Friday, December 27, 2013

Alabama Farmers and Prison Labor

From Project Censored:
Alabama farmers turn to forced prisoner labor to replace the loss of cheap labor experienced due to changes in the state's immigration laws.  Tell me this isn't consistent with The New Jim Crow, as well as Angela Davis' work.

Friday, December 20, 2013

What is Racism?

Below is a brief I wrote for an organization that is trying to make social science research more accessible to journalists.  My goals were to provide some fundamental insights on race and to move the conversation of racism beyond its focus on the individual and intentional.

 “A National Conversation on Racism: Beyond the Intentional Individual”

Tragic events such as the Trayvon Martin murder occasionally garner wider public attention and open up opportunities to have what people call a “national conversation” on race.  These conversations are typically grounded in a certain understanding of racism, one that sees racism as the result of individual attitude and intent. Yet, decades of research reveal that racism is much more.  What should a more thorough “national conversation” on race look like? What understandings of race and racism should be recognized and incorporated?
An informed national conversation on race would recognize several factors.  First and foremost, it would recognize that race is a social construction. There is no biological or cultural validity to the term.  Second, it would move beyond the common focus on individuals and intentions to recognize the variety of ways that racism is manifest in US society.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Obama Commutes Sentences of 8 Federal Inmates Serving Time for Crack Cocaine Charges

From NBC News:

President Barack Obama has commuted the sentences of eight individuals convicted of crack cocaine offenses.

In a statement, Obama said the commutation “is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness” and noted that he signed legislation in 2010 to narrow the disparity between penalties for crimes related to powder and crack cocaine.

Obama has pushed to change criminal justice policy to correct what his administration calls unfairness in sentencing and to keep down the cost of lengthy incarcerations for non-violent crimes.
“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” he said of inmates sentenced before the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year."

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney is asked Thursday about the administration's decision to shorten the sentences of a group of individuals convicted of crack cocaine offenses.
Obama also called on Congress to pass pending legislation that would make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive for some offenders.

Each of the eight offenders has served over 15 years in prison for the drug crimes.
One of the individuals, Clarence Aaron of Mobile, Ala., was convicted in the early 1990s at the age of 22 for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Aaron's lawyer Margaret Love told NBC News that Aaron was "overcome" with emotion and that he will head to a halfway house in his hometown in coming weeks.

The president also pardoned thirteen other individuals for crimes ranging from drug offenses to money laundering to theft.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund praised the decision in a statement.
"The president's ability to commute sentences is an extraordinary power, and his decision to exercise that power in these cases sends a powerful signal that the White House is committed to reducing mass incarceration and working to restore fairness to the criminal justice system," said Sherrilyn A. Ifill, the group's president.

The Obama administration has been vocal about the need to reduce the sentencing disparity and to avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases.

In August, Attorney General Eric Holder directed federal prosecutors not to report the amount of drugs involved in an arrest if it would trigger mandatory minimums. The order applied to non-violent offenders who have no ties to drug cartels or gangs and who did not sell to children.

The attorney general said too many Americans get long prison sentences that don't fit the crime. "With an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter, and rehabilitate -- not merely to warehouse and forget."

 The number of inmates in federal prison, roughly 219,000, is eight times what it was 30 years ago, and 40 percent over capacity. Nearly half are there for drug related crimes and roughly one-fourth of them were low-level offenders.

We Are All George Zimmerman

I taught a course titled Race, Crime and Control this past semester. It was an upperlevel course that highlighted the role of the US criminal justice system as a mechanism for White's control over racialized others, Blacks in particular.  Among a number of other things, we read a book by Victor Rios called "Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys." Rios is a former gang member from Oakland, CA who through some fortuitous events and opportunities was able to put his life on a more positive and fruitful trajectory.  He's not a sociologist at UC Santa Barbara.  Pretty impressive. 

Below is a copied and pasted blog post he wrote for NYU Press on Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman (click here for the original).

We are all George Zimmerman: Trayvon Martin and the youth control complex

—Victor Rios
In ten years of studying inner city boys labeled at-risk by law enforcement and schools, I have found that poor Black Americans and Latinos are often deemed as culprits, lost causes, and menaces to society. One Black American boy in my study reported that on the day he was born nurses at the hospital commented in front of his mother, “Poor boy. He’s destined to become a dope dealer or drug addict just like his mother.”

In my observations at schools I witnessed a teacher tell a truant Latino eighth grade boy, “You have a prison cell waiting for when you turn eighteen.” On the streets I witnessed a police officer tell a seventeen year old Black American boy, “We want you to kill each other off, that way we don’t have to deal with locking you up.” These kinds of examples are countless in the lives of over 200 boys that I have interviewed and shadowed.

The reality is that poor urban boys grow up surrounded by a system of punitive social control that sees them as deficient students and criminal suspects that must be controlled and contained from young ages. School officials, law enforcement personnel, neighborhood watch volunteers, store clerks, jurors, and everyday citizens perceive and interact with these young people with fear, disdain, and circumspection. This youth control complex, a collective system of negative treatment based on racialized fears of young people of color, is responsible for the criminalization and systematic stripping of dignity that many young people like Trayvon Martin encounter on a day-to-day basis.

George Zimmerman is not just an outlying overzealous rogue vigilante that hunted down an innocent Black American boy. He very much represents mainstream America. We–schools, law enforcement, the media, intellectuals, politicians, and everyday citizens–are all involved in a system that creates and perpetuates fear and outcaste of a vulnerable, marginalized segment of our population. These young people grow up feeling hopeless, undignified, and failed by the system.

As Ronny, a seventeen year old Black American boy I followed for three years puts it, “It’s like I’m invisible, like I don’t exist, like people see me as good for nothing but to be in jail.” This youth control complex produces social death among many young people of color; they are alive but are not recognized as fellow human beings with the right to live productive lives. Instead we rely on surveillance, policing, prison bars, and stand your grounds laws to control, contain, incapacitate, and eliminate them.

The difference between George Zimmerman and the rest of us is that he pulled the trigger. We simply continue to mundanely mete out punitive treatment, stigma, and systematic stripping of dignity to young people of color, slowly killing their soul and their right to pursue happiness. By the time we sit in a courtroom to determine whether Trayvon Martin’s life is worth imposing a sanction on George Zimmerman, five white jurors have already been socialized and acculturated to criminalize young racialized bodies and to view the victim as a culprit.

Politicians and school and law enforcement administrators (including those that supervise neighborhood watch programs) must demand that individuals who interact with a diverse population be trained in understanding their cognitive biases and how these inform the treatment they impose on others. We must train ourselves to recognize and eliminate our inclinations to perceive and treat young people of color as suspects and instead treat them with the dignity they deserve. Listening to the voices of young people themselves who have lived a lifetime of encounters with the youth control complex might be a good first step.

Dr. Victor Rios is a  Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (NYU Press, 2011) and Street Life: Poverty, Gangs, and a Ph.D.