liberals when we step away from what happens to the poor and start thinking about the crimes of the wealthy. For example, Bailey Miller writes: Can We Please Put Some Bankers in Jail Now? In it, Miller doesn’t grapple with what justice would mean for the activities that led to the Great Recession. The assumption seems to be that – until the bankers are put in jail – justice has not been served.

But Miller does point out that for then-Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (and eventually the Bush administration), the idea of justice went beyond sending the specific perpetrators to jail.

One clue might be the contents of a memo written by Holder in 1999, during his stint as deputy U.S. attorney general. The document, “Bringing Criminal Charges Against Corporations,” urged prosecutors to take into account “collateral consequences” when pursuing cases against companies, lest they topple and take the economy down with them. Holder also raised the possibility of deferring prosecution against corporations in an effort to spur greater cooperation and reforms…

I would suggest that Holder’s concept of justice is more in line with the one articulated by Dr. King. First of all, it took into consideration what justice would mean for all of the innocent people who would be impacted by the prosecution of a corporation. But secondly, more than sending perpetrators to jail, he had his eyes on reforming “the system, the way of life, the philosophy that produced” the crimes.

I’ll leave it to another day to discuss the role prisons should play in our search for justice. Suffice it to say, I agree with Al Giordano.

Prison should always be a last resort, and only for someone who will put others at risk with predatory behavior. It doesn’t work as a deterrent. As a punishment, it is barbaric. My concept of a just and better world has almost nobody in prison, not even people I hate or who have done bad things. The whole thing has to be rethought…

A re-thinking of what justice means would require us to consider the affirmative rather than simply the reactionary. One place to start might be with the words of Bryan Stevenson: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. Its justice.” When I think about what that means, it gets the brain synapses going in a whole different direction than jail = justice. And I can begin to imagine what it would mean for justice to roll down like waters.

 

By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, November 28, 2014

November 29, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Eric Holder, Martin Luther King Jr | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Race Is Not An Intellectual Exercise”: The “Story Of Race In The Obama Years” Cannot Be Told In A Race-Neutral Way

I offered a preliminary take yesterday on Jonathan Chait’s vast New York piece on racial politics, and will probably take another run at the topic at TPMCafe tomorrow. But for now, I’ll suggest a reading of Jamelle Bouie’s tart response to Chait at Slate:

If I were outlining a racial history of the Obama administration, it would begin with policy: A housing collapse that destroyed black Americans’ wealth; a health care law attacked as “reparations” and crippled by a neo-Calhounite doctrine of “state sovereignty”; a broad assault on voting rights and access to the polls, concentrated in the states of the former Confederacy. Indeed, it would focus on the deep irony of the Obama era: That the first black president has presided over a declining status quo for many black Americans.

In short, it would treat race as a real force in public life that has real consequences for real people.

You should contrast this with Jonathan Chait’s most recent feature for New York magazine, where the story of race in the Obama administration is a story of mutual grievance between Americans on the left and right, with little interest in the lived experiences of racism from black Americans and other people of color. It’s a story, in other words, that treats race as an intellectual exercise—a low-stakes cocktail party argument between white liberals and white conservatives over their respective racial innocence….

What’s odd about the argument is that Chait clearly shows the extent to which conservatism—even if it isn’t “racist”—works to entrench racial inequality through “colorblindness” and pointed opposition to the activist state. But rather than take that to its conclusion, he asks us to look away: “Impressive though the historical, sociological, and psychological evidence undergirding this analysis may be, it also happens to be completely insane. Whatever Lee Atwater said, or meant to say, advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist.”

Of course, it’s not accusing conservatives of “racism” to note that particular policies—say, tax cuts to defund the social safety net, or blocking the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act—have a disparate impact. That’s just reality. And it’s not tarring your opponents to note that race plays a huge part in building popular support for those policies. But again, for as much as this is interesting as a matter of political combat, it’s less important to telling the story of race in the Obama years than, for instance, the tremendous retrenchment of racial inequality during our five years of recession, recovery, and austerity.

