Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween!

May your day be fun and wonderful and spooky and all that, and may you not run into any of these horrible abominations posing as legitimate candy.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

You Learn Something New Every Day

Yesterday I had two guest speakers from the WV Innocence Project come to class to talk about the work they do. For those not in the know, the Innocence Project is essentially a loosely-connected group of lawyers and legal advocates who review the cases of and advocate for factually-innocent prisoners. This bit of tortured language, factually innocent, is necessary because the only people the Innocence Project represents are people who they can indeed prove are innocent of the crime for which they're incarcerated. This makes their work, which often consists of a very long struggle to get the innocent person released, demonstrates a great deal about the problems with our criminal justice system. I find that students tend to take them more seriously, as they (like a lot of Americans) dismiss the idea of people being denied their constitutional rights during an investigation or trial as an actually meaningful defense (which has always confused me, because why have a constitution if we decide it's protections are really just cumbersome "technicalities?"). But no such argument here, as the people in question are empirically innocent (the vast majority proven so by DNA testing).

Although I'm pretty familiar with the work of the Innocence Project, I haven't devotedly followed their publications, and as such learned quite a bit from those two guests. But the most surprising to me was that of the 321 people exonerated by the Innocence Project, over half of them were originally convicted due to faulty conclusions drawn from forensic science.

Even more surprising was learning that of all the various forms of forensic analysis (hair analysis, fingerprints, bite marks, firearms analysis, tread and sole marks, etc.), pretty much the only valid and reliable one is DNA analysis. According to a massive study from the National Academy of Sciences, all other forms of not only lack any sort of national or conventional standards or training, but have also never been proven to be scientifically valid.

While the report goes into great detail about the relative validity of various forensics techniques, the general conclusion is that they're less on the level of DNA testing (pretty reliable) but instead much closer to the level of the polygraph (that is, may help aid an investigation, but nowhere near reliable and valid enough to rely on for a conviction).

As the fine folks from the WVIP did a good job explaining, these problems don't necessarily come from willful ignorance or intentional misconduct, but instead from the fact that our scientific understanding of most of these forms of investigation is still very much in its infancy. That, and we place a great deal of emphasis on precedent at pretty much every level of our cjs, and this is just always the way we've done things. Of course, the fact that it's no one's fault is small comfort to the wrongly convicted.

This adds yet another layer to my long-gestating argument that television police, courtroom, and prison dramas are not only terrible tv, but are actually harmful, as they present a world so unlike ours yet clearly many people believe them to be only slight exaggerations of reality, if at all. On tv, the plucky forensic scientist/detective/swimwear model can find a single hair and unravel an entire case. In reality, we can be fooled into thinking dog hair is evidence a human committed a crime...

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Reverse Whitewashing?

In America, like most places, we love to whitewash away the many sins of our nation. Of course, ironically, this often means actually inserting more people of color into our memories. I thought about yesterday whilst watching one of those damn Cliff Paul commercials for the umpteenth time:



Of course this is all silly make believe, but in 1922, the fictitious Cliff Paul's grandfather and the real Chris Paul's grandfather would not have had a store next to a white business or played on an integrated basketball team. There were incredibly few Black-owned businesses at the time, and they sure as hell were segregated into neighborhoods far away from white insurance agencies.

But that whole Jim Crow thing? You know, when there were specific laws which only applied to Black people? You know, the system of laws in which minor theft committed by Black people was treated as a far more significant crime than murder committed by white people? You know, the system which spawned the convict lease program, which was reserved almost exclusively for Black people, and was quite literally worse than slavery?

Yeah, according to State Farm, that didn't exist. Nope, in 1922 America was apparently a racially-inclusive Eden where everyone got along and there weren't, say, concerted lynchings campaigns specifically to terrorize the Black community.

Obviously, though, this belief that racism was never that bad and, besides, ended like a long time ago so it doesn't matter has much weightier implications than shitty insurance commercials. Take this segment from last night's Daily Show:



Obviously I didn't expect O'Reilly to ever admit the existence of white privilege, but look at the amazing rhetorical gymnastics he performs to deny it. It's the kind of thing that would be hilarious were it not for the horrible consequences this kind of view creates in real life.

