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.