Monday, October 25, 2010

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

If you're under the age of, say, 40 or 50, you have no first-hand memory of Jim Crow.  I know I don't.  Most of my life has been in what Michelle Alexander calls "the age of colorblindness."  There's plenty of racism in the world; I guess there always will be.  But our society is now officially colorblind.  We have seen black corporate leaders, sports and entertainment figures, professionals, teachers, police and fire personnel, elected officials, and, now, a U.S. president. Who can say our society has elements of racial control likened to Jim Crow?  Alexander makes a convincing case.

The bottom line is that the absurdly high percentage of African-American males who are in jail or have been convicted of felonies is not a result of that group's propensity for criminal activity but is a result of racist policies.  Just as slavery and Jim Crow excluded blacks from mainstream life, now mass incarceration, primarily as a result of the War on Drugs, has excluded them.  Even after they leave prison, ex-convicts try to reenter mainstream culture but are faced with restrictions on voting and running for office, exclusion by many trade associations and professional licensing, exclusion from public housing and other government benefits, rejection from many employers, and, of course, life-long social stigma.

The biggest culprit here is the War on Drugs.  Starting in the Reagan administration, law enforcement has vastly increased its focus on the enforcement of drug laws.  Ironically, at the time Reagan initiated the WoD, drug use was actually on the decline.  But, hey, we had to learn how to "Just say no."  The WoD introduced more and more incentives for law enforcement to arrest and prosecute drug users.  Besides federal monetary grants, local police were given access to military weaponry and tactics to use against their citizens.  SWAT raids against grandmas?  Check.  In addition, seizure rules gave police the ability to seize money, cars, houses, land, and anything else they deemed connected in any way to a drug crime.  Here's an idea: lets tie police department budgets and officers' salary bonuses to seized assets to give them an incentive to seize even more.  Done!

What does the WoD have to do with race?  Tons.  Where is it easier to find drug activity?  In a neighborhood where people live in crowded apartments and spend a lot of time outside, or in a neighborhood where people have large homes and fenced yards?  Who is more likely to have connections and money to get out of drug convictions, teenage children of suburban white professionals, or black high school kids in the inner city?  The fact is, white people use drugs at higher rates than black people, but arrests and convictions of black for drug crimes far outweigh those for whites.

Well, the drug laws themselves aren't racist--they're colorblind, like our enlightened society!  Wrong.  First, the easy one: sentencing for crack cocaine is 100 times harsher than for powder cocaine.  Even though whites use crack too, thanks to the Reagan-era anti-drug hysteria, crack is associated with blacks.  And laws are enforced and prosecuted with the discretion of police and prosecutors.  Alexander looks at data on traffic stops, pedestrian stops, and other "pretense" stops; blacks are stopped much more frequently for things like a burned out taillight as a pretense for a search, thus are found with drugs on random searches more frequently.  And to top it off, the courts have excluded the overwhelming evidence of racism from consideration.  So what if the vast majority of drug arrests are of black men; unless you have an officer on video screaming "I'm going to through your nigga a-- in jail" or some other blatantly racist rant, you have no case for racism.

Alexander presents a convincing case demonstrating the racism of our law enforcement system which has put the black man in a subservient position in society.  As a white man, it makes me furious to see the way society, which I tend to think of as pretty fair, treats blacks.  As the father of a black son, it makes me fear for his future.  There are times when Alexander seems to oversell the case, but she presents so much data that even her occasional emotional foray does not seem off the mark.  I will say that if I had heard Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton give a speech making these points, I would have written them off.  I can't stand those guys, con men and manipulators that they are.  But I can no longer ignore what they say as easily.

So what about those successful African-Americans?  Alexander says that's great to have these examples, but we should not forget the mass of black men, the millions stigmatized and excluded by the criminal justice system.  She acknowledges the difficulty in defending the civil rights of the criminal class, but we have to face the racism of the system.  She chastises the civil rights establishment for basically ignoring this issue.

I am with Alexander on the hypocrisy of the WoD.  Our past 3 presidents have acknowledged their experimentation with drugs.  If they had been held to the same standard as an inner-city black teenager, they each could probably have been convicted at some point, making them ineligible for public office.  But do any of them speak out in favor of easing drug criminalization?  Of course not.  (There's a time machine fantasy for you: I wish I could travel back in time to Obama's youth, arrest him during one of his drug trips, make sure he is convicted, maybe have him serve a little time, then our nation would never have to be afflicted with his poisonous policies!)

The New Jim Crow is a difficult book to read.  My blood was boiling at points.  If I were a younger man, I would be sending off applications to law school and applying for internships at some advocacy groups. If you've ever been skeptical of claims regarding racism in the criminal justice system, I challenge you to read this book.  If you ever thought the WoD was a good idea, read this book.  If you think it's a great idea to lock up such a large percentage of our population, read this book.  Alexander's right, a civil rights campaign calling for the defense of convicted drug users may not play as well as defending the rights of poor kids to have an equal education, but it is no less important.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Star Island, by Carl Hiaasen

There are a few authors whose new books I look forward to with great anticipation; Carl Hiaasen is one of them.  If you have never read his novels, you are missing a real treat.  A Miami Herald columnist, Hiassen revels in stories of the crazy side of life in South Florida.  Star Island is one of the crazier stories he's crafted, bringing in some of the characters we know and love, like Chemo, the bodyguard with the weed whacker attachment on his prosthetic arm, and Skink, the ex-governor with the missing eye, who lives off the land among the mangroves, and introduces us to the culture of celebrity surrounding the stars of Star Island.  (Star Island is a man-made island in Miami where the likes of P Diddy, Shaq, A-Rod, Gloria Estefan, and other stars live or have lived.)

