Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Blog In: If I was Trayvon Martin's Mother

Busy as I am, I needed to take time out today to participate in a Blog In in honor of young Trayvon Martin.
You've probably seen the news stories by now. Trayvon had walked to the store to get Skittles and an Arizona iced tea on the night of February 26th. On his way home, roughly 70 yards from his father's house in Sanford, Florida, he was gunned down by a volunteer neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman. Zimmerman is claiming self-defense even though he outweighed Trayvon by 100 pounds, was armed with a loaded handgun, and followed Trayvon despite the 911 operator telling him not to.

Trayvon, of slight build, was armed with a package of Skittles, an Arizona iced tea, and a cell phone.

The case will soon be a month old, Zimmerman has not been arrested, and young Trayvon Martin is dead.

When I first heard the recordings of the 911 calls from that night, I got a knot in the pit of my stomach. My next reaction was a heat I felt course through my body as I got angry. Why is Zimmerman not in jail? AND, after hearing more about his history, why was he ever authorized to carry a weapon? Furthermore, who ever thought it was a good idea for this guy to do neighborhood watch?!

Why should I care, and why should I, a middle-aged white woman, write about this?

Well, you see, like Trayvon's mother, I am the mother of young, black men. Like Trayvon's mother, my 17-year-old son often asks if he can walk a couple of blocks down to the store to buy some snacks. Like Trayvon, my son wears his pants low and often wears a hooded sweatshirt. Does this make him a criminal?


In today's America, it is his blackness that makes him a criminal.

Now, I know what some of you might be thinking. Maybe it's something along the lines of, "How can you say your son is a criminal just because he's black? I'm not racist. My friends aren't racist. I have black friends. We have a black President. Yada, yada, yada."

Then I challenge you this: Close your eyes and think of the words drug dealer. What image comes to mind? Most often it will be the indelible image of a young black man in his saggy pants that has been imprinted on your mind by the media.

As much as we would like to stick our heads in the sand and believe we are living in a post-racial America, it just isn't so. All you have to do is go search for the story of Trayvon Martin's murder in Florida newspapers, read the insensitive, ignorant, racist comments left by people who apparently think they are invisible on the internet, and you will quickly know that racism is alive and well in America.

To summarize the gist of the comments: Zimmerman should go free because young black men kill white people all the time (a statistical untruth) and you don't see white people protesting about it.

I am flabbergasted by this line of reasoning, but one thing I know for sure; we have not transcended race. In fact, I think we need a big "come to Jesus" moment around race. Instead of continuing to tiptoe around the issue, afraid to talk about it, I think it's time for some serious, sustained dialogue.

If I were Trayvon Martin's mother, first of all, I would want my son back. I would be devastated at the loss. I'm talking about the crippling kind of agony one feels when something tragic happens to someone you love. I don't know how I would function, but this I know for sure; I would want justice. I would want Zimmerman dead, but I would settle for having him locked up. I would want him to get his day in court. I would want answers.

There is a key difference between me and Trayvon's mother though. I'm white and she's black. There are certain rights and privileges that I take for granted that Trayvon's mother probably does not. It's called white privilege. I grew up being told that if I was in trouble, I should find a friendly police officer to help me out. A police officer was your friend.

Now, if you're sitting there saying, "Huh? What are you talking about?" you probably have white privilege. If you have never been stopped by the cops for "Driving While White" or because you were in the "wrong" part of town, you have white privilege. Be thankful. You're life is easier because of it.

As a white mother of African American sons, shamefully, I have to admit that it took me a long time to recognize that my firmly held beliefs about my rights as a citizen would not be applied equally to my sons. When they were babies I kissed their pudgy caffé latte cheeks and could not understand how the world would not love my sons as much as I do. When I sent them off to kindergarten, I did not recognize that they would not be afforded the same opportunities to participate in class that I had when I was growing up. (There are numerous studies showing the differences between how often white, female 4th graders and black, male 4th graders are called upon to answer questions.) And, now that they are young men, I warn them about hanging out in certain areas, and it frightens me to think that, because of my white priviledge, I may not have adequately prepared them for what to do if they are stopped by the police.

Neither one of my sons has an arrest record, but as the case of Trayvon Martin shows, you don't need to BE a criminal. You just need to LOOK like one.

And, apparently, that is all the justification George Zimmerman felt he needed to murder Trayvon Martin. What does it say about our criminal justice system and our society if Zimmerman is not arrested and charged?

The old remnants of racism, white hoods, burning crosses, and a hangman's noose, may be gone, but new forms of racial control have emerged to take their place. Nowhere is racial inequality more prevalent that in our criminal justice system. There are two dramatically different criminal justice systems in America, one if you're white and one if you're black. In 2000, a Human Rights Watch report found that in some states, black men are incarcerated for drug crimes at rates twenty to fifty times higher than white men even though the rates of drug use and sale are similar regardless of race.[i] Basically, cops don't tend to go into college dorms to arrest white students for drug use and possession, and if Lindsay Lohan was a black man, we can presume she would have been sent off to prison a long time ago.

