A New Way of Leadership

DPA Expression

photos by DPA/Tabia-Lisenbee-Parker

On Saturday, April 22nd, I attended the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) Partners Meeting organized by the amazing team of women led by asha bandele, Senior Director for Special Projects & Grantmaking. The meeting took place in Atlanta at Morehouse School of Medicine, the first DPA gathering held at a historically black college or university. This is significant as it exemplifies the organization’s continuing efforts to center it’s work and activities with the communities most impacted by punitive drug policies. Despite the acknowledged increase in illegal drug abuse in white working and middle-class communities, black and Latino communities continue to be disproportionately targeted for punitive drug law enforcement. I’m happy  the media has been focusing on preventable heroin overdoses and promoting harm reduction interventions like naloxone distribution and “good Samaritan” laws, nonetheless, we can’t forget that on a daily basis drug law enforcement continues to focus primarily on low-income communities of color.

The DPA Partners event seamlessly incorporated a diverse group of people representing a cross-section of problems and issues created by drug prohibition – some had been imprisoned for drug-related offenses; some had lost loved ones to overdoses; others lost loved ones to drug-related violence; some people are still living with the effects of HIV or Hep-C acquired in part, because of punitive drug policies; many have struggled with substance abuse or addiction, seeking treatment they could only obtain after arrest with the threat of prison if they “failed” the required program. These are just some of the myriad ways the so-called “war on drugs” affects the lives of people on a daily basis and rarely for the good. The DPA event, aptly titled, Not One Step Back, did a great job of connecting human faces and human stories to the abstract concept of a “war on drugs” so that participants had a clear sense of what’s happening in our communities and what we need to do to change it……

Unlike many drug policy reform events, this one was consciously inclusive of women and our issues. From start to finish the role of women – especially women of color – as leaders of the movement was prominently on display. I give much credit and thanks to asha bandele, Kassandra Frederique, Lynne Lyman,  and Tamar Todd among others who have been consistent and relentless advocates for empowerment of people of color and women and who by example and achievement have silenced skeptics and opponents. The Partners event was unique in the ways it traversed a broad spectrum of mediums of expression beginning with the opening ceremony featuring African drummers and dancers that invoked the spirit of the ancestors as a palpable presence in the space. Poetry, music, storytelling and video were used in ways that both expressed us and elevated us.

DPA Invoking Africa

I particularly appreciated the way the DPA team consciously lifted up the work and accomplishments of allies and activists via events like the cocktail reception in honor of Susan Burton, founder and Executive Director of A New Way of Life – a project that has generated new models of supporting the healing and empowerment of formerly incarcerated women. Susan’s book – Becoming Ms. Burton has just been released – it’s both moving and informative – another amazing achievement by a woman previously marginalized and ignored by society.

The ability to express joy and laughter – even in the face of pain and tragedy – is an important part of African-American history and culture – asha’s exercise for the group – called – “you better recognize” was an exquisite example of the masterful combination of fun and personal affirmation.  I want to acknowledge and commend asha bandele for her numerous accomplishments over the past year – not least underwriting the successful video on the drug war produced by Jay-Z and dream hampton, which received critical acclaim, broadened our base of support and won last year’s DoGooder Award…

Finally, ending the event with a speech by Congresswoman Maxine Waters – what can I say….my cup runneth over. Rep. Waters has been a strong voice against the so-called “war on drugs” throughout her entire Congressional career, being one of the first to point out the covert government role in facilitating the flood of crack cocaine into south central Los Angeles. She was an early proponent of repealing the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity and has advocated for other important sentencing and drug policy reform initiatives. As a woman with a strong, independent voice, she appreciates that in others, so it’s not insignificant she took time out of her busy schedule to come to Atlanta at the request of asha and her team…..While Rep. Maxine Waters personally claims no predictive powers, I believe her when she says she thinks Donald Trump will be impeached. Her views on Donald Trump match mine entirely. I’m not rooting for the success of a president I don’t respect, don’t think is legitimate and whose success is defined in part as the decline of me and mine. I thank Maxine Waters daily for having the courage to say publicly what many of us believe..DONALD TRUMP IS NOT MY PRESIDENT..

Maxine of Fire

The DPA Partners meeting was a remarkable testimony to the commitment and resilience of everyday people who are in fact extraordinary. It’s a testament to asha’s small, but cohesive team that they have supported these extraordinary people for years in empowering their vision for reforming our nation’s failed drug policies and repairing the damage forty years of drug war carnage has wrought. I write this in part, to both commend and highlight the great work of people I respect and have grown very fond of.  Additionally I want to point to few distinctions I think are relevant during this time of political turmoil and transition.

I believe it’s important that this transition in our field is being led by women of color – there’s a particular energy we bring that is both expansive and protective at the same time. We open up spaces inside a firm commitment to protect all those who enter it. We are the antithesis to Trumpism at a time the world needs to see and experience real alternatives – not fake ones. Finally, we tend to work in teams – we find strength, support and success in teamwork – perhaps it’s part of a shared survival strategy but it’s particularly relevant and useful now.

DPA ashas crew

As we enter a period that promises to produce a ramped up drug war, increasing drug abuse and associated harms, as well as more police brutality and community anger in response, it will be important to have leadership that can meet the challenges of the time. We need leadership that stresses cooperation over individualism, consultation over decisiveness, compassion over strength and a willingness to adopt a long-term perspective in defining goals and achievements. The search for new leadership at DPA should look to this example of a new way of leadership that is centered and led by women of color and has proven to produce bountiful fruit…Daughters of the Dust Unite!!

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Memories of Eddie

EE-headshot2-210x300

I can’t remember the first time I met Eddie Ellis. It was sometime in 1997, most likely at one of the meetings for local activists seeking to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws. I don’t remember our initial conversation, what I do remember is shortly after our meeting, Eddie became a ubiquitous presence in my life. Without ever discussing it, he became my mentor. When he suggested I visit the Albany County jail with a friend who ran workshops there, I said okay and began going regularly. When a few months later he asked if I wanted to accompany him on a visit to Green Haven Correctional facility, I again said okay, not thinking it would be a transformational event.

I’ll never forget that day at Green Haven, I felt more safe and welcome than by any group of men, and saw clearly for the first time how the modern prison system has replicated the conditions of chattel slavery – black men in shackles overseen by white men with guns who deny their rights and exploit their labor. I left committed to working for meaningful criminal justice reform, I’m sure that was part of Eddie’s plan.

In 2001 Eddie was part of the delegation I organized to the World Conference Against Racism. It was an incredibly moving and educational experience. We met human rights activists from around the world who deepened our awareness of the global dimensions of racism, gender oppression and economic exploitation. We both reveled in the feeling we had of being part of a global diaspora of African peoples. We debated the meaning of ‘reparations’ in the African and Latin American context and established long-term friendships with the Afro-Colombian delegation. Eddie and I were together in South Africa on 9/11, we were scheduled to return to New York City the next day. During the extra week we were compelled to remain in Cape Town, Eddie talked a lot about the ways the terrorist attack would affect U.S. society. He was prescient in predicting the ways in which criminal justice policies and practices would serve as a blueprint for the ‘war on terrorism’.

