Friday, June 19, 2015

Racism or guns in Charleston Church shooting: which played a bigger role?

By Marc Jampole

Politicians, primarily Democrats, and cable news commentators have tried to look beyond the individual pathology of Dylann Roof to explore root social causes for his monstrous gunning down of nine African-Americans at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Some say a lack of gun control laws is the culprit, others say racism, while still others assign equal blame to both these American plagues.

Evidence is piling up that Roof is a virulent racist. Friends said Roof would routinely spew racial invectives. He is reported to have exclaimed that he killed the nine people at the Church solely because they were black. There can be no doubt that his rabid racial anger found encouragement in the distorted view of African-Americans visible in American police dramas; the racial coding in the comments of Republican politicians; the self-justifying aspects of our system of mass incarceration; the prevalence of the Confederate flag and other symbols of slavery in his home state; and the several white power and other hate groups in operation (although the police have yet to find any connection between Roof and any of these groups).

There can be no doubt that Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel AME confident that he was morally right in the actions he was about to take, and that his moral fortitude fed not just on his own extreme racism, but also on the acceptance and promotion of racism, both explicitly and implicitly, in our society.

But let’s ask ourselves this question: Could he have faced those nine people alone and killed them without a gun? Could he have killed them if he weren’t a racist?

The answers, of course, are “no, he could not have done it alone without a gun” and “yes, there are many reasons people kill.”

No matter how much we decry Dylann Roof’s disgusting beliefs and no matter how much we do to eradicate racism in American society and institutions, we will not reduce future mass murders and other gun killings until we make it harder for people to obtain guns and carry them in public.

Look at Roof’s history, so similar in some ways to Adam Lanza, Craig Hicks and other mass murderers: Roof is an anti-social loner who repeated 9th grade.  He had previously been arrested for trespassing and drug charges. His situation had deteriorated recently and he was living out of his car at least on a part-time basis.  

How did this wacko get a gun?

Some newspapers report his father gave him a .45-caliber gun for his 21st birthday, while others are saying he bought one with the money his parents gave him for his birthday. Either way, it’s a disturbing indictment of the ease at which people can purchase weapons in most of the country.

The current line from the gun lobby and their elected factotums is that when people carry guns, they scare some criminals and can defend themselves from others. Their former glib homily “When we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns” has evolved into an assertion that owning and carrying guns reduce crime.

The facts do not support this outrageous assertion. Not many studies are done in the United States of the impact of guns because Congress passed a law forbidding government support of such research. But the research that does exist is clear: Increased gun ownership does not reduce crime. For example, the recent What Caused the Crime Decline? by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School analyzes the various factors that may have contributed to the decline in the crime rate over the past 30 years and finds that the radical loosening of guns laws over the same time frame has had zero impact on lowering crime rates.  Other research tells us that throughout the world and across the United States, the more guns are in private ownership in a country or area, the higher the total rate of injuries and deaths from guns will be.

During this period of public mourning for the slaughtered innocents at Emanuel AME it is right and proper for all clear-thinking Americans to contemplate the severe damage that racism has wrecked on individuals, communities and the very fabric of American society. We should rededicate ourselves to ending racism and that rededication should include specific acts, such as working to end the system of mass incarceration, ending Draconian voting laws meant to keep minorities from voting and the flying of the Confederate in any public or government area. We should work to end racism because it’s the moral and legal thing to do.

But we can’t forget that the primary—perhaps only--reason that Dylann Roof killed nine people in a house of worship was not because he hated African-Americans, but because he carried and used a gun. If we want to end mass murders, we have to instill greater gun controls.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Rachel Dolezal can never really be an African-American, but a man who undergoes sex-change procedures is really a woman

As a Jew, I come to the current controversies over what is a woman and what is an African-American or black with a special perspective. The definition of what is a Jew has haunted the Jewish religion, culture, race and/or nation for millennia. Internally, Jewish courts have long enforced the concept that religious identification comes through the mother, probably because before DNA-testing, we could never be 100% sure of the father’s identity. Since the industrial revolution, this strict adherence to the matrilineal has become problematic, especially to the literally millions of Jewish men who marry outside the faith/culture/nation/race. This basic definition through birth attempts to cut through all the arguments regarding what it means to be Jewish, that is to say, is the essence of Jewishness as a culture, religion, national group and/or race.