By far the funniest/saddest bit is that O'Reilly grew up in Levittown. For those unfamiliar, Levittown was built almost exclusively by the GI bill, the largest redistribution of wealth in the history of our nation and a program which has been long viewed as in a major part responsible for the creation of the American middle class. The GI bill is the biggest government "handout," as O'Reilly would say, ever given to the American people. It allowed a generation to buy homes, which in America tend to be the only major asset people own and the principle way in which they gain wealth.

But guess who Levittown and the GI Bill were legally closed to? That's right, anyone but white people. What's so hilarious is that O'Reilly tries the standard racist tack of claiming race mattered once, but that was soooooo loooooong ago, Go what can't you just shut up about it?

Except it wasn't so long ago. It was during his lifetime. It's the reason why his working-class parents were able to send him to college and why so many Black working-class parents of his generation were unable to sen their kid to college. Because the means of advancement in our society were quite literally only open to white people, something I know O'Reilly actually knows, because he grew up smack dab in the middle of it.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Inaugural Flu of the Fall

Gross. I've written many times in this space about how annoying it is to be sick once it stops meaning staying home from school to watch cartoons all day, but I go through the same pouty realization of this every time anyway.

Right now I'm working on one of those really annoying colds wherein my throat hurts terribly but nothing else really seem wrong. But the damn throat hurts so much it makes it nigh impossible to concentrate on anything, despite constant doses of dayquil and cough drops.

But on the plus side, this year's baseball playoffs feature one of the most lovably plucky teams you'll ever see in the Kansas City Royals. Of all teams, only my beloved Twins having this run would even come close to how exciting it is. I was going to write much more about this, but again, sick and all, so go read Will Leitch musing on how improbable a KC-Baltimore ALCS is.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Context is Everything!

There's a kind of running joke in my field that the sociologist's correct answer to everything is summed up as "well, it depends on the context." Hell, the American Sociological Association even publishes a journal titled Contexts. But like many cliches, it persists because it's basically true; no action happens in a vacuum, and the social reality surrounding any event can dramatically shape how even the same activity is coed and received (simple example: think of the reaction to a Black person using that most pernicious of racial slurs compared to a white person using the exact same word).

Few things are more infuriating to a sociologist than when people completely ignore any concern of context to announce what should be done by some other person, or what they would do were they in that person's shoes. To take one especially egregious example, lets look to that graveyard of irony, Forbes, and an editorial they published a few years back entitled "If I Were A Poor Black Kid." It's such a picture perfect example of the specious reasoning employed in the great SMBC comic depicted here.

To save you a reading of the article, it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect: well-to-do white guy explains to poor people of color how despite the institutionalized racism and classism they face every day, it's really quite a simple fix. But the conceptual problems of this guy's tone deaf writings are the two-fold assumptions that if he were a poor Black kid he would somehow have the knowledge and experience of a middle-aged, middle-class white guy AND that people would treat him with the deference and respect our society reserves for middle-aged, middle-class white guys.

To pick just one idiotic example, he exhorts these youngsters (who I'm sure are just eagerly reading Forbes every issue) that they should invest in their education, but take advantage of free education resources, such as Google Scholar. But this assumes someone is teaching poor Black kids what google scholar and these other free education resources are in the first place. This is not something that is intrinsic knowledge, this is something that has to be taught. Hell, I have grad students who aren't aware of the existence of Google Scholar. And yet he's somehow assuming that the crumbling schools serving our nation's poor Black youth are spending a great deal of time teaching them about academic research search engines.

He goes on to lecture these hypothetical kids about financial literacy, which is even more tone-deaf than lecturing them about various research software. Because again, financial literacy is not innate knowledge; at some point, it has to be taught to you. Most schools do not teach meaningful financial literacy, which means it's obviously up to other sources. But what if you don't have any of these other sources in your life? Instead, he's acting exactly as the old man in the comic is -- assuming he just magically knew this stuff as a kid and the reason the hypothetical kids he's lecturing don't know this is because they either weren't paying attention or refused to heed his lessons. Not that, you know, they've simply never been taught this stuff.

