Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Jim Crow lives on in America’s prisons

War is hell. Post-Civil War, Reconstruction was hellish.

In a beauty contest, however, Reconstruction was in a dead heat with the Redemption for ugliness.

The difference had to do with the losers in both. In the former it was Dixie. In the latter, it was people with black skin.

I invested a very large chunk of my life in the South but had no idea what the Redemption was. Then I read Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."

The Redemption is what the former Confederacy called the era post-Reconstruction.

No longer under the control of carpetbaggers, the South found ways to re-oppress former slaves. It did so, writes Alexander, in large measure by imprisoning them.

So-called black laws did that. It became a crime to loiter where a Negro shouldn't. Black people were thrown behind bars for "mischief," "insulting gestures" and many other pretexts.

The South had a utilitarian reason for this. With slavery prohibited, it needed farm workers and lackeys. So emerged the labor-supply concept of convict leasing.

From behind bars, countless African-Americans ended up where they were before emancipation.

Prisons no longer are seen as a means to that end, but as  Alexander asserts, they have become "a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow."

Whether that is true or not, according to the Sentencing Project almost one in three young black males right now is under the control of the criminal justice system – incarcerated, on parole, or on probation.

You may say that this is no one's fault but the offenders. But as a vast portion of these incarcerations are due to drug offenses, one would be blind to not see the fault that is shared by poverty.

President Obama sees this and is not content to accept it. It was most encouraging recently when Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison. So doing, he called for the reversal of destructive policies like mandatory minimum sentencing and our penal approach to drugs.

Speaking to the press during that visit, Obama referred to young people "who made mistakes that aren't that different than the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made."

Keeping more than 2 million Americans behind bars costs taxpayers $80 billion a year.

While black people amount to 13 percent of the U.S. population, they are almost half of the prison population. For one, blame the outrageous disparity between sentencing for crack and for cocaine. Blame even more the likelihood that well-off drug offenders will get probation and poor blacks will get flushed.

Alexander points to studies showing that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates. Indeed, "They suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color."

She convincingly asserts that much of what has helped frame our sentencing laws and helped pack our prisons was the result of "tough on crime" posturing from politicians seeking to win white voters' favor. And it was bipartisan. Indeed. Bill Clinton signed the 1994 Federal Crime Bill that put prison construction on hyper-speed with enhanced, runaway sentencing laws.

Today you hear conservatives blame the black family structure and education for the problems that Alexander cites. If conservatives truly wanted healthier black families, they would call for a re-examination of drug laws and a new look at criminal policies that tear so many families asunder.

Fat chance. Today as in the Redemption, no political capital is to be had addressing injustices visited on those without any capital.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Time to leave No Child Left Behind behind