Over the next decade Eddie worked with his long-time friend and colleague Divine Pryor, to bring into being his vision for altering the conversation about and treatment of the people who find themselves caught in the net of the criminal justice system. Eddie was first and foremost an intellectual activist, he was always reading and thinking, synthesizing information, evaluating it against lived experiences and sharing his wisdom with all who requested. If he could answer your question or respond to your request, he never said no. As fellow bibliophiles we often shared book recommendations, after reading them, we would compare notes on our review of the work and its value.

I remember long conversations over dinners in cities all over the U.S. (like many NYers we found it easier to meet on the road at conferences than in the city where we both lived) discussing everything from music to art, to philosophy, world history, religion, cuisines, fashion and of course racism in the criminal justice system. I hope future generations will remember the contributions Eddie made to the ways we look at the justice system. It’s because of Eddie and Divine we no longer refer to our brothers and sisters behind the walls as felons and convicts and inmates. They are incarcerated persons and/or prisoners, when they leave, they are formerly incarcerated persons or former prisoners. Youth are not delinquents, they are children in conflict with the law. Words have meaning and power, because of Eddie, I consciously treat them that way.

I never thought to question why Eddie was in my life, we rarely ask why people are our mentors, we’re just grateful that they are. Over the years I came to rely on Eddie’s counsel and comfort during periods of transition or tragedy. He always knew what to say to make me feel better and know that I was not alone. It pains me to think how many years of his life he was forced to spend in isolated and lonely spaces. I’m grateful that he had so many friends and loved ones to transcend the memory of that time and yet I know Eddie didn’t regret his time in prison, he saw it as an important part of his journey, to shine the light on dark and hidden places, to have us see the truth of who we choose to punish and why.

Our last conversation was just a few short weeks ago. We talked about his most recent concept paper – setting forth a framework for a human centered model of justice. I’m sad that Eddie did not live long enough to see his vision come into being, but I am comforted in the knowledge his vision lives on in all of us who loved and honored him.

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Memories of Eddie………..

EE-headshot2-210x300I can’t remember the first time I met Eddie Ellis. It was sometime in 1997, most likely at one of the meetings for local activists seeking to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws. I don’t remember our initial conversation, what I do remember is shortly after our meeting, Eddie became a ubiquitous presence in my life. Without ever discussing it, he became my mentor. When he suggested I visit the Albany County jail with a friend who ran workshops there, I said okay and began going regularly. When a few months later he asked if I wanted to go with him on a visit to Green Haven Correctional facility, I again said okay, not thinking it would be a transformational event.

I’ll never forget that day at Green Haven, I felt more safe and welcome than by any group of men, and saw clearly for the first time how the modern prison system has replicated the conditions of chattel slavery – black men in shackles overseen by white men with guns who deny their rights and exploit their labor. I left committed to working for meaningful criminal justice reform, I’m sure that was part of Eddie’s plan.

In 2001 Eddie was part of the delegation I organized to the World Conference Against Racism. It was an incredibly moving and educational experience. We met human rights activists from around the world who deepened our awareness of the global dimensions of racism, gender oppression and economic exploitation. We both reveled in the feeling we had of being part of a global diaspora of African peoples. We debated the meaning of ‘reparations’ in the African and Latin American context and established long-term friendships with the Afro-Colombian delegation. Eddie and I were together in South Africa on 9/11, we were scheduled to return to New York City the next day. During the extra week we were compelled to stay in Cape Town, Eddie talked a lot about the ways the terrorist attack would affect U.S. society. He was prescient in predicting the ways in which criminal justice policies and practices would serve as a blueprint for the ‘war on terrorism’.

Over the next decade Eddie worked with his long-time friend and colleague Divine Pryor, to bring into being his vision for altering the conversation about and treatment of the people who find themselves caught in the net of the criminal justice system. Eddie was first and foremost an intellectual activist, he was always reading and thinking, synthesizing information, evaluating it against lived experiences and sharing his wisdom with all who requested. If he could answer your question or respond to your request, he never said no. As fellow bibliophiles we often shared book recommendations, after reading them, we would compare notes on our review of the work and its value.

I remember long conversations over dinners in cities all over the U.S. (like many NYers we found it easier to meet on the road at conferences than in the city where we both lived) discussing everything from music to art, to philosophy, world history, religion, cuisines, fashion and of course racism in the criminal justice system. I hope future generations will remember the contributions Eddie made to the ways we look at the justice system. It’s because of Eddie and Divine we no longer refer to our brothers and sisters behind the walls as felons and convicts and inmates. They are incarcerated persons and/or prisoners, when they leave, they are formerly incarcerated persons or former prisoners. Youth are not delinquents, they are children in conflict with the law. Words have meaning and power, because of Eddie, I consciously treat them that way.

I never thought to question why Eddie was in my life, we rarely ask why people are our mentors, we’re just grateful that they are. Over the years I came to rely on Eddie’s counsel and comfort during periods of transition or tragedy. He always knew what to say to make me feel better and know that I was not alone. It pains me to think how many years of his life he was forced to spend in isolated and lonely spaces. I’m grateful that he had so many friends and loved ones to transcend the memory of that time and yet I know Eddie didn’t regret his time in prison, he saw it as an important part of his journey, to shine the light on dark and hidden places, to have us see the truth of who we choose to punish and why.

Our last conversation was just a few short weeks ago. We talked about his most recent concept paper – setting forth a framework for a human centered model of justice. I’m sad that Eddie did not live long enough to see his vision come into being, but I am comforted in the knowledge his vision lives on in all of us who loved and honored him.

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The New Jacobins…..

Tea Party fantasy

Tea Party revolution fantasy

We’re almost fifteen years into the new millennium and rather than ushering in an era of peace and prosperity, so far its defining features have been extremism and austerity. One manifestation of that extremism has been increasing terrorism. Terrorism arrived with a bang at the beginning of the millennium with the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The impact on the U.S. emotionally and psychologically cannot be overstated but in many ways we’ve rallied and recovered from that attack on our economic and military power. So far, it’s not clear we’ll do as well managing the campaign of domestic terrorism that has held the nation captive for the past five years and no, I’m not talking about gun violence and mass shootings as awful and frequent as they’ve become.

I’m talking about the terrorists who’ve dominated our political discourse since the summer of 2009 collectively known as the Tea Party. From its inception Tea Party supporters defined themselves in two distinct but related ways – first, a clear distrust and contempt for government; second, a need to express their distrust and contempt in the angriest way possible. Early Tea Party rallies were notable for the number of placards and signs depicting Barack Obama as Satan (enemy to all Christians); Hitler (U.S. enemy during the last ‘good’ war-WWII) or as generic Muslim terrorist (current national enemy) – you get the idea. He was the ENEMY PRESIDENT a usurper of power and threat to the nation.

The Tea Party took its name from identification with the Massachusetts colonists who demonstrated their distrust and contempt for British government by illegally seizing and dumping imported tea in protest of increased taxes, the first salvo in what became the American Revolution culminating in independence from Britain and formation of a new government. It’s a nice association, conjuring up positive images of courageous, patriotic people willing to risk all for an ideal, the possibility of greater freedom….it’s romantic and appealing but hardly appropriate for today’s Tea Party.

The Tea Party movement has associated itself with the wrong revolution… they have more in common with the French Revolutionaries than the American. Their character, tactics and goals are consistent with and reminiscent of, the extremists of the French Revolution, organized around a debating society known as the Jacobin Club that took power during the most critical part of the Revolution and will be forever remembered for ushering the infamous period known simply as “The Terror”.