Of course, none of this is to mention that all the financial literacy in the world wouldn't do these kids much good without his standing as a middle-aged, middle-class white guy to employ them. Because to assume it's that simple is to ignore the wealth of evidence showing employers are less likely to hire Black people, lenders routinely push Black applicants into worse loan rates, realtors refuse to show Black clients houses in many neighborhoods, police are far more likely to arrest Black people for the same crimes as white people...basically, the entirety of our knowledge about how racism operates in contemporary America.

In essence, this is just a greatly distilled version of white privilege, which is ultimately the ability to ignore context and assume the rules that govern your life apply to all. Which, as the comic so deftly announces, is probably the bitterest pill of them all.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

When Profit ExcusesEverything

Long break between posts, sorry about that. Beginning of the semester and whatnot. As a bit of warning, I spilled a beer on my keyboard, and now my D key often doesn't work. I've spellchecked as thoroughly as I can, but it gets tiring, so that's my excuse for missing Ds in this post (and all future posts until I break down and buy a new keyboard).

Anyway, unless you've been living under a rock, you know that Adrian Peterson (a/k/a Purple Jesus, though I think we'll be resigning that nickname fairly soon) has been indicted on charges stemming from beating one of his sons with a switch. First the Vikings suspended him for a game, then reinstated him, then suspended him infinitely after hotel chain Radisson pulled its sponsorship from the Vikes.

It's that last part that I've been ruminating on the past several days. Much as Ray Rice was not infinitely suspended until the video of his crime became public, AP was not in any danger of missing much more playing time until sponsors began to get uncomfortable. In a wider parallel, the NFL is seriously working on some issues now that Anheuser-Busch, the NFL's biggest marking partner, has indicated it ain't too happy with what's been going on. Most interestingly, A-B didn't threaten to pull funding or rescind their partnership, just pointed out a lot more needs to be done. As opposed to their tone-deaf replies to an angered public, the NFL responded publicly to A-B within the hour.

This is both a heartening and entirely dispiriting development. On the one hand, as many have pointed out, the NFL was never going to make any real changes until sponsors started leaving. So in that sense, this is a positive development, as it may actually lead the NFL to making some real changes. But on the other hand, why is it that gigantic public outcry (as well as what is obviously morally right) have no effect at all? It's quite disappointing that one milquetoast public statement from an international beverage conglomerate has exponentially more effect than the outrage of thousands (millions?) of citizens. Not surprising, but disappointing nonetheless.

It reminded me especially of this interesting think piece by Albert Burneko, explaining why the owner of the Atlanta Hawks super racist email was indeed super racist. It's well worth a read, but the tl;dr version is that his plan was to court the theoretical higher spending of white bigots by actively discouraging the current real spending of Black people on his team and at his arena. As Burneko points out, it's pretty much the definition of racism to view the actual spending of Black people as literally worth less than the hypothetical spending of hypothetical white people.

Most depressing about the piece, though, is that the comments section is filled to the brim with people saying some variation of "well, white people do have more money in America. It's not racist to go after them to the exclusion of Black people, it's just smart business." But as Burneko himself pointed out in the article (again, well worth a read), something can be both good business and racist at the same time, with the fact that it may be good business (though he also does a great job of explicating why it is not good business in this case), that doesn't make it any less racist.

But clearly to many, the fact that you may make more money by catering to bigots is completely fine, because after all, it might make you more money. No matter how cynical I get about the nature of capitalism, this line of thinking never ceases to amaze and astound me. Something that is as unequivocally racist as "we need less Black people allowed to spend none on our business" is wiped away as just smart business. The magic of American business worship is that as soon as something is justified as good for business, it automatically can not be wrong.

As I often ask my students when we're discussing white collar crime, though -- why can't businesses produce and sell crack? After all, it's highly profitable, has a wide-spread and readily available market, pre-existing distribution network, etc. Eventually the students settle on it not being allowed because crack is bad both for the individual and the community. So I use that opportunity to point out we're obviously willing to draw some lines around business practices and proclaim them a step too far.

