Stop calling the Baltimore protesters ‘thugs’

Published: Daily Dot (April 30, 2015)

Language matters, and in light of how frequently the word “thug” is used as a substitute for outright racial slurs, it’s time for everyone to eliminate it from their vocabulary when discussing the Baltimore protests.

It may not seem like a big deal that Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sent out a tweet referring to the predominantly African American rioters in her city as “thugs,” but as Salon’s Brittney Cooper explained on MSNBC earlier this week, the term is “rooted in a racialized understanding of black people,” one that “has been used to delegitimize the actions of many because of the actions of a few.”

Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes shared this view, pointing out that “these are children who have been set aside, marginalized, who have not been engaged by us. No, we don’t have to call them thugs.”

Originating in 14th century India, over time the term “thug” became distinctly associated in American culture with inner-city black criminals. Legendary rapper Tupac Shakur perhaps summed it up best when he wrote:

When I say ‘Thug Life,’ I mean that shit/
Cause these white folks see us as thugs/
I don’t care what y’all think/
I don’t care if you think you are a lawyer, if you a man, if you an ‘African-American’/
If you whatever the f**k you think you are/
We thugs and n****s to these motherf**kers

Recent history has only confirmed Shakur’s point. Despite having never having served a day behind bars and graduating from Stanford with a 3.9 GPA, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman found himself on the receiving end of that insult in 2014 after he was broadcasted trash-talking one of his opponents during a postgame interview. In one estimate, Sherman was called a “thug” on television 625 times in a single day. As Deadspin’s Kyle Wagner pointed out, Sherman was called a thug more often than Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader who was referred to as a “mass murderer” by the New Republic.

“The only reason it bothers me is because it seems like it’s the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays,” Sherman observed during a press conference at the time. “It’s like everybody else said the N-word and then they say thug. And that’s fine.”

Originating in 14th century India, over time the term “thug” became distinctly associated in American culture with inner-city black criminals.

Sherman’s critics were doing more than finding a less offensive synonym for a racial slur. By characterizing his act of unapologetic and outspoken self-expression as “thuggish,” Sherman’s critics perpetuated the idea that opinionated black folks are inherently dangerous. “It’s been etched into our cultural fabric that to act as anything but a loud, yet harmless buffoon or an immensely powerful, yet humble servant is overstepping,” explained Greg Howard of Deadspin. “It’s uppity. It is, to use Knapp’s word, petrifying.”

It’s also a great term for victim-blaming. As Jamelle Bouie wrote in Slate, both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were routinely denounced as thugs during the controversies surrounding their shootings, despite the fact that neither man had a violent criminal record.

“To dismiss racism as a general concern is to also stand against the claim that in the deaths of Martin and Brown, race matters. Indeed, you have to deny that discrimination mattered for either victim,” Bouie argued. “And to do that, you have to challenge their victimhood. If Michael Brown was a thug, if he was violent and aggressive, then Officer Wilson was justified. Suddenly, it’s a ‘good kill,’ not a deadly case of profiling.”

Much the same thing could be said about Trayvon Martin: While Zimmerman’s decision to shoot him was self-evidently racist, if one acknowledges that Martin was a normal unarmed teenager, it suddenly becomes justifiable if Martin is cast in the role of violent criminal.

By characterizing his act of unapologetic and outspoken self-expression as “thuggish,” Sherman’s critics perpetuated the idea that opinionated black folks are inherently dangerous.

Unfortunately, as a recent study from Stanford University psychologists Rebecca C. Hetey and Jennifer L. Eberhardt revealed, white people are likely to view blacks as disproportionately inclined toward criminality, regardless of the experimental controls applied to the surveys they were given. “In a crime-obsessed culture, simply thinking of crime can lead perceivers to conjure up images of black Americans that ‘ready’ these perceivers to register and selectively attend to black people who may be present in the actual physical environment,” the study explained.

Even though many of the respondents openly eschewed racist ideas, the skewed idea that blacks are more likely to be criminals has been so embedded into our cultural consciousness that the very concepts of crime and blackness have become inextricably linked, regardless of an individual’s actual racial views.

None of this is meant to diminish the legal culpability of those Baltimore protesters who have resorted to violence, nor is it meant to imply that inner-city violence isn’t a serious issue (albeit one caused by poverty and de facto segregation). The problem is not that there are people questioning the methods of the rioters and looters, but rather that they’re choosing to do so in a way that detracts from the overall conversation about justice.

By lumping the nonviolent protesters in with the violent ones, critics conflate the act of speaking out against injustice (in this case the racial profiling and fatal beating of Freddie Gray by the Baltimore Police Department) with actual criminal behavior; this serves to take attention away from exactly what the protesters are fighting for.

In fact, it perpetuates the very stereotype that most likely allowed the officers responsible for Gray’s death to feel comfortable in attacking him. After all, the very reason racial profiling is so prevalent among law enforcement officials is that many officers have been culturally conditioned to feel a heightened sense of threat when confronted with African Americans. It’s hardly a coincidence that Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot Michael Brown, testified that Brown looked like a “demon” and that fighting him made Wilson feel “like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.”

In the end, there is no path toward racial harmony in America that doesn’t necessitate burying the trope of the black thug. If we want to have a constructive national discussion on issues of race and civil authority in America, we must stop blaming the victims of systemic racial violence and instead listening to what they have to say. It’s not enough to recognize that black lives matter; we also need to be willing to learn from their experiences.