Like the Tea Party, the Jacobins came to power riding a wave of populist contempt and rage at government, the first target – the failed monarchy of Louis XVI. The leaders of the Jacobins were best known for the fervor of their hatred of the monarchy and their willingness to use any means to bring it down. It was the Jacobins who insisted it was not enough to depose and imprison the king, his blood needed to be shed in order for the people to be truly free. Like the Tea Party, the Jacobins were not poor but they identified themselves with and claimed to speak on behalf of France’s impoverished and exploited people. Like the Tea Party, the Jacobins claimed to be defenders of family values and personal freedom from licentious and profligate tyrants.

Like the Tea Party, the Jacobins believed their assumption to power was a necessary prerequisite to creation of a virtuous society. Their path was the path of truth and light, compromise was not an option, all who refused to follow were outside the new body politic, not a true ‘citizen’. The Jacobins sealed their allegiance to the French people with blood – the blood of King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette on the blade of the Guillotine, soon to be known as the ‘national razor’. Like the Tea Party, Jacobins valued loyalty above all – true revolutionaries were willing to shed the blood of those who were enemies of the people – anyone who didn’t support the goals and actions of the revolution was an enemy of the people.

There are many personal parallels between the most famous Jacobin leaders and today’s Tea Party luminati. The malcontent Marat, publisher of the most vitriolic of all the revolutionary newspapers was a prototype for Rush Limbaugh, a perennial blowhard with no concept of restraint and no sense of basic decency. His rabid hatred of the aristocracy and all political opposition led him to propose ever-increasing acts of violence and revenge – acts he had neither the desire or ability to control. Like Limbaugh, he was a physically unattractive man who hid himself from the world (Rush hides in a radio studio behind a microphone) in long, therapeutic baths while his inner bile spilled forth.

Danton, the man who came to prominence as ‘defender of the people’ the firebrand who rallied the French to meet the European armies and protect the fragile democracy, brings to mind Newt Gingrich a man of similar firebrand nature, a big man with big ideas that never match up to their hype. Saint-Just, the cold, emotionless Jacobin who believed quite fervently that dissent = death and never met a suspect he did not want to punish is most like Grover Norquist who famously said he didn’t want to destroy government, he just wanted to make it small enough to drown in a bathtub. Like Saint-Just, Norquist’s arrogance knows no bounds and confounds his critics who don’t understand the source of his appeal.

The most powerful and influential Jacobin was Robespierre, who was dubbed ‘the Incorruptible’ because of his ascetic lifestyle and unwavering commitment to the revolution. Robespierre was a small town lawyer who came to prominence because of his sharp mind and oratory. His ability to command attention and sway a crowd was legendary and made him a formidable foe. The Tea Party leader who consciously or not is most like Robespierre is Ted Cruz – another relatively obscure lawyer who has blazed a trail by becoming a media darling for his willingness to do or say anything – no matter how outrageous or untrue – that will further his political profile or agenda. Like Robespierre, he is extremely manipulative as evidenced by his ability to coerce his colleagues into supporting tactics that are both risky and ultimately self-destructive.

Both Robespierre and Ted Cruz are notable in their willingness to embrace fear and terror as legitimate political tools. As a small town country lawyer Robespierre had railed against the death penalty, a decade later he was one of the chief proponents for executing the deposed king, Louis Capet. After the death of the royal family and most of the remaining aristocracy, Robespierre decided to up the ante by going after anyone who was an “enemy of the revolution”.

As a disciple of Rousseau, he believed in the concept of the ‘virtuous’ society. He believed the goal of the revolution was to bring that society into being. Terror, in his mind emanates from virtue, you needed it to have virtue manifest. Robespierre famously said, “Virtue without terror is impotent, terror without virtue is cruel.” This became the guiding principle of the Jacobins which ultimately led to the deaths of more than 55,000 French citizens before Robespierre’s head finally joined the others in the basket under the guillotine. It’s certainly not a stretch to say that Ted Cruz has embraced tactics that amount to political terrorism – shutting down the federal government; threatening default on repaying government debt; attacking the integrity and patriotism of colleagues and officials who disagree with him; supporting fratricidal primaries against fellow Republicans that are deemed insufficiently conservative.

Like the Jacobins, the Tea Party is implacable and hyperbolic. Fundamentalism guides their thinking and actions. You are either with them or against them and that applies to friends and foes alike. Changing facts and circumstances do not generate changes in policies or practices. If the facts are against you, ignore them, double-down on your propaganda and do everything you can to silence or marginalize critics. Like the Jacobins, the Tea Party has cast moderation as a sign of weakness – that may work in the sporting ring but it makes democratic governance impossible.

We are living in year five of Tea Party terror. They have brought political and economic terror to the country in ways not seen since the period leading up to the Civil War. The contempt and distrust of government expressed by Tea Partiers is similar to the sentiment that led to the Confederacy. The call to arms and need to protect “our way of life” are the same words southerners used to rally against ‘northern aggression’. The appeal to racial solidarity over economic interest is what drove poor southern farmers to join leaders of the plantocracy and risk their lives in defense of a system that offered them little except the chance to dominate and exploit blacks. The willing embrace of terror and violence as tools to gain and maintain power were the modus operandi of segregationists and racists – then and now.

Like the Jacobins, Tea Partiers see themselves as motivated by patriotism and national pride. They believe they are protecting democratic principles from tyranny. The problem is, like the Jacobins, their rigidity, unwillingness to compromise and vicious attacks on critics or opponents eventually turns them into the thing they purport to hate. By the time of their political implosion in July, 1794 the Jacobins had created a political system as venal, corrupt and murderous as anything that existed under the monarchy. Tea Partiers don’t live in an age when opponents can be disposed of by physical beheading but the Republican primary has become the political equivalent of the guillotine as Eric Cantor discovered to his eternal surprise. By threatening to end the political careers of Republicans not deemed sufficiently conservative or sufficiently hostile to the ENEMY PRESIDENT, the Tea Party has moved the Republican Party and by extension the rest of the country dramatically right. By refusing to compromise with the President or Democratic members in Congress the Tea Party has generated a self-fulfilling prophecy of government incompetence and ineffectiveness, thereby reinforcing cynicism and contempt for government generally and this president specifically.

The Jacobins soon found they had unleashed forces beyond their control. The anger they consciously stoked in the masses became organized mobs of peasants known as the san culottes. They hated anyone and everyone who had more than they did and it did not take much to whip them into a murderous frenzy. In trying to control them, the Jacobins brought their leader into the circle of power but to keep them satisfied they had to constantly up the ante on the violence and vitriol. Sound familiar? Any group that sustains itself on stoking fear and violence will end up full of extremists as they are the people able to sustain and feed off anger for extended periods of time.

What’s at stake now as then is democratic governance. The Jacobins killed the revolution they helped spawn through their extremism and violence. They paved the way for Napoleon and military dictatorship. It would be decades before the ideals of the French Revolution and Declaration of the Rights of Man would be permanently manifest in French government. The Tea Party may not have the guillotine but the Congressional budget process is allowing them to do a pretty good job of knee-capping the economy. The Tea Party are not patriots out to protect U.S. democracy, they represent the greatest threat to democracy. Eventually Robespierre and his Jacobin supporters went too far, they created a climate of such fear and violence no one felt safe. When the end came, it was swift and complete. Not sure what too far looks like for the Tea Party – I thought it was the government shutdown, clearly I was wrong. Let’s hope their star falls before the damage is irreparable.