Would Zimmerman be in jail right now if he was black? I can't say for sure, but I'm going to venture a "yes." Studies have repeated shown that at every level of the criminal justice system, African Americans are disproportionately stopped and frisked, arrested, charged, found guilty, and sentenced compared to their white counterparts and it has little to do with their rate of offending. It depends a lot more on who is perceived to be a criminal. Who LOOKS like a criminal? Who is disposible in our society?

So, you see, if I was Trayvon's mother I would probably feel frustration and hopelessness toward the criminal justice system. I am not his mother, however, so I can only imagine myself in her shoes. Those of us with white privilege need to think long and hard about this. What if it was your son? The administration of the law applied to the least of us affects all of us. It defines who we are as a society. Are we really okay with defining a particular race as criminal, locking them away in disproportionate numbers, and systematically eliminating them through the death penalty, life without parole, or, in the case of Trayvon, vigilante murder?


[i] Human Rights Watch, Punishment and Prejudice, Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs, HRW Reports vol.12, no.2 (New York, 2000)

Monday, March 19, 2012

How Can Zimmerman Claim Self-Defense When He Followed Trayvon Martin?

I've listened to the 911 tapes of the calls that came in on the night 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was gunned down by George Zimmerman, and frankly, I'm outraged. Why is George Zimmerman not in jail pending investigation of the case?

There's only one reason I can think of; George Zimmerman is white.

If the tables had been turned, there is no doubt in my mind that Trayvon Martin would be sitting in a jail cell right now. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Trayvon is dead and George Zimmerman has been allowed to go free, free to kill the next young black man he suspects is up to no good.

A video with the 911 tapes and an opinion piece by Carolyn Edgar can be found on CNN's Black in America. If you  haven't already heard the calls, I warn you that they are very disturbing.

A USA Today article stated that 70 protesters at a Sanford rally chanted "What if it was your son?" and held posters saying, "This is not a race issue." Many carried Skittles.

They are only partially right. Unfortunately, this IS a race issue. Yes, the criminal justice system is supposed to be colorblind. It is supposed to afford everyone the same rights and punishments under the law, but let's face it, the criminal justice system is only as colorblind as the racial biases of those who administer said justice. The fact that Trayvon Martin's parents cannot find justice in Sanford, Florida is an outrage.

Zimmerman should be in jail, and Sanford, Florida Police Chief Lee should be fired.

Feel free to voice your opinion. You can contact Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee at:
407.688.5070 - Office

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Contributor Spotlight: Inequitable Incarceration Efforts in Norway and United States

Today's post is written by Kevin Stordahl, a student at the University of Washington, working on his sociology degree.
Quick shameless plug: Are you an expert in the area of race and incarceration? Do you have a story to tell? Advice to offer? Do you have an example from your own experience? We’d love to have you as the next Contributor Spotlight! Contact us at: 6and44@gmail.com.