So why does racism not rise to the level of business practice we're willing to condemn? Simply put, because most white Americans don't see racism as a problem. So it's much easier to hide behind the mantle of "it's just good business!" because it's not really about the business, it's about not caring about racism. People are genuinely afraid of the dangers of crack, so even Good Business™is not an excuse for it. But something as piddling as racism? Well, we're not going to let that get in the way of making money!

The process is exactly the same as how the Vikings handled Peterson's case. After quickly reinstating him, their best player, their excuse was that they needed to let due process work itself out. Which, on its face, is a reasonable decision. Except for the fact that in that past 2 years, the have cut three people for being charged with, not prosecuted of, various crimes of a similar level offense as Peterson. The difference, of course, is that AP is one of the all-time greats and those guys were replaceable cogs. So much like "good business,"due process is simply being used a smoke screen for the actual attitude of "sure, he may beat the shit out of his kids, but have you seen him make a cut in the open field?!?"

Again, not surprising, but disappointing nonetheless. But hey, at least we've gotten to a point in society in which viciously beating your partner and/or small child is becoming something that is not good business, so we may actually start doing something about it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Why "Black-on-Black" Crime is Irrelevant (To Mike Brown's death, and pretty much everything else) and Why Black Lives Matter

Anyone who has paid even the slightest bit of attention to the murder of Mike Brown and subsequent mass demonstrations for justice has undoubtedly heard by now, most Black murder victims were killed by a Black person. This is undisputedly true. You know what else is true? Most white murder victims were killed by white people (and yet during the OJ trial, I don't remember leaders of the white community speaking out against white-on-white crime; why is it they only care about dead white people when they can blame Black people, to paraphrase the entire Fox News network). You see crime, like nearly everything else in American society, is incredibly segregated. In general, Black people rob Black people, white people rob white people, etc.

Obviously the fact the Black people have killed Black people before has nothing at all to do with the murder of Mike Brown. As Jon Stewart so aptly notes, to bring it up means to not only ignore the fact that plenty of Black people do care about, and are doing plenty to combat. Black-on-Black crime (just because you don't bother to look for something doesn't mean it doesn't exist), it also means you can't see the difference between someone being murdered by a gang member and someone being murdered by a uniformed law enforcement officer who has sworn to protect the citizens of their town. Now, gangs and police forces actually share quite a few similarities in both organization and culture, but I think it's pretty uncontroversial to suggest that police should probably be held to a bit higher standard than gang members.

But arguing all the specific points of why shouting "Black-on-Black crime also exists!" every time a white supremacist murders a Black child is pointless; I have a hard time believing the people making that argument actually think it's a realistic rebuttal to such stark evidence of institutional racism. Instead it's just a classic derailing tactic designed to push the conversation to all those horrible things Black people have done, conveniently leaving behind the murder of an innocent Black child by someone who has yet to be arrested or even investigated for their blatant crime.

Ultimately bringing up Black-on-Black Crime™ simply reveals how profoundly racist the person mentioning it is. Not just for the reason explicated above (and much more eloquently by thousands of of other outlets), but because it's essential premise is "There's another dead Black kid. Who gives a shit who killed them? They're all violent criminals who are going to die young anyway." Because the only reason completely unrelated murders become relevant to the case of Mike Brown (or Eric Gardner, or Amadou Diallo, or Sean Bell, or Trayvon Martin, or the hundreds of others) is if you think Black lives have no value, so the specific cause of their death is a pointless concern.

If you doubt me, spend a few minutes researching the media's response to literally any non-Black murder victim. Simply put, you will never find an article wondering why white people don't spend more time worrying about white-on-white violence, why gay people don't spend more time worrying about gay-on-gay violence, while women don't spend more time worrying about women-on-women violence, etc. (Obviously Black people can be gay and/or women as well, but in the question of whether a murder victim deserves any sympathy, Blackness seems to trump all else).

Why don't we ever find these things? Well, it could potentially be many reasons. But if the aftermath of Mike Brown's murder (and so many others like it) has taught us anything, it's that these non-Black lives have value to us. It's that we as a nation assume Black people had it coming, whether for something they did at that moment or something they did years earlier. And the only reason to feel that way would be because you feel Black lives have no value. After all, there may be a reason why this has become one of the central rallying slogans in the wake of Brown's murder: