Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What Does Burning Down a CVS Have To Do With Racial Injustice?

This was quite literally a question I was asked recently when trying to put some context to some very racist statements about what's happening in Baltimore right now in the wake of the murder of Freddy Gray (and let's not mince words here: Gray's death, regardless of the outcome of the investigation being conducted by the very people responsible for his death, is murder. He entered the police van with an intact spine and exited with a severed spine, due solely to the intentional actions of the officers involved. That is murder, no ifs, ands, or buts).

While the person who actually asked it was being facetious, not actually wanting an answer and thinking they had stumbled onto some sort of incredibly witty rejoinder, I want to actually answer that question.

For one, as this great Al Jazeera piece from last year points out, riots have actually been extremely effective in creating social change throughout American history. Or as many pointed out in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown, the world probably would have known nothing about Brown's death had the community not poured into the streets demanding justice. One could pretty easily make the same argument that Gray would just be another statistic in our ever-expanding list of citizens killed at the hands of police were it not for the good people of Baltimore loudly proclaiming they've finally had enough.

But what the titular question of this post most often refers to (at least in my experience) is that the employment of violence and property damage will result in bad optics; that is, the great white American public hive mind will be turned off from what is otherwise a legitimate cause because of the actions of a few (if you've read anything about Grey that hasn't invoked this argument, you're doing a very good job seeking out a very particular kind of media source).

Beside the obvious fact that that it's pretty fucked up for one to be more upset over a CVS being on fire than one is about a person begin murdered by the very forces that are supposed to protect them, the optics argument is at best incredibly over-optimistic, but more likely disingenuous. Because the very premise of the argument is quite easily proven false; the only way you can argue violence and property damage may damage the chance at achieving some measure of justice is if you assume white America was primed and waiting to fully tackle our nation's vast and entrenched racial injustices. But now they're changing their minds because of the unrest in Baltimore. But if not for that unrest! Oh, if only the CVS hadn't been torched, then the majority of white Americans would have been pouring into the streets, demanding change and not settling for milquetoast reforms. If only! But alas, because of some minor violence, all good people must simply turn up their noses at what's going on and ignore the underlying issue. There's no other choice!

In case my dickish sarcasm hasn't made the point clear enough, the assumption underlying the optics argument is demonstrably (and frankly, laughably) false. In fact, it's pretty easy to view the history of police violence as a natural experiment: we as a nation are certainly not short on instances of unarmed Black people murdered by police. And in the vast majority of those instances, there are no resulting riots, violence, or property damage. Yet somehow, even without these damaging optics, there haven't been widespread demands from white America for tearing down the edifice of racial injustice. Why, it's almost as if the presence of violence and property damage doesn't cause people to not call for changes but instead gives people an excuse to justify their racist views!

To steal a great quote I saw on the face books this morning (attributed to a Dr. Kevin Browne, though a quick google search tells me there's a lot of people with that name and I don't know which one it said it): "When police departments protect white property BETTER than they protect Black people, they're actually punishing us for NOT wanting to be white property. 'How dare you not want to owned by us?' 'How dare you think yourselves more valuable than things?' 'Look how well we protect our things.'"
And as I've noted previously, what other choice is there? How are you supposed to calmly and politely ask for some form of justice when the people murdering you are literally subject to a different set of laws than everyone else? A set of laws that result in the murderers not only not being prosecuted, but rarely even losing their jobs. Let me throw out an obviously loaded hypothetical question of my own: how does asking a murderer to politely stop murdering accomplish anything? Especially when the murderer is legally protected from prosecution for their murders?

But the bigger point of all of this is to ask where are these people calling for calm and nonviolence when the police are routinely beating and murdering innocent citizens? Why are they only concerned with calm and order the second it's Black people who are causing damage (damage which pales in comparison to the actions of the police)? As the incomparable Ta-Nehisi Coates argues:
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the rioters themselves.
So what does burning down a CVS have to do with racial injustice? Seems like quite a bit from where I'm sitting.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

I Apparently No Longer Look Like Chelsea Clinton

Followers of this blog will probably remember the time I stumbled across this batshit crazy blog that was using a picture of me thinking it was a picture of Chelsea Clinton. Since then, I occasionally check back in on said blog to see if I'm still repping as the younger Clinton, and occasionally to read the hilarious screeds that populate it (seriously, it will bruise your brain to try to figure out what's going on there, but it's kinda fun at the same time).

