Ferguson and the Festering Wounds of Structural Inequality

Note: Originally published August 12, 2014

On Saturday, August 9, 2014 unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by white police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, MO, an inner-ring suburb of North St. Louis.  Brown’s untimely death sparked outrage and protests among local residents, exposing long standing division and distrust between law enforcement and the minority community.

Nothing excuses the unlawful property destruction that occasionally broke out during the protests, but the underlying grievances and frustrations of the local community are justified.  Many white people – and sadly many of my own family and friends – will focus myopically on the relatively small number of unlawful actors and dismiss the entire situation with a familiar, “see Black people are just out-of-control.”  The reflexive venom emanating from social media guarantees the looters are squarely within the sights of white America, primed to represent Black Americans writ large and define the entirety of the situation.  The reinforcement of animalistic deviance is tucked away for safe keeping.  Prejudices have been validated.  If only they would pull up their pants, paths to equality, stability and prosperity would become obvious.

“How could they destroy property in their own neighborhood?”  From a naïve position of privilege, many white people are loathe to discover genuine empathy and nuanced understanding about the roots of anger bubbling up among racial minorities in places like Ferguson. Why should we care?  We should care because these riotous actions are couched within larger historical and environmental contexts that beg for deeper introspection and awareness.  In short, there are deeper structural issues at play and much more to the story.  If we can bridge vast divides and achieve genuine cross-racial understanding, we can begin collective healing and constructive dialogue toward improving policies and societal conditions.

Some fury directed at looters is justified but rarely, if ever, matched by concern toward the victims of police abuse and broader systems of discrimination and injustice that entrench racial minorities in a disadvantaged societal position.  Yes, people are protesting in Ferguson because another unarmed person was gunned down by police.  Yes, people are protesting in Ferguson because Black people are subjected to 93% of police stop and searches, but less likely to have contraband or guns.  Yes, people are protesting because small St. Louis County jurisdictions undertake predatory policing, issuing an unprecedented amount of tickets, fines and warrants.  However, the protests also highlight deeper structural challenges and systemic inequality embedded in the Black experience; ones that require greater recognition and sustained outreach from white America.

Never mind the obvious sins of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation that laid the historic foundations of white supremacy and enduring structural inequality.  It took centuries for white people to merely acknowledge the baseline humanity of racial minorities.  From the Plymouth Rock landing until passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, America perpetuated a centuries-long system of overt racial apartheid that dehumanized and forcefully relegated Black people in particular to an inferior societal position.  Literal chains were only to be replaced with separate drinking fountains, poll taxes, and lynch mobs, further entrenching the superior status of white identity.  On one front, we should be proud of our incremental legal progress on racial equality, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, but we should not get complacent.  We should refrain from applauding ourselves because we finally allowed minorities to eat legally at restaurants, own homes or attend college (of course, having the adequate resources and access to capital to own homes and attend college is another matter entirely and part of the larger structural story).

In more recent times, urban America has undergone drastic transformation, much of which has been decidedly unfavorable toward people of color, yielding a renewed set of structural injustices in the 21st Century.  We are experiencing a “new world of the urban poor” as coined by preeminent sociologist William Julius Wilson.  Over the past few decades, inner-city neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson have become hotbeds of concentrated poverty and distress, characterized by deepening social and economic isolation from mainstream America.  U.S. cities have experienced unprecedented urban sprawl, reshaping the metropolitan landscape as a semi-permanent, overwhelmingly minority “underclass” disproportionately inhabit low-income central-city neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs, while a whiter, more affluent population inhabits outlying suburban and exurban areas.  The exodus and abandonment from many central-city areas has been staggering.

For instance, the population of St. Louis City reached a zenith at approximately 860,000 residents in the early 1950s.  Today, little more than 315,000 individuals reside within city limits, representing a 63% population decline.  That bears repeating.  63% fewer people reside within STL City borders today, nearly 550,000 fewer than just a few decades prior!  Most importantly, dramatic metropolitan reorganization has been allocated unevenly across both socioeconomic and racial status leaving many low-income people of color concentrated in the urban core and inner-ring suburbs of North St. Louis including Wellston, Jennings and Ferguson.  Meanwhile, a whiter, more affluent population selectively clusters in outlying suburban locales like Town and Country, Oakville, Eureka, and exurban parts of St. Charles County like O’Fallon and St. Peters.  “White flight” from St. Louis’ urban core accelerated from the 1960s through the 1990s and continues into outlying areas as inner-ring suburbs, such as Jennings, Wellston, and Ferguson, increasingly experience abandonment and economic and social decay.  How does the hyper-segregated “chocolate city, vanilla suburbs” dynamic come to exist?

InnerCityBluesCamden, NJ Abandonment; Wikipedia

Through decades of exclusionary suburban zoning policies that completely excluded affordable housing units along with racially restrictive “housing covenants” (i.e. legal contracts barring racial minorities from homeownership), neighborhood associations and local governments effectively barred racial minorities from migrating into newer suburban developments that were meant for whites only.  Additionally, banking institutions undertook discriminatory mortgage lending practices that “redlined” certain residential neighborhoods, refusing to grant loans to minority residents. In turn, central-city areas of St. Louis – and many other Rustbelt cities like Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Newark, and Buffalo – became methodically starved of social and economic resources and populated disproportionately by under-resourced families of color. Moreover, highways plowed through minority neighborhoods, scattering former residents into poorer, more isolated neighborhoods, while allowing for a quick escape for whiter and more resourced populations.

Successfully acquiring suburban residency and the myriad contextual benefits of exclusive suburban residency – [quieter streets, greener spaces, fresher air, less crime, better schools and access to higher education, better connected job networks, better educated and connected neighbors, higher paying jobs, greater access to supermarkets and fresh foods, greater access to banks and financial capital, higher property tax base, etc.] – was (and continues to be) almost exclusively the purview of whiter and more affluent citizens, creating the hyper-segregated metropolis we observe today.  Massey and Denton’s seminal work, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, and Hilfiker’s opus, Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, highlight the systematic cloistering of low-income racial minorities into central-city enclaves following the end of formal Jim Crow segregation in the mid-1960s.  First through explicitly racial means (i.e. explicitly barring racial minorities from certain residential neighborhoods) then through more stealthy socioeconomic means (i.e. exclusively