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Political Puppeteers: Policing Pregnancy for Profit, Promoting Personhood for Power

Manipulating women

Manipulating women

Pregnancy holds a special space in most societies, it is a biological necessity for species preservation and represents the promise of future generations. Pregnancy is thought by many to bestow upon women an extra layer of societal protection and care. Social conventions dictate that pregnant women be given priority seating on buses, trains and other forms of transport and in lines for rest rooms and priority rescue during natural disasters. We believe ourselves to be solicitous and helpful to pregnant women and accord them an extra measure of respect.

But in many ways in the United States the treatment of pregnant women has been and continues to be class specific. Poor and working-class women often find pregnancy a difficult time, especially if they have jobs that don’t offer health care benefits, sick time or maternity leave. Those challenges can make pregnancy difficult enough without the extra worry of health care providers and/or aggressive prosecutors looking over your shoulders and sometimes even examining your urine to make sure you aren’t engaging in activities they consider ‘harmful’ to your fetus. In the aftermath of the crack cocaine media hysteria of the 1980s, laws that were enacted to give more protection to women who were physically assaulted while pregnant – began to be used against pregnant women. Punitive prosecutors and anti-choice advocates promoted the idea that the most dangerous place for certain children is their mother’s womb.

most-dangerous-place

This month saw an escalation in this perversion of “protection” when Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed legislation that will allow women in the state to be charged with assault for harm to their fetus or newborn that can be attributed to the mother’s use of illegal drugs beginning July 1st. Haslam signed the legislation after “extensive conversations with experts including substance abuse, mental health, health and law enforcement officials,” he wrote in a statement. “The intent of this bill is to give law enforcement and district attorneys a tool to address illicit drug use among pregnant women through treatment programs.”

“This law brings treatment to the worst of the worst,” say state representative Terri Weaver, who sponsored the bill in the House. “It’s heartbreaking if you’re a police officer, and you see a woman is seven or eight months pregnant and shooting heroin. There is an individual inside that belly that has no choice but to take whatever goes into it.”

“Tennessee has become one of the top states for babies born addicted,” says Weaver, who introduced the bill in the House. The legislation is just the latest in Tennessee’s series of efforts to deal with a rise in infants born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), which is a group of problems akin to the effects of withdrawal.

However, as reported by The Daily Beast, the new legislation does not get at the source of problem – prescription drug abuse:

Another major problem with Tennessee’s proposed law is that it ignores the fact that legally prescribed narcotics can also result in NAS. Though the Tennessee Department of Health declined to comment for this article, its commissioner, Dr. John Dreyzehner, has previously said that although NAS is a problem in his state, abuse of illegal narcotics really isn’t the root of it. “In Tennessee we know that 60 percent of the babies born to mothers, the babies that develop Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, their mothers had a prescription for the medication they were taking,” he said.

But doctors and lawyers interviewed for this article said it is not always easy to definitively conclude what substance produced NAS in a child. Thus, there is potential for women to be wrongly charged under this new law, even if they were taking legally obtained drugs.

There are 177 addiction treatment centers in Tennessee, but only two offer prenatal care on site. Only 19 offer any services for pregnant women. Methadone, the evidence based treatment known to work best for pregnant women who are using opiates is not among the treatment options available.

Governor Haslam may have had “conversations with experts” but clearly he wasn’t listening. The legislation has been roundly criticized by health care professionals, substance abuse treatment providers, child welfare advocates and even administration officials who responded thusly when asked about the proposal:

“Under the Obama administration, we’ve really tried to reframe drug policy not as a crime but as a public health-related issue, and that our response on the national level is that we not criminalize addiction,” said Michael Botticelli, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “We want to make sure our response and our national strategy is based on the fact that addiction is a disease.”

Proponents of the measure point to the mandated review of its efficacy and impact after two years and that it classifies the new crime of ‘fetal assault as a misdemeanor instead of a felony as ameliorating factors. Somehow I think that’s a distinction without a difference for women who would forego prenatal care and not risk arrest for any reason, not to mention the notorious tendency of prosecutors to overcharge in order to facilitate plea agreements. Once the door is open to criminalizing women’s behavior during pregnancy, it’s hard to limit the impact. One can’t help but wonder whether there is any connection between Tennessee becoming the first state to enact legislation that would make women subject to criminal punishment because they became pregnant and failed to meet societal expectations and its distinction as the corporate headquarters of the nation’s largest private prison company – Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) – which already operates 3 of the state’s 14 prisons.

Since its founding in 1983, CCA has profited from federal and state policies that have led to a dramatic rise in incarceration in the United States — a rise of 500 percent over the past thirty years (the U.S. population has only increased by 40%). Although it claims that it has not lobbied for bills that extend or increase sentences for prisoners, for nearly two decades CCA participated in and even led the task force of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that pushed bills like so-called “truth-in-sentencing” and “three strikes” legislation as models for states to adopt across the nation. CCA and its hired lobbying firms have spent about $30.9 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies from 1998 to August 2013 on bills relating to immigration, detention, and private prisons.

CCA wields tremendous political influence in Tennessee under the current administration. In 2011 Gov. Bill Haslam found nearly $31 million in recurring money to keep open a CCA prison in West Tennessee while making deep cuts to other areas such as TennCare and higher education. His decision stood in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen who had sought to close the facility. According to the website Influence Explorer, which tracks political contributions, Governor Bill Haslam was among the top four recipients of campaign contributions from CCA – remarkably, two of the other four top recipients are also Tennessee elected officials – Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker. Earlier this month Trousdale County entered into contracts for a new 2,500 bed state prison in Hartsville, Tennessee that will be run by CCA.

“We’re very pleased, obviously, with the outcome of Trousdale County’s vote the other night, and we’re encouraged by the process,” said Steve Owen, Public Affairs Director for CCA. “And we’re looking forward to helping the state of TN to meet its expressed correctional needs, and helping Trousdale County in that effort—while at the same time, bringing very positive economic impact to Trousdale and the surrounding counties.”

The expressed correctional needs of Tennessee now include the potential incarceration of pregnant and childbearing women for ‘harming’ their fetus by using illegal drugs while pregnant. Of course we now know there’s no such thing as a “crack baby” and exposure to cocaine in utero while not advisable, is not nearly as harmful to fetal development as smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, neither of which will get a pregnant woman arrested and hauled before a judge. But hey – why let science get in the way of a making profit from the warehousing of human beings?

Revisiting the Hysteria around Cocaine Exposed Babies – the Epidemic that Wasn’t

More than 40 years after Roe v. Wade established a woman’s constitutional right to a zone of privacy around her reproductive decisions, pregnant women are targets of various forms of state intrusion and restriction of their rights and privacy. There has been a steady and relentless campaign to erode those rights not limited to women’s access to abortion, it is a campaign against reproductive justice:

The reproductive justice framework – the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments — is based on the human right to make personal decisions about one’s life, and the obligation of government and society to ensure that the conditions are suitable for implementing one’s decisions is important for women of color.

It represents a shift for women advocating for control of their bodies, from a narrower focus on legal access and individual choice (the focus of mainstream organizations) to a broader analysis of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on our power.

Reproductive Justice addresses the social reality of inequality, specifically, the inequality of opportunities that we have to control our reproductive destiny. Our options for making choices have to be safe, affordable and accessible, three minimal cornerstones of government support for all individual life decisions.