Cherry Pye, a spoiled, talentless, yet wildly successful pop star, has taken a walk on the wild side.  Picture Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton, club hopping, bed hopping, drinking and drugging, and loving the attention from the paparazzi and the tabloids.  Cherry's life is like that; her parents and handlers struggle to keep her happy while keeping her alive and hoping to keep her on her feet for her upcoming tour.  Without Cherry's knowledge, they've hired an actress as a body double for Cherry.  If Cherry's in rehab, passed out, or sick, they bring out Ann to fill in for quick appearances.  When Ann disappears, Team Cherry goes into a frenzy and madness ensues.

Ann, rescued after a car accident by Skink, the crazy hermit and ex-governor, wants out of this crazy life, but on her terms.  After she's kidnapped by a tabloid photographer, she's wondering if Skink will come to her rescue.  Cherry's agent hires Chemo as body guard.  For a while, he replaces his weed whacker prosthesis with a cattle prod, which he uses on Cherry when she uses the word "like" as other than a verb.  He wonders if Cherry is worth protecting.

Hiaasen crafts his usual improbable, twisted plot with crazily interconnecting story lines, while developing characters who caricature real life.  The situational humor is laugh out loud funny, the characters are hilarious and unforgettable, and the cultural commentary will make you smile.  I don't know that I would say Star Island is as terrific as Skinny Dip or Sick Puppy, two of my favorites, but it's a good one.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Alain de Botton

At first, I loved this book.  The first couple of chapters brought to mind Leonard Read's classic essay, "I, Pencil."  If you haven't read this before, click here and read it now!  That great little story tells of the incredible complexity of the common pencil, created by the efforts of millions of people all over the world, not one of whom knows how to make a pencil.  In a similar way, Alain de Botton looks at some of the ordinary, everyday transactions of our daily economic lives and reveals the complex mechanisms behind them.

De Botton, a Swiss-born, London-based writer, starts at the port of London, where he catalogues some of the activity there.  Raw materials come from all over the world to be made into finished products.  Finished products come from all over the world to be distributed to consumers.  The ships arrive from exotic ports of call, but to the shipping agents, "their vessels' journeys have all the mundanity of a ride between stations on a Underground line."  The consumer is typically indifferent to the origins and travels of the goods he buys, but "a slight dampness at the bottom of a carton, or an obscure code printed along a computer cable, may hint at processes of manufacture and transport noble and more mysterious, more worthy of wonder and study, than the goods themselves."

De Botton describes the intricate workings at a logistics park, where much of the work takes place at night. "We lie in bed, . . . our mouths defencelessly agape, while a fleet of lorries is loaded up with the lion's share of the morning's semi-skimmed milk for northern England."  Other warehouses are full of produce, where "at any given moment, half the contents of the warehouse are seventy-two hours away from being inedible, a prospect which prompts continuous struggles against the challenges of mould and geography."  So tomatoes from Palermo end up on a table in northern Scotland in mere days, and strawberries from California are flown across the Arctic Circle to European grocery stores.  Because of the short lives of strawberries, "An improbable number of grown-ups have been forced to subordinate their sloth, to move pallets across sheds and wait in rumbling diesel lorries in traffic to bow to the exacting demands of soft plump fruit."

For me, a favorite feature is the photo essay which follows some tuna from the Maldives to a dinner table.  The author goes along with a commercial fishing crew, watches as they bring in their catch, to the processing plant, rides the plane with it to London, stalks the shoppers in the store, and follows the purchaser home to dinner.  (The photo essay is available at the photographer's web site, In another chapter, he visits a biscuit (cookie) factory, examining the marketing research and recipe experimentation that goes into producing a package of cookies.  The massive research and production effort for one little cookie is astounding.  Next time you have dinner, eat an Oreo, or buy some random product at the store, these chapters will make you stop and think about all that went into getting those items into your shopping cart.

Those chapters, which constitute about 1/3 of the book, fell into the "I love this book!" category.  De Botton's style makes what may seem mundane into fascinating reading.  The rest of the book is not bad, but didn't grab me the way the first part did.  While looking into various trades and professions, he brings them alive and provides some interesting insights for the outsider.  The Japanese team who travels to French Guiana to launch a satellite for their TV network, the painter who paints the same tree over and over again, the entrepreneurs who go to a conference to learn "How to Turn That Gem of an Idea Into Shed-Loads of Money," all point to the many ways people contribute to the life of work.  The sorrows?  Every now and then I sensed from de Bottom a bit of futility and meaninglessness in the working life, but overall, at least in my interpretation, he dwells more on the satisfaction and joy of a job done well.

Uneven though the latter part of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work may be, I thoroughly enjoyed de Botton's style.  He has helped shine a light on the world of consumer goods and of production and labor as a whole.  As I look around the room now, and as I think about the variety, complexity, and technology of the goods and services to available to me, our world seems smaller and more interconnected.