Well, sure enough, wouldn't you know I'm once again featured in this person's indecipherably weird fever dreams. Once again, the me-as-Chelsea photo is used, but this time I'm apparently not the former first daughter. Now I've graduated to my actual name, but am now credited as being the son of Steve Wozniak (note: I am not the son of Steve Wozniak. Although I am a loyal Apple user, so…you know, pretty close). This is actually a bit of confusion that makes some sense; unlike Chelsea Clinton (who both spells and pronounces her name differently, and I would like to add again, looks nothing like me), the Woz's kid and I have the same name (I think. Google is pretty inconclusive on this one right now, but I believe I learned that factoid sometime previously).

But the funniest thing about this post is that it manages to use a different (even less unflattering) photo of me, claiming me to be the son of Woz. Funny enough, it's used directly next to a photo of Woz's actual kid, and other than the fact that we're both white dudes, we don't seem to look anything alike. But you can judge for yourself:

So now this crazy person has not one, but two, separate photos of me, attributed to being two separate people, neither of whom are actually me. And I've got admit, I'm more than a little creeped out. Does this person know something I don't? Am I actually both the only daughter of a former president and the eldest son of a computer magnate? Am I actually leading two secret double lives that even I don't know about? Am I really living in an incredibly weird and mostly boring episode of The Twighlight Zone? Can wealth be transferred between these various realities? Because I'm pretty sure both of those people have more money than this Jesse Wozniak will ever have in his life.

If nothing else, I hope someday someone else is googling me for some reason, and they slowly go insane trying to piece together how I manage to be so many people doing so many different things at once...

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Penis Phrenology and Darren Sharper

Right on the heels of my previous post on the technofallacy of the criminal justice system comes a story of our justice system relying on an even less reliable form of technology: Plethysmography, or as it should probably be known, penis phrenology.

While plethysmography is something so obviously insane it should have gone out of type years ago (or never been introduced in the first place), it's in the news in connection with the plea deal agreed to by Darren Sharper, the former NFL player who was on trial in four separate states for a years-long string of drugging and raping multiple people.

The entire concept of plethysmography is explained in great detail in this article, but for the most part it's a combination of old school phrenology and a blood pressure machine. But that goes on your penis. Phrenology, of course, was the "scientific" study of human behavior which held we could understand someone's thoughts, motivations, and life course by examining the shape of their head. Here's a handy chart if you'd like to check yourself:

I think phrenology is dumb, but then I have the brainpan of a stagecoach tilter, so what do I know?

Plethysmography is a combination of what is basically modern phrenology (using this technology we can tell what you're sexually excited by, which we then assume to tell us something about your deep-seated desires) combined with Clockwork Orange-style attempts at re-wiring someone's thoughts and desires (in fact, the method was first used to "cure" homosexuality). But lest you think it not scientific, look at how complex this chart is. Surely science is going on here!

Pictured: Science!…probably
Thankfully plethysmography of this kind if not commonly employed, but the fact that it's employed anywhere is a horrible indictment of our collective barbarity. Hopefully it won't be long before it goes the way of the polygraph before it, kicked out of the courtroom for its completely unscientific and unreliable nature, but for now, if convicted of a crime in the right state, you too could find yourself being forced to watch violent child pornography while electrodes attached to a penis monitor shock you. In the year 2015.

It's funny -- as someone who researches our criminal justice system for a living, I often feel like I've seen so many horrible things, things which have no business in the dark ages yet somehow persist in current day America, that I feel like nothing can surprise or disgust me anymore. And yet somehow I keep getting proven depressingly wrong about that...

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Problem With Body Cams

My undergrad advisor and good friend Kent Sandstrom had a mantra which pretty perfectly encapsulates all of sociology: social problems require social solutions.

This simple phrase gets at the heart of why things like "sensitivity training" or "intercultural communication training" or all the other various effects to combat institutional racism in the workplace have typically failed -- because they treat a social problem (systemic racism) as an individual problem (people as discrete units either being racist or not). In fact, this phrase more-or-less argues that no such program will ever make a meaningful difference, as they will leave untouched the social foundations of racism, causing it to simply adapt to new parameters (witness the rise of "colorblind" racism).

Unfortunately, the calls for the use of body cams by police officers falls into this same trap of attempting to solve a social/institutional matter by treating it as an individual failing. And sure, in a very technical sense, racial disparities in our criminal justice system are initiated by individuals, but the notion that the rampant murder of Black Americans at the hands of the police is just a coincidental result of selected bad apples acting improperly is so laughably simplistic I'll leave Lord Google to explain it to you if you're having trouble grasping it.

The increasingly wide-spread call for body cams falls under the umbrella of the delightful term coined by Ronald Corbett and Gary T. Marx in this paper from a few decades ago. In it (and hey, I managed to find a free link, so you can just go actually read it, which is fairly rare for academic publishing, but that's another rant for another day) they decry what they see as the "technofallacy" of the police world. Actually, they note 10 separate technofallacies (seriously, go read the paper. It's eerie how prescient it is for being nearly 30 years old now). The very basic essence of the paper is that we can't technologize away social problems, no matter how good the technology seems to be.

