Race & Ethnicity

Freedom Fighters—the Next Generation

AP Images/Phil Sears

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is synonymous with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. As a leader of mass movements, King was surpassed by few, and in high school textbooks he is treated as the personification of the civil-rights movement. King and other movement leaders, however, made up only one strand of the 1960s civil-rights struggle. Grassroots organizers—many now forgotten—helping African Americans in the South register to vote even as King spoke in front of the Lincoln Memorial, made up the other. The spirit of those people and the groups they belonged to, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC (pronounced “snick”), can be found today in the dozens of grassroots groups across the country, that work to protect voting rights or expand access to a quality public education.

Prison Reform: No Longer Politically Toxic?

AP Images/Rich Pedroncelli

In the two weeks since Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would no longer charge low-level drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences—and would consider releasing some elderly, nonviolent prisoners early—something remarkable has happened. There’s been no major outcry from the right. While the attorney general certainly has no shortage of outspoken detractors in the Republican ranks, the initiative hasn’t prompted any major voices to decry him as “soft on crime.” In fact, in plenty of conservative circles, he’s earned praise—or something close to it. “Eric Holder gets something marginally right,” wrote the Daily Caller.

One Way to End the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Since the Great Recession began in 2007, no one’s had more trouble finding work than low-income Asian, black, and Hispanic male teenagers. That’s the main idea in two recent articles in The Wall Street Journal (available here and here) that rely on research from Andrew Sum, a professor who produces a remarkable number of papers for Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies (CLMS).

Dangerous Deportations

AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini

The Mexican state of Tamaulipas sits across the border from Texas, and it can be a scary place. With one of the largest ports of entry to the United States, Tamaulipas is a coveted drug-trafficking corridor disputed by the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas, and an outside gang called Sinaloa. The spiral into violence began in 2006 when the Mexican government started an all-out-war against these criminal organizations. At the height of conflict, newsrooms got attacked, battles would often involve grenades, and gruesome mass killings rose, even as the military patrolled the streets. Drug-trafficking organizations are not only into smuggling these days; they engage in theft, piracy, extortion, and, more recently, kidnapping.

Ed Davis's Minority Report

AP Photo/Bizuayehu Tesfaye

When two homemade bombs derailed the Boston Marathon on April 15, longtime Mayor Thomas Menino was laid up in Brigham and Women’s Hospital, recovering from his latest setback in a string of recent ailments. The mayor of two decades immediately checked out of critical care to attend police and media briefings; but in a wheelchair with his medical bracelet still snug around his wrist, Menino couldn't deliver the sort of reassuring rhetoric that Rudy Giuliani did for New Yorkers after September 11, when he stood with rage and pride atop a mountain of World Trade Center wreckage.

With Hizzoner on the sidelines, Americans sought answers from a number of surrogate authority figures, none of whom calmed the public quite like Boston Police Department (BPD) Commissioner Ed Davis. Tall and awkward but confident, with an endearing New England brogue, Davis reached through the news cameras, wrapped his meaty arms around America, and promised a swift response. In the time since, the commissioner has amassed admirers all the way to Capitol Hill; for the accolades, pundits often cite his handling of operations after the bombing, and his coordinating with outside agencies to immobilize the Tsarnaev brothers. Such admiration is now fueling reports that Davis may be considered to head the Department of Homeland Security—even though his hero status is purely superficial, and based more on a hunch about the commissioner's character than on his actual abilities.

The Ex-Con Factor

Mercedies Harris was 27 in 1990, when he was arrested for drug possession and distribution in Fairfax, Virginia. Harris had served in the Marines, but the death of his brother in 1986—killed by a hit-and-run driver—sent him down a familiar path. “I was angry and I couldn’t find the guy who did it,” Harris says. “I got into drugs to find a way to medicate myself.”

Upon his release in 2003, Harris, who had earned his GED in prison, found a job and began to rebuild his life. He faced the usual practical challenges: “I couldn’t get on a lease, I had no insurance, I had no medical coverage, my driver’s license was expired.” But he found one obstacle that was especially difficult to overcome: He couldn’t vote. Virginia is one of four states—along with Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky—that strip voting rights from felons for life. The U.S. is the world’s only democracy that permits permanent disenfranchisement. While most states have some restrictions on felons voting, it takes a decree from the governor or a clemency board to restore voting rights in the four states with lifetime bans. In Virginia alone, 450,000 residents are disenfranchised. In Florida, the total is an astonishing 1.5 million.

Our Failure to Stop You from Voting Means We Weren't Trying to Stop You from Voting

North Carolinians wait to vote in 2008 (Flickr/James Willamor)

North Carolina recently passed what can only be described as an omnibus voter suppression law, including a whole range of provisions from demanding photo IDs to cutting back early voting to restricting registration drives, every single one of which is likely to make it harder for minorities, poor people, and/or young people to register and vote. It's not just the Tar Heel state—across the South, states that have been freed by the Supreme Court from their prior obligation under the Voting Rights Act to get permission from the Justice Department before changing their voting laws are moving with all deliberate speed to make voting as difficult as possible. Since these are Republican states, these laws are going to pass (some have already), and I think it's worth addressing what is fast becoming the main argument Republicans use to defend them.

They've always said that their only intent was to ensure the "integrity" of elections and protect against voter impersonation, a virtually non-existent problem. But they recently realized that they've got a new, and seemingly compelling, piece of evidence they can muster against charges of voter suppression. Many voter ID laws were passed over the last few years (the Supreme Court upheld voter ID in 2008), and as Republicans will tell you (see for example here or here), turnout among blacks hasn't declined, and in some cases has actually gone up. Blacks even turned out at a slightly higher rate than whites overall in the 2012 election. As Rand Paul recently said, "I don't think there is objective evidence that we're precluding African-Americans from voting any longer."

So what's wrong with this argument?

Six Charts that Explain Why Our Prison System Is So Insane

flickr/wwarby

When Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he would be issuing instructions to federal prosecutors that could result in fewer mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, it wasn't the risky policy change it would have been only a few years ago. With crime on a two-decade-long downward arc, politicians and policymakers don't have to worry as much as they used to about being tagged as "soft on crime." In fact, there's so much toughness already built into our criminal-justice system that unless we start lopping off thieves' hands, it couldn't get much tougher. Though the change Holder announced would affect only those convicted of federal crimes, it has brought renewed attention to our enormous prison population.

And just how enormous is it? What follows are the details.

Bloomberg's Stop-And-Frisk Program Is Unconstitutional

AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari

In a major victory for civil rights and civil liberties, a United States District Court Judge has held that the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policies are unconstitutional. Judge Shira Scheindlin's opinion justifying the ruling is a tour de force. Carefully assessing both systematic evidence and the cases of individual litigants, Judge Scheindlin leaves no serious doubt that the NYPD's policies are inconsistent with the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

L.A. Story

The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy: a new model for American liberalism?

flickr/AlphaProject

Take a left as you exit the Long Beach Airport, and you’ll pass three acres of greenery named “Rosie the Riveter Park.” The park stands at the southeast corner of what had once been the mammoth Douglas Aircraft factory, where DC-3s, -4s, -5s, all the way up to -10s, were once manufactured, and where, during World War II, 43,000 workers, half of them women, built the B-17 bombers and C-47 transports that flew missions over Europe and the Pacific.

World War II and then the Cold War remade Long Beach. Federal dollars funded the Douglas factory, a new naval shipyard, and numerous defense firms. An entire city—the working-class community of Lakewood, which borders Long Beach on the north—was built to house the sudden influx of defense workers. Long Beach became and remains the second-largest city in Los Angeles County.

The new jobs paid well; powerful unions represented the workers in the factories and on the docks. Military spending, though, began to decline after the Vietnam War, and when the Cold War ended, Long Beach and the broader Los Angeles economy took a hit from which neither has recovered. The naval shipyard closed in 1997. Douglas, Lockheed, and North American Aviation—the aircraft manufacturers that had been the region’s largest private-sector employers—downsized and eventually shuttered almost all their Southern California plants.

Will the Department of Justice Find Zimmerman Guilty?

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Since the end of the George Zimmerman trial, many of those dismayed by the not guilty verdict have pushed for the Department of Justice to press federal civil-rights charges against Trayvon Martin’s killer. Given the strong possibility that race played a role both in Zimmerman's decision to follow the unarmed teenager and in the jury’s verdict, it seems plausible that federal intervention might be warranted. Indeed, soon after the verdict was read in mid-July, Attorney General Eric Holder launched an inquiry into whether civil-rights charges should be filed against Zimmerman. But unless the investigation uncovers evidence that was not publicly available at the time of the trial, it is almost certain that the federal government will decline to prosecute Zimmerman.

Have We No Shame?

From Weiner to Filner to Zimmerman and beyond, public embarrassment for wrongs done seems to no longer exist.

AP Images/Frank Franklin II

Shame peaked when Nathaniel Hawthorne slapped Hester Prynne with that scarlet A a couple hundred years ago, and it’s been going out of fashion ever since. To a certain extent, good riddance; for most of the last few thousand years of Judeo-Christian morality, public shame has been more oppressive than moral, the judgment of a tyranny of collectively held values rather than an expression of values worth being held.

The Reality of Our Race-Based Achievement Gap

A new study finds that drops in white student achievement often lead to the passage of "teacher quality" bills. Not so much when it comes to dips in black student achievement.

AP Images/Barry Batchelor

In much of recent memory, battles over education reform have been portrayed as pitting Republican governors against teachers’ unions. Lately, though, we’ve also seen hard-line reform-minded Democrats going against the party’s traditional base of labor liberals, exemplified by the Chicago Teachers Union's two-week strike to oppose (among other things) Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to tie compensation to student improvement. But new research shows that there might be something else going on than simple union-versus-education-reform infighting. Instead, battles over education may be tied to a much deeper issue: race.

Fighting Florida's School-to-Prison Pipeline

Protesters occupying the Florida Capitol in memory of Trayvon Martin want to change school policies that disproportionately suspend black students and often end in arrest.

AP Images/Phil Sears

Last week, Donnell Regusters heard from a co-worker that dozens of young people were occupying the Florida Capitol, rallying around the Trayvon Martin verdict, calling for the repeal of the state’s stand-your-ground law, and demanding an end to what reformers call the “school-to-prison pipeline,” so he decided to head South. “It wasn’t even up for debate,” he says. Regusters, an organizer working to reduce suspensions and school-based arrests in Philadelphia, got together a group of young Philly residents, hopped on a bus, and went down the East Coast, picking up students in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. along the way. The night after Regusters’s crew joined the protest, then going into its tenth day, national news coverage heated up: singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, a funder of civil rights actions in the 1960s, made an appearance in Tallahassee. Seeing Belafonte speak in person, says Regusters, “was insanely powerful.”

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