Most people who care about reproductive justice are aware of the many actions by state lawmakers throughout the country to restrict women’s access to abortion by various means including: creating new restrictions on abortion providers; mandating waiting periods, pre-abortion counseling and medically unnecessary sonograms and requiring women to have special insurance to cover the costs of abortions. Not satisfied with making it more difficult for women to get access to both contraception services and legal terminations, anti-choice advocates now seek to make women criminally liable for the outcomes of their pregnancies.

These are not isolated incidents, they’ve become increasingly common as pregnant women are used as pawns in the fight to erode reproductive justice. As documented in a recent report by National Advocates for Pregnant Women, in the decades since Roe v. Wade there have been hundreds of criminal and civil cases involving the arrests, detentions and equivalent deprivations of pregnant women’s physical liberty between 1973 and 2005. The consequences to pregnant women included: arrests; incarceration; increases in prison or jail sentences; detentions in hospitals, mental institutions and drug treatment programs; and forced medical interventions, including surgery. State authorities have used a variety of measures including feticide laws and anti-abortion laws recognizing separate rights for fertilized, eggs, embryos and fetuses as the basis for depriving pregnant women – whether they were seeking to end a pregnancy or go to term – of their physical liberty.

pregnantwomaninprison-a

As noted in a recent column by Rachel Cohen:

The crusade against women’s reproductive rights has been led by politicians and organizations that claim to cherish the “right to life” and champion women’s role as mothers. But the reality made painfully clear by the NAPW’s report is that the anti-choice right wants women to be treated as second-class citizens, denied the right to health care, personal liberty and the right to control their own bodies and lives.

In all, just over half of the women whose stories are collected in the report are Black. Nearly three-quarters of those facing legal charges were represented by indigent defense. African-American women have suffered a long legacy of barbaric discrimination–from the separation of families under slavery to the early 20th century eugenics movement that pushed through laws in 32 states allowing the sterilization of women judged “unfit to breed.” Today, poor Black single mothers are scapegoats for all manner of social problems. In particular, the war on drugs has served as a vehicle for the attack, with drug convictions serving as the excuse for terminating parental rights of incarcerated mothers.

YOYO babies

And yet, ironically, the chief proponent of the new Tennessee law criminalizing pregnant women is an African-American state legislator, Representative John DeBerry, a local business person and ordained minister who also sponsored a new law that punishes educators who promote or condone “gateway sexual activity” as well as the ‘don’t say gay’ bill and a bill to ban unmarried couples from adopting children. Representative DeBerry a committed Christian, believes it is his duty to bring Biblical beliefs into the public sphere. During an interview with a local Christian radio show, he said America had lost its way by abandoning traditional Christian values, including the sanctity of life. In his view pregnant women don’t have the “right to make choices” about the life they are carrying within:

Similar but more strident sentiments are expressed in the concurring opinion by the Chief Justice Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court affirming the criminal appeals court ruling that the use of the word “child” in the chemical-endangerment statute includes all children, born and unborn, and furthers the state’s policy of protecting life from the earliest stages of development. As jubilantly reported by the website Liberty Counsel:

“In an age where some judges do not know the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, or do not even care, finally the Alabama Supreme Court springs forth with a ray of light,” said Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel. “The opinions by Chief Justice Roy Moore and Tom Parker are well-reasoned, grounded in history and natural law, and completely demolish the fallacies of the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion decisions. One day soon the United States Supreme Court’s abortion opinions will come toppling down like a house of cards. Then we will look back at history like we now do with Nazi Germany and wonder why our generation was so blind to the personhood of the preborn child,” said Staver. The concurring opinions by Chief Justice Roy Moore and Justice Tom Parker are particularly significant because they reveal the flaws in the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion decisions, beginning with the 1973 case of Roe. v. Wade. Excerpts of their concurring opinions are set forth below:

“Denominated in the United States Code as one of the ‘Organic Laws of the United States of America,’ the Declaration acknowledges as ‘self-evident’ the truth that all human beings are endowed with inherent dignity and the right to life as a direct result of having been created by God.”

“God, not governments and legislatures, gives persons these inherent natural rights . . . Government, in fact, has no power to abridge or destroy natural rights God directly besets to mankind and indeed no power to contravene what God declares right or wrong.”

“As the gift of God, this right to life is not subject to violation by another’s unilateral choice.”
“From local to international, all law flows from the divine source: it is the law of God. The law of nature and of nature’s God binds all nations, states, and all government officials—from Great Britain to Germany to Alabama—regardless of positive laws or orders to the contrary.”

“States have an affirmative duty to protect unborn human life under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

“Any state’s discriminatory failure to provide legal protection equally to born and unborn persons under, for instance, its statutes prohibiting homicide, assault, or chemical endangerment violates, therefore, the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution.”

“Because a human life with a full genetic endowment comes into existence at the moment of conception, the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights encompasses the moment of conception. Legal recognition of the unborn as members of the human family derives ultimately from the laws of nature and nature’s God, who created human life in His image and protected it with the commandment: ‘Thou shall not kill.’”

Like the puppeteer, the life being manipulated here is incapable of acting on its own. It has no free agency and is totally dependent on the woman who nurtures and nourishes it. To set them in opposition to each other and ascribe independent agency and rights to a fetus makes as much sense as asserting a puppet can speak without a ventriloquist and awarding it the right to sue for wage theft.

Rep. John J. DeBerry, Jr. says it’s about giving tough love to these women:

“At the end of the day we’re still talking about criminal behavior and I think that as a society we’re bending over backwards to give these people a way out without going to jail,”

In DeBerry’s view being pregnant while imperfect is a crime. I guess DeBerry missed the part where Jesus advised, ” let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.

Who benefits from promoting the fiction of ‘fetal personhood’? It does nothing to empower children, who lack the agency to be ‘persons’ politically, but it is an effective tool to disempower women and the people, who love, support and depend on them, including the children they already have. The reality is ‘fetal personhood’ seeks to accomplish similar results as the “3/5 compromise” on the personhood of slaves – facilitate the economic and sexual exploitation of vulnerable women for the political and financial benefit of others.

I end with Jay Smooth of Ill Doctrine discussing yet another tactic by the anti-reproductive rights movement to persuade the public to end women’s access to safe, legal abortions and the full range of reproductive health care. Surprisingly, it’s a tactic we should all get behind as it represents a rare win-win for all.

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On Racism: Black Rebellion and White Resistance

“Racism is like a Cadillac, they bring out a new model every year”…….. Malcolm X

Last Friday marked the 46th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. He was killed on April 4, 1968. Events honoring Dr. King were held in Memphis and other cities around the country, media outlets ran many stories about the days leading up to King’s assassination, his work in Memphis supporting the striking sanitation workers and its relevance to the contemporary debate over a living wage. Notably missing from these recollections of that period in American history are the momentous events that occurred in the days after King’s assassination and the legacy of the national response.

Black America reacted to the murder of Dr. King with unmitigated rage. Within hours of the news, cities around the country were in flames. Blacks were in open rebellion in more than 110 cities with the worst and most prolonged rebellions taking place in Chicago, Kansas City, Louisville, Baltimore and the nation’s capital – Washington, D.C. The rebellion continued for almost a week and came to be known as the “Holy Week Uprising”. Crowds of 20,000 angry residents overwhelmed the District’s 3,100-member police force, leading President Johnson to dispatch some 13,600 federal troops to aid them. Marines mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol and Army troops guarded the White House. At one point, on April 5, the rebellion reached within two blocks of the White House. The occupation of Washington, D.C. was the largest of any American city since the Civil War. Mayor Washington imposed a curfew and banned the sale of alcohol and guns in the city. By the time the rebellion ended on Sunday, April 8, some 1,200 buildings were severely damaged or burned, including over 900 stores.

The immediate cause of the Holy Week Uprising was the killing of MLK, but portents of disaster had been present for years. During the summer of 1964 seven cities – two in New York (NYC and Rochester), three in New Jersey (Patterson, Elizabeth and Jersey City), Philadelphia and the Dixmoor suburb of Chicago – exploded,  setting a pattern for summer rebellions to come. The New York Rebellion of 1964 was the first in a series of devastating race-related uprisings that ripped through American cities between 1964 and 1968. The rebellion began in Harlem after the shooting of fifteen year-old James Powell by a white off-duty police officer. Considering the incident an act of police brutality, eight thousand Harlem residents took to the streets and launched a large-scale rebellion, breaking widows, setting fires and looting local businesses. The eruption of destruction soon spread to the nearby neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant and continued for six days, resulting in the death of one resident, over one hundred injuries, and more than 450 arrests.

As the civil unrest in New York City began to cool, another uprising broke out upstate, in Rochester, New York, a city that prided itself on its affluence and stability. Like the Harlem rebellion the Rochester uprising stemmed from an alleged act of police brutality. For three days, protestors overturned automobiles, burned buildings, and looted stores causing over one million dollars worth of damages. Governor Nelson Rockefeller took the unprecedented step of mobilizing the state’s National Guard. The uprisings of 1964 highlighted the racial injustice and growing civil unrest in northern cities and served as a powerful indicator of the urgent need for social and economic reforms in African-American communities outside of the South.

In August 1965, Los Angeles’s South Central neighborhood of Watts became a scene of the greatest racial tension America had yet seen. Again the triggering event involved a police encounter and allegations of brutality. Over the course of the six-day rebellion, over 14,000 California National Guard troops mobilized and established a curfew zone encompassing over forty-five miles. All told, the rebellion claimed the lives of thirty-four people, resulted in more than one thousand reported injuries, and almost four thousand arrests. Throughout the crisis, public officials advanced the argument that the rebellion was the work of outside agitators; however, an official investigation, prompted by Governor Pat Brown, found that the uprising was a result of the Watts community’s longstanding grievances and growing discontent with high unemployment rates, substandard housing and inadequate schools. Despite the reported findings of the gubernatorial commission, city leaders and state officials failed to carry out measures to improve the social and economic conditions of African-Americans living in the Watts neighborhood.

The upheaval that detonated in Watts stunned the nation – the horrific violence and upheaval shattered one illusion. Rebellion was no longer an East coast phenomena, it was now a dilemma of national proportions. Watts would be the standard-bearer for hundreds of rebellions that followed. For every big city had a black ghetto and every black ghetto had for decades been experiencing the same grievances: hatred and mistrust of police, unending poverty, discrimination, despair, alienation and increasing frustration with white resistance to nonviolent appeals for justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Watts rebellion. His experiences over the next several days reinforced his conviction that he should go north and lead a movement to address the growing problems facing black people in the nation’s urban areas.

In late 1965, King brought his crusade for civil rights to Chicago. He moved his family into a West Side tenement apartment in the 1500 block of South Hamlin. The move grabbed national headlines and illuminated deplorable housing conditions that King called “typical” for blacks in northern cities. King pushed for fair and open housing and used the non-violent strategies of the civil rights movement to try to bring about change. Rallies, boycotts, and grassroots lobbying drove the 17-month campaign, but it was the marches in hostile white territory that forced the city to respond. News cameras captured the depths of racial tension during an open housing march into the all-white neighborhood of Marquette Park. Mobs of angry whites screamed obscenities and hurled rocks, bricks, and bottles toward the protesters. As the marchers walked peacefully, King was struck in the back of the head with a rock, which knocked him to the ground. After recovering, King commented, “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.”  King began to fully appreciate the challenge of promoting nonviolent social action in the face of massive angry white resistance.

Forty-three disorders and rebellions occurred in 1966 – in a twenty-day period during that summer eight cities – Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Jacksonville (Fla), South Bend (Ind), Des Moines and Omaha – were rocked by civil unrest but the worst was yet to come. The 1967 rebellions were so widespread and destructive the nation into a state of shock. Beginning in June in Tampa, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Dayton, the battlefield quickly shifted from one locality to the next, hopscotching from North to South and coast-to-coast. Up to this point most of the disorders had taken place in large cities. Small towns had been immune to the racial turmoil that had convulsed urban centers. In 1967, that all changed as rebellions occurred in scores of towns with populations less than 25,000.

The worst of the ’67 rebellions occurred in Newark and Detroit. The Newark rebellion lasted six long and bloody days in July. When it was over, twenty-six people had been killed, more than 1,500 injured and 1,400 arrested. At its height, the rebellion spread across half of the city’s 23 square miles. The greatest number of deaths occurred in the days after the National Guard was deployed and responding to false claims of snipers, began shooting indiscriminately into occupied public housing developments. Then came Detroit, serving as an unexpected and horrifying climax.

From Sunday, July 23rd to Saturday, July 30th the Motor City was engulfed in violence. Governor Romney called in the National Guard – when they were unable to subdue the rebellion he called President Johnson and requested federal troops. The final figures of destruction in Detroit were terrifying and sobering. Forty-three persons had been killed in the violence, over six hundred injured and more than 5,000 arrested. Fires had destroyed hundreds of homes, leaving more than 5,000 homeless. This report by Detroit station WXYZ-TV provides historical context for the ’67 uprising:

It seemed like the country was coming apart at the seams. In the wake of these devastating events President Johnson appointed a special investigative body to delve into the origins of the civil disorders. The panel was charged to make recommendations to the President, Congress, state governors and mayors for “ways to prevent or contain such disorders in the future.” The panel was headed by Otto Kerner, then Governor of Illinois and became known as the Kerner Commission. The Commission conducted hearings with testimony from hundreds of witnesses on all aspects of the problem. Members visited the eight cities that had experienced major rebellions. Extensive field surveys and investigations were conducted covering studies of 23 representative cities.