Emperor Vespasian and the Art of Making Choices

Published: Good Men Project (April 30, 2015)

Matthew Rozsa shares a brief story from Roman history to teach a life lesson.

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Whenever I discover an anecdote from ancient history that offers a clear lesson for the present, my inner history nerd rejoices at the opportunity to share my latest find with anyone who might offer me their attention.

Much as you, dear reader, are doing right now. Which brings us to Vespasian, the 9th Emperor of the Roman Empire, and the most important decision he ever made.

Whenever I discover an anecdote from ancient history that offers a clear lesson for the present, my inner history nerd rejoices at the opportunity to share my latest find with anyone who might offer me their attention.

After finding that Rome had been devastated by a terrible economic crisis and sweeping fires (which many suspected, without proof, had been intentionally set by Nero three years earlier), Vespasian took it upon himself to spearhead a series of ambitious public works program, constructing and/or repairing buildings, roads, aqueducts, and a whole host of other infrastructural necessities within the city. One day, a brilliant inventor found Vespasian while he was personally supervising an aspect of his city’s construction. After receiving permission to approach him, he proceeded to show the emperor a blueprint he had drawn of an innovative new machine he claimed would make it possible to complete all of Vespasian’s construction goals more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently than ever before. As the historian Will Durant later wrote, Vespasian may very well have been faced with the possibility of starting the Industrial Revolution right then and there, seventeen hundred years early. Instead, much to the engineer’s shock, Vespasian declined his offer. “My people need jobs,” he simply said, before turning back to his work.

On an immediate level, Vespasian’s decision is an excellent case study in choosing immediate human needs over abstract dreams of progress. While the inventor who approached Vespasian was no doubt disappointed by the emperor’s technological short-sightedness, Vespasian recognized that the products of humankind’s brains and brawn were only positive forces if they served greater human needs… and, understandably, casting thousands of his subjects into poverty did not strike Vespasian as an act on behalf of the greater good.

At the same time … Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the inventor was correct in predicting the usefulness of his invention, it’s impossible to predict how history would have been different if Vespasian had agreed to the inventor’s requests. Perhaps the jobs lost would have been offset by a notable improvement in the average Roman citizen’s quality of life; perhaps enough new jobs would have been created to exceed the losses caused by the invention’s adoption; perhaps jump-starting the Industrial Revolution by more than 1600 years would have made the modern world look very different than it does today.

The fundamental question at issue here is what ultimate role the various agents of change—not just technological but political, social, economic, cultural, even spiritual – are supposed to play in our lives. Should human beings be viewed as parts that exist to serve the welfare and success of the larger communities of which they are a part? Or should instead the various parts that make up a society exist to improve the quality of each individual human life to the greatest extent possible?

Does progress exists for the sake of human beings, or do human exist for the sake of the abstract concept of progress?

More simply put: Does progress exists for the sake of human beings, or do human exist for the sake of the abstract concept of progress?

There is no easy answer to this question, just as there was no clearly correct decision for Vespasian to make on that fateful day. All we know for sure is that, every so often, a human being is presented with a choice that will have monumental consequences regardless of the decision he or she eventually makes. When Vespasian was confronted with his big moment, he erred on the side of helping ordinary people keep their jobs; others facing the same choice may have very well erred toward improving the human condition as a whole instead of safeguarding the welfare of a handful of individuals.

If nothing else, it is comforting to know that little moments like these—when one man or a group of people determine the very shape of history itself—actually happen. While it doesn’t prove that every one of us can make a difference, it does show that any one of us may, at some point, be offered that opportunity. However intimidating that prospect may seem, the alternate possibility is far, far worse.

5 ways to fix America’s crippling student debt problem

Published: Daily Dot (April 28, 2015)

Back in 2011, Occupy Wall Street swept America due in large part to its members’ savvy use of social media (one professor of journalism even referred to the movement as a “hashtag revolt”). While no catchy Twitter slogan has yet been created for the student loan reform movement, the Internet is warming up to the cause in a similar fashion.

“The federal student loan system has become predatory due to the Congressional removal of standard consumer protections and congressionally sanctioned collection powers that are stronger than those for all other loan instruments in our nation’s history,” argues StudentLoanJustice.org, a popular site founded by activist Alan Collinge (who OnlineCollege.org determined was the third most powerful leader of the student loan reform movement, following only President Obama and one of his advisers).

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) has also rallied behind the banner of reform, tapping into its grassroots base to try to pressure likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton into supporting debt-free public college. Former members of Occupy Wall Street banded together to create a similarly populist offshoot, OccupyColleges, while more radical online campaigns have encouraged students to refuse to pay back their loans as an act of protest.

If nothing else, more reform is long overdue. More than 40 million Americans now have student debt—roughly one out of eight people in this country—which has resulted in a cumulative student debt of $1.2 trillion nationwide, surpassing credit card and auto loan debt totals. That constitutes an 84 percent jump since the start of the Great Recession, with the average student debt falling just shy of $30,000 per individual. “Student debt loads are a problem and a serious one,” explains John T. Harvey of Forbes. “Not only do they create a significant drag on short-term economic activity, but they will stunt our long-term growth as well.”

