After Charleston, Thoughts on Gun Violence – 7/4/2015

July 4, 2015 1 comment

The Charleston shootings follow on the heels of so many other mass shootings. Without even thinking about it, I recall Newtown, Aurora, Gabby Giffords, Fort Hood, and Virginia Tech. I know there are others I have missed. The pattern is depressingly well-established.

Unfortunately, the response to the shootings has also been predictably defeatist. Supposedly, nothing can be done about gun violence because of the political power of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

I want to suggest a different approach. As I have written previously, gun violence is fundamentally a public health problem. Reducing gun violence should be seen as a public health emergency. No sane society should ignore a problem that is killing 30,000 citizens a year. That figures to 85 Americans killed everyday by gun violence, an absurdly high tally.

Regardless of your position on the Second Amendment and gun rights, I would assume everyone has an interest in bringing down that number.

Professor David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health has outlined a creative agenda for curbing gun violence. He compares reducing gun violence to campaigns against cigarettes, unintentional poisoning, and for motor vehicle safety. Hemenway thinks we could have the same kind of success with curbing gun violence that we have had with other public health campaigns.

Hemenway’s multi-dimensional approach is not the same as any past formula I have seen. I think it is a bit outside the box. He suggests a campaign to de-glorify guns much as was done with cigarettes. He argues that through much of the 20th century, TV, movies and advertising glorified cigarettes as “symbols of modernity, autonomy, power, and sexuality”. The campaign against cigarettes which has included media spots, warning labels, peer stories and celebrity testimonials has been undeniably effective. Hemenway says between 1966-2010, the prevalence of cigarette smoking among U.S. adults has reduced by more than half from 43% to 19%.

The same type of campaign could be run to de-glorify guns which I think are bizarrely venerated here in America. Guns could be associated with weakness, cowardice, irrationality, death and disability. The aftermath of gun violence has been ignored and minimized. There are no television shows about the agony of parents who have lost their children to senseless shootings.

Maybe it is stating the obvious but so many shootings are utterly senseless. Often, they are the quick confluence of bad judgment, passion, snap decision-making and a convenient tool of devastating lethality. A lifetime of regret can follow from a very brief bad moment in time.

While it really deserves a separate column of its own, you do not hear much from the NRA about firearm suicides. Almost 50 Americans a day kill themselves with a gun. I think the too easy availability of firearms to people at risk increases the suicide rate. It is admittedly hard to identify in advance all those who are likely to attempt suicide.

We need to change the associations about guns in the public mind. There are no shortage of negative images which could be employed. Maybe gun violence needs the equivalent image of a Marlboro man dying of lung cancer. It would be good to see ads with Tom Brady, Richard Sherman, Jennifer Lawrence, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, George Clooney and Samuel L. Jackson downing guns. There are way too many casual images of movie stars shooting at other people with a sanitized and unreal ending.

Hemenway has also suggested a new national tax on all purchases of firearms and ammunition. He compares a tax of that nature to the tax on cigarettes. Such a tax could provide a stable revenue source to fund a national endowment to benefit those harmed by gun violence and their families. It could also fund prevention efforts.

In its May/June issue, Mother Jones Magazine focused on the costs of gun violence. The magazine asked Ted Miller, a researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, to look at the direct and indirect costs of gun violence. For direct costs, Miller included emergency services, police investigations, long-term medical and mental health care as well as court and prison costs. For indirect costs, Miler looked at lost income, losses to employers and impact on quality of life. Miller based amounts on the impact on quality of life from jury awards for pain and suffering to victims of wrongful injury and death.

Miller used data from 2012 and came up with an annual cost of gun violence in America as exceeding $229 billion. Certainly that estimate can be contested but it is hard to argue against some gigantic price tag.

Not surprisingly, there is not good data on the costs of gun violence for victims, their families, their employers and everyone else. The major reason for the lack of good data is political pressure from the NRA and the pro-gun lobby to block research related to firearms. The pro-gun forces have successfully pressured politicians to ban funding for research at the Centers for Disease Control about gun-related injury and death.

Talk about a war on science. How can we even get an objective picture of the harm when an interest group directly involved in the matter of study prohibits any government investigation? I do find it amazing that the gun lobby has gotten away with such a suppression of science. Imagine if the cigarette companies had been able to block research on the relationship between smoking and lung cancer. There would be many more people dying today.

Hemenway suggests many other good ideas to heighten gun safety. He proposes key or security code locking devices on guns and reducing magazine clips. I also wonder about firearm personalization technology, including fingerprint readers.I would think the technology could prevent accidental gun deaths and it also could reduce crime because stolen guns with fingerprint readers would render the gun useless.

One other crazy thing: firearms and ammunition are exempt from consumer-oriented safety standards. Neither the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission nor any other federal agency oversees safety regulation for these dangerous products. We have the ridiculous situation where hand-held hair dryers, sleepwear and toys are more scrutinized for danger than guns. In effect, gun manufacturers have carte blanche to sell whatever highly militarized products they want regardless of how inappropriate they are for a civilian market.