Dog days. Dog days. Nothing to write about. Nothing at all.
Caitlyn Jenner's evening wear? The latest Cosby atrocity? The freshest offering of Trump idiocy? What to write about?
Hmm. How about something that has affected every family of every child in every public school for over a decade?
With so many people dramatically affected by No Child Left Behind, I wonder how many families know that Congress is on the verge of passing a rewrite that would leave key components in the dust.
The Bush family knows it. President Obama knows it.
A bipartisan boil has come full bubble -- simmering anger over top-down, fill-in-the-bubble mandates.
NCLB: oversold, underperforming. 
You may ask on what basis that claim is made. Well, let's just say that to whatever extent NCLB has moved the needle relative to student achievement, that wiggle could never be commensurate with the gargantuan costs and draconian means it has employed.
    As with, "All children shall be proficient by 2014," NCLB has been a bust of its own verbosity. Its architects believed that by decreeing something, it would be so. No, it wasn't, and it isn't.
Those who think that NCLB "raised the bar" for America's young don't realize what it has done in most cases: flatten classroom expectations. That's what happens when competence is advertised as excellence, and when standardization is decreed to be education.
Testing and test-prep not only have gobbled up teaching time but turned student and teacher enthusiasm into mulch. Finally Americans have had enough of that. We will wait to see if policy makers have.
The Senate, by an overwhelming 81-17 vote, has passed a measure that would leave in place mandated tests but give states the flexibility to use them as they see fit.
It also would prohibit the federal government from requiring or encouraging states to implement specific standards, such as the Common Core.
The House is likely to pass something similar, setting up a possible veto fight.
President Obama, as with his predecessor, is far too affixed to the notion that the nation craves Washington's hyper-intimate involvement in what hapens in the classroom.
This applies as well to Jeb Bush, whose ardent support of the Common Core is among several liabilities that, as of this writing, have him lagging behind, um, Donald Trump in the polls.
Jeb knows that the Donald will talk his way out of the running by, oh, next Tuesday. But, as the latest Bush who's stepped forward to cure what ails public education with top-down mandates, he's getting a reaction that is as warm as if he were to pronounce Iraq ripe for nation-building.
The Obama administration doesn't get a pass on its tone-deafness about federal meddling in public schools. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will go any place at any time to listen to, and then ignore, what teachers, parents and administrators say.
Honestly, I don't see how anyone involved in education policy could not hear what the people in the trenches say about "school accountability." I understand that many lawmakers have their minds in the farm implement dealership back home when the subject comes up, but how could an education secretary so willfully and skillfully disregard what educators say?
Duncan is just one in a long train of education secretaries who, wielding NCLB as a weapon, have done everything they could to discount and devalue what teachers and parents have to say.
The Common Core is not the boogie-man portrayed by the rusty-gate right. However, as one more over-hyped device to engender classroom homogeny, we should give it credit for motivating Republicans to revolt against the schemes the GOP saluted under George W. Bush.
Apologists for NCLB have pointed out its bipartisan roots, with Edward Kennedy playing a key role in its passing. Well, now bipartisanship is working against it. Hear the rumble, Mr. President.
Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Captives of commerce in a shooting gallery

We now know that racist trigger man Dylan Roof should not have been able to purchase a firearm. The FBI's background check system should have blocked it based on felony drug charges.

To this, a Facebook post announced, "Proof positive that making it harder to purchase guns will not make it harder for criminals to acquire guns."

Proof? Positive?

All this tragedy proves is that people and institutions can screw up. No revelation. So, well, let's just not have any criminal laws. Criminals will break them, and agencies will screw up.

           That absurd premise aside, the comment bespeaks what we as a society have become relative to our killing machines: captives of commerce.

It's all about convenience – one-stop shopping. Americans are in a hurry when they buy stuff, and nothing shall hinder that. The Second Amendment is clear: "Congress shall make no law inconveniencing gun buyers or sellers."

Harlon Carter, one-time president of the National Rifle Association, once told a congressional committee that guns in the hands of felons, drug addicts and the mentally ill were "the price of freedom." This was before Congress approved the background checks built into the Brady Bill in 1993.

Bulletin: Congress stands up to the NRA. It ought to happen more than once every century.

I doubt one in 100 Americans agrees with the scary logic employed by the fundamentalists of gun worship. Unfortunately, policymakers remain cowed by that 1 percent.

Erik Larson, who in "Lethal Passage: The Story of a Gun," tracked the purchase of a single firearm used to shoot up a school, says that enough Americans are concerned about the ease of accessibility to firearms to regulate them.

Larson blames an unfortunate term for our inaction: "gun control," which bespeaks a rather impossible mission in our gun-happy nation.

The term Larson prefers is "rational regulation" -- of the firearms industry. It makes sense. We regulate industry routinely, whether it pertains to worker safety, consumer safety, public health, environmental protection and more. The fact is that because of the NRA's clout, the firearms industry remains almost as unfettered as it was when buckskin was business attire.

Right now a jury is considering the fate of the gunman who shot up an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, killing 12 and wounding 70. The gunman, in the throes of psychosis, had obtained 7,000 rounds of ammunition via the Internet.

Such is the price of freedom.

A bipartisan bill in Congress is making its third attempt to do something about this. The Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act of 2015 would require the federal government to issue licenses to dealers and mandate they report bulk ammo purchases of over 1,000 rounds by "unlicensed persons."

What an imposition. What would Americans do without the ability to purchase more than 1,000 rounds of ammo with one mouse click? How would they fend off the advancing hordes from south of the border?

Arguments against that bill recall the odd protests in Colorado when, in the wake of the Aurora massacre, the governor signed a bill limiting the size of magazines for firearms.

"How can freedom endure?" rang out the opposition. Imagine, having only 15 rounds before reloading.

This clearly put homeowners at risk when swarmed by a collective of Bloods and Crips, or a cattle truck full of IRS agents. Pity the high-country sportsman bum-rushed by two dozen angry elk. Oh, the humanity.

What is the actual utility of having more than 15 rounds per clip? A winking gun dealer explained it to Larson: It is so that a marksman need not have to reload so often at the firing range.

It's a sport, a game. Protection? More often than not, it's play-acting. The tragedy is how many people die – Wednesday-night worshippers, Friday-night movie-goers, Friday-morning grade-schoolers -- to guarantee that the pastime is never impeded.

Step right up. Fire away in the American shooting gallery.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Founders' intentions got redistricted right off the map

Most Americans don't know how long it took for a notion "conceived in liberty" in 1776 to gestate. For a notion to become a nation, that is.
Eleven years is how long it took: seven years of war, four years of legal flux, before the Constitution was signed.
When that was done, outside the Constitutional Convention a weary Benjamin Franklin encountered a skeptic who had a pertinent question. What had emanated inside: a democratic republic or a monarchy?
"A republic," Franklin replied, "if you can keep it."
We kept it for well over 200 years, but the evidence is we have lost it.
    We have a Congress that couldn't be held in lower regard – 17 percent approval, says Gallup -- yet most members will be untouchable on Election Day.
As for state legislatures: I don't know what you think of those who populate your statehouse, but whatever you think of them, if they're in the majority party it's likely they are in seats they could hold until death, or life as lobbyists.
Yes, we lost it. We lost the representative function of our government.
    How long might it take for that to change? That depends. It depends on whether Americans wish to surrender to a monarchy of many legs.
Big news on that front occurred the other day, however. That the importance was obscured by Supreme Court rulings on marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act does not make it less big.
Our highest court ruled that the Arizona Legislature could not invalidate the people's will in forming an independent redistricting commission.
Voters created the commission to bring some fairness to redrawing legislative districts. Though some observers said the court ruling was Arizona-specific, the fact is that if lawmakers prevailed it might have been a death blow to similar commissions in other states, or would have deterred other states from embarking on such a quest.
Thirteen states — Arizona, Idaho, Hawaii, California, Montana, New Jersey, Washington, Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, New York and Ohio — have formed them. Akin to the 13 colonies that birthed something worth keeping?
Redistricting as practiced today is the most corrupting device the founders never imagined. Campaign dollars are corrupting, yes. But money alone doesn't guarantee inevitability. Redistricting is how, for instance, 51 percent of votes in the 2012 congressional races could be cast for Democrats but the Ds would win only five of 18 seats up for grabs.
Redistricting cuts both ways, meaning that blood feuds endure: "They did it to us. We will do it to them."
In my career in newspapers, few events were more disgusting than Texas Republicans' scandalously extenuated gambit to redraw districts -- for the second time in a decade – in 2003, a year after gaining control of the Legislature. For them, once a decade was not enough.
The event included appearance by then-House Majority Leader Tom Delay jetting in and waddling about the Texas Capitol like Gotham's Penguin, facilitating a plan to help his kin in Washington.
As governor, Rick Perry did his part, literally laying the lawmaking process prostrate on the anvil of partisan payback. The result: not one, not two, but three special sessions. During these, Democrats in the House and Senate fled the state in bids to prevent a quorum before finally conceding.
   If anyone would wish to pre-empt further histrionics like this, it is the people of the Lone Star State.
So, too, with Florida. In 2010 voters enacted redistricting reforms to prevent gerrymandering. Reports from the Sunshine State indicate, however, that the Republican-controlled Legislature has been diligently attempting to subvert what the people intended. They will have to revisit the matter to hold lawmakers' feet to the fire.
The people of this nation cannot accept the state of legislative stasis that effectively takes them out of the equation, treating them as pegs in a game board of conquest.
How long will it take to turn things around? Hailing the Supreme Court's ruling on redistricting as the first volley, I say we have 11 years. Let us begin the process of winning back our republic.
Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.