Monday, November 14, 2016

A litmus test for racism

Everyone has what is called Confirmation Bias, the tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of personal beliefs. Because we all have it, we have to be conscious of this blind spot and work against our impulses and seek the truth, especially when it comes to forming public policy and criminal law.
When our now president-elect Donald Trump retweeted this image in the midst of his Republican primary campaign, he did so for a reason. He did it to attract support. He did it to make a point, a day after a black activist was kicked and punched by supporters at one of his rallies in Alabama.

This statistic is wrong. Very wrong. But Trump thought it was right. It confirmed a bias.
What bias would Donald J. Trump have confirmed by sharing such an incorrect fact?

Monday, December 22, 2014

Why are we at conflict?

Why are we at conflict?


Being a law enforcement officer is a difficult and thankless job. It has its own unique challenges that other difficult jobs don't have. The nature of its work means officers are isolated from the community they police, so they don't get to live normal lives. It's not the most dangerous or demanding of jobs, but at least when commercial fishermen get back to the port they can live their lives just like everyone else without scrutiny or even rude behavior. It's emotionally taxing in that way.

However, when I see people posting items online supporting the police in the context of current events - especially when you don't see these same outpourings of support at any other time - what I see is people saying police shouldn't be held accountable for their mistakes. Because we don't understand how hard the job is, or how difficult it is to make snap decisions under pressure, we can't judge these officers who make these mistakes that cost the lives of others. And that is ridiculous.

Drilling wells at the bottom of the ocean is a difficult, demanding job, but when they screw up and fill the sea with crude oil we don't just throw up our hands and say, "Well, it's a tough job, and we don't understand how hard it is." No! We hold them accountable for their mistakes.

A simile: parenting is difficult, and it's impossible to know what it's like to be a parent unless you are one. It's even more difficult when a child is special needs, especially when those needs aren't diagnosed so the parent receives help. It doesn't matter if a parent is mostly good for seven years if they mess up once and throws their child down some stairs, or hits them with a board. So don't tell me the parent was good 99.96% of the time, so statistically they're a good parent. And don't take those statistics even further and compare all parents and all disciplinary actions taken by parents to minimize the one mistake made. That parent should be held accountable for that mistake.

Sometimes an officer who makes a mistake gets punished. The officer who shot Oscar Grant in the back while he was lying face down on the ground was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years. Sometimes it doesn't. The officer who killed Eric Garner received an administrative reassignment and avoided any criminal charges, while the EMTs and paramedics were suspended without pay. It's when the system fails to hold the officer accountable that the system is criticized along with the individual. A failure of justice isn't something to just write off.

It’s different this time

In April of this year, Fox News and the conservative media as a whole was very upset about what they perceived as a failure of justice. Cliven Bundy had a 20-year dispute with the United States Bureau of Land Management over the use of Federal land to pasture his cattle. He didn't renew his grazing permit in 1993, and was prohibited from using the land in 1998 by a Federal Court, and Bundy didn't comply with the order. For the next 15 years he used the land illegally. A Federal judge ordered him again in 2013 from using the land, and he didn't stop, so in 2014 the BLM went in to impound the trespassing cattle.

I bring this up because you didn't hear the same refrains then as you do now, "You have to respect the law's decision." No, instead you had the media talking heads stirring up ideas of revolution. Because the government was removing cattle trespassing on government land, they called for revolution. These media people went to the ranch to support Bundy, and the attention it received brought militia types from all over to go to the ranch with lots of guns. These armed scofflaws pointed weapons at the law enforcement officers, taunted them, and told them they were going to die. The motivation for these people wasn't to protect these cattle but to start a revolution. They put women and children in the front lines so if a firefight did break out they'd have a propaganda victory.

These armed individuals attacked the law enforcement officers, with guns drawn, broke into the impound lot and stole the cattle. They stole government property at the point of many guns, and got away with it.

And the conservative media encouraged this. They didn't respect the justice system, they didn't accept the judicial decision, and they brought guns out to fight the law. (The mainstream conservative media backed away from Bundy after he made racist remarks, which must have come as a shock to him because he was just repeating what the conservative media is always saying about black people, just with unrefined language. Fox News has been trotting out these same ideas in recent weeks even.)

After the standoff ended, two of these crazies ambushed two police officers in Las Vegas while they were eating lunch at a restaurant, killing both of them. They then went to a Walmart and killed another person (a "good guy with a gun" concealed carry holder). A conservative talk show host went on to defend these murderers saying, "when you have police officers that are going around and doing violent things all day long, and then they take a break for lunch, well, it doesn't mean all of the sudden they're innocent or they’re being peaceful because they’re taking a break from all of their other anti-freedom, rights-violating violence. Think of how many lives might have been saved by this incident. How many people would these cops have killed had they not been killed?”

After this event, I didn't a flood of concern for police. I didn't see Fox News go to the memorial for fallen law enforcement to remind everyone how much police sacrifice (as they did after the Eric Garner grand jury and before the slaying of two NYPD officers). There wasn’t a flood of Facebook profile pictures changing to support police. There wasn’t a rally to support police.

No. Indeed, Fox News, the media organization that put the Bundy Ranch in the spotlight, dropped all coverage of the cop killings the very next day. Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity (the main personalities that kept the Bundy Ranch standoff in the forefront) never mentioned the deaths of those two officers. Megyn Kelly gave all of four sentences to their deaths after giving weeks of airtime to the standoff. Fox & Friends and other Fox News shows didn’t mention the killings at all. They instead covered Hillary Clinton’s book release.

Two days before the Las Vegas incident, another right-wing “sovereign citizen” drove up to an Atlanta courthouse and immediately shot a law enforcement officer and engaged in a gun battle with police for three minutes. He was armed with assault weapons and improvised explosive devices.

In 2010, two police were killed by two other “sovereign citizens” during a traffic stop. In 2009, a “sovereign citizen” set up an ambush in his home and killed three police.

There’s a whole segment of the right-wing armed and ready to kill police to start a revolution in this country. I know a couple. My family hosted events in the 1990s in our home where these people talked about their insane conspiracy theories, defended the Oklahoma City bombers, and stockpiled arms and supplies to take on the government. I remember one acquaintance in these circles tell my police officer brother that all cops are corrupt and dishonest, which provides a glimpse into the mentality that’s supported with this ideology.

Yet this isn’t a big story! This isn’t something people talk about. Conservative media won’t even give it any mention, because they have plenty of room under their “big tent” for cop killers and those who support cop killers.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is a big figure in politics, and just this year at a rally for him one of the speakers went on a tirade about killing Californians. “[If you see Californians] pull off into residential areas, you need to open fire on these vehicles immediately. Immediately. Not with 9mm or AR rounds; you need to put mortars on those things, you cannot take any chances,” he says to a laughing audience. This is the type of rhetoric they use to stir up the conservative base.

And silence.

Compare and contrast

It’s the same year as the Bundy Ranch standoff, so what’s the difference now? Why no mention of the cop killing in Las Vegas and copious amounts of coverage of recent tragic shooting of two police officers in New York? Why the support of scofflaws in Nevada, and condemnation of the peaceful protesters in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, et al?

Yes, this time there’s widespread protests over the injustice. In April, the conservative media had to beat the drum of revolution to get anyone to care about grazing rights in the desert, so the protests were much more limited. On the one hand, you have two different courts finding Bundy noncompliant with the law, and on the other you have multiple departments, prosecutors, and grand juries not finding anything criminal in the homicides of many unarmed young men in what is perceived as an excessive use of force.

When you have protests you have counter protests, it’s the nature of the beast, but the counter protesters in this case don’t really have an ideological principle they’re supporting. There isn’t a political or policy issue at stake here. The counter protests are political, though, they’re trying to leverage power out of the situation.

Here’s where I think I’ll take a break and say that every protest has multiple voices. What I argue is the main issue here (which I believe is the actual issue most people understand and voiced during the majority of the protests) isn’t necessarily what everyone in the protest would agree upon. The same is true of the counter protests. It’s difficult to generalize these things. On one side, there are anarchists and agitators who are drawn to every protest who just want to cause trouble and other people who don’t have a good grasp of any coherent issue, they’re generally just upset with the system, and there are even some anti-authority people who just don’t like cops. (There are also undercover officers in the crowds who agitate in order to make arrests.) On the other side, there are the KKK groups who went to Ferguson, MO armed and threatening protesters with violence, the racists who think all black people are criminals or should be scrutinized as if they are, those who capitalize on racial tension, those who are not sure what’s going on exactly, but they don’t like the people leading protests so they’re against it by default, and of course those who only see the fringe elements in the protests and aren’t against the actual issue as much as they’re against the extremists who are simply opposing the police. (Usually this later group is this way because conservative media only focuses on the fringe elements.)

It’s difficult to generalize, so all I can really talk to are the people I see that are closest to me. There I mainly see support for police in general, some blatant racism, and some who are only interested because they don’t like who are leading some protests. Usually the Venn diagram overlaps a bit. I’m confounded about why they care so much.

If you break this whole thing down into its basic elements, it’s police acting to enforce the law, applying force, killing someone, and not being held accountable. In some cases, no law is being broken; it’s just a suspicion of a criminal act. In other cases, there is a law being broken which isn’t a felony, and there’s no weapon. So the protest is about why so much force is being used on these young men, specifically why it’s overwhelmingly being applied to black men, and why the law doesn’t find anything wrong with this.

So when I try to figure out what the counter protesters are supporting/defending, I can’t figure it out. I haven’t read or heard anyone give a decent argument for it; all I hear is defensive posturing, hatred for the protesters, and general support for police.

Defensive posturing

There is a very obvious difference between the Bundy Ranch protest and the Ferguson protest: race. Not everyone has an interest in land disputes, but everyone has a skin color that puts them in a group. But the protest over law enforcement use of deadly force and its disproportionate effect on the black community doesn’t affect most white people, so why are they getting so defensive about it? It’s an issue so complicated it would take years to figure out, if possible, but many have tried. It’s difficult to criticize our nation’s racial inequalities without those who have benefitted from the inequalities from getting upset. This of course leads to a phrase white people hate: white privilege. When I see defensive comments about these protests, white privilege is always brought up. They really hate this term. It’s important though, so I’ll take another break to explain it.