Externally, defining who is Jewish has been a necessary process for all organized anti-Semitism, and one of the first steps towards a final solution for the Third Reich. Defining who was black for the purposes of discrimination was also an essential part of American jurisprudence for centuries. These identification systems always depended on identifying ancestors.

Another external issue involves the problems of cross identification that derive from the fact that the definition of Jewishness usually involves religion or culture, and for some people (not me!) nationality and/or race as well: Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American? Are you a Jew if you don’t practice the customs and rituals? And if you do practice but as an atheist, are you a Jew?

Of course, someone can always convert to Judaism, a purposely arduous process. One can also apostate, which may not prevent a former Jew from the dangers of an anti-Semitic roundup.

That the definition of Jewishness has always presented these ambiguities can be sticklers for those who need everything to be cut-and-dried, black and white with no gray area. These ambiguities are central to the discussion of Jewishness, especially in an age when intermarriage rates for American Jews totals about 58%.

By contrast, the ambiguities regarding the nature of manhood and womanhood raised by the transgendered and the nature of “blackness” raised by Rachel Dolezal exist at the margins and are not central to an understanding of womanhood or blackness.

By saying that the issues of womanhood as it relates to Kaitlyn Jenner or of blackness as it related to Rachel Dolezal are marginal, I do not in any way mean to demean these women or others in their situation. What I mean is that the number of transgendered/ transsexual individuals and of whites passing as black are so small as to be statistically insignificant in considering how we define womanhood or an African-American.

There is, of course, absolutely no implications to accepting Kaitlyn Jenner as a woman (once she has her final surgery) or Chaz Bono as a man.  Having a sex change operation and undergoing hormone treatment pretty much completes the transformation from one sex to another. In no way has the definition of womanhood undergone alteration, nor do we have to consider the issue of what constituent’s a woman’s mentality.

The problems arise in defining those who believe they are one sex trapped in the body of another sex; if those who identified by others as men and self-identify as women are considered women, then the presence of a vagina no longer defines womanhood.

The Rachel Dolezal controversy reduces to a similar dilemma: Dolezal self-identifies as African-American and has made superficial changes in her appearance to look more African-American. She passes, although in the opposite direction of most “passing” in American history. To the outsider, Dolezal believes she’s African-American in the same way that a transgendered individual believes she/he is really the opposite sex. We accept and respect the transgendered person’s perceptions and actions. Why then does Dolezal gets fired from her job and accused of lying?

There is also the uncomfortable idea of mentality. If we accept the argument that Dolezal has an African-American mentality that makes her African-American, the next step is to define that African-American mentality as innately inferior to a European mentality.  The Charles Murrays and Richard Herrnsteins of the world must be salivating at the thought of using the concept of mentality to build another disgustingly false case for white superiority.

Genetics is not going to help us out of any definitional conundrum, since all of our ancestors came from Africa and everyone has DNA that traces back to our African origins. There are about 7 billion people in the world, all with absolutely unique genetic codes, so I’m extremely confident in saying that there are people who have black ancestors going back four generations with fewer African genetic markers than Dolezal has. But that still doesn’t make her black. Or does it?

A non-Jew can convert to Judaism after undergoing a lengthy intellectual boot camp and someone identifying with a different sex can take hormones and undergo surgery. But there is no such process or operation that turns one African-American, French, Italian or Chinese, and let’s hope there never is. For the most part, race is an artificial construct, as artificial and mutable as culture itself.

Dolezal is free to live in an African-American neighborhood, hang out only with African-American people, only eat foods traditionally associated with African-American culture and engage only in cultural events identified as African-American. In fact, she is even free to pass. She just can’t lie and say she’s black on a job application, census forms or to get a scholarship. She can live black, but she just can’t be black. 