Part of the power of the gun rights proponents has been their success in framing the issue. They present all gun matters as a question of individual constitutional rights. They would argue that regulating at all infringes on their fundamental rights. What they are not acknowledging is that no constitutional right is an absolute trump card. All constitutional rights, including the Second Amendment, are subject to some regulation. Non-lawyers might not know it but that is not contested in the legal world.

Nothing I propose here interferes with the Second Amendment rights of citizens who want to deer hunt or do any other lawful hunting. I just think that as demonstrated in frequent mass shooting like Charleston the Unites States has a terrible public health problem with firearms that demands attention.

While gun-related legislative efforts at both the federal and state level have been disappointing, I would encourage advocates to be in it for the long haul. Anyone familiar with legislatures knows that legislative success often only comes after a lengthy history of repeated failures. Nothing stays the same. I believe persistence and rationality will ultimately win out on reducing gun violence.

Some Highlights of the 2015 Montreal Jazz Festival – posted 7/1/ 2015

July 2, 2015 2 comments

I was very lucky to get to Montreal this year for the first few days of the Jazz Festival. It is a wonderful event with people coming from all over the world to Montreal.

For those who do not know about it, the festival goes on for two weeks. It is usually the last week of June and the first week of July. There are a number of stages set up in the area of the festival and music runs from late afternoon until midnight. Most of the shows are free although there are some paying shows too.

I wanted to highlight a few groups who played, including a couple I did not know about before:

Freshlyground – I must confess I did not know anything about Freshlyground, a group from Cape Town, South Africa, before they played outdoors on the biggest stage at the festival. The group is sensational. I think playing before a large crowd outdoors may be the best way to see them. The energy of their live performance, the danceability of the music, the good vibes generated were memorable. It was one of the best performances I have ever seen at the Montreal Jazz Festival and I started going about 15 years ago. For me, Freshlyground was the highlight of the whole festival.

They did a 9pm show and an 11pm followup last Sunday night. After hearing the first performance, I hung around to hear the second show. Some of the numbers I liked included Take Me To The Dance, Buttercup, and Fire is Low. Their most recent CD is titled Take Me To The Dance.

The band has seven members, including musicians from South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. The lead singer is Zolani Mahola, a very dynamic performer. She shared some of her past and her family did not escape the ravages of apartheid. The band members are quite diverse and reflective of the composition of the new South Africa. She and Kyla-Rose Smith, the violinist in the band, were also impressively gymnastic. The band was fun to watch.

I guess Freshlyground has been around for over a decade. They do have a big following in South Africa. They collaborated with Shakira in performing Waka Waka: This Time for Africa, which was a theme song of the 2010 World Cup.

They are just completing a North American tour. I am sure they will be back. Catch a performance if you can. You will not regret it.

Stephen Barry Band – This group was a total surprise to me although they have been together for 40 years. I guess they have mostly played in Canada. They are a very accomplished Montreal-based blues band. For a bunch of old guys they can still play and play really well. They have a new album, Treat Her Right and I liked that cut. They also did a fine version of the Rolling Stones song Salt of the Earth. As a group they really seemed to be enjoying the performing and there was a great comfort level there. It looked like they were great pals. It was cool to see people doing something they obviously love and doing it so well.

James Cotton Blues Band – Watching James Cotton was like watching history. Cotton is now 80 and he needs a cane and he can’t really sing anymore but he can play blues harmonica. Before his concert performance, the Montreal Jazz Festival honored James Cotton as the second recipient of their annual B.B. King award. The festival gives the award to recognize artists who have significantly advanced the blues.

The experience reminded me of a time I saw John Lee Hooker near the end of his career at a concert in Seattle. I felt lucky I got to see James Cotton. There is something great about honoring old blues legends.

It is an addictive experience to go to the Montreal Jazz Festival. When I was living in Alaska, I was very bummed out that I could not go that year. Once you go, you keep wanting to go back.

The Charleston Shootings: A Historical Perspective on South Carolina and Racism – posted 6/21/2015

June 21, 2015 1 comment

In the awful news department, the shootings of the nine black people in Charleston South Carolina is hard to surpass. Like so many, since the Charleston shootings happened, I have followed reactions of politicians and others.

The Mayor of Charleston, Joseph Riley, called the shootings an act of “one hateful person”. He said, “The only reason that someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate”. Riley also said the lack of gun control in the United States was “insane”.

Various presidential candidates have weighed in. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry initially suggested the fatal shootings were a drug-induced accident. On CNN, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said the alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, was just “one of those whacked out kids”. Graham went on to say: “There are people out there looking for Christians to kill them”.

To date, I have not seen the Charleston shootings placed in a historical context. Most politicians seem to see the shootings as isolated tragedies outside history and carried out by a crazed lone gunman. To see things that way is shallow and it assumes terrible things like the Charleston shootings exist independent of past events.

South Carolina has a long history as one of the most racist states in the country. I don’t think the shooter’s actions can be understood outside that background. While senseless murder borders on the incomprehensible, the shooter’s extreme racism came out of his world and life experience.