Incarceration in the United States has increasingly become a focal point of racial and social inequality over the past decade.  Socially, the prison system does little to correct any behavioral problems and uses a simple punishment tactic that puts people behind bars for a determined amount of time.  This has resulted in a recidivism rate a little over 60% and even higher than that when you look at non-violent crimes such as; robbery, larceny, motor vehicle theft, and selling of stolen property (Bureau of Justice Statistics, BJS).  This alone shows that we need to reform the system so it is more efficient in correcting these behavioral problems so that they can try to live differently when they are released.  More alarming though, are the racial disparities that are infused into the U.S. prison systems.  African Americans, while constituting 12.6 percent of the total U.S. population, make up 35.4 percent of those incarcerated.  In comparison, the white prison population makes up just less than that at 32.9 percent while making up 72 percent of the total U.S. population (2010 census).  Mostly attributed to the War on Drugs that began under President Reagan in the early 1980s, African Americans have been subjected to racial profiling and discrimination by the criminal justice system in the U.S. more often than any other racial group.  This issue of racial discrimination is nothing new in the United States.  In fact, it has been the basis for much our country’s legislative history and has shaped the ways in which people interact with people from different racial groups.
            Norway has inequalities in their incarceration efforts as well, but by simply looking at the rates they do not seem to be to the extent of those in the United States. The historical past of Norway becoming an independent nation, the laws that followed the independence along with their unique rehabilitation incarceration system, have contributed to their skewed incarceration statistics that suggest that they are more tolerant of minority groups than the U.S.  In some ways, the immigrant population in Norway is analogous to minority racial groups in the United States.  Focusing on incarceration, their populations in their respective prison systems do not accurately represent their respective countries’ total populations and they continue to be disproportionately charged and convicted of criminal activity.  Today, Norway remains 94.4 percent Norwegian, while 3 percent of the population is comprised of immigrants from other European countries and only 2 percent come from countries outside of Europe.  These immigrants are the recipients of most discrimination and inequalities but they are not as evident in Norway as they are in the United States because of the lack of distinct diverse groups.  While the immigrant population only makes up about 5 percent of the total population in Norway, they make up 19.5 percent of those incarcerated in Norway.  These rates are somewhat comparable to those in the United States, but it suggests that if there was more diversity in Norway, there would be even greater disparities between groups who are incarcerated, possibly more than the disparities seen in the U.S., because of the focus on creating and preserving a national Norwegian identity.
            Eileen Myrdahl, in her dissertation on Norwegian racial projects, discusses the history and formation of the Norwegian identity and the legislation that was put in place to protect that identity.  After long being ruled by Danish and Swedish powers, Norway gained its independence in 1905 and made strong efforts to create a national identity in order to set themselves apart from the Danish and Swedish identities.  These efforts continued through Nazi occupation during WWII, from 1940 to 1945, and concentrated on making the Norwegian identity in an anti-Nazi manner.  Anyone who had been born of a German man and Norwegian woman were classified as non-Norwegian along with anyone who had been employed by the Nazi regime.  In 1956, Norway had eradicated all laws pertaining to barring particular groups of people from immigrating into the country, which had been put into place after WWII, invited Hungarian refugees who were fighting Communism and the U.S.S.R., but at the same time, also decided to not accept migrants from other European nations, claiming that they were inassimilable (Myrdahl).  Eventually this inassimilable characteristic got stretched to apply to those with darker skin, in particularly those from Asia and Africa. As one can imagine, this did not result in any real influx of immigrants from all over the world and actually led to the politicization of immigration laws in the 1970s that focused on Asian and African nations because of a labor movement that was short lived and did little to change the population in the late 1960s (Myrdahl).  One law in particular that has led to most of the immigrant population in Norway is the family reunification law.  This law allows for people who live outside Norway to apply for entry into the country on the basis of reconnecting with a family member who already lives in Norway.  Laws put in place in the following decade focused on immigrants and their ability to gain citizenship.  The Immigration Act of 1988 allowed migration into the country, but those who moved to Norway had to have continuous residence for 7 years with a record of “good” behavior.  This law also said that any children born in Norway of two foreign parents had to wait until the age of 18 to apply for citizenship (Migration Policy Institute, MPI).  These laws show how important preserving the Norwegian identity is to the country and also gives a scope of how difficult it is to be truly accepted as a Norwegian if you are an immigrant.
This focus on a national identity is something that the United States has not embraced to the extent that Norway has, but has a similar background in that there have been restrictions on who could actively be a part of American society.  Since the early colonization of the United States, the dominant white culture has subordinated people of color through legislation and force with a focus on assimilation.  As soon as the first colonizers arrived in the Americas they began calling the indigenous people “unfit” to rule themselves and decided to take matters into their own hands.  This process of labeling minority racial groups who were not white as “unfit” was used throughout the time before the Civil War and the Reconstruction efforts in order to justify the violence that came to be the center of black and white race relations (Moon Ho-Jung).  It was not until after the Civil Rights Movement when the subordination of racial groups became a more taboo subject and seemingly less accepted across the nation. This has resulted in a near annihilation of American Indians and high percentages of poverty among other minority groups, mostly Latino and African American. More importantly though, the subordination has made significant advances in the United States’ prison system over the last few decades, with a total prison population of nearly 2.3 million, the prisons in the United States have continuously become increasingly occupied by minorities, most evident are African Americans, who make up about 35 percent (ABC news).  While this subordination may be outrageous and unfair, it is not surprising considering the fact that these types of racial disparities have always been a part of United States history. 
Another possible reason for the skewed comparison of incarceration rates between Norway and the United States are the differences in recidivism rates.  The United States has a recidivism rate of nearly 70 percent in a criminal justice system whose sole purpose is to gage the severity of a committed crime and sentence the criminal to a period of jail time (BJS).  The tactic of punishment has long been the way of dealing with criminals in the United States and one would think that severely punishing an individual would make them less likely to engage in criminal activity that would result in them returning, but obviously this is not the case.  The system does nothing to help correct or prevent criminal behavior. So naturally, criminals who are released, more often than not, get rearrested and put back in jail, often for the same crime or a crime similar to what they had previously gotten in trouble for.  This is important because if African Americans make up the majority of the prison population, it means they are most likely the ones who are rearrested after already facing longer average sentences than whites accused of the same crimes.  In 2002, African Americans with a drug offense had an average prison term of 105 months compared to 62 months for whites with a drug offence (BJS).  This supports the notion that racial discrimination is laced throughout the entire criminal justice system in the United States and as a result it has had a negative impact on minority groups.
Norway, in comparison, has a very different approach in its prison system which includes more rehabilitating efforts in dealing with criminal behavior.  First of all, they do not have a death penalty.  The longest sentence an individual can serve is 21 years and potentially up to 30 years if it is a crime against humanity.  They do have another option that is rarely used that includes a system of review every five years to determine if the individual has been rehabilitated.  This is the only way a person could potentially get a life sentence.  Secondly, they work to rehabilitate criminals through socialization and providing them with opportunities to get educated and to learn to take responsibility of not only their actions, but in some situations, like at the Bastoy Prison, of a small business.  As a result of this approach, Norway has a recidivism rate of about 40 percent, two-thirds less than that in the United States.  So even though there is still a disproportional amount of immigrants in prison that misrepresents the total population of Norway, its system provides individuals with an alternative to simply sitting in a cell, rotting away, and it has proven to help lessen the amount of those who are rearrested.  This approach does have some disputed tactics though.
This approach has been seen, by many, as the most progressive way in dealing with crime in Europe and it would appear to be a more effective use of taxpayer dollars in dealing with criminal behavior.  But a criticism that this approach has had to deal with recently is the criminals who commit violent crimes against humanity.  Anders Breivik, who is a well-known Norwegian terrorist and recently killed over 70 people in attacks last July, is being placed in this rehabilitation prison system in Norway.  Many Norwegians have actually come together to voice their opinion in opposition to the rehabilitation effort of this particular individual because of his goal to divide the nation of Norway, but the current Norwegian policy is being applied to Breivik in the same way they are to any other criminal convicted of violent crimes.  The severity of the violence is something that Norway does not have to deal with often, so violent in fact, that many people across the world are skeptical of the rehabilitation process working on Breivik.  It will be interesting to see if the efforts to rehabilitate a mass murderer will be successful or if he will end up being classified as mentally ill and placed in an asylum.  One thing is for sure, Norway’s prison system has shown evidence of actually correcting criminal behavior by simply treating its criminals as human beings, while we will have to wait and see if it will work for an extreme case such as Breivik’s.
While incarceration rates in the United States and Norway suggest that there is similar discrimination that occurs in their respective criminal justice systems, it is the history of racial groups in the U.S. and the construction of a national identity in Norway that play a role in the animosity felt toward minority groups.  The United States, however, has in place a criminal justice system that does little to correct criminal behavior and seemingly works to keep those classified as criminal locked up away from society for our safety.  Norway’s criminal justice system, on the other hand, offers opportunities for criminals to correct their behavior through self-reflection, education, and socialization.  The compared recidivism rates suggest that the U.S. should look at reforming parts of their system, but perhaps not to the extreme that Norway currently has in dealing with even the most violent of criminals. For those criminals who have never committed a violent act, there should be more opportunity for them to get out of the prison system and back into society as a productive and competent individual.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Anatomy of Justice