More specifically, they're simply demonstrating the fallacy with the logic, long employed in basically every call for changes in policing, that this new form of technology will solve the problems we're having. As they note, new technologies, once thought panaceas to previous problems, often bring an entirely new set of unanticipated problems (in the case of body cams, one could note they will drastically increase the surveillance of Black Americans, which seems like a particularly Orwellian way to supposedly help someone).

But the central problem I have with the call for body cams is that they do nothing to address social conceptions of Blackness as inherently criminal, nor change unjustly crafted laws which specifically target the poor and communities of color. In other words, much like sensitivity training, body cams may make police incrementally less violent (though are by no means assured to do so), but they'll still being enforcing racially unjust laws.

Not to mention the fact that body cams will do nothing to change the culture of police specifically or the wider cultural assumption that police are acting in good faith and their word should be as good (or more likely, better) than the word or video of any citizen. Look at how before clear video evidence surfaced, police, local media, and much of the local population were more than happy to accept the officer's unbelievable (and empirically false) version of events in South Carolina. And as the Onion so perfectly points out, it's basically dumb luck such good video exists and we shouldn't experience much comfort that basic justice proceedings were only initiated after such unlikely video surfaced.

A nicely-sourced summation of many of the arguments against body cams can be found here (seriously, it's a great piece, go read it). As that piece notes, body cams were originally designed to exonerate officers, and are still much more likely to be used to help an officer than to punish them for bad behavior. For one, much like the Obama White House will gladly leak info making it look good while doggedly pursuing prosecution against leaks that make it look bad, police officials across the nation have been happy to share body cam footage when it exonerates officers, but claim the footage can't be released or doesn't exist when it conflicts with the official version of events.

For an especially glaring example of this, the New Orleans PD recently instituted the use of body cams. In 145 incidents of violent behavior committed by police wearing body cams, only 49 have footage available, meaning that in the majority of such situations, the cameras were either not on in the first place, or the footage just happened to disappear after the incident.

Of course, none of this is to mention that no one is happier about the increasing demands for police to wear body cams than the Taser corporation, maker of the AXON body cam, the most popular model of body cams for police. Granted, a broken clock can be right twice a day, but I'm always going to be a little hesitant to support anything that makes a weapons manufacturer salivate.

Here I need to preemptively argue against Corbett and Marx' 10th technofallacy that by arguing against the means I may be misperceived as arguing against the ends. Obviously, I want a solution to our horrid racial injustices in the criminal justice system (and elsewhere) as much as the next person.

But that's actually why I'm concerned about the major push toward body cams; because not only are they incapable of solving the problem (or, I would argue, making a significant difference), but they sure seem like a good idea. And the danger of something that sounds so intuitively effective but which does actually not work is that it will allow people to forget about the problem. The sudden rise in discussions of police violence and racism dominating so much media is not because the problem has gotten especially bad recently, but because for a complex mix of reasons, white America is finally paying attention to these issues (Black Americans did not need Michael Brown or Eric Garner to show them that police violence is highly racialized). With the institution of a simple and attractive (yet ineffective) solution such as body cams, I fear (and history largely backs me up on this), that a large chunk of these folks who have just discovered police brutality and racism will now consider the matter solved, and move on to other things.

And then we'll be back to where we were before, except now our cities will be spending even more of their limited budgets on more fancy tech for the police, while slashing budgets elsewhere to pay for these toys. Which is an almost inevitable outcome of attempting to solve a social problem through individual means. So until and unless body cams are considered only a small part of a much larger reshaping of our forces of social control, I'll remain wary about calling for their use.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Updating This Blog -- Now With Content!

So I've been posting to this particular blog for...
/checks posting history
…holy shit! A little over a decade! That is considerably longer than I would have thought.

Anyway, in that time this space has undergone a great deal of reconfigurations, some more successful than others, and it's high time it happened once again.

It turns out that being an assistant professor comes with a somewhat busy lifestyle, which has caused my posting to slow to basically nonexistent. In addition to the lack of free time, other (significantly more important) deadlines have kept me from maintaining any potential blogging schedule. Not that I ever faithfully posted on schedule, but I used to be significantly more active about it.

So in a hopefully less-is-more kind of change in thinking, I've decided to set a twice a week schedule for myself (roughly Tu/Th, but let's not get carried away here), in the hopes that dedicating myself to a small but regular output will get my ass in gear much better than a theoretically more involved posting schedule that doesn't actually materialize.

And hey, it's Tuesday and I've got one post for the week. So far this experiment has been a rousing success! Can I keep up this torrid pace? Check back Thursday-ish and find out!