The tradition of racism in South Carolina long predates its history becoming an American state. The African slave trade had deep roots in South Carolina. It has been estimated that after the Middle Passage over 40% of African slaves reaching the British colonies before the American revolution passed through South Carolina.

The key port of entry was Charleston and Sullivan’s Island, a nearby island. Slaves were typically screened for disease on the island before they were sold in Charleston’s slave markets. Many slaves went on to work in the rice fields in South Carolina, a particularly brutal work environment.

Before discussing South Carolina’s history, I did want to mention a bit more about the Middle Passage, the slaves’ journey from Africa to America. The crowding on the voyage was so severe, the ventilation so bad, diseases so rampant, and the food so poor during the trip (which lasted five weeks to three months) that a loss of 14-20% of “cargo” was considered the normal price of doing business. Millions of slaves experienced that hellish journey.

South Carolina became rich off the slave trade. No other colony relied on slaves more. By 1760, Charleston was among the richest towns in America.

However, the white population lived in some fear of slave revolts. In 1739, the Stono Rebellion, a slave revolt, resulted in 21 whites and 44 blacks killed. Most of the captured blacks were executed – a few who survived were sold to markets in the West Indies. Severed heads of the rebel slaves were placed on stakes on the road outside Charleston.

South Carolina passed a comprehensive Negro Act of 1740 that made it illegal for slaves to move abroad, assemble in groups, raise food, earn money and learn to write English. Owners were given the right to kill rebellious slaves if necessary. If the slaveowner perceived the slave as “rebellious” that was enough to justify killing them.

Even after South Carolina joined the United States, slavery remained its way of life.

In 1822, Denmark Vesey, a former slave who had gained his freedom, planned a slave insurrection that was to take place on Bastille Day. Vesey was co-founder of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church – the same church the Charleston shooter just violated.

It is a fascinating story but Vesey did not succeed. Two slaves who were loyal to their owners informed on him. The South Carolina court ultimately convicted 67 men of conspiracy and hanged 35, including Vesey. Four white men were also arrested in connection with Vesey’s planned insurrection. The white community in Charleston feared the growing abolitionist movement in the North. The conviction of the white men was a warning to white sympathizers who might support black slaves.

Interestingly, the mayor of Charleston at that time, James Hamilton, blamed the insurrection on Black Christianity and the AME African Church, an increase in slave literacy, and misguided paternalism by masters toward slaves. I do wonder if the Charleston shooter picked the Emanuel AME Church because of its long historical role and leadership of the Black struggle.

In the 1990’s, African-American activists in Charleston proposed the erection of a memorial to honor Vesey’s anti-slavery effort. That effort did not meet with success. In 2014, a statue representing Vesey as a carpenter was completed but it was not placed near the main tourist areas.

On April 12, 1861, cadets from the Citadel fired the first shots against the United States at Fort Sumter. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union even before that. The secession declaration outlined South Carolina’s principal reason for leaving the United States:

“…increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery.”

At the time of the Civil War, only 2% of South Carolina’s black population was free although African Americans did comprise the majority of the state’s population.

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the South Carolina Legislature passed new Black Codes (also known as Jim Crow laws) to control the work and movement of the allegedly free former slaves. These codes essentially attempted to reimpose slavery by another name.

Many South Carolina whites felt betrayed by the actions of their ex-slaves. During the Civil War, African Americans had deserted en masse and many joined the Union army. Not too long after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan emerged, dedicated to reinstituting white supremacy.

South Carolina was one of the most notorious zones of Klan activity. Between 1877-1950, South Carolina had 164 lynchings in 36 different counties. Lynchings were a form of terrorism designed to maximize fear among African Americans. They were a tool to enforce segregation. Lynchings were often very public events where Black men were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking crowds.

After President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South in 1877, the white power structure worked to unravel the reforms of the Radical Republicans. South Carolina again returned to unrestricted white supremacy. In fact, white supremacy was state policy. Blacks were excluded from the South Carolina political system in every way and were prohibited from voting.

The most famous South Carolina politician of the late 19th century was Governor Ben Tillman. Tillman had a deep-seated fear of Black power. The white leadership followed what was known as the Mississippi Plan designed to disenfranchise blacks. The plan made voting registration more difficult through the use of poll taxes and literacy tests.

Segregation remained the norm until the advent of the Civil Rights Movement. The State had enforced legal racial segregation in all public facilities. On the extralegal side, night riders firebombed churches and homes with the ongoing intent to intimidate. Black churches have long been targets of white supremacists. I am old enough to remember the church bombing in Birmingham Alabama when four little girls were murdered.

For 60 years, African Americans had no political representation in South Carolina. It was not until the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Blacks regained suffrage.

While much has changed in South Carolina, the Confederate flag still flies at the state capital. Imagine if the swastika flag still flew over Germany and if Germans justified it on the basis of “heritage”. South Carolina is awash in Confederate memorials allegedly celebrating its Southern heritage.

The actions of the Charleston shooter cannot be seen apart from the racist history of South Carolina. The shooter said his intention was “to shoot Black people”. Allegedly he said, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go”.

Racism is learned. Even though it is pathological, bigotry is not mental illness. Pictures in the media of the shooter show him with the Confederate flag as well as the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). These are all symbols of the ideology of white supremacy.

I would speculate that the shooter turned to white supremacist ideology to reverse his own feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy as an unemployed high school dropout. White supremacy gave him an identity.

The shooter’s actions are consistent with a powerful strain in the history of his state. Unless we see the underlying racism, we will not be challenging the forces who push the shooter and people like him.

Will Social Security Be There For Today’s Young People? – posted 6/14/2015

June 14, 2015 1 comment

In August, Social Security will celebrate its 80th birthday. I think it is fair to say the program has been solidly established for a long time now. Every month, 165 million workers make Social Security contributions and over 58 million receive earned benefits. 93 percent of all workers are covered by Social Security.

In spite of this most impressive, consistent, and uninterrupted record, many young people have been led to believe the program will not be there for them when they retire and need it. According to one poll I saw, half of Americans between the ages of 18-29 don’t believe Social Security will exist by the time they reach retirement. I must say I am surprised by how many young people seem to believe that.

I was jolted when my own son Eric recently voiced the same sentiment. He said that since middle school he and his friends have not believed Social Security would endure for them. Eric is now 33.

While the belief Social Security will not be there appears to be widely held, nothing could be further from the truth. There may be more evidence for the Loch Ness monster, UFOs’ in Rozwell, New Mexico, and Bigfoot than there is for the demise of Social Security.

Social Security is far more solvent and strong than its critics and doubters seem to realize. Even if no new measures are taken to shore up the program, the 2014 Social Security Trustees Report found that Social Security can pay all benefits until 2033. After 2033, Social Security could still pay three quarters of scheduled benefits for another 50 years after that using its tax income. And that is again with policymakers doing nothing.

Of course, there are plenty of reforms Congress could initiate which would strengthen, secure, and expand the program for the indefinite future.

I would suggest that information about Social Security is contested terrain. Since its inception, it has been subject to a campaign of misinformation and lies by its opponents. They have wanted to shake confidence, turn people against the program, and ultimately destroy it.

The effort to persuade young people that Social Security will not be there for them is only the latest episode in an 80 year battle. I think young people are being conned by the same extreme right wing, moneyed interests who have always opposed the program. It is instructive to examine the history.

Initially when President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration created the program, the Republican Party opposed Social Security altogether. The 1936 Republican presidential nominee, Alf Landon, who ran against Roosevelt, called Social Security “a fraud on the workingman” and “a cruel hoax”. Landon tried to scare the American people with fantasies about federal snooping by a vast array of bureaucrats who would be collecting information. President Roosevelt won reelection by a crushing margin winning 61 percent of the popular vote.

Next came the court challenges to the Social Security Act. In Helvering v Davis, a 1937 case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Social Security was constitutionally permissible as an exercise of federal power to spend for the general welfare and did not contravene the 10th Amendment.

After sustaining these losses, opponents of Social Security retreated and were more marginalized. There was a long period of time when the program gained wider acceptance, including in the Republican Party. No one knew what President Eisenhower would think about Social Security but he evolved into a strong supporter. He expanded the program to cover 10 million more Americans who had not previously been covered. These included farmers, domestic workers, and self-employed professionals.

A split developed in the Republican Party between more extreme right wingers and moderate forces. Some Republicans opposed all New Deal programs including Social Security; some believed Social Security should become a means-tested welfare program; and some supported the program.

Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who became the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, reflected the more right wing perspective on Social Security. He advocated making Social Security voluntary. During the New Hampshire primary, he was on the defensive because he had created the impression he would abolish Social Security. President Johnson politically annihilated Goldwater and caused much soul searching in the Republican Party, with different factions drawing different conclusions about the lessons learned.

For a time, the more moderate forces gained ascendancy. It may be forgotten but it was President Richard Nixon who initiated the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, a critical safety net program for the poor and disabled. President Ford ran for president on the theme that he would preserve the integrity and solvency of Social Security.

Whatever expectations may have been about what President Reagan would do, he created the Greenspan Commission which only very modestly reformed Social Security. When Reagan signed the bi-partisan Social Security Amendments of 1983 into law, he said:

“This bill demonstrates for all time our nations’s ironclad commitment to Social Security. It assures the elderly that America will always keep the promises made…Our elderly need no longer fear that the checks they depend on will be stopped or reduced…Americans of middle age need no longer worry whether their career-long investment will pay off…And younger people can feel confident that Social Security will still be around when they need it to cushion their retirement.”

Neither the older President Bush nor Kansas Senator Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee, who were both from the moderate wing, wanted to mess with Social Security.

It was President George W. Bush, with his privatization scheme, who broadly opened the door for attacks on Social Security. I recall Bush saying he was going to spend political capital he had accumulated on his effort to privatize Social Security. Although the wildly unpopular effort got nowhere, many long-time criticisms which had been dormant were again voiced.