Dale Stephens, the founder of UnCollege.org, argues that students can “hack their education” simply by dropping out of the collegiate system. However, at a time when college degrees are absolutely essential for socioeconomic mobility in this country, it is downright elitist to argue that the solution is for people without the means to simply skip out on college. What policies, then, exist to solve this problem?

1) The Emergency Loan Refinancing Act

We can start with the measures recently proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.). “The legislation would allow those with outstanding student loan debt to refinance at the interest rates that were approved last year for new borrowers,” as a press release on Senator Warren’s website put it. “A previous version of the bill was voted on in the 113th Congress, and every Senate Democrat and three Senate Republicans voted to move the bill forward, falling just short of breaking a Republican filibuster.”

While this would certainly alleviate the woes of students currently enrolled in college, the Warren-Courtney proposal would only make a dent in the larger crisis. Fortunately, there are other alternatives that exist as well.

2) The Restore Fairness in Student Lending Act

In 2005, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) introduced a bill that would eliminate the “undue hardship” requirement that currently forbids borrowers from dismissing student loans when they fall into bankruptcy. Before this standard was passed into law in 1998, borrowers could eliminate all of their student loans if they had been in repayment for at least seven years.

By removing this protection, the Republican-controlled Congress guaranteed that creditors could hold college graduates in debt for as long as they pleased, which goes a long way toward explaining the situation today.

3) The Student Loan Forgiveness Act

Another option was put forth by Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.): the Student Loan Forgiveness Act. While the only borrowers eligible for loan-forgiveness programs today are those who are currently up-to-date on their payments, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act would forgive federal student loans after 10 years of repayments (five years for those in public service careers).

In addition, Clarke’s bill would keep all federal student loan rates indefinitely at 3.4 percent and prohibit forcing borrowers to pay more than 10 percent of their discretionary income.

4) Increasing Pell Grants

We could also increase Pell Grants. As a report by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and think tank Demos explains, Pell Grants—a federal form of financial aid that doesn’t have to be paid back and are typically awarded to families that make less than $40,000 a year—have shrunk considerably over the years. Pell Grants have dwindled from a maximum of 76 percent for public universities and 35 percent for private colleges from 1979 to 1980 to 30 percent for public universities and 14 percent for private colleges from 2014 to 2015.

This has made it exponentially more difficult for working class Americans to afford college education without accumulating considerable debt. Increasing the maximum amount of Pell Grant coverage to pre-1980 levels would do a great deal to close that income gap.

5) President Obama’s recent proposals

The final two solutions come courtesy of President Obama’s most recent State of the Union address. Although millions of American families saw their incomes stagnate or decline over the past half decade, the average college tuition rate has increased by 33 percent. This is blatant price gouging, which is why Obama suggested cutting back federal aid and other financial perks to universities that refuse to control tuition increases.

More ambitiously, Obama also suggested that Americans strive to provide free community college for students who maintain a C+ average, are enrolled in school at least half-time, and are working consistently toward obtaining their degrees. Although community college tuition rates are much lower than those of other universities, students at these schools are the most likely to default on their loans, which adds a special urgency to easing their hardships.

When all is said and done, the student loan crisis is more than a mere financial issue. It’s also a profoundly moral one, as it’s becoming excruciatingly difficult for Americans born outside of the upper class to have a realistic chance of meaningful socioeconomic mobility without having a college degree.

By requiring lower income and middle class families to acquire massive piles of debt in order to obtain their degrees, the current post-secondary education system has constructed very real limitations on the opportunities available to the working class. This, in turn, poses a grave threat to the American dream, which makes it all the more worth safeguarding.

As it turns out, policies exist that could make this possible. It’s time we start pursuing them.

5 reasons Marco Rubio will never be elected president

Marco Rubio

Published: Daily Dot (April 28, 2015)

If the recent polls are to be believed, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is all but guaranteed to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2016.

The Hill, a prominent Beltway blog, reports that Rubio is besting his Republican challengers in two different early polls, one from Fox News and the other from Quinnipac University. According to Fox, 13 percent of surveyed Republicans plan on voting for Rubio, while Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin trails with 12 percent. The Quinnipac survey tallies Rubio with 15 percent, with Jeb Bush next at 13 percent.

Considering Rubio only recently announced his candidacy, his lead might feel like it came out of nowhere, but pundits are hardly surprised. “Barring a massive strategic blunder, Marco Rubio is well-positioned to become the Republican nominee for President in 2016,” writes Sean McElwee of Salon. “The Florida senator is the ideal candidate to expand the Reagan coalition while holding on to the conservative base and he can take shots at Clinton that would sound hypocritical coming from Bush.”

George F. Will echoed this sentiment at RealClearPolitics, arguing that “all eyes are now going to be turned to [Rubio] as a man who might have a way to broaden the demographic appeal of this party.” Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post agrees, describing Rubio as a “fresh, young, dynamic persona” and “a powerful counterpoint to Clinton fatigue.”

Although these experts suggest Marco Rubio can parlay this early momentum into a nomination (and possibly a win next November), it’s far from a done deal. Here’s why the experts are wrong about Rubio:

1) He doesn’t have strong grassroots support

Although Marco Rubio was elected to the Senate thanks in large part to a vigorous grassroots campaign on the Internet that mobilized the Tea Party on his behalf, it is unlikely that he could rely on similar enthusiasm from right-wing activists in 2016. His support for the Senate immigration reform bill in 2013 caused a major backlash from the GOP’s conservative base.