White privilege

Most people think privilege is having outsized wealth and power, so they assume white privilege is having wealth and privilege without earning it by their own efforts. While it’s true our society has been bent to give wealth and power to white people for many generations, it’s also true not every white person has benefitted from this equally, and some even immigrated here after many of these unequal policies ended. But this isn’t white privilege. The diminutive definition of the term I’ll fit into this larger article is that white privilege is not having to deal with race as an obstacle, and indeed the ability to ignore racial issues altogether. This is not true of white people universally at all times, but white people can remove themselves from a situation where race is affecting them and into a place where it doesn’t while people of color don’t have this privilege unless they move to another country.

When white people get defensive about these protests, it’s because they’re losing a bit of their white privilege and they’re forced to face a racial disparity. I would like to just shut all of this out and live a little more happily, to avoid the arguments, avoid the heartache, and I can. I can ignore it if I wanted to, but I won’t. I won’t because I’m choosing to deal with a difficult issue that affects the lives of real people, including my own children. The default response is to deny there is a disparity, and that to say there is one is itself a racist statement.  This is why the most common meme I see from white people about these protests is a picture of Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jessie Jackson, President Barack Obama or Attorney General Eric Holder with a caption calling that person, or those people, “the real racists.”

It goes deeper than that, though, when I see comments about, “how am I responsible for this just because I’m white?” Which is another feature of defensiveness: making it personal. They will condemn lots of people because of what one person says, but then they’ll take a general criticism of society as a personal assault.

If you are working somewhere and the owner finds the profits aren’t where they should be because of a business culture that’s not working harmoniously, you won’t think that you’re the reason why the business isn’t making enough money, so when the employer makes changes to the business culture it’s not personal. But when our society is unequal, people take it personally. It’s not because we’ve all decided to be unequal, we’ve just fit into the culture, didn’t make waves, and went along with it, so when we need to change our society, don’t take it personally, we all need to work together to change the culture together, not place blame.

Hatred for protesters

Some people just don’t like protesters. They think protesters should just accept society the way it is, vote if they want changes, and get on with things. These people are typically silent, though. They’re moderate; they aren’t going to be vocal about these issues nearly as much as someone who has taken a position for or against the protested issue.

What I see is vitriol against anyone protesting. The first thing they do is make every protester into the spitting image of the worst elements. Imagine yourself being viewed as the worst from your group. The hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters are all viewed as the few who started fires. They’re all viewed as supporting the few who chanted, “What do we want? Dead cops!” They willfully blind themselves to the actual protested issues and focus exclusively on the few guys throwing rocks.

A criticism is a judgment of something. In order to judge something, you have to know its character and value. Too many protester haters do not listen to the protests to understand what the protest is about, so they don’t know what they’re criticizing. They’re not critics, they’re haters.

General support for police

I have a strong affinity for police. When my children talk about what they want to be when they grow up, I make sure they include police on that list. The issues my family has dealt with has made us much more reliant on the police than most people. My brother is a police officer. I get support for police. I support them all the time, not just when they’re under attack. The problem here is that the police aren’t under attack – at least not as the purpose of the majority of these protests. When large groups of people gather to protest, it’s impossible to control the message coming from everyone, and some people certainly do hate cops, but the organizers of these protests, the vast majority of the protesters, and the protest issues aren’t anti-police. No, they’re pro-police. They want and need police; they just want them to be held accountable for their mistakes, and for the tactics to be reviewed.

When Ferguson first became a flashpoint, the police there came out very heavy-handed; so much that the issues quickly went away from Michael Brown and onto the militarization of our police forces. If there was a start to anti-police protests, it was there. It happens in a lot of protests, and it seems to be deliberate in a lot of cases. The police or someone with power over them start putting pressure on protesters so the protest issues change from their original goals to one of standing up for the right to protest. I watched it first hand during the Occupy Wall Street movement when those protests went from protesting the lack of accountability on Wall Street and the corrupting influence of power the banks have in Washington to fighting for the right to protest. It’s an ingenious move if you want to confuse the issues, and divide the protesters into infighting camps.

After the Ferguson grand jury decision, the protest message has been mostly clear, and the addition of Tamir Rice and Eric Garner only solidified the central issue of disproportionate effects of police force on black men. Overall, the protests have stuck to this message of accountability.

It seems the context of this outpouring of support for police is one of willfully ignoring the protested issues, denying racial inequalities or agreeing with the decisions to not hold these officers accountable for wrongdoing.

Ignoring the protested issues

I’ve covered this issues a few times now. Some counter protesters reject engagement with the actual issues and focus on the fringe elements. This is exemplified by one comment that literally claimed there were tens of thousands of protesters that were “armed, angry and on a mission.” They watch the video of the one, small protest with the “dead cops” chant and smear all protesters with the same sentiment. They see two police officers killed by a man (who actually seemed to express a desire to not go back to jail, like the tragic incident in Seattle in 2009), and claim protesters are going to kill more cops. They find videos of a few people who are inarticulate and claim the protesters don’t know why they’re protesting.

Or, they don’t like who is leading some protests (e.g. Al Sharpton), and don’t bother to listen to the protest demands at all.

Denying racial inequality

Denial of racial inequality is probably the most common argument I’ve encountered. This is closely tied with white privilege, because white people don’t have to see inequalities we largely ignore them. And when we ignore them, we don’t believe them. And when we don’t believe them, we say they don’t exist. And when we say they don’t exist, we’re gaslighting every person of color, telling them their experience isn’t real. They are confused. We know better than them. Because we, as white people in America, have a better understanding of how race affects people of color than they do. We have a clearer understanding, because we’re above all that. People of color can’t see the race issue clearly, and should recuse themselves, and let us think for them. Feel for them.

Why should white people think any differently? We’re not harassed by police for loitering, or looking out of place. We’re not regularly pulled over for any apparent reason. We’re not having our car searched every time we are pulled over. We’re not questioned every time something goes missing. We’re not told we’re angry. We’re not told our experiences aren’t real.

But when you talk to a pastor of a black congregation who tells you the majority of his congregation have had their cars searched, have had police draw guns on them, have had their bodies searched, have had to lay flat on their faces, and all of this for nothing, perhaps we should listen to them. And not just anecdotes: whites make up 70% of all arrests, yet only 40% of all inmates. Blacks make up 28% of arrests and 40% of the inmate population. This is problematic not only because persons of color are incarcerated in greater numbers, but because they face harsher penalties for the same crimes. Blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed by police at a rate 21 times greater than whites the same age between 2010 and 2012.

This is where we circle back to defensive posturing, because when the data come in that definitively show unfair outcomes, white apologists argue that blacks are more prone to crime, and then go on to argue that’s why they should be scrutinized by law enforcement. That is, of course, the dictionary definition of racism: “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race.” And the defensive circle continues, because nobody wants to be called a racist.

This circles back to taking everything personally, instead of collectively. A police officer will say, “I’m not racist.” She might be right, but collectively the system is bent in such a way that outcomes for people of color are different. It’s not out of conscious decisions. It’s not out of racial animus. It’s out of a historical pattern of white supremacy in the nation with the only constitution that supports racism and slavery (Articles I and IV respectively.), that gave land to white settlers, provided education for the settlers to farm the land, gave them commissions to improve these farms, separated the races, denied people of color GI Bill benefits, redlined minority communities, et al. This isn’t ancient history, there are people alive today who suffered unequal laws and segregated culture. There is people alive benefitting monetarily from slavery in the form of loan interests. When we have hundreds of years of racial inequality, we can’t expect the affects to disappear over one generation just by pretending it never happened.

Claiming the officers did no wrong

The protested issues are about the use of force by law enforcement officers to subdue suspects. This issue is nuanced. I know law enforcement officers don’t want the burden of criminal liability for taking a life in the course of duty. I don’t want that. I don’t think any thoughtful person wants that. What we want, of course, are policies that will minimize the chances for unjustified homicide: taking a hard look at double standards, rigorous police candidate screening, and robust tactical training. If we accept police tactics that result in unnecessary deaths, we should look at those tactics and change them.

The autopsy of Eric Garner showed he was killed by homicide, by the compression of his neck and chest. That chokehold tactic was not permitted by the NYPD. There was no accountability for breaking a protocol that resulted in the death of an innocent man. Why do we accept a system that doesn’t hold this officer accountable?

Tamir Rice was shot dead two seconds after the officer exited his vehicle, which was still moving upon egress. We should not accept a tactic that escalates rather than deescalates a situation. This tactic was tantamount to a surprise attack, more fitting to the military than to policing a community.

The same tactic was used by the officers that shot and killed Kajieme Powell. If the officers are afraid of a man with a knife charging them, why are they pulling their vehicle right up on him?

John Crawford was shot with little warning inside a Walmart because he was holding a BB gun. Let’s track back to the Bundy Ranch for a second to recall that none of those gun-toting lunatics were shot for aiming real guns at law enforcement. We’ve seen other videos where armed men are contained and talked down or taken down without fatality because the police deescalate the situation. Why should we accept tactics from police that are for all intents and purposes ambush tactics?

Akai Gurley was killed because the officer was patrolling with his gun draw and was startled when Gurley opened a door on a stairwell below him (at least according to the officer’s account). Marines deployed to Iraq have testified that during house sweeps they were not to aim their weapons until ready to fire. Why are we allowing police to patrol apartment buildings with their guns out?

There is pushback from law enforcement, and I don’t blame them, they don’t want to be told how to do their job. That’s not a luxury most of us have. We follow policies given to us by our employers or clients. Police officers are servants of the public, if their tactics are making the public feel like the enemy in an occupied territory, the tactics have to change. If the tactics are resulting in unnecessary deaths, the tactics have to change.

In Ferguson the argument is, “the grand jury decided nothing criminal happened, we have to accept the decision.” Why? Why do we have to accept that shooting at an unarmed man as he was fleeing is acceptable? (More than half of the grand jury witnesses and the Ferguson police said Officer Wilson opened fire while Brown was running away.) Why should we accept that shooting a man with his hands up is acceptable? (More than half of the witness statements at the grand jury said his hands were raised.) Why do we have to accept shooting a man while he’s on the ground is acceptable? (Half of the grand jury witnesses claim he was shot while on the ground.) Why do we have to accept the results of a grand jury where the prosecution acted like a defense attorney, provided incorrect and unconstitutional information about police use of force, and allowed witnesses he knew to be lying testify, including a witness who was nowhere near the scene and was recounting tales learned on conservative blogs?

These protests aren’t just about what happened in these confrontations but about a system that says this level of force is acceptable. That even when mistakes are made or protocols aren’t followed there is no recourse for justice.

There are actual human beings who are dead right now that shouldn’t be. There are families grieving the loss of their son, husband, father. Don’t pretend that you’re the one with the sob story because these protests make you uncomfortable.

And, for goodness sake, quit minimizing the loss of life as if it’s losing loose change in the sofa cushions: an unavoidable minor inconvenience. A matter of statistics.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Unexpected sacrifices

Three years ago, when my wife and I began the process to adopt children, we expected sacrifices. It doesn't matter if a child is born or adopted into a family, sacrifices are inevitable. Sleep. Finances. Sanity. Material goods. But recently we have found a sacrifice we did not expect, and it's the hardest, most painful sacrifice ever.

Our social workers thought we were the greatest candidates ever. We had clean criminal histories. We were young. We had a supportive family. We had very few stipulations. After we were certified as a foster home we waited months before we received a call. One of our requests was maximum of two children - they had three; did we want to meet them?

We went to the disclosure meeting with the social worker where they told us everything they knew about the children and their families. Ages. Medical history. Why they were in the system. How long they were in the system. They were what is considered a difficult placement because they were three siblings, and they were black.

When we were in our training classes we learned that a majority of people who are looking to adopt do so because of fertility issues (most people assume that's why we did). They want a baby. If they're white like us, they want a white baby. Asian babies are the second most desired. Hispanic and especially black children are difficult to find homes for. This is why the rules for adoption have opened up to allow placement into homes other than the child's race.

We said we would meet them.

Our three new children were 2-, 3- and 4-years old at the time. The youngest didn't talk. The oldest was shy. The middle one wouldn't stop eating. We loved them immediately. We love them so much more now.

Throughout the training process my wife and I were surrounded by loving friends and family. They all told us how we were doing such a great thing. They promised their support. We had a lot of emotional and physical support.

Things changed almost immediately after the children came to live with us full-time. We did take a small break from the world for a few weeks to get accustomed to the children, and them to us. I can't find fault with anyone because it was right in the middle of the Great Recession, people were moving between homes, jobs, etc. One of our biggest support groups was overrun by a cult so it imploded. But we felt isolated from many of our friends. Some who promised they'd help out were always too busy. Others were moving to other states, or out of the area. Others just disappeared.

We had our children for about a year when the biggest blow came; my wife's family packed up and moved four (Western) states away. They had been our rock. Our biggest support. My mother-in-law quit her job to help us out. My brother-in-law was my best friend. The family would get together multiple times every week. They were what made us so confident we could take on such a huge task - three children - all at one time. And they were gone.

It started at denial, and turned to anger, but ended with acceptance. We were on our own. We now had our own family, and our own responsibilities. We would have to raise our family the way most people do.

A year later the adoption was finalized. When all of our social structure collapsed, we refocused ourselves. My wife went back to school. I worked and took care of the kids. I started following Major League Soccer. Life consisted almost entirely of work, kids, laundry, meals, dishes, soccer and the occasional outing with the few friends who were still in the flesh and answered my text messages. The rest of my circle existed in the cloud: Facebook mostly.

The oldest turned 5. Enrolled in kindergarten. They all entered child care. They're now growing up so fast. Breakfast. School. Work. Child care. Dinner. Bedtime. Repeat.

Their little minds began to notice things. Before they assumed adults were white and kids were black. They would say, "When I grow up I'll be white like daddy." But in school they were surrounded by white kids. Latinas. Other black kids. New ideas started to creep in. "I don't like being brown," she would say. "I'm ugly."

She would draw herself in crayon. White face. Long, straight hair. He would say he looked "dirty."

We were always conscious of the need to have black figures in their lives. Their hairstylist, barber, half-brother - we even tried to keep their paternal grandmother involved. We had black dolls. Sesame Street helped with self esteem. So did Willow Smith.

But it still came. We brought in more famous black people they could connect with: Esperanza Spaulding. Yasiin Bey. Questlove. One night they all had questions, so we pulled out a poster with the images and names of the most influential African American figures: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Hank Aaron, and Barack Obama to name a few. They loved it.

Then Trayvon Martin happened. That young man in his hoodie blew things up. Reliable friends started pushing us away because we said simple things like, "My son does look like Trayvon." They insisted my wife and I couldn't have a rational thought on the topic. We were "too invested" to think clearly. My wife especially got thrashed by what I thought were good friends who belittled her in the most patronizing manner.

With frayed strings of relation, we got over it. We have more important things to do. I've got to teach my kids to swim. I want my kids at least half-way through the year's curriculum before the school year starts.

But it doesn't go away. Facebook makes everything public and not a week goes by when I don't see a friend or family member commenting on some public forum or image with no self-awareness to how racial their words are. Or they're simply in agreement with friends or acquaintances who spew vile racist ideas into the ether because they want to be like their favorite radio personality.

It's not just the blatant racism disguised as political thought either, it's the subtle racism in "politically incorrect" jokes. They say, "Lighten up." The bully's defense. But it hurts. It saddens me. It saddens my wife. The way these people disrespect my children. The way they hide behind might be funny to a bunch of white kids with no black friends but is really dispiriting to my children. They don't know how hurtful it is because my kids are already hearing these things at school.

Sure, you'll bounce my kid on your knee and then say mean things about him when he's not around because it's just so funny. Ha. Ha. Ha.

That's not even the most hurtful thing. It's the defensiveness they take when we make simple comments about how raising a black child in white suburbia is different. We say something about how our daughter doesn't like her hair and it's like we called every white person in the world a racist. "Every girl is like that," they'll say, not realizing the other girls at school are making fun of her because she's different! Every girl isn't the odd one out. I make one comment about how I'll have to teach my sons things about social interaction that me, as a white man, take for granted, and it's like I told the closest people to me that they're hate-filled scum.

When other parents talk about the issues they face raising their children they get sympathetic platitudes or thoughtful advice. We get arguments. Because we're not emotional beings struggling with the issues our children are facing, we're simply political punching bags.

It hurts.

About 18 months after Trayvon was killed, the verdict is in: not guilty. It doesn't matter what my opinion is because what I see are my family making senseless comments about the animal behavior of black people, because we've never seen a white person take to the streets in anger. (Oh, but that's different, these black people are angry over a white man's acquittal; those white people were angry because a sports legend was fired for covering up child sexual abuse, so it's different!) They post articles to the few cases of violence that have sprung up making comments about how the entire black community are responsible for this behavior. But it's not a racist comment, because I"m sure they also claimed every white man in America is responsible for the Lane Kiffin Riot.

It doesn't just stop there, but it keeps building and building. They say they're not racist, but they take to their Facebook pages like a virtual riot. They say they love my children but they continue to criticize black people as a bloc, and even directly insult my family. They say they love me, but they dismiss any and all concerns I have over the very experiences my children are already facing - at 4-, 5- and 6-years old.

Three years ago, when my wife and I began the process to adopt children, we expected sacrifices. But recently we have found a sacrifice we did not expect, and it's the hardest, most painful sacrifice ever. We sacrificed our white identity.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A message to fathers from Louis C.K.

Father's Day was last week, but I love this message so much I want to share it anyway.

Louis C.K. has been a big encouragement to me as a father. He says (indirectly anyway, "We have thoughts and feelings and that's OK, it doesn't make you a bad person. Your actions make you a good person. Just be a good person."

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Who is bullying whom?

Object lesson:

Pete goes to school with an almond butter sandwich and Brad takes it from him. This happens every day. The other students know this happens and encourages Brad to take Pete's sandwich. They applaud him and provide moral support. Similarly the teachers and administrative staff support Brad's thievery. They say that Pete doesn't deserve to eat sandwiches like everyone else because the right sandwich is peanut butter. They tell him that he can eat any sandwich he likes as long as it's peanut butter. Pete insists on bringing almond butter sandwiches.

Pete is not a bully. His actions are not equivalent to Brad's nor to those of any other person in the school.

One day a classmate of Pete's named Jessica stands with Pete and calls Brad a bully. She sands with Pete and trying to convince the other students and adults that what Brad is doing is wrong. The sandwich rightfully belongs to Pete, and he's entitled to eat lunch just like everyone else.

Jessica is not a bully. Her actions are not equivalent to Brad's nor to those of any other person in the school.

Jessica finally convinces a group of children of the righteousness of her cause. They all band together to protect Pete. But the school administrators step in and take the sandwich away from Pete anyway. They give it to Brad claiming it's his right to take the sandwich from Pete. These advocate children begin to become more vocal and attempt to stop Brad and the administration from taking Pete's sandwich.

These children in solidarity are not bullies. Their actions are not equivalent to Brad's nor to those of the administration.

Constance is a teacher in the school. She is swayed by the advocate children's cause and she herself becomes a supporter of Pete's right to eat almond butter sandwiches. Over time Constance attempts to sway the rest of the administration to the cause of almond butter sandwiches. Meanwhile several other children begin bringing their own almond butter sandwiches to school. Coalitions form to support the right of children to eat whatever sandwich they would like free from abuse. Some children even bring bologna sandwiches to school.

Constance is not a bully. The children with different sandwiches are not bullies. None of their actions are equivalent to Brad, his supporters nor to those of the prevailing school administration

After many years of these skirmishes, a new school administration takes over which allows all kinds of sandwiches. Brad is no longer allowed to take sandwiches from other students. Brad forms a club which is called "Defense of Traditional Sandwiches."

The new administration is not a bully. Their actions are not equivalent to those opposed to non-peanut butter based sandwiches.

Brad and the Defense of Traditional Sandwiches organization continue their fight to ban almond butter and other forms of sandwiches. They claim that historically sandwiches have always been and will always be recognized as only peanut butter sandwiches, they begin to steal non-peanut butter sandwiches from other students. The school administration expels Brad from the school and bans sandwich theft. Brad and his followers then claim that they are having their rights trampled upon and that they are the victims of bullying.

he pro-sandwich-choice side of this entire object lesson are not bullies nor could they ever be considered bullies. They are actively denying children the right to eat whatever sandwich they prefer and are in no way in the position of denying Brad and his lot any rights at all because they do not have the right to take from others what is theirs.

This shouldn't be difficult. Both sides are not equivalent.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

How to stop mass murder

I admit, I'm not a policy expert. I haven't done the years of research to know the ins and outs of these issues from a policy level. This post is largely a response to a friend who asked what I think should change from a public policy perspective to try and prevent the next gun-involved massacre like the one we just saw in Newtown, CT.

First to address the axiom, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." This is essentially true, but it ignores the fact that people use tools to do everything from trim their toenails to landing rover robots on Mars. And certainly the tools which people use allow people to kill. Guns, in particular the type of guns used too often in these gun massacres, allow people to kill quickly and proficiently before anyone has a chance to react.