These included: Social Security is going bankrupt: it is a Ponzi scheme; too much is going to greedy seniors; the program is unfair to young people; you could do better investing on your own: and the only way to stave off catastrophe is to cut benefits, increase the retirement age, and privatize. Critics have derided Social Security as “an entitlement”.

The allegation that Social Security is intergenerational theft is a newer spin. Accompanying that charge is concern about the demographics of a large number of Baby Boomer retirees being supported by a small group of post-Baby Boomers.

In fairness to young people, I do think it is easy to believe the older generation is selling young people out. I would point to the failure of my older generation to act decisively on climate change. Still, the arguments around intergenerational theft are a sham and they are based on a misunderstanding of the program and its solvency.

The opposition to Social Security and the right wing and libertarian intellectual critique of the program have been heavily bankrolled by billionaire interests, including Pete Peterson and the Koch Brothers. These billionaires have created a cottage industry of think tanks, bought academics, talking heads on TV and elected officials to make their extreme views seem mainstream. They are good at messaging.

Their effort to set young against old has been effective. I would encourage young people to consider the sources and the financial interests behind the misinformation being fed.

For a thorough refutation of the arguments of the opponents of Social Security, I would recommend the book Social Security Works by Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson.

As I noted earlier, there are progressive reforms which could go a long way to solving any Social Security solvency concerns. I would suggest increasing revenue by raising the maximum amount of wages subject to the payroll tax which now encompasses only 83% of covered wages.

Income over $117,000 is not subject to payroll tax. So our wealthiest billionaires pay the same payroll tax as someone who makes $117,000 annually. There are many ways the payroll tax on the wealthiest could be increased.

I believe Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a bill that would impose the payroll tax on income above $250,000 a year. There are 8.3 million American workers who make more than $110,000 a year and almost 2 million who make over $250,000 annually. That move alone would generate significant money and would dramatically strengthen Social Security for the next 75 years.

Simply as a matter of equity, the very rich should pay their fair share. Why should billionaires be paying the same amount of tax as someone who makes $117,000 a year? In this context, it is worth pointing out the tremendous growth in income by our 1% over the recent historical period.

Our 2016 presidential nominees should be quizzed closely on whether they favor expanding Social Security or cutting it.

In writing this piece, I know I can be accused of bias as I am writing about the agency I work for. I do have a stake in the program’s continuity and success. I guess I would admit my bias about the importance of the program for the American people. As a 60’s person and a representative of my sometimes maligned and idealistic generation, I feel a responsibility to pass along a healthy Social Security to future generations. I admit I do not like to see young people sold a line.

At the time of its 80th birthday, the original vision of FDR still seems vibrant to me. To quote Roosevelt:

“We can never insure one hundred percent of the populace against one hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age.
This law, too, represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete…It is, in short, a law that will take care of human needs and at the same time provide the United States an economic structure of vastly greater soundness.”

Book Review : “Ghettoside” by Jill Leovy – posted 6/1/2015

June 2, 2015 3 comments

I have to say Ghettoside by Jill Leovy was not what I expected. We are awash in crime fiction, crime-solving TV shows and a million shallow and stereotyped portrayals of inner city crime. Ghettoside is not like any non-fiction book or novel of that genre. It is a very sharply drawn book with compelling characters and a unique perspective.

Leovy takes on the subject of the murder of Black men in America. Through the true story of one murder in Los Angeles County and its successful investigation, she makes a powerful argument.

“…where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.”

Leovy argues that the criminal justice system has preoccupied itself with control, prevention and nuisance abatement rather than responding to victims of violence. She says the criminal justice system has done a poor job in addressing black on black homicide.

It is admittedly a difficult and sensitive topic to tackle. Leovy recognizes the harshness of the American criminal justice system, the racist misuse of capital punishment, the excessively punitive drug laws, and the mass incarceration of young black men but she forcefully argues the State has failed to protect black men from bodily injury and death. Leovy sees too little application of the law – not too much.

Leovy’s theme is quite consistent with the campaign Black Lives Matter which has grown out of the police shootings of young black men. She argues that homicides in the black community have garnered inadequate attention and resources. Generally, these murders are not well-covered by the media. Too often they are ignored completely.

That tragic lack of attention and indifference are rooted in racism and devaluation of Black lives. An L.A. detective coined the term “the Monster” to refer to the epidemic of black on black homicide. Especially in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, there was a crazy ravaging where murder followed murder. Leovy says the murder rate has declined since then but the underlying phenemonon remains.

She says that the lack of media coverage was intended to convey the message that black on black homicide is “small potatoes”. She writes:

“Gangs were a big topic but atrocity, trauma, and lifelong sorrow were not part of the public’s vocabulary about black on black violence. Somehow mainstream America has managed to make a fetish of South Central murders yet still ignores them. The principal aspect of the plague – agony – was constantly underrrated.”

There is nothing cliched or less than three dimensional in Ghettoside. Leovy develops the characters in her story from the victims, to the victims’ families, to the police and homicide detectives. She gets into the role of homicide detective and the special talents required to be a good one. She describes the homicide detectives’ creed this way: “…standing over the body of a murdered prostitute..”She ain’t a whore no more”, he said. “She some daddy’s baby.” To the homicide detective, the murdered person, no matter their criminal involvement, deserved justice. As she says, the murdered were inviolate.

Leovy looks hard at high-homicide environments and adds to our understanding of why there have been so many killings. She says a large share can be described by two words: men fighting.Stupid grudges, debts, competition over women, snitching, and drunken antics – all have led to murder and lasting feuds. Whatever the original basis for the dispute, the desire for vengeance intrudes. The fixation on honor and respect in circumstances of weak legal authority leads to more acts of violence.

Since the 1980’s and 1990’s there has been a decline in the murder rate in Los Angeles County. Leavy provides a nuanced explanation for the decline. She cites an easing of residential hypersegregation. She says that integration and mobility into mixed communities tended to reduce homicide rates. A reduced caseload has then allowed for better archiving, investigation of cold cases and clearing new cases. Detectives have more time and new technology allows for better, faster matches of bullets to revolvers.

Interestingly, she thinks an increase in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits paid to poor black people has been a positive. While SSI is often maligned, she argues that the receipt of SSI has reduced homicides. Leovy cites the federal Second Chance Act of 2005 which inspired efforts to provide SSI to prisoners upon reentry. Many prisoners qualify for SSI on the basis of mental illness such as bipolar disorder and ADD. Leovy explains it this way:

“An eight hundred dollar a month check for an unemployed black ex-felon makes a big difference to him. He can move, ditch his homeys, commit fewer crimes, walk away from more fights.”

Leovy remarks that SSI has been a transformational positive force. She says “cold cash paid out to individuals is a powerful thing”. It has countered extreme economic marginalization. Leovy sees SSI as saving many from being murdered or maimed. This is a perspective that is rarely if ever heard but it makes perfect sense. When people have nothing and opportunities are totally lacking, what are the alternatives?

While there are many cool things about this book, it is uniquely a product of personal reporting. For years Leovy had created a website called the Homicide Report. She attempted to provide a comprehensive accounting of every homicide in Los Angeles County. She began seeing patterns and as she wrote she tried to penetrate the mystery of disproportionate black homicide. She particularly listened to the bereaved – all those parents, children, spouses and siblings who had suffered. I don’t believe anyone has attempted anything like this before.

At the same time as Leovy offers up this book, she maintains a degree of humility about understanding all the murders. She recognizes that black on black homicide remains an ongoing issue. I do think that the book offers many insights into how police departments and our larger society could reform and do a better job at addressing the roots of violence. She makes clear that we have brushed over tremendous tragedies out of indifference and racism. I hope this book is widely read. It takes up a significant problem that has been largely swept under the rug.

Anger at Poor People – posted 5/25/2015

May 25, 2015 4 comments

Being hostile to poor people is a long American tradition. Historically, the American people have fluctuated between a desire to help the deserving needy and an alternating desire to castigate and punish the undeserving poor. The tension between these conflicting desires lies behind public policy disputes about poverty and what to do about it.

Nationally, in the state legislatures this session, it would appear that anger at the unworthy poor had the upper hand. Here I am thinking about a new Kansas welfare law signed by Governor Sam Brownback that restricts Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients from accessing more than $25 of their monthly benefit money per day from ATMs.

The Kansas law contains many other restrictions including a prohibition against spending TANF cash assistance in retail liquor stores, casinos, tattoo parlors, massage parlors, body piercing parlors, nail salons, lingerie shops, movie theaters, swimming pools and cruise ships.

Kansas is not the only state that introduced legislation like that. A Missouri bill introduced by Republican state Rep. Rick Brattin outlaws the use of TANF funds to purchase chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood and steak. The Missouri bill has not yet passed.

Questions arise about these restrictions. How are TANF recipients, who often do not have bank accounts, going to pay rent or utility bills if they can only take out $25 at a time? What about ATM fees? Won’t TANF recipients get hit up on every withdrawal so they are losing precious and needed dollars? And as for purchases, is buying seafood bad? How about paying to go swimming? I guess the worst thing you can be is a welfare swimmer who loves tuna fish.

The laws do wreak havoc on lingerie-wearing, tattooed, energy-drinking TANF recipients who are getting massages, gambling, and watching movies on cruise ships. If you are from Kansas, I can understand that you would want to go on cruises.

Seriously, these type laws, whatever their intentions, reflect a mean-spirited mentality. The view is not one that sees poverty as a result of misfortune or social class. It is about bad persons. Poverty is seen as a willful result of personal deficiencies, laziness, and vice.

In his book The Undeserving Poor, the historian Michael Katz fleshes out the long historical consistency of this view. He quotes an 1834 sermon preached by Reverend Charles Burroughs, who spoke at the opening of a new chapel in the poorhouse in Portsmouth, New Hampshire:

“…Pauperism is the consequence of willful error, of shameful indolence, of vicious habits. It is a misery of human creation, the pernicious work of man, the lamentable consequence of bad principles and morals.”