While it has been forgotten for now, it’s inconceivable that Rubio’s opponents won’t remind primary voters of their earlier outrage if Rubio emerges as the official frontrunner. His subsequent flip-flopping on the issue won’t help him either; for Tea Partiers, the only thing worse than an insufficient conservative is an insincere one.

Making matters worse, Rubio has done little to distinguish himself in the Senate, which provides him with little aside from his charismatic persona and potential demographic appeal to lure primary voters. This is reflected in how, despite having a strong online movement backing his candidacy during the 2010 Senate race, Rubio hasn’t shown any of the trendy hashtags or comparable signs of viral support that other 2016 candidates (e.g. Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz) have enjoyed.

As Jamelle Bouie from Slate put it, “he’s everyone’s second choice.”

2) He is Hispanic

From the standpoint of winning in a general election, Rubio’s Cuban heritage is a major advantage: Hispanics are the fastest-growing voting bloc in America, and it is no coincidence that the only Republican to win the popular vote in the six presidential elections from 1992 to 2012 was also the one who did best among Latino voters. George W. Bush picked up at least 40 percent in 2004 thanks in part to his support for moderate immigration reform.

Unfortunately for Rubio, the racist leanings of the Tea Party and other right-wing voters has been well documented, from polls by the New York Times and Bloomberg to an in-depth scientific study conducted in 2011 by the University of Washington.

While this hasn’t stopped Hispanic, African-American, and other minority politicians from being nominated with Tea Party support in various legislative and gubernatorial contests, the same voters who have overtly or secretly resented having a non-white president since January 2009 may balk at choosing a Hispanic in 2016.

3) The statistics are misleading

To understand why Rubio’s current lead in the polls is overstated, let’s compare the numbers for the top five candidates in each party as of April 24:
Democrats: Hillary Clinton (62 percent), Elizabeth Warren (12 percent), Joe Biden (9 percent), Bernie Sanders (4 percent), Andrew Cuomo (3 percent)

Republicans: Marco Rubio (13 percent), Scott Walker (12 percent), Rand Paul (10 percent), Jeb Bush (9 percent), Mike Huckabee (9 percent)

Not only does Clinton have a five-to-one advantage over the immediate runner-up, but she has more support than every other Democrat combined. Rubio’s lead, by contrast, falls well within the margin of error. Indeed, the same number of voters backed Other, None of the Above, and Unsure (13 percent) as voiced support for him.

While Clinton’s lead is one-sided enough to clearly demonstrate that her support is both wide-spread and deep, the diffuse nature of how support is being distributed among the Republican field reveals that it’s anyone’s game.

4) He can be painted as a conservative version of Barack Obama

As Fox News has already noted, it’s easy to disparage Rubio as being another Barack Obama. Both were youthful one-term senators better known from their eloquent speechmaking than their legislative records, which were relatively paltry when they threw their hats into the presidential ring.

Much as a Ted Cruz nomination would open Republicans to charges of hypocrisy on their use of the birther issue, so too would a Rubio nomination leave the GOP vulnerable to charges that they’re simply trying to elect a President Obama of their own.

5) He will compete with Jeb Bush and Scott Walker

While hailing from Florida should give Rubio an advantage in winning that state’s electoral votes in the general election, he will have to compete with former Gov. Jeb Bush during the primaries, and Bush has a Mexican-American wife.

Perhaps more significantly, as Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight noted, “Rubio’s path to the GOP nomination…looks a lot like [Scott] Walker’s,” as both men appeal to the traditional party establishment. Because neither Rubio nor Walker have the same support among moderate and liberal Republicans as Jeb Bush, both men will need to co-opt most if not all of the support currently going to their counterpart in order to win the nomination.

If Rubio and Walker split conservative and establishment Republican support between themselves during the primaries, historical precedent and existing data both indicate that neither will marshall enough support to stop Jeb Bush from being nominated.

The bottom line is simple: Rubio’s past support for immigration reform, lackluster Senate record, and vulnerability to racial prejudice make it unlikely that he will be able to overcome his soft support (i.e., being everyone’s “second choice”) and win the nomination. He may be electable, but so is Scott Walker, and Walker lacks any of the weaknesses among grassroots conservatives that will hobble Rubio. Meanwhile, Rand Paul has built one of the most impressive grassroots networks of any candidate in either party.

Either way, Rubio’s few die-hard supporters shouldn’t hold their breath.

Social Reparations for Racist Incarceration: What Americans Owe Men Like Kalief Browder

Published: Good Men Project (April 28, 2015)

Matthew Rozsa argues that it’s time for Americans to pay their debt to non-whites suffering from racial discrimination.

If Americans truly wish to eradicate the scourge of racial oppression from our nation, we must start by paying our debts.

Last week, The New Yorker obtained footage from two surveillance cameras that depicted the horror of Kalief Browder’s experience on Riker’s Island. As the videos and subsequent interviews confirm, Browder was beaten by a corrections officer and various inmates during his time in prison. He also alleges that officers would starve him as a form of punishment, and records back up his claim that he spent nearly two years in solitary confinement during his three year stay behind bars.

What was his crime? Nothing. That isn’t a turn of phrase – Browder lost three years of his life without having done a single thing wrong.

