Thursday, September 15, 2011

Race, class, what to call the prison/parole system and a letter from Alan Cafruny, part 2

Alan Cafruny, my friend from Colgate, wrote this thoughtful correction of Desmond King’s and Rogers Smith’s very good op-ed included in part 1 here.

“Hi Alan, As usual a nice blog piece. On one important point I think that King and Smith are wrong: they argue that there is a "silence"--especially coming from the Republicans--over race. It seems to me that racism is now expressed in the Republican party--especially the Tea Party--but also among many Democrats--primarily in terms of the discourse about taxes. Indeed, "tax" and even "government" have become code words for "black" so the silence is formal but not substantive. Taxation and more generally ‘government programs’ are portrayed as ‘redistribution’ from white to black. Reagan sought to get the ‘government’ (read: blacks) ‘off our backs' and Clinton sought to "’redefine' government (i.e. race relations") thereby setting the stage for the present situation that you and King and Smith describe so well. In the context of the growing poverty that is also afflicting so many whites, this type of ideology is essential to prevent progressive policies that would reduce inequality.

All the best,

Cafruny’s point is that racists have slightly indirect names - "code-words" - for racism. These words may fool racist Justices like Scalia and Roberts, but they are both real and transparent. 10 times the sentence for crack – sold to black and brown people and some poor whites – as opposed to cocaine (used in Boulder, Scarsdale and the like) is also racist in intent.

In addition, , the Census Bureau issued startling statistics on the increasing poverty in the United States yesterday. There are now 15.1% of Americans living beneath the poverty line ($22,314 for a family of four). In real terms, double this poverty line for a family of four, and that would still be something close to poverty. In any case, 46.2 million people live below the official poverty line (another 2.6 billion became impoverished last year). This is the highest number in 52 years. Further, real wages have declined in the last decade. Harvard economist Lawrence Katz refers to it as a rare “lost decade” – the only decade, the only generation, in which household incomes - the median household income adjusted for inflation - declined: “'This is truly a lost decade,'” Mr. Katz said. “'We think of America as a place where every generation is doing better, but we’re looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s.'” See Sabrina Tavernise in the New York Times here.

The study is particularly grim about the black and latin reserve army of the unemployed and very poor, as Marx named it. 27% of blacks and 26% of latinos are poor. Further, these official figures are diminished by their real employment at slave wages or worse in prison (once in prison, individuals are counted neither in poverty figures nor as looking for work). Capitalism’s need for massive prisons and the division between workers and the petit bourgeoisie in the form of prisoners (a striking emphasis in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish) for these groups is underlined by these figures. The next time you call for information on the phone, the operator is likely either to be in an American prison or in India.

Adding the official figures 53% - better than half – of the poor are members of the caste of color which Michelle Alexander emphasizes. But 9.9% are white, out of a much bigger percentage of the population (so the absolute numbers are very high). 12.1% are Asian.

As the first post underlined, Cathy Cohen and Desmond King both questioned Alexander’s title: The New Jim Crow, though underlining that her writing is brilliant and careful, as overly focused on blacks and potentially politically isolating. My own initial inclination, however, is to find other shocking names for the prison/probation/unemployment system as well as reach out. It is only when we come to see racism as a form of divide and rule that all of us – I mean especially whites who are often lured into going along with or tolerating racism and fiercer oppression toward others – will see this strongly as our own fight. I suggested in the question period two more names, both of which are uncomfortable in the so-called “colorblind” American regime and civil rights state – a seemingly free regime though increasingly less so - and to which no one directly responded. The first is, as I indicated in the first post, a police state, given the magnitude of people in prison/on parole and how it probably exceeds all the prisoners combined in China, Russia and the remaining tyrannies of the Middle East.The term is both apt and surprising, and does not emphasize the caste element.

It is important to spell out the architecture of this system, which Alexander's naming and her book uniquely does (read the book and you will get an idea of this architecture in a way that King’s and Smith’s fine article in the Times can only begin to hint at). For instance, as Alexander’s book stresses, the police are licensed by the Supreme Court to discriminate and district attorneys are enormously, and without much check, empowered in this system and have helped to drive it.(Alexander, 128-29).

It is also important to underline the gigantic police state character of the prison/parole system because the racist authoritarians (also imperial authoritarians), misnamed conservatives in the corporate press and in this case joined by many of the so-called libertarians, are okay with having a giant system of incarceration along with a war complex. Ron Paul and his followers intelligently oppose the latter, and as I underlined in the last post, conservatives like Scott Horton draw this line sharply. See his interview with Chicago professor Bernard Harcourt here.

In contrast, despite their self-conception and misnaming in the corporate media as supposed cutters of government, these authoritarians are fierce statists about subject populations. They want the big stick of the military and the prison/probation system. See here. Free marketeering in one quite limited area actually on behalf of global corporations and megabanks, war and the police and prisons are their favored ways of responding, particularly to non-white others though with horrendous effects on whites as well.

It is only common good-sustaining government expenditures (rather than far larger expenditures which are mainly for class - legitimized by racism and divide and rule - oppression such as the giant police state or aggressive war) that these “cons” and “neocons” oppose and that we need a multiracial, mass civil disobedience movement from below to uphold.

But it is also, as Desmond King and Rogers Smith suggest below, the state, even under Obama who knows better, which does not directly help those who are caught up in the prison system or seek to break its startling “institutionalization” (Alexander). Obama cannot be seen, he thinks, as an angry black man or as leading a crusade for people of color and be electable. In corporate mainstream politics, that may, currently, be right. It may only be a movement from below that can change this circumstance, though Obama demobilized a powerful, already existing movement when he was elected, and has been working hard to discourage his supporters by doing corrupt things and placing himself in the so-called “center” since (his speech last Thursday night, however, set a different tone). Yet sometimes, for instance, after deporting a vast number of immigrants working or going to school in the United States and guilty of no crime and given the racism of the House of Representatives and the Republicans (the ones who produced, with some Democratic support, the “wall” with Mexico), Obama has recently ordered the immigration service only to deport criminals. That is an unusual (for an American President) and decent act.

But about the “war on drugs,” or more exactly, a war on the poor, on people of color and the black community, Obama is, so far, blind. As Alexander reported on the panel, Byrne Grants for state and local police to pursue drug arrests, were lagging. While the stimulus gave no money to the Pentagon and was in this respect, decent, it increased the budget for Byrne Grants 12 times, the worst thing it did. (The New Jim Crow, pp. 72-73, 82-83). The police state conscripts the help of both Parties and even the President, who, perhaps like Michelle Alexander as she was just starting her journey as an ACLU civil rights attorney for Northern California (see here), does not yet fully understand what this system is about. But word is now making it even around the political science association (there is an increasing group of scholars now looking into these issues; h/t Bonnie Honig for encouraging these panels); perhaps we can even reach some Democratic politicians since presiding over an American or bigger than South African gulag based on racism is perhaps not something they want to do. I would add non-crazy Republicans but being anti-science or anti-facts of this world - Huntsman excepted - seems now to be a characteristic in what was once the party of Lincoln…

Second, I recalled the 1948 UN Convention against Genocide which refers to imposing on people “in whole or in part” conditions designed to destroy it. * See here. This is perhaps too difficult to spell out, though three of the five conditions below are plainly realized. This term sharply emphasizes the racist element (as does calling all this Jim Crow or neo-slavery – h/t Arthur Gilbert), but can be and needs to be linked with the oppression of whites. It is nonetheless useful to consider the criteria (the idea that this could be applicable today in Obama-led America, is at the least, disturbing...). With the deindustrialization of the United States and the siphoning off of only some in the imperial military, many poor and working class whites have been hurt. But even more strikingly, a large proportion of young blacks have no prospects for employment. They are, once again, part of, in Marx’s terms, a necessary complement to capitalist accumulation, the reserve army of the unemployed. The latter engulfs many whites as well and worsens as the depression deepens, current policies continue…The vast figures of American prisoners come from the failure of American-style capitalism to provide a decent standard of living, or even subsistence, for its own population.

In the later 1940s, the Civil Rights Congress, allied with the Communist Party, issued a pamphlet by William Patterson, applying the standards of the Genocide Convention to American segregation: We charge genocide. Until the Presidency of Jimmy Carter in 1979, the US did not ratify the Convention, created against Nazism in a war that the US had been a leading participant in. American politicians, particularly Southern Democrats, knew that the charge was true. What Alexander describes is also a genocidal system.

What is to be done? First, abolish all marijuana crimes (this has also been a leading point of Glenn Greenwald’s work and is emphasized by Andrew Sullivan). That America is a police state is a result of the drug war, focused on marijuana. That is far more important, in its massive social and political consequences and crushing of lives, than merely - as a matter of irrationality - criminalizing marijuana. To end what might well be seen as a crime against humanity, marijuana should be legalized and every possession offender immediately released and "made whole": no probation or requirement of reporting to prison for possession. Second, all mandatory sentencing should cease. We need sentencing based on Europe and other places that do not maintain a prison-probation-media-Congressional complex.

Third , with cuts to militarism and this police state as well as a sharp movement away from the privatization of war and prisons, much more money would be available for a) education which should be funded publically in the United States, and based on achievement, through graduate school (it is hard to have a green economy or compete in the 21st century if no one is educated…) , b) public works and infrastructure as a form of mass employment, and c) a determined focus on a green economy. Other proposals might include a shorter work week for adequate pay (in slogan form, 6 hours work for 8 hours pay).

In addition, King and Smith suggest a number of proposals which might be taken up in the current climate (without changing it very much), including trying to plan more integrated schools and housing districts and eliminating vast disparities in sentencing – racist ones – for possession of crack as opposed to cocaine. The two drugs are the same medically; the difference in the length of sentence an intentional aspect of the caste system (even the Supreme Court, if it did not have five racists on it, would recognize this point). These, too, would be useful, though beginning steps.

I should also add that Mayor Bloomberg in New York, though laying off many public workers and doing other problematic things, has joined with George Soros to fund a major program to keep black and latin students in school and to foster the hiring of blacks who have been in prison. He has put up $30 million as has Soros as part of $300 million. See the very interesting New York Times piece here. There is a broad and diverse movement for decency forming against the new Jim Crow, the American police state.

On Race, the Silence Is Bipartisan
Published: September 2, 2011

THE economic crisis in the United States is also a racial crisis. White Americans are hurting, but nonwhite Americans are hurting even more. Yet leaders in both political parties — for different reasons — continue to act as though race were anachronistic and irrelevant in a country where an African-American is the president.

In July, the unemployment rate was 8.2 percent for whites, but 16.8 percent for blacks and 11.3 percent for Latinos. The Pew Research Center estimates that in 2009, the median household net worth was $5,677 for blacks, $6,325 for Hispanics and $113,149 for whites — down from $12,124, $18,539 and $134,992, respectively, in 2005.

All groups have suffered from high unemployment, the mortgage meltdown and soaring health care costs, but African-Americans and Hispanics started far behind and continue to fall behind. In 2009, 35 percent of black households and 31 percent of Latino households had zero or negative wealth, compared with 15 percent of white households.

Since the end of legal segregation in the 1960s, there have been two approaches to ameliorating racial inequality. Conservatives and most Republican politicians insist that laws be colorblind and that race-conscious measures like affirmative action should be ended. Liberals and most Democratic politicians favor such measures, mindful of the burdens of past and present discrimination.

For most of the nation’s history, the two major parties were internally divided over racial issues. But today, racial policy positions align almost perfectly with the party system. The two parties, which openly clashed over race from the late 1970s through the mid-1990s, have for the last decade pretty much agreed not to talk about race — a silence that impedes progress toward racial equality.

Democrats mention race as little as possible, even though minority voters are crucial constituents, because colorblind positions are far more politically popular. Affirmative action has been supported in every Democratic presidential platform since 1972, but since the Reagan era, Democrats speak of it less and less.

President Obama, for example, does not openly renounce affirmative action, but he pragmatically stresses universal social programs like health care. He manages to avoid appearing especially concerned about African-Americans.

This tack leaves modern Republicans with little to criticize, lest they appear to be race-baiting, so they too keep quiet.
Advocates of both colorblind and race-conscious approaches to public policy now claim the mantle of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights agenda and his call for people to be judged by their character, not their skin. Though Republicans claim that free-market policies will lift all boats and Democrats hope that “universal” measures to combat economic inequality will benefit all groups, racial inequality has endured.

As studies of employment and real estate practices begun during the Reagan era have consistently shown, racial discrimination persists. And “race neutral” economic measures backed by Democrats, like the Earned Income Tax Credit and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, have proved too limited to aid many poorer blacks and Hispanics.

Political leaders must openly recognize that we cannot progress either by ignoring race or focusing exclusively on it. It is not only legitimate, but also essential, to evaluate policy options partly on the basis of whether they are likely to reduce or increase racial inequalities.

Compromise policies — measures that are not explicitly race-targeted but are chosen partly because they will benefit nonwhites especially — should become the basis for policy debates.

For example, without using explicit racial classifications, we can devise districts and situate homes in ways that are more likely to produce integrated schools and neighborhoods.

We can adopt employment tests that are fair and inclusive and do a better job at predicting job performance than many Civil Service exams now do.

And we can do more to ensure that our criminal laws do not target crimes more typical of urban Hispanics and blacks, like crack cocaine use, more strongly than crimes typical of suburban whites, like powder cocaine use.

Both parties should accept that the question of whether policies help narrow the racial divide must be part of the discussion. After all, it was the Republican-led search for racial progress in the 1860s and the Democratic-led fight for civil rights in the 1960s — buttressed, of course, by African-Americans’ own freedom struggle — that allowed the election of a black president in 2008.

Desmond S. King, a professor of American government at Oxford University, and Rogers M. Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, are the authors of “Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama’s America.”

*Article 2 of the Convention reads:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

A, b, and c are strikingly realized in the American police state.

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