Photo by Loavesofbread – via Wikimedia Commons
Police officers using tear gas during the first wave of the Ferguson, Missouri, unrest in August.
“I’ll have the race and racism redux –
with a side of criminal justice.”
In this edition our Politics Editor, Jim Palombo offers thoughts on the dangerous and disheartening racial problems re-occurring across our country.
By Jim Palombo
One might suggest that the situations in Ferguson and New York City speak for themselves. After all the actual incidents and the ensuing protests have been splattered across all our screens with every available expert offering his/her opinion on what transpired – what more could be said. But I would suggest that there is more. I would suggest that what has and is happening across the country speaks as much to what we don’t know as what we purport to know. Moreover I would suggest that the situations reveal to a significant extent how much we have come to rely on the narrative of situations (with or without a bending of the facts) rather than what we can ascertain from the actual incident – a circumstance which tends to encourage “not knowing.” Perhaps this is tied to the constant reminders that our opinions, informed or not, matter. Or it could be linked to our fixation with things like reality TV and its stars who seem to speaking to something that really has very little to do anything. Or it might be related to having TV talk show pundits acting as our source for current events. Or it could be that we just don’t trust what someone else calls the facts. Whatever is at work it seems not to be working in our best interests.
Interestingly, nowhere does this mix of “not having a complete grasp of the complexity of the situation coupled with an overreliance on the narrative” play out more clearly than in our criminal justice system. For decades, the facts have suggested that the system is inundated with problems. This is to such an extent that it might be better to call it the criminal response system, leaving justice out of the equation. Yet very few people can connect the dots as to how this system developed in the context of our mix of democratic ideals and capitalist principles. Nor can many manage a dialogue that includes legitimate points that reference our political parties’ analyses of crime. I am a criminologist by trade, having spent a considerable number of years examining the system, from what I like to call the 7 C’s frame – criminals, cops, court and corrections in conjunction with the influences of cash, color and class. It’s a rather simple formula, of course made complex by the realities of people interacting with the system as well as an enormous amount of data that surrounds each element and their interface with one another. But in terms of our current concerns I haven’t heard a single person talking in this system context, let alone anyone referencing crime nor justice in the context of the advanced capitalist system that is our country today. Like with the incidents themselves, it’s a disheartening and even dangerous state of affairs.
So here’s excerpts from two pieces I wrote in previous Ragazine editions-they certainly speak to what is noted above. Importantly they both call for us to develop a more informed, civic minded citizenry. I can’t say that academia or our leadership or our media will take heed of the call in this regard. But I can say at this point that they really haven’t. Perhaps what we are seeing and experiencing in our streets now will spur more decisive action, but who knows how the story will go.
From “Reasons to Worry”
Let’s start with the concern that seems the farthest away in terms of time (funny how time/issues fly), the mess created by the George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin case. There is no doubt that the passing of a young person’s life is a terrible tragedy and that the circumstances under which that occurred demand scrutiny. But I have to question whether taking this tragedy as an example for civil rights abuse is giving the civil rights movement its due. In other words there are instances in any society, where the rubber meets the road so to speak, that crazy things happen just because of the craziness of both people and the times. So to put the issues surrounding civil rights on the shoulders of this incident seems a bit misguided.
It is impossible to dispute that there are racist individuals in our society, and also that there are a large number of minorities involved in crime. And there is no doubt that the essence of the civil rights movement is linked to both. But there are a myriad of concerns that need to be measured before making significant links to occurring events. For example, in terms of individual racism, can this ever be totally eliminated? And if it seems more predominant in one generation over the other, what are the driving forces behind this? And what is the difference between individual and institutional racism? And what was the intent of the civil rights movement in the context of both? And in terms of that movement, and the desire to increase opportunities for minorities in the name of equality, doesn’t this era need to be fully understood by each generation in order that the public policy responses that ensued be adequately understood? And there is more. What were the formative principles related to democracy and the free market by which Conservatives during the civil rights era fought so hard against the movement? And what were the corresponding Liberal principles of that time? And what about the so-called “radical position” that took shape in that era? And to what extent do the principles of each of these views remain in effect today?