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.

The moment that changed his life forever occurred in May 2010, as the sixteen-year-old sophomore made his way home from a party. After a strange man accused him of being a thief (the specific details of the charges were never fully divulged to Browder or his attorneys), Browder was arrested and held in a jail cell, despite there not being a shred of evidence connecting him to the crime. Because his family couldn’t afford the $10,000 bail, Browder was forced to remain incarcerated until the courts decided to schedule his trial. Eventually he was transferred to Riker’s Island where, despite having not been convicted of a crime, he was treated like any other inmate. It wasn’t until January 2013 that a judge even heard his case, although Browder rejected the offer  to plead guilty in return for time served; instead he waited until he could receive a fair hearing on the following June, at which point the charges were summarily dismissed and Browder was set free.

Needless to say, a lawsuit against the city is currently pending, although Browder’s attorney hasn’t disclosed additional details about it. While it’s safe to assume that anyone who hasn’t had their heart hardened and brain softened by reactionary racial and/or fiscal views will support generously compensating Browder for his ordeal, there is another debt that Americans owe our non-white citizens. To quote from the opening passage of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech:

“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”

♦◊♦

While Americans in 2015 are much closer to realizing King’s dream of racial equality than they were in 1963, we have yet to fully honor our civil rights commitments. To illustrate this point, one need only look through the Bill of Rights:

– The First Amendment: Although our free speech protections include “the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” peaceful protests of racial profiling and other law enforcement abuses frequently end in violence either because of police incitement or local authorities’ refusal to accommodate activists requests. This is exacerbated by the conservative media’s tendency to overhype the few incidents of violence that break out, thereby taking attention away from how the majority of protest activity in cities like Ferguson was non-violent. Even on occasions when the origin of a violent outbreak is more murky – the recent riots in Baltimore are a prime example – it behooves ordinary Americans to limit their condemnation only to the individual protesters who became violent without provocation, rather than using the actions of an unruly minority to justify disregarding the legitimate grievances of the majority they erroneously represent. By dismissing all protesters from a specific movement as predisposed to violence, conservatives only increase the likelihood that future gatherings will also be violent, if for no other reason than they’ll be more inclined to use excessive force.

– The Fourth and Sixth Amendments: The Fourth and Sixth Amendments cover a number of constitutional rights that are routinely ignored when the American citizen in question isn’t white. For instance, imagine how quickly America would do away with racially profiling – which remains rampant and has played a large role in creating the racial disparity in our prison population today – if every citizen was equally protected by the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees their right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” and only allows warrants to be issued “upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Browder in particular would have benefited by a strict observation of the Sixth Amendment, which assured him the right to “a speedy and public trial,” “to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation,” and “to be confronted with the witnesses against him”; beyond that, the Sixth Amendment should guarantee minority criminal defendants racially diverse juries, as a way of offsetting the racial prejudice that has been shown to taint the findings of all-white juries trying non-white citizens.

For far too many non-whites, they still find that the checks they cash for their basic civil liberties are returned with the statement, ‘Insufficient funds.’ America needs to pay up.

– The Fifteenth Amendment: Although the Fifteenth Amendment declares that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” Republican politicians have spent the past few years attempting to suppress minority votes. Their efforts have ranged from passing voter ID laws that disproportionately target minorities to using fraud-prevention software that an  investigation revealed labelled 7 million Americans as voter fraud suspects (despite only 31 credible cases of voter fraud being proved nationwide between 2000 and mid-2014), with the lists disproportionately targeting minority voters. This almost certainly played a role in the sweeping Republican victories during the 2014 midterm elections, which not coincidentally saw a sharp drop in turnout among minorities and other elements of the Democratic base (including women and the elderly) and, consequently, gave white voters more pull at the polls (not surprisingly, the 2014 elections also had the lowest overall voter turnout of any midterm contest since World War II).

♦◊♦

The very fact that Kalief Browder’s name isn’t a household word proves the basic point here. As King observed more than half a century ago, one of the main reasons racial discrimination remains so pervasive is that the same constitutional protections guaranteed to white Americans are ignored for non-whites. Not only did Browder suffer because his Fourth and Sixth Amendment rights as a suspected criminal were disregarded; he was harmed long before, when non-white voters who could have elected politicians that would reform our criminal justice system weren’t allowed to cast their ballots, and when protesters who may have drawn attention to his plight were discouraged in advance by the threat of violence or having their cause libeled by insinuations thereof. For far too many non-whites, they still find that the checks they cash for their basic civil liberties are returned with the statement, “Insufficient funds.”

America needs to pay up.

Adam Sandler’s ugly track record with race: The dumb, offensive, unfunny movie moments that came before ‘The Ridiculous Six’

Published: Salon (April 27, 2015)

You know it’s bad when you see how “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” is his most empathetic recent comedy.

Adam Sandler is probably not a racist, but his movies definitely have a long history of racial insensitivity. If anything, it’s surprising that he hasn’t been called out about this (at least on a larger scale) until now.