Which would also describe the situation of a man who identifies as a woman and practices a transvestite lifestyle even in public. Such a person may identify as a woman, but heshe better use the men’s room and better not try out for the girl’s basketball team.

At the end of the day, these definitional problems don’t matter once we begin to consider individuals on their own merit and make certain that all individuals get the same opportunities. It will take more than ending illegal and legal discrimination against all minorities. It will also take making sure that every child has the same educational opportunities. If we marginalize minorities economically, the fact that they have full civil rights doesn’t matter. Racism and discrimination against sexual minorities is only half the problem. The other half is the growing inequality of opportunity, income and wealth.  

Monday, June 15, 2015

“New Jim Crow” has recreated the legal racism that existed before Civil Rights movement

By Marc Jampole

As Michelle Alexander details in The New Jim Crow, her 2010 seminal study of the criminal justice system, the systematic mass incarceration of African-American men and other minorities since 1980 encompasses three discrete stages: 1) Targeting minorities for minor drug offenses; 2) Giving them onerous sentences for victimless crimes; 3) Stripping them of their civil rights and isolating them economically, even after they have served their time.

Alexander calls mass incarceration the “New Jim Crow,” comparing it to the system of laws and customs in the post-Reconstruction South and North that legally discriminated against freed African-American slaves. She draws a number of amazing parallels between the U.S. between the 1880s and the Civil Rights movement and today, revealing the extent that institutional racism, supposedly eradicated by Brown v. Board of Education and LBJ’s Civil Rights laws, was recreated by federal and state lawmakers of both major parties after 1980.

Here are the similarities Alexander finds between the original and the new Jim Crow:
·         Both had their roots in the desire among wealthy whites to use the resentments and racial biases of poor and working class whites to install a legally-enforced racial caste system.
·         Both legalized discrimination. Jim Crow discriminated against blacks in matters of housing, education, employment, voting and public accommodations. The New Jim Crow strips voting and employment rights from ex-cons, after jailing them for minor drug offenses, which the authorities enforce only in minority neighborhoods.
·         Both involve political disenfranchisement, exclusion from juries, racial discrimination and separate treatment in the criminal justice system.
·         Both define the meaning and significance of race in the United States. The original Jim Crow defined blacks as second-class citizens. The New Jim Crow defines black men as criminals. In the original Jim Crow, the mass media and popular myths conflated blackness with inferiority. The New Jim Crow conflates blackness with crime.

These parallels make us realize that whatever the original intent of the developers of the Draconian laws and discriminatory police practices that define mass incarceration, we have created a system that legally defines a caste of humans with lesser rights based on their color.

Alexander also details a few differences between the original and the new Jim Crow:
·         The New Jim Crow displays an absence of racial hostility, except at the margins, e.g., rogue police officers. The laws and policies express no overt hatred of blacks.
·         Whites are also victims of the laws, although Alexander does make clear that the criminal justice system nationwide has stopped, arrested, charged and convicted many more blacks than whites and has given more jail time than whites received. None the less, because the laws and policies do not expressly single out blacks by race, whites also fall victim to the mass incarceration system.
·         Many blacks have supported the “get tough” policies that formed the rationale for all the activity of the mass incarceration system, from stop-and-frisk programs to three-strike-you’re-out laws.  

Many forces are converging at the current moment to end the system of American mass incarceration, the New Jim Crow. Some fiscal conservatives have realized that operating prisons costs state and federal governments a lot of cash. Industrialists such as the union-hating Koch brothers, may be anticipating the upcoming labor shortage as millions of Baby Boomer retire and look to empty the prisons to keep the price of labor down. Alexander and others have been talking about mass incarceration long enough that the message that there’s a big problem is finally getting through to the mainstream. Many see the causal connection between creating a caste denied basic rights and the growing inequality of income and wealth.

That leaves only those whom the authorities have scared into thinking we are in a permanent wave of violent crime and the rabid racists to oppose ending the laws that define mass incarceration. And, oh yes, the gun lobby, which makes many hundreds of millions of dollars each year selling more and more weapons to the paranoid and the frightened.