The anger in this view is palpable and it is still with us today. Many Americans direct their anger downward on the poor rather than upward at the superrich. Possibly that is because most Americans are physically closer to poor people whether in supermarkets, other stores or nearby neighborhoods. They personally observe the poor. The superrich live apart in a rarified world beyond direct personal observation. It is easier to be mad at someone you see and experience than people you may envy who are a distant abstraction.

Overlooked in the welfare discussion is the national decline in the number of people on TANF. States everywhere have dramatically pared down their welfare rolls. Yet, an almost irrational hatred of welfare lives on. In its new legislation, Kansas also lowered the lifetime limit recipients could stay on TANF from 48 months down to 36 months. The original 1996 welfare reform legislation allowed states up to 60 months.

I would suggest that anger at the poor reflected in the Kansas and Missouri welfare laws is misdirected. Whatever their faults, the poor have minimal power to shape our political world. The same cannot be said of the superrich. Their wealth translates into inordinate political power . They buy politicians to do their bidding and their priorities do shape our world.

So why do the poor get blamed so much? I think there is a lack of understanding of social class and our class structure. Many are uncomfortable with talking about it but class is the dirty secret of American life. Even with our increasing economic inequality, talking about it is a little taboo. I do think that class has a pervasive influence on the way we live, work and think.

Americans are conditioned to think we are all middle class. Maybe there are some really rich people and some poor people at the ends of the spectrum but most people are alleged to be in the middle. This view is part of the mythology of America. I would argue that most Americans are working class. Unlike Europeans, we do not generally look at the world through a class lens and class consciousness is not recognized as a virtue.

This is too bad because, among world views, I think class provides a powerful tool for making sense of the world. Not everybody starts in the same place in this life. The prep school-attending child of great wealth is in a way different place than the inner city, public school-attending poor child. The advantages for the child of extreme wealth are profound, multi-faceted, and lifelong.

Those born into a family on welfare are near the bottom of the class structure. Focusing on their vices obscures their social class position. It is their class position – not their personal qualities – which largely dictate their life opportunities. One unfortunate feature of our increasing economic inequality has been the decline in social mobility. While there always are exceptions, class is a more important determinant than has been recognized.

I know there are different ways to define class. I should say that I am defining class based on the power and authority people have at work. Working class people typically have little control over the pace or content of their work.

Over the last four decades, the American working class has experienced lower real income, longer hours at work, and fewer protections by unions and government regulation. Big business shipped many of the formerly good paying manufacturing jobs overseas as they sought cheaper labor elsewhere outside the United States.

If you consider the 2016 presidential candidates, with the notable exception of Senator Bernie Sanders, the candidates have precious little to say about our class system. Republicans usually say people who mention social class are promoting class war. They ignore the reality that our Big Business class is far and away the most class conscious about pursuing its interests. When Big Business advances its interests at the expense of labor that is not called class war. That is business as usual.

While the Republicans are a coalition of interests including Big Business, social conservatives, and libertarians, from a class viewpoint, they consistently reflect the interests of the superrich.

Democrats generally do not talk about the working class any more. Now they talk about appealing to the middle class. I do not think it is an accident that Democrats have lost some appeal to working class voters. If your appeal is more to rich yuppies and professionals, working people notice. To their credit, the Democrats do offer some support for raising the minimum wage and addressing income inequality.

The writer Michael Lind once wrote:

“The American oligarchy spares no pains in promoting the belief that it does not exist, but the success of its disappearing act depends on equally strenuous efforts on the part of an American public anxious to believe in egalitarian fictions and unwilling to see what is hidden in plain sight.”

Demonizing and being angry at the poor reflects a deep misunderstanding of American politics.

Lesean McCoy, Chip Kelly and the Trivialization of Racism – posted 5/17/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 5/20/2015

May 17, 2015 4 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on May 20, 2015 under the title “The Racism Game”.

The obsessive Deflategate scandal aside, probably no story in the football offseason was more surprising than the trade of Lesean McCoy. The Philadelphia Eagles traded McCoy, a star running back, to the Buffalo Bills for linebacker Kiko Alonzo. In 2013, McCoy was the leading rusher in the NFL and in 2014 he finished third.

The whole episode would not be worthy of much discussion if not for McCoy’s public comments since the trade.

McCoy accused the Eagles’ coach Chip Kelly (former New Hampshire guy, by the way) of racism for making the trade. He said Kelly did not like or respect stars and he felt Kelly was getting rid of all the good Black players. In this connection he mentioned Desean Jackson, a former Eagle, who was a star wide receiver. Kelly had released Jackson the previous season. Jackson signed with the Redskins.

Others in the media like Stephen A. Smith of ESPN also accused Kelly of racism. He pointed to Kelly’s handling of wide receiver Riley Cooper after Cooper’s drunken, racist comments at a Kenny Chesney concert. Kelly let Cooper stay on the team. He gave Cooper a chance to make amends.