As the moviegoing world learned last week, roughly a dozen Native American actors walked off the set of Sandler’s upcoming comedy “The Ridiculous Six” to protest his depiction of Apaches. Among other things, they were offended by the various vulgar puns used as character names (e.g., Beaver’s Breath, No Bra, Sits-on-Face), a scene in which a Native American woman is shown squatting down to urinate while smoking a peace pipe, and the fact that the costumes resorted to visual stereotypes instead of accurately representing how Apaches looked. The inevitable hashtag movement protesting the film sums up the fundamental complaint rather succinctly: #NotYourHollywoodIndian

This isn’t the first time that Sandler’s movies have contained insulting racial characterizations. A short list of comparable controversies would include frequent Sandler collaborator Rob Schneider donning yellow face to play native Hawaiian and Japanese characters in “50 First Dates” and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” (although Schneider is of Filipino ancestry himself, that doesn’t excuse him using garish make-up and mugging to ridicule other Asian ethnic groups), the caricatures passed off as Mexican-American characters in “Jack and Jill” (such as a grotesque elderly Mexican woman being knocked out and revived with jalapenos and a gardener who makes racially self-disparaging comments before adding, “Just kidding”), or the various insulting tropes about Africans from “Blended” (described by one South African reviewer as depicting native Africans as “oversexed and leering, bumbling and inarticulate, or just bone lazy”). While all of these problems were noticed at the time those films were released, none received a great deal of attention because the business and creative personnel involved in producing those movies apparently, for the most part, toed the line — which, incidentally, is one more reason to applaud the Native Americans who walked off the set to publicly demonstrate their unwillingness to play along.

Although it is tempting to defend “The Ridiculous Six” along the lines used by cast member Vanilla Ice (“It’s a comedy. I don’t think anybody really had any ill feeling or any intent or anything. This movie isn’t ‘Dances With Wolves.’ It’s a comedy.”), it’s important to remember that comedy can promote discriminatory attitudes. The minstrel shows of Jim Crow America or anti-Semitic burlesques in Third Reich Germany did more than make audiences laugh. By perpetuating popular stereotypes, they reinforced the idea that certain groups of people were inherently different, with each individual being easily reducible to a handful of traits commonly associated with others who shared their background.

Ironically enough, Sandler is in a great position to understand this himself. Take this speech delivered from “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry”: “For the record, the word ‘faggot,’ that’s a bad word. Don’t use it. I used to say it more than anybody, but I was ignorant. It’s hurtful. It’s like ‘kike’ for me.”

What makes these lines particularly powerful is that they seem to have been ripped straight from the comedian’s heart. Indeed, there is such a raw sincerity in their delivery that one is morally compelled to take them at face value — to assume that, when he wrote and then spoke those words, Sandler was making a legitimate effort to learn from his personal experience as a way to spread awareness of anti-LGBT prejudice.
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Unfortunately, despite being one of the most influential Jewish comedians alive today, Sandler has not been consistent in extending his understandable sensitivity to anti-Semitism to his treatment of other groups. It calls to mind an observation made by Marlon Brando on Larry King Live in the 1990s, who after claiming (inaccurately) that “Hollywood is run by Jews” criticized various Jewish filmmakers who were willing to exploit racism toward other groups. “We’ve seen the nigger and the greaseball. We’ve seen the Chink. We’ve seen the slit-eyed dangerous Jap. We have seen the wily Filipino,” he noted. “We’ve seen everything. But we never saw the kike, because they knew perfectly well that that’s where you draw the wagons around.”

As someone who was nearly murdered for being Jewish as a child, I understand why so many Jews were offended by Brando’s remarks at the time; at the same time, I also recognize that he was trying to make the same underlying moral point that Sandler articulated in 2006. When you are part of a group that has experienced discrimination, you have an ethical responsibility to not only oppose the specific prejudices that have afflicted your own people, but all forms of prejudice everywhere. It’s the attitude best captured by the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who grew up aware of his own Jewish heritage and later declared that “my Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work.”

It’s important to note that this is not a question of political correctness. After all, some of the greatest comedies of all time used racial, sexual, ethnic, and/or religious humor without subtly (or not-so-subtly) validating the nastier assumptions of its audience members. When studying a classic comedy like Mel Brooks’ movie “Blazing Saddles,” or even more recent trailblazers like the TV show “The Simpsons,” it’s important to note that the jokes about racial, religious, and other minority groups are usually pretty careful about establishing that bigots and their bigotry are the punchlines — not the men and women they’ve chosen to target.
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This is what makes the racist humor that has repeatedly appeared in Sandler’s movies so disappointing. Along with having a reputation for being a genuinely nice person, he is also an incredibly talented comedian, from his early days on “Saturday Night Live” to the creative silliness of his early movies like “Billy Madison,” “Happy Gilmore,” “The Wedding Singer,” and “The Waterboy.” Perhaps just as significantly, his dramatic roles have demonstrated a remarkable capacity for empathy, whether for victims of emotional abuse (“Punch-Drunk Love”) or psychological trauma (“Reign Over Me”).

In short, he is better than this, and as his speech from “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” demonstrates, he can even learn from his past “ignorant” and “hurtful” mistakes. With a little humility, Sandler could frankly acknowledge that he was wrong for his racial insensitivity in “The Ridiculous Six” and use this controversy as a learning opportunity – not only for himself, but for his fans. Otherwise, this will be just one more asterisk tarnishing an otherwise impressive comedy legacy, and Sandler will be remembered as just one more entertainer who couldn’t rise above the sins of his time.