The Commission’s report was submitted to President Johnson on March 2, 1968, a full month before Dr. King’s assassination. The Kerner Commission painted a grim picture of the racial situation in the United States. It predicted not only more, but possibly worse, racial rebellions. Americans were warned that continued white racism could lead to a divided nation, with cities under semi-martial law. The prescribed remedy was a national commitment to summon the will necessary to effect systemic change that would fully integrate African-Americans into the mainstream of American life. The most controversial statements in the report were those that concluded white racism was a principal cause of the rebellions. The report maintained:

“White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive situation, which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II. Pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing have resulted in the continuing exclusion of great numbers of Negroes from the benefits of economic progress.” The resulting poverty has led to “bitterness against society in general and white society in particular. What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget–is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

The basic findings and recommendations responded in detail the three questions in the President’s charge:

  • What Happened?
    According to the Commission, the summer rebellions (they called them riots) were not caused by, nor were they the result of, any organized plan or conspiracy. Agitators merely aggravated the discontent by seeking to encourage violence.
    Why did it Happen?
    The rebellions resulted from widespread black discontent with the lack of progress made and improvement in their living conditions and the belief that nonviolent protest had failed to change white indifference.
    What can be done to prevent it from happening again?
    The Commission called on local governments to remedy the situation. The relationship between black communities and the police should be improved. To control future disorders, law enforcement agencies, including National Guard units, should be given special training in riot control. The use of destructive weapons was condemned. The Commission made recommendations for national action. The living conditions of blacks should be improved through massive programs sponsored and paid for largely by the federal government. New tax revenues would most likely be necessary. Remedial action should be immediate, and suggestions were laid out in detail in the major fields of employment, education, welfare and housing.
  • Response and Resistance
    The black response to the Kerner Commission report was primarily positive; people felt it said what needed to be said in clear, unequivocal language. The Commission’s recommendations were consistent with the reforms Dr. King and civil rights leaders had advocated for years. Implementation would facilitate a giant leap forward towards tangible racial progress. Unfortunately, white America, wasn’t ready to hear it. President Johnson’s response was exceedingly cool. He’d expected the report to confirm his suspicions black radicals and political agitators had instigated the rebellions. He didn’t want to hear that his ‘war on poverty’ had failed to satisfy black demands for equal opportunity and political power. He was angry with King for opposing him on the Vietnam War, although he privately bemoaned the fact it was undermining his ability to fight the war on poverty. Johnson refused to formally receive the Kerner Commission report and completely ignored it’s impact. When he belatedly mentioned it, while acknowledging its thoroughness, he expressed his disappointment that it failed to mention the civil rights and poverty reduction efforts of his administration.

    Placing the guilt for the situation on white racism was difficult for the most whites to accept. Many public officials criticized the ‘guilt’ charge as a tactical error. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey (a lifelong liberal) spoke for many whites when he expressed his feeling that the report “overstressed the racism angle”. Richard Nixon, then a presidential candidate, remarked that the report “in effect blames everybody for the riots except the perpetrators.” He took a firm tone saying, “he was sympathetic with Negro problems. We will go forward with their programs but there will be no toleration of violence. There can be no protests that justify the use of violence or lawlessness.” Nixon ran on the campaign theme of restoring law and order, voicing views that deftly combined repression with reform – white America embraced that message awarding him the White House. As President, Nixon gravitated towards the views of his conservative advisers like Pat Buchanan who endorsed increased use of police squadrons to control black communities; derided Great Society programs to improve conditions in urban slums and offered individual initiative as the solution to poverty.

    Exactly one year after the Kerner Commission’s report, a follow-up study was released entitled, One Year Later, assessing the nation’s response to the Kerner report. The discouraging conclusion was that “the nation’s response has been perilously inadequate. The nation has merely come one year closer to being ‘two societies, one black and one white, separate and unequal.’” More ominously, the report found in many cities white attitudes had hardened. Cities that experienced major rebellions tended to show some efforts at change, particularly with respect to policing practices but also showed an increase in racial polarization. Medium-sized or small disturbances in cities with racially conservative policies tended to result in increased polarization and no change or even a worsening of conditions for blacks as existing repressive attitudes simply hardened. Most cities made few attempts to rebuild sections that had been destroyed by the rebellions. It would take decades for inner-city neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Chicago to recover. Some, like Detroit still haven’t. I close with the prescient prediction of the Kerner Report about the future of American cities:

    By 1985, the Negro population in central cities is expected to increase by 72 percent to about 20.8 million. Coupled with the continued exodus of white families to the suburbs, this growth will produce majority Negro populations in many of the nation’s largest cities. The future of these cities, and of their burgeoning Negro populations, is grim. Most new employment opportunities are being created in suburbs and outlying areas. This trend will continue unless important changes in public policy are made. In prospect, therefore, is further deterioration of already inadequate municipal tax bases in the face of increasing demands for public services, and continuing unemployment and poverty among the urban Negro population:

    Three choices are open to the nation:
    * We can maintain present policies, continuing both the proportion of the nation’s resources now allocated to programs for the unemployed and the disadvantaged, and the inadequate and failing effort to achieve an integrated society.
    * We can adopt a policy of “enrichment” aimed at improving dramatically the quality of ghetto life while abandoning integration as a goal.
    * We can pursue integration by combining ghetto “enrichment” with policies, which will encourage Negro movement out of central city areas.

    The first choice, continuance of present policies, has ominous consequences for our society. The share of the nation’s resources now allocated to programs for the disadvantaged is insufficient to arrest the deterioration of life in central city ghettos. Under such conditions, a rising proportion of Negroes may come to see in the deprivation and segregation they experience, a justification for violent protest, or for extending support to now isolated extremists who advocate civil disruption. Large-scale and continuing violence could result, followed by white retaliation, and, ultimately, the separation of the two communities in a garrison state.

    Even if violence does not occur, the consequences are unacceptable. Development of a racially integrated society, extraordinarily difficult today, will be virtually impossible when the present black ghetto population of 12.5 million has grown to almost 21 million. To continue present policies is to make permanent the division of our country into two societies; one, largely Negro and poor, located in the central cities; the other, predominantly white and affluent, located in the suburbs and in outlying areas.

    The true impact of our nation’s failure to act on the Kerner Commission recommendations were on full display in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The failure to consider the plight of those too poor to leave the city and to adequately prepare for their needs in an emergency resulted in scenes of misery and distress associated more with developing countries than the most affluent democracy in the world.

    It’s 2014, what reflection of America, do you see – Dr. King’s or Richard Nixon’s?

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    On Privilege, Projection and Pathology: A recent debate between Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates reveals the misconceptions that rule America’s understanding of race and poverty

    There’s been a fascinating debate over the past few weeks between Ta-Nehisi Coates from The Atlantic and New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait about the language President Obama employs in addressing African-American communities. Obama’s been criticized by Coates and other supporters for using rhetoric that reinforces the belief shared by many on the right, that personal initiative and hard work is enough to overcome the obstacles confronting many young black men despite the continued existence of institutional racism in education, employment, health care, criminal justice and civic participation (just to name a few). Chait replied with, “I agree that racial discrimination persists, but I don’t believe this fact abnegates the possibility that a culture of poverty exists as well.” Chait believes President Obama is uniquely suited to speak to black people about changing self-destructive behavior:

    But Coates is committing a fallacy by assuming that Obama’s exhortations to the black community amount to a belief that personal responsibility accounts for a major share of the blame. A person worries about the things that he can control. ….Obama’s habit of speaking about this issue primarily to black audiences is Obama seizing upon his role as the most famous and admired African-American in the world to urge positive habits and behavior.

    In the most recent volley of exchanges on this particular question, Chait takes Coates to task for ascribing views to him that he does not hold. The column is cleverly titled: Ta-Nehisi Coates Disagrees With ‘Jonathan Chait,’ and So Do I. In it, Chait states clearly he does not equate black culture with a ‘culture of poverty’ as do Bill O’Reilly and many on the right, but he does see a link between persistent poverty and culture.

    So let me explain what I do think. The culture of poverty is not solely or even primarily a black problem. It is a problem arising from concentrated poverty, and — as a result of both historic and ongoing racism — concentrated poverty disproportionately afflicts African-American communities. Obama understands that he commands prestige that can make him an inspirational figure in say, poor black neighborhoods in Chicago that he lacks in, say, poor white towns in West Virginia. As I’ve said, I understand Coates’ practical objections to this tactic.