Hypothetically, if I were to invent a little box with a button on it that killed anyone I would like within 100 yards of me, you would expect that I wouldn't be able to sell them on Craigslist to anyone I'd like. While the user of the death box is ultimately responsible, as the acting agent, the box itself would be recognizable as the conduit for such deaths which occur. We as a society wouldn't just throw up our hands and say, "Cat's out of the bag; we can't do anything about it now." And we certainly wouldn't make the scurrilous argument that we should get the death box in the hands of everyone to react against those who would use the death box for evil purposes.

On the matter of gun ownership for self defense, we're talking measures used to abate the level of crime. The argument is that if you were to arm more people, they would be able to defend themselves and others from would-be attackers. So for every number of attacks a percentage of them would be defended successfully. No gun advocate I've ever read has said gun ownership would end all crime 100%. But when it comes to common sense gun regulation that would slow the instance of, and abate the severity of, senseless violet attacks on public spaces, these same gun advocates argue that it's pointless because you can't stop all of them all of the time. They argue that because it wouldn't achieve a 100% success rate, it's pointless to regulate weapons of mass destruction.

Really, gun advocates are arguing that saving a percentage of lives that would otherwise have been lost is less important than the ability for them to own and use any gun at their own private discretion. They're saying losing the occasional classroom full of first-grade students is an acceptable price we pay for our liberties. Those liberties are exclusively: unlimited gun ownership.

I for one am sick of sacrificing children on the altar of gun rights. This goes to the heart of what Destroy:Ideas is all about. I cannot put ideology ahead of people.

But what are these rules? How can we prevent the next school massacre?

The relationships people have with guns vary greatly. People in rural areas have different needs than those in cities. Chicago has approximately 500 murders a year, so people there don't think more guns are a solution. But people who live in rural Montana do know that rifles are important tools to protect their property and livestock from predators such as wolves, bears and badgers. Because of this, I do not think a uniform code will work across the nation. However, there definitely has to be a way to safeguard this difference in law so guns aren't purchased in rural counties and delivered into urban centers where they are not used to ward off wolves but to commit violent crime, as the case of Washington D.C. shows.

The first changes have to be with poverty abatement, and health care access. If we can pretend that our violence here is every bit a threat to our society as violence in Iraq, we could do really positive things. Studies have shown poverty is the leading indicator of violent behavior. Similarly, economic inequality and social stratification are causes of violence and other criminal behavior. While crime rates in American have recently been falling to historic lows, they rose sharply as our equalizing institutions were dismantled in the 70s and 80s, and crime peaked in the early 1990s. (The internet played a large role in reducing crime rates as the internet is a democratizing leveler of social classes, where nobody has power over other people, and everyone can express their frustrations in non-violent ways.)

When it comes to health care, the US government already pays more than twice, per capita, what the average industrialized nation does on health care, yet doesn't achieve universal coverage, and the outcomes are lower. Incidentally, we could solve our long-term deficit problem immediately if we achieved truly universal health care. Providing access to health care can and will lead to lower rates of crime, especially violent crime. As there is a link between poverty and crime, there is also a link between health care access and poverty. Specifically, health care costs are the leading cause of bankruptcy, and send families into poverty every day.

Along with universal health care, we need emergency mental health services. These don't exist everywhere. Those that do exist trend to be nonprofit organizations, and their outreach isn't wide enough. And their resources are too little. I bet you didn't even know there was a 211 number anyone can dial on their phone to reach a nonprofit organization that can help guide people to these resources.

Studies show the majority of violent criminal offenders have mental illness, or mental developmental problems like fetal alcohol syndrome/affects. One study tested 16 death row inmates and all of them, 100%, had experienced brain trauma. What some would call "evil" is being found to simply be mental disordered/impairments.

These previous issues, I'm glad to say, are pretty noncontroversial. Most gun advocates I know aren't for government-run universal health coverage, but they do understand that providing better access to health services, especially mental health services, is an important step in mass murder abatement.

What about gun control?

To be more specific about the gun regulation steps I alluded to previously, we should look at a few common sense issues related to this idea.

In the previous few decades gun manufacturers have deliberately increased the lethality of guns in order to boost their profits. Their industry faced a problem: guns don't wear out and fewer people are entering the traditional gun markets (hunting and sport shooting). As a result, they have begun marketing to urban dwellers and survivalist fear mongers a fantasy of self defense. They increased round capacity, caliber size, and rate of fire in addition to making the arms smaller and more concealable. They also developed more lethal ammunition rounds, including rounds that splinter upon entry which only means the bullets are harder to remove. (A completely unnecessary feature for anyone who isn't a demented freak.)

Foreign arms manufacturers are also playing a larger role in the US market as other markets have been becoming more highly regulated. Surplus Russian and Chinese military weapons would previously be sold in third world countries, but there's now a huge market for these military-grade weapons in America.