The right wing’s bloodthirsty obsession: How conservatives poisoned the debate over capital punishment

Published: Salon (April 24, 2015)

A conservative columnist paints those against executing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as terrorist sympathizers

Once Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defense attorney wraps up her closing statement, the jury will need to decide whether the terrorist should receive the death penalty or be sentenced to life in prison. This is a thorny question, one that should compel civic-minded Americans to engage in serious soul-searching about the use of capital punishment in cases where a perpetrator’s guilt and lack of remorse are beyond question.

For that to happen, however, we will first need to overcome our own baser instincts.

It is here that I turn to a recent Boston Herald editorial penned by conservative pundit Howie Carr, which has few parallels in the realm of hyperbolic political invective. Its opening sentence says it all: “Can the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Fan Club please tell the truth for once about why they really oppose the death penalty for their bloodthirsty monster?” From there the op-ed proceeds to associate Tsarnaev with as many right-wing bugaboos as its author can trot out: Muslims, welfare leeches, drug dealers, Obama supporters, and illegal aliens are among the numerous polemical tropes that Carr dutifully summons. He glibly dismisses the fact that many of the Boston Marathon bombing survivors have come out against sentencing Tsarnaev to death, and he does it by accusing liberals who point this out of “playing the victim card.” The notion that Tsarnaev could actually be punished by spending the rest of his life in prison, without hope of parole, is erroneously classified as “mythical.” (More on that in a moment.) “If you like your tousle-haired terrorist, you can keep your tousle-haired terrorist,” Carr closes. “Let’s hope the jury isn’t buying their bully-bull-bull this time.”

The problem here isn’t that Carr supports the death penalty, but rather that he grossly distorts the perspective of those who oppose it. In the process, he goes a long way toward demonstrating why Americans struggle so mightily to have a serious debate on this issue.

We can start with his central thesis — namely, the presumption that liberals secretly sympathize with Tsarnaev. Aside from taking a few choice quotes out of context, Carr does nothing to substantiate this allegation, for the simple reason that he has no evidence to back it up. While a handful of kooks have no doubt been “crying the buckets” for Tsarnaev, the vast majority of mainstream liberals are as horrified by his conduct as their conservative, moderate, and apolitical counterparts. When Carr insists otherwise, he not just trying to score easy political points (although that was almost certainly part of his goal); he also establishes a false dichotomy in an attempt to discredit the death-penalty debate as a whole. As he frames the issue, the only two options in the Tsarnaev case are to support his execution or to let him off easy by allowing him to get “three hots and a cot forever and a day.”

This is a serious mischaracterization of opponents of the death penalty, whose arguments tend to focus on the racial bias with which it is applies; the fact that it costs more money than it saves; the overwhelming evidence to suggest that innocent people have indeed been executed; and the fact that America is one of the few First World countries that still regularly kills its convicted criminals. Beneath all of this, there is the underlying philosophical issue surrounding the idea that any state should be allowed to take the lives of its own people — a question that transcends any specific details about immediate cases under consideration.

None of this is meant to imply that Carr shouldn’t support the death penalty for Tsarnaev. The point here is not that Carr was wrong for wanting Tsarnaev to die for his heinous crimes, but rather that he contributed to a climate in which intelligent discussion on this subject becomes exceedingly difficult.

The fundamental problem is that, when it comes to sensitive questions like this, it is very easy for emotion to override reason. Because Tsarnaev’s crimes were particularly terrible, it is natural for many to seek vengeance against him. In so doing, the temptation arises to insist that anyone who doesn’t share this desire for retribution has only the most nefarious motives — that they are, if not as evil as the bad guys themselves, at the very least useful idiots unwittingly coming to their aid. It is the toxic mentality that conservatives used when they declared that opponents of the Iraq War wanted the terrorists to win, or that critics of racial profiling hate police officers and love criminals. By allowing the nuances of these subjects to be swept away under waves of emotion, they oversimplify and warp what these debates are actually about.
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The irony here is that life in America’s only federal supermax prison is hardly a picnic. If he is sentenced to spend his remaining days there, Tsarnaev will live in a small box that Seth Stevenson of Slate observed “seems specially designed to drive its inhabitants insane.” The United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, CO (better known as ADX) was described last month by The New York Times as a “clean version of hell,” a place where inmates spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in a 12-by-7 foot concrete cell with only a single four-inch window to remind them of the existence of an outside world. Regardless of whether one feels this punishment is more or less suitable for Tsarnaev than execution, it is sheer madness to claim that this fate would somehow coddle him or let him off the hook.

Although I’m personally opposed to capital punishment, I recognize that the jury in Boston has a responsibility to set aside their individual beliefs on this issue and render their decision based solely on the legal parameters established for them within the trial itself. Their responsibility right now is an unenviable one, and that of the society which must answer larger questions about how we treat our criminals is only slightly better. Just as I hope the jurors are able to deliberate in a calm and rational manner, so too does the American public need to approach issues like this with as much intelligent detachment as we can muster. The issues at stake are too serious to permit anything else.

How the Internet could force Barack Obama to back medical marijuana

Published: Daily Dot (April 23, 2015)

On Sunday night, President Obama backed Medical Pot Reform—and the Internet noticed.