We have been adding to our book shelf lately. Check out Anatomy of Justice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong by Raymond Bonner. The NYTimes article about the book can be found here.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Modern Minstrel Show

What are your thoughts on gangsta rap, television shows like Flavor of Love, and others portraying gangsta culture?

I was reading Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow, and came upon her arguments drawing the parallels between black performers in the minstrel shows and the images we see of black, gangsta culture on television today.

To paraphrase, she points out that,
"Psychologists have long observed that when people feel hopelessly stigmatized, a powerful coping strategy - often the only apparent route to self-esteem - is embracing one's stigmatized identity."
In regards to mass incarceration and the War on Drugs, she observes that gangsta rap did not become popular until after the War on Drugs was in full effect and young, black men were suddenly being swept off the streets and into prisons.

Before the War on Drugs, we had "Rapper's Delight" and "My Adidas" not songs about pimps and 'hos. (I might be dating myself.) However, you have to admit; the timing is certainly interesting.

Alexander equates prevalent negative images in the media today to the minstrel shows of the slavery and Jim Crow eras, both of which are for-profit enterprises established to portray the worst racial stereotypes of African-Americans. Further, like the minstrel shows, today's audience is primarily white. White, suburban teenagers are the largest consumers of gangsta rap.

Alexander goes on to question,
"It seems likely that historians will one day look back on the images of black men in gangsta rap videos with a similar curiosity [to the minstrel shows]. Why would these young men, who are targets of a brutal drug war declared against them, put on a show - a spectacle - that romanticizes and glorifies their criminalization? Why would these young men openly endorse and perpetuate the very stereotypes that are invoked to justify their second-class status, their exculusion from mainstream society? The answers, historians may find, are not that different from the answers to the minstrelsy puzzle."
Her answer is that they are embracing the stigma placed upon them by the War on Drugs. Like the minstrel show it "has its roots in the struggle for a positive identity among outcasts."

What are your thoughts?