Because of this utter lack of regulation, I propose:
  • Ammunition needs to be tracked better, and taxed the way we tax cigarettes. We generally recognize tobacco as a public health concern but not gun violence.
  • Ammunition types need to be regulated to remove unnecessary body mutilation features.
  • Handguns should have limited capacity. Nine rounds is plenty to scare off an intruder - if that is really the agenda. Larger magazines don't create a larger deterrent. Magazine replacement should require two hands to slow reload times.
  • High caliber weapons should be of the single action hunting variety only and limited to five rounds.
  • Shotguns should be limited to two rounds with single action.
  • Military style weapons (long rifles and carbines with high capacity magazines and semi-automatic function) should be kept in community armories or other licensed gun clubs. This should be sufficient to handle the "well regulated militia" clause of the second amendment. Military style weapons are not suitable for home protection nor for hunting, they're strictly for recreational and militia use.
  • Gun owners should be licensed - this is different than the checks we have now which are essentially honor based questions which don't have the answers screened - but a full written test and practical test. These licenses should be given grades for the different classes of guns, just like drivers licenses are given for each class of of vehicle. These licenses should be renewed in person every three to five years.
  • Each gun should also be licensed and registered just like cars.

What about people who don't follow the law?

Yeah, people don't follow the laws at all times, but most people seek to be law abiding, so we could catch a lot of these problems before someone has a mental breakdown, or experiences a transient life event that puts them in enough stress to go off the proverbial deep end.

There is certainly an element of society which lives in an informal economy, or black market. These people don't follow laws. But these people also don't commit mass atrocities like the ones we saw this past week. You also can't really compare the failing drug policies with proposed gun regulations because:
  1. You can't grow guns in your closet
  2. There's a profitable market for drugs
  3. There is no market for mass murder
Over the past 30 years, over 80% of the guns used in mass shootings were obtained legally. This murdered in Newtown, CT borrowed the weapons from his mother. Even if this guy had a history of mental illness and was denied sale of a gun (he would have anyway because he was too young for a handgun), his mother didn't and wasn't. These mass murders are not committed by career criminals, and usually this is their first (and last) offense. We can't exclusively focus on keeping arms out of the hands of "bad guys" when it's not the "bad guys" who are committing these most heinous crimes, but the guy nobody would expect.

Furthermore, we have ~30,000 gun-related deaths in the USA every year. Only about ~10,000 of those are homicides. That leaves ~20,000 gun deaths in our country every year where nobody committed any intentional crime. I didn't go into the relationship between guns and suicide here, but the statistics on that are pretty remarkable.

I'm no expert, but these seem to be common sense solutions. They wouldn't stop every bad event every time, but it could reduce a percentage of them from happening at least. I just can't accept that recreational gun use is more important than the lives of children.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The contempt of men

The following is a letter I sent off to Esquire after reading the cited article. My wife can attest that the article so upset me that I could literally do nothing until I finished writing and mailing this letter. I admit that in hindsight I forgot to mention a few additional points of contention, namely the sitcom genre which has always leaned on stupid men (Married with Children, Home Improvement, etc.), among other issues. But instead of adding them, I'll just post the whole letter as it was sent:

I have just finished reading the article by Stephen Marche titled “The Contempt of Women.” It was such a poorly devised article that I felt compelled to respond. I don’t know who Stephen Marche is, but from the content of the article it appears he’s completely ignorant of the growing body of academic feminist thought. He also shows that this “contempt for men” is a fabrication, and he’s really just showing a contempt for women.

Mr. Marche’s argument begins and ends with comedy. He argues that the self-deprecating humor of male comedians is a sign of how men have acquiesced to the notion that men are idiots to be viewed with contempt. Maybe Marche has never looked at the historical body of work by comedians the world over. Comedians like Charlie Chaplin who epitomized the bumbling fool. Teams of comedians like Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Bros.; all of the comedy from these men showed idiotic men unaware of their foolishness. All of these men pre-feminist revolution, when women didn’t go to college.

And yet Marche will reference Louis C.K. to bolster his claim - a comedian who doesn’t point out the dark side of humanity to wallow in it, but to seek out the positive in the turd sandwich called life. A comedian who encourages men to step up and be men of distinction.

Marche also fails to realize that most of the successful female comedians over the years have had to lean on the stereotype that women are disgusting, irrational creatures who are also conniving bitches. This is hardly evidence that comedy has a contempt for men. Yet the accompanying sidebar suggests self-hating women in comedy are rare!

When Marche references media targeted at women as an example of contempt, he’s really just pointing out that men are treated in these stories the way women are treated in every other story. There is even a name for this: The Bechdel Test. Does a movie have a scene with one or more named women having back and forth dialogue about anything other than men? It seems like a low bar to reach, yet most major movies fail this test. Most movies only have one female lead. Women have always played a subservient role in media, as nothing more than eye candy, or sexual escapades. And when a couple of new stories come out where women treat men like complex beings from a female perspective, Mr. Marche would have us believe it’s because women have contempt for us.
Even in the pages of Esquire, women are eye candy, or they tell jokes while wearing intimate apparel. They can’t be given the same respect men in these pages receive.

As for the economic numbers, Yes, women are making the biggest growth in the job market, but that’s to be expected when there were so few of them previously. The only way for men to grow the same way is to push out women from those numbers. And we’re not talking about a finite number, because the job market is growing. A women entering the market isn’t pushing out a man.

It might be easier to just blame women for the failings of men, but it lacks personal responsibility. Men are responsible for their own fates, and women are attempting to have the same basic rights.

I’m just surprised and appalled such a poorly thought out article would even get written by a thinking human being, let alone past the editorial staff of such a powerful media establishment. But I guess my reaction is proof you did your job.

Steven Kippel