    The reaction I’ve seen online to this debate suggests a lot of readers on both sides investing a great deal of broader meanings into it — identity, authenticity, yet another endless iteration of the meta question of How We Talk About Race. I have no interest in playing a role in that drama. What interests me is a real and vital public-policy debate over the relationship between culture and poverty.

    In Chait’s view understanding the relationship between culture and poverty is essential to developing effective anti-poverty programs. He seems to view Mr. Coates negation of this relationship as an example of aggressive misreading of his intentions and that of other white liberals rooted in racial hostility. Ultimately, he complains Coates negates the steady progress of U.S. race relations and the steady improvement in conditions and circumstances for the majority of African-Americans.

    Coates and I disagree about racial progress in America. Coates sees the Americas’ racial history as a story of continuity of white supremacy. I see the sequence (I’d call it a progression, but that term would load the argument in my favor) that began with chattel slavery and has led to the Obama administration as a story of halting, painful, non-continuous, but clear improvement. Coates associates himself with a quote from Malcolm X: “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches, and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.”

    The analogy defines out of existence the very possibility of steady progress. People who subscribe to this way of thinking won’t agree with measures that reduce but fail to eliminate racial discrimination, or those that reduce but fail to eliminate poverty, or reduce but fail to eliminate medical deprivation.

    Chait is right about one thing – this is an ongoing and somewhat circular debate of limited utility, at least within the present frame. There are valid arguments to be made that persistent poverty leads to persistent deficits that impact health, well-being and lifestyle in ways that can continue across generations, yet the percentage of poor people who generally fall into this category is fairly small. The majority of those classified as poor in the U.S. are people who work but don’t make enough money to support themselves or their children, or they are people who have worked in the past but now find themselves permanently excluded from the workforce. The oft-cited statistic of female-headed households living in poverty – 31% – is as much a result of the economic disadvantage women still face in the workforce and lack of affordable childcare as it is a reflection of their poor life choices. The “culture of poverty” can’t be used to explain why 25% of Hispanics are living in poverty, despite exhibiting the work ethic and family cohesion associated by whites with ‘middle-class’ success. And yet conservatives and liberals alike continue to focus on the subset of people who are the ‘persistently poor’ as representative of the whole.

    So who are these people? Contrary to Paul Ryan’s admittedly inarticulate assertion, the locus of persistent poverty is not in our ‘inner cities’. The large majority – 85.3% of persistent-poverty counties are non metropolitan. Persistent poverty also demonstrates a strong regional pattern, with nearly 84% of persistent-poverty counties in the South, comprising more than one-fifth of all counties in the region. Whether black, white or indigenous, the majority of poor Americans live in rural communities away from large cities. Most live in the southern region, in states whose leaders are committed to cutting assistance for the poor, keeping wages low, denying access to health care and empowering corporate extraction of natural resources. These facts are not new; they are consistent with trends that have endured for well over a century.

    I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Conservatives and liberals alike prefer to focus on perceived deficits in black and brown people than on structural racism and the concepts of white supremacy that undergird it as the principal reasons for disparate conditions and outcomes for many blacks and Hispanics. White privilege means not having to think about the many ways the lives of those who are classified as white are enhanced and protected by the subjugation and exclusion of racial minorities. White privilege provides white ethnics escape from the stigma of poverty – as historian Nell Irvin Painter aptly distinguishes, “Not all black people are poor, but among the people in America defined by race, black people tend to be the poorest.”

    Similarly, the link between poverty and criminality is dubious at best. The vast majority of poor people do not engage in criminal activity despite our tendency to label more and more things crimes. Lack of opportunity breeds disillusionment, which leads to disorder, a conclusion reached more than four decades ago by the Kerner Commission charged with investigating the causes of urban rebellions in the summer of 1967:

    Although Negro men worked as hard as the immigrants, they were unable to support their families. The entrepreneurial opportunities had vanished. As a result of slavery and long periods of unemployment, the Negro family structure had become matriarchal; the males played a secondary and marginal family role–one which offered little compensation for their hard and unrewarding labor. Above all, segregation denied Negroes access to good jobs and the opportunity to leave the ghetto. For them, the future seemed to lead only to a dead end.

    Today, whites tend to exaggerate how well and quickly they escaped from poverty. The fact is that immigrants who came from rural backgrounds, as many Negroes do, are only now, after three generations, finally beginning to move into the middle class.

    By contrast, Negroes began concentrating in the city less than two generations ago, and under much less favorable conditions. Although some Negroes have escaped poverty, few have been able to escape the urban ghetto. Pervasive unemployment and underemployment are the most persistent and serious grievances in minority areas. They are inextricably linked to the problem of civil disorder.

    What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget–is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.

    Therein lies the essential dilemma beneath this debate – what should be the focus of attention and reform efforts – changing the behavior of people trapped in cycles of poverty and marginalization; or changing the economic, social and political institutions that sustain the racial and economic status quo? The bootstrap approach advocated by President Obama and majority of the elite community seems to accept the intractable nature of white privilege and keeps the burden on poor communities of color to continuing absorbing the harms of institutional racism while white Americans continue the slow work of transforming their racial attitudes.

    What Chait’s liberal analysis of American racism fails to acknowledge is racism was created to achieve an economic purpose. Anglo-Americans didn’t start as racists, they became racists in order to justify their chosen economic system, which relied on the exploitation of enslaved black labor. The principal motive for racism was and still is, PROFIT.

    One of the many things that infuriates black people, at least it does me is the obliviousness of white Americans to the ways they project onto black people the pathological and violent behavior they have engaged in and seem to have collectively whitewashed from their memories. In the almost 400 years that African people have been in this country we’ve been subjected to continuous murder, rape, brutality, dehumanization and mob terror at the hands of whites (lynching ended a century ago only to be replaced by extra-judicial police killings) and yet the contemporary narrative is that whites are justified in their fear of blacks, especially black men. SERIOUSLY!!?? Modern policing is based on this premise – one that whites rarely question and have trouble understanding as a source of black rage.

    On the subject of pathology – there is a huge disparity between what white America did and what it remembers it did. Here’s a quick refresher that we can’t forget and you must remember………..

    I don’t know any instances in American history where thousands of black people gathered to watch the ritualistic killing of a white person as spectator sport.

    Lest you say, those are isolated events from the past, the majority of white people are not like that anymore, I call your attention to a recent report demonstrating a substantial gap in support for the death penalty, with whites much more in favor than blacks or Hispanics. According to a recent Pew Research poll overall support for the death penalty is 55%. Among whites, however, support for the death penalty jumps to 63%, compared to 40% for Hispanics and 36% for blacks. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie argues persuasively that white support for the death penalty is rooted in its history as a tool for whites to control and protect themselves from blacks. He connects the past to the present with the results of another recent study:

    In 2007, two researchers tried to gauge racial differences on capital punishment and assess how blacks and whites responded to arguments against the practice. Their core findings with black Americans weren’t a surprise—in general, blacks were receptive to any argument against the death penalty.

    Their findings with whites, on the other hand, were disturbing. Not only were whites immune to persuasion on the death penalty, but when researchers told them of the racial disparity—that blacks faced unfair treatment—many increased their support.

    White privilege permits people to ignore the reflection of their own pathologies in others……

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