Although closely linked to these questions, especially in terms of justice and equality within the criminal justice system itself (and issues like racial profiling, the issuance of bail, the nature of plea bargaining, the use of the grand jury and the overall effectiveness of our “deprivation of liberty” punishment process), the large number of minorities represented in crime demands its own set of inquiries. For instance, what is the driving force behind this overrepresentation? Is this due to some biological concern? Is criminality a sociological concern? Or is it a psychological concern? To what extent is it all three? And what type behavior does our contemporary cultural instincts – a mix of sociological-biological and psychological tendencies that develop given particular culture variables – induce over time? And how do the political views and their respective policies relate to crime and the criminal justice strategies that are put into?
These considerations can easily be seen as to far afield from the actualities of the Zimmerman-Martin tragedy, or the fact that minorities are overrepresented in crime. In fact, many might think that raising all these questions makes matters too academic, in a sense making the problems more intellectual and/or complex than need be. In defense, it should be noted that the questions are in effect at least as important as the answers. And although it’s partially true that sorting through these questions (and the many others) may require an academic-type setting, these are practical questions in substance. In other words the questions and potential resolutions are for all of us to think about – if nothing else but to realize the depth of the difficulties we face in managing our complex society.
From “Is there some semblance of sense to the sensationalism of stupidity?”
It’s race and racism, the application of freedom of speech, and a few “expectation of privacy” issues that are on the table – it’s a big deal. Yet it’s not like we haven’t been down these roads before. Perhaps it’s the rather unique combination of things, with a rather bizarre billionaire at the forefront who just happens to like certain type women, and who owns a basketball franchise in a major city, who happens to employ predominantly minority ball players on that team but who also apparently doesn’t cotton to their kind. Or perhaps it’s the “tailor-made for the press” tale – after all, they certainly know how to tell (and re-tell) a story like this. Or perhaps it’s a good opportunity for the ever-growing number of sportscasters to join the late night pundits in demonstrating their acumen for understanding complex social issues – “educating the public” to important things as one of them might say. And of course, perhaps it’s a chance for every public policy figure and politician, whether on one side, the other or both, to offer their input on what all of them consider an example of the misunderstandings rampant in contemporary America.
In essence, the “big deal” is that it’s telling us once again something about our current status, our collective self-identity if you will. In short, it’s not so much what we know but what we don’t know, or at least how ineffective we seem to be in organizing our thoughts relative to our history and the contemporary issues that have followed from that history. After all this time, you think we would know better – that we would not be so eager to feed the Sterling-like frenzies that seem to pop up a great deal more than they should. So in regard to the current “flavor of the month,” here are just a few points to consider.
Talking about race does not imply racism. In other words, if one were to note that race has its place when discussing both individual and societal properties, and mention thoughts that reference what motivates behavior, or how biological characteristics might play themselves out in any particular circumstance, or why the differences in poverty and/or education levels are as they are, does not make that person a racist. In other words, inquiring as to the import of these variables should be seen within the context of one’s interest in understanding the complexity of human beings and how difficult human relations in a society can be. In fact any meaningful, social science discussion demands this type examination.
In this light, and rather than try to eliminate or even minimize the dialogue, especially in the face of its significance, our concern should be pointed at the public policy that could flow from what we might learn about racial differences. And we should be careful that in granting that one race has differences from the other that this does not get translated into policy that speaks to changing that race into something that it isn’t, or trying to deny individual opportunities based on race, or worse, trying to eliminate that race from the societal mix.
Unfortunately, it seems that important conversations about race per se often get run directly into racist lines via talking about these policy options, especially in the context of equality and freedom. Again, given this, it is important to understand what “race” actually is, that racial differences do indeed exist and that we need to be careful on how we approach these facts in sculpting just and fair public policy. (This would also demand a close look at the natures of equality and freedom, particularly how one principal is often in conflict with the other.) This would certainly go a long way in diffusing the tensions that seem to continually erupt in rather destructive fashion. Importantly, it would also contribute to ensuring that we are developing and maintaining a sound, civic-minded society.
Obviously this entire suggestion demands that discussions of this nature not only happen, but that they be held in places where we can hope to develop a better understanding of our past, current and future struggles with the matters at hand. In short, the discussions should be happening throughout our educational processes as well as in public forums. This of course would not only reinforce the topic’s importance but it would also keep us from spending our time attempting to untangle important concerns through the Sterling-type conflicts – conflicts that more often than not leave us with only a collective black eye.
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