Since there may be no worse accusation than being called a racist, what is the evidence behind McCoy’s accusation of racism?

It appears to be that Kelly traded him. The Eagles did not want to pay the many millions McCoy wanted. The Bills signed McCoy to a 5 year, $40 million contract that includes $26.5 million in guaranteed money.

But what about McCoy’s accusation that Kelly is getting rid of all the good Black players? In free agency in 2015, the Eagles signed, among others, linebacker Brad Jones, cornerback Byron Maxwell, cornerback Walter Thurmond, running back Ryan Matthews, running back DeMarco Murray and wide receiver Miles Austin. In the draft, they took wide receiver Nelson Agholor and cornerback Eric Rowe. All are Black.

As for the rest of the team, Darren Sproles, Demeco Ryans, Fletcher Cox and Jordan Matthews are all fine players. Maybe not stars like McCoy but very good football players. They are also Black.

I think McCoy’s accusation of Kelly being racist was utterly unfounded. He was sliming a reputation out of anger because he was traded. But even worse, McCoy was unintentionally trivializing the meaning of racism.

False accusations rebound to the detriment of the accuser. They also are confusing because they point in the wrong direction. They do not direct attention to the real racism that does exist.

What McCoy said presents an unfair view of Kelly and his approach to coaching. Although McCoy is a great football player, he appears to be a narcissistic, self-centered multi-millionaire. I would guess that along with the salary cap McCoy’s exit from the Eagles had more to do with his not buying into Kelly’s system. Kelly is putting together his own team that has almost no leftovers from the Andy Reid era.

The most insightful article I have seen about Kelly’s unique approach to football coaching was from Philadelphia Daily News reporter, Paul Domowitch. In a piece wriiten on May 8, Domowitch argues that what Kelly wants has nothing to do with race or color.

“It is about work ethic and intelligence and commitment. It is about wanting smart players who, regardless of race, creed or salary-cap number, will buy into the Chip Kelly Plan and have an unquenchable desire to get better, no matter how much success they’ve already achieved.”

Domowitch cites a book by a Stanford psychology professor, Carol Dweck, as important to Kelly. The book is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck contrasts what she calls a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Domowitch says Kelly wants players with a growth mindset. That is players who believe they can expand their potential through years of passion, hard work and training.

Kelly is a sports science guy. He very carefully looks at things like sleep regimen and nutrition. The team creates personalized performance smoothies for each player. Players wear sleep monitors so that coaches can correct poor performance due to lack of sleep. Kelly and the Eagles have invested heavily in strength and conditioning coaches. To quote Domowitch:

“Kelly wants players with a growth mindset who believe the harder they work the better they will continue to get. Contrary to what McCoy believes, he has absolutely no problem coaching stars. He just doesn’t care much for coaching players with star mentalities, black or white.”

When I heard about McCoy’s comments, I recalled another story I had read about Kelly from Dave Zirin, a sportswriter I respect. In 2011, Zirin was touring the country with Dr. John Carlos, a former Olympian and anti-racist campaigner. Carlos was one of the two Black athletes who had raised a clenched fist on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics. That was an iconic and electrifying moment that galvanized anti-racists world-wide.

Zirin wrote how on the 2011 tour they were trying to speak to student-athletes in big-time NCAA football and basketball programs but overwhelmingly they got no response or a negative response from these programs. Only one coach from a big university sports program asked Carlos to come and speak to his team. That was Chip Kelly at Oregon.

In the piece, Zirin says he called John Carlos to get his recollections of the experience with Kelly. Carlos recalled that Kelly introduced him to his players as a person of principle and resolve and Kelly said that any successful team needed to share those kind of principles if they wanted to rise above being ordinary. Carlos remembered Kelly being passionate in having his players know the history of 1968 and the sacrifices made by Dr. Carlos and his generation of Black athletes.

Now does that sound like someone who is a racist?

I would suggest that trying to read in racist motivation to a football trade is a waste of time.

Most people seem to think of racism as something bad that someone says. While it certainly can be that, I would suggest quite a different understanding.

Racism is institutionalized in America. It is deeply embedded in our social structure with roots going back to slavery. We have ghettos in every major city; discrimination in housing, employment, health care and education; mass incarceration of young Black men; and, blatant police misconduct directed at minorities.

Racism is not about an unhappy football-playing multi-millionaire. We should be looking at the living and working conditions of the millions of everyday people who are struggling with little or no financial security. It is those conditions that need to be addressed.

Even with some good initiatives, the ascendance of the Obama presidency has not changed much for the masses of Black people in America (this is also true for poor and middle income people of all races). Obama’s presidency has been important symbolically but on issues like income inequality, it is hard to argue poor and middle income people have gained ground.

In surveying the field of potential Presidential candidates for 2016, I would say no candidate has distinguished him or herself by staking out a strong anti-racist platform. We remain in a dishonest period of denial and unconscious racism. We still pretend to phony colorblindness.

Accusations like McCoy’s do a disservice to the real struggle against racism. We need some truth tellers in the political arena and right now, they are lacking.


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