Perhaps more important than the fact that the Internet is abuzz over Obama’s interview with CNN, however, is the fact that the Internet may be able to pressure him to do the right thing on this issue, which is especially crucial as Alabama considers backing medical marijuana. So why, at a time when Internet campaigns have been so effective in raising awareness on matters from feminism to racism, has marijuana legalization remained such a slow burner?

In their own way, the three aforementioned tweets each capture the most important talking points the Internet should be discussing after Obama’s interview. As the Guardian astutely observed, Obama has expressed support for a policy (i.e., reducing constrictions around the use of medical marijuana) that has support from libertarian Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), as well as the traditional liberals in Obama’s own base.

Although the president hedged his bets by merely promising to “take a look at the details” of Paul’s Senate bill and only conceding that medical use of marijuana “may in fact be appropriate,” he emphasized that “the more we treat some of these issues related to drug abuse from a public health model and not just from an incarceration model, the better off we’re going to be.” Considering that critics of prevailing drug policy are highly critical of our harsh criminal punishments for drug offenders, this was an important stance for Obama to have taken, all the more notable because of its potential bipartisan support.

At the same time, when Obama talks about the need to “follow the science as opposed to ideology,” he is only half-right.

On the one hand, he is correct that science has proved there are numerous health benefits to marijuana use, and any society that claims to base its state policies on reason needs to take this knowledge into account when determining marijuana’s legal status. While his denunciation of “ideology” is no doubt partially directed at the often-hyperbolic rhetoric of the anti-drug crusaders, however, it could just as easily apply to the zeal of pro-legalization advocates.

When Obama talks about the need to “follow the science as opposed to ideology,” he is only half-right.

An important difference between the two sides must be noted: Even if scientific studies somehow demonstrated that regular marijuana use was a net negative for one’s health, there are plenty of unhealthy substances that the state doesn’t prohibit its citizens from using (e.g., cigarettes, alcohol, fast food). It is disingenuous to assert an equivalence, implicit or otherwise, between a pro-criminalization ideology that imposes subjective lifestyle preferences on others and the pro-legalization alternative, which champions individual liberty.

This brings us to Ventura’s claim that Obama “doesn’t have the balls to #legalize #marijuana.” Certainly it’s also important to appreciate that Obama has done more to liberalize America’s marijuana policies than any other president since cannabis prohibition went into effect in 1937. Not only did he decline to enforce federal drug laws in Colorado and Washington after those two states voted to legalize marijuana, but his Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder took bold measures to reduce and/or eliminate entirely tough mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders.

Then again, the president has traditionally approached the issue of marijuana legalization with great caution. His language in Sunday’s interview, for instance, was reminiscent of the position he articulated during his campaign for the United States Senate in 2004: “The war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws. We need to rethink how we’re operating the drug war.”

This language may seem justified as politically expedient, but in light of Obama’s personal history, there is a level of hypocrisy to it. As an editor from the Washington Post discussed in 2012, Obama was himself quite the pothead in his own day, often spending time with a clique of friends informally dubbed “The Choom Gang.” Obama alluded to this himself in his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, where he wrote that when dealing with personal struggles, “Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.”

Obama has done more to liberalize America’s marijuana policies than any other president since cannabis prohibition went into effect in 1937.

It’s fair to assume that if Obama had been arrested for his use of these illicit substances back when he was a legally vulnerable teenager or twenty-something, he would likely not be sitting in the White House today (especially in light of the long-documented racial disparity in who gets incarcerated by anti-drug laws). While Obama presiding over the continued implementation of draconian anti-drug laws isn’t as flagrantly hypocritical as, say, President Warren Harding implementing prohibition while leaving the White House “awash in alcohol,” it’s still galling.

This is where the Internet could, theoretically, play a valuable role. A Pew Research Center survey found that 53 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana; that number goes up among younger generations, including 68 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 and 52 percent of the next highest demographic, Americans between the ages of 35 and 50.

This corresponds neatly with the numbers of Americans who regularly use social media: As Pew Research informs us, 89 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 participate in digital culture, compared to 82 percent of adults ages 30 to 49, 65 percent of adults ages 50 to 64, and 49 percent of adults ages 65 and up. Indeed, Obama himself jokingly acknowledged this as far back as 2009, when a question about marijuana legalization received over three million votes in an open forum he held early in his presidency:

There was one question that voted on that ranked fairly high and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation. And I don’t know what this says about the online audience, but … this was a popular question. We want to make sure it’s answered. The answer is no, I don’t think that’s a good strategy to grow our economy. All right.

I suspect the president’s flippant attitude toward the perspective of Internet users reveals a great deal about why this issue hasn’t gained the traction of other causes that are popular online. Because of the cultural stigma attached to marijuana use, it is easy to take attention away from the serious civil liberty issues at play by its continued criminalization. Even though millions of Americans smoke pot and millions more believe it should be legalized, there remains the embedded assumption that this is simply not as “serious” an issue as many of the others currently being bandied about in our collective political discourse.

What’s more, despite the historic campaigns to legalize it in Colorado and Washington, there has yet to be a groundswell of national activism to end this prohibition on the scale of other recent civil liberties-based campaigns (e.g., those involving LGBT rights).

What makes this particularly tragic is that, if legalization advocates used the resources available online more effectively, they could pressure both Obama and future presidents into making real change. It is reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt’s legendary response to labor leaders who attempted to persuade him to back a bill important to their cause: “I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it.”

Can the Internet rise to that challenge?