I personally think part of the problem here is that Chait seems to regard “racism” as a subjective phenomenon and a moral blight; thus conservatives charged with promoting policies that have a disparate racial impact have every reason to feel aggrieved if they are (or perceive themselves to be) innocent of racist feelings. But that’s no excuse for pretending the “story of race in the Obama years” can be told in a race-neutral way.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, April 8, 2014

April 9, 2014 Posted by | Politics, Racism | , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“An American ‘Hyphenated’ Idiot”: Bobby Jindal Blames Racial Inequality On Minorities Being Too Proud Of Their Heritages

One day after thousands rallied at the March on Washington 50th anniversary demonstration, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) pitched the Republican civil rights vision…by criticizing minorities for not assimilating into American culture.

In a Politico op-ed Sunday, Jindal lamented that minorities place “undue emphasis” on heritage, and urged Americans to resist “the politically correct trend of changing the melting pot into a salad bowl” comprised of proudly ethnic identities.

Jindal insisted that, “while racism still rears its ugly head from time to time” since Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I have a dream” speech, the major race problem facing modern America is that minorities are too focused on their “separateness”:

Yet we still place far too much emphasis on our “separateness,” our heritage, ethnic background, skin color, etc. We live in the age of hyphenated Americans: Asian-Americans, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Indian-Americans, and Native Americans, to name just a few.

Here’s an idea: How about just “Americans?” That has a nice ring to it, if you ask me. Placing undue emphasis on our “separateness” is a step backward. Bring back the melting pot.

There is nothing wrong with people being proud of their different heritages. We have a long tradition of folks from all different backgrounds incorporating their traditions into the American experience, but we must resist the politically correct trend of changing the melting pot into a salad bowl. E pluribus Unum.

If he had done even cursory research before writing his editorial, Jindal may have discovered some systemic inequities preventing minorities from assimilating to his satisfaction. Though Jindal is right that Americans have made “significant progress” since the March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom, the national black unemployment rate has steadily remained double the white unemployment rate for the past 60 years.

In urban areas like Chicago, the poverty rate and median income for black families is also about the same as it was in 1963.

Even segregation, once vanquished by the civil rights movement, is rebounding aggressively. Since 2001, urban schools and neighborhoods have become increasingly re-segregated through lax integration enforcement and so-called “white flight.” Research shows this resegregation intensifies poverty and violence in minority neighborhoods, trapping black families in an endless cycle. Jindal himself has helped this trend along in New Orleans with his school privatization plan, which has worsened racial inequality in 34 historically segregated public schools and, according to the Justice Department, “reversed much of the progress made toward integration.”

 

By: Aviva Shen, Think Progress, August 25, 2013

August 26, 2013 Posted by | Civil Rights, Race and Ethnicity | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Discrimination Is Real”: Section 5 Is Still Crucial To Maintaining Americans’ Right to Vote

Alabama gave us the Voting Rights Act when it violently suppressed peaceful marches in 1965, dramatizing the need for a strong law guaranteeing every American an equal right to vote regardless of race. Now, less than 50 years later, an Alabama county is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate the central provision of that law—Section 5. The court should decline the invitation.

The Voting Rights Act is widely acknowledged as the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in American history. It was passed to make real the promise of political equality in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Section 5 ensures state and local governments with a history of voting discrimination don’t implement new laws or practices that deny Americans the equal right to vote. Unfortunately, it is still sorely needed.

Our nation has made great progress toward racial equality since 1965. But discrimination is still real and distressingly widespread in jurisdictions covered by Section 5.

Leading up to the 2012 election, states passed a wave of restrictive laws that, had they gone into effect, would have made it harder for millions of eligible Americans to vote. These laws—which ranged from voter ID requirements to registration cutbacks to curbs on early voting —would have fallen most harshly on minorities.

Section 5 was critical in turning back the tide and stopping real discrimination. It blocked a discriminatory photo ID requirement in Texas, which required a kind of ID more than 600,000 eligible voters did not have. It required Florida to restore some early voting hours used especially by minority voters. And it blocked Texas redistricting maps after a federal court found they intentionally discriminated against Latino voters.

But Section 5 did much more: It deterred states from passing discriminatory laws in the first place. In South Carolina, lawmakers rejected a highly-restrictive voter ID requirement because they knew it wouldn’t pass muster. Instead, the state passed a law that was more flexible for the 216,000 registered citizens without driver’s licenses or nondriver’s IDs. A federal court approved the less restrictive version.

The last few years have seen some of the biggest fights over voting in decades. After an election marred by discriminatory voting laws and long lines in which minorities had to wait twice as long as whites, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is needed more than ever. Now is not the time to get rid of America’s most time-honored voting rights protection.

 

By: Wendy Weiser, Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, U.S. News and World Report, February 27, 2013

February 28, 2013 Posted by | Civil Rights, Voting Rights | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“To Accommodate Or To Suppress”: Election 2012, A Vote For The Future Or A Vote For The Past?

The 2012 presidential election is fundamentally a contest between our future and our past. Barack Obama’s America is the America that will be; Mitt Romney’s is the America that was. And the distance between the two is greater, perhaps, than in any election we’ve had since the Civil War.

The demographic bases of the rival coalitions couldn’t be more different. Monday’s poll from the Pew Research Center is just the latest to show Obama with a decisive lead (in this case, 21 percentage points) among voters younger than 30. Obama’s margin declines to six points among voters ages 30 through 44, and he breaks even with Romney among voters ages 45 through 64. Romney’s home turf is voters 65 and older; among those, he leads Obama by 19 points.

Age polarization is not specific to the presidential election. On a host of issues, as diverse as gay and lesbian rights and skepticism about the merits of capitalism, polls have shown that younger voters are consistently more tolerant and well to the left of their elders.

Nor is age the only metric through which we can differentiate our future from our past. The other is race, as the nation grows more racially diverse (or, more bluntly, less white) each year. While the 2000 Census put whites’ share of the U.S. population at 69.1 percent, that share had declined to 63.7 percent in the 2010 Census, while the proportion of Hispanics rose from 12.5 percent to 16.3 percent. In raw numbers, total white population increased by just 1.2 percent during the decade, while the African American segment grew by 12.3 percent and the Hispanic share by 43 percent. Demographers predict that the white share of the U.S. population will fall beneath 50 percent in the 2050 Census.

Rather than trying to establish a foothold among America’s growing minorities, however, Romney and the Republicans have decided to forgo an appeal to Hispanic voters by opposing legislation that would grant legal status to undocumented immigrants brought here as children and by backing legislation that effectively requires Hispanics to carry documentation papers in certain states. Republicans seek a majority through winning an ever-higher share of white voters. The Washington Post reported last week that its polling showed the greatest racial gap between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates since the 1988 election, with Romney favored by 60 percent of white voters and Obama by 80 percent of minority voters (a figure that may prove low, if three-quarters of the Hispanic vote goes to Obama, as some other polls suggest it will). The problem for Republicans, of course, is that the minority vote is a far larger share of the total vote today than it was 24 years ago.

By repeatedly estranging minorities and opposing social policies favored by the young, the Republicans have opted for a King Canute strategy: standing on the shore and commanding the tide to stop. Republicans with an eye toward the future, most notably George W. Bush and Karl Rove, have urged the party to embrace immigration reform, but the base is rabidly anti-immigrant and its antipathy is reinforced daily by talk radio hosts and Fox News chatterers who depict an America under siege by alien forces.

Should Republicans prevail in this election and seek to build a more-than-one-term plurality, they will confront a stark choice: Either Romney must persuade his party to reverse its stance on immigration, or the party must seek to extend the scope of its voter-suppression efforts. Put another way, they must try to either accommodate the future or suppress it.

Accommodation with diversity and modernity, however, is simply not part of the Republican DNA. Today’s Republican Party has largely cornered the market on religious fundamentalists, even as the number of GOP scientists has dwindled (a 2009 Pew poll of scientists found that just 6 percent self-identified as Republicans, while 55 percent said they were Democrats). Many of the largest Republican funders come from economic sectors hardly distinguished by significant productivity increases or their contributions to mass prosperity (casino gambling, Wall Street), while Silicon Valley remains more Democratic turf. (By the way, all those messages Republican CEOs have been sending their employees , predicting layoffs should Obama be reelected? Have any of them promised raises if Romney wins? Just askin’.)

Two Americas are facing off in next week’s election. By their makeup, the Democrats are bound to move, if haltingly, into the future, while the Republicans parade proudly into the pre-New Deal past — some of it mythic, lots of it ugly. The differences could not be clearer.

 

By: Harold Meyerson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, October 30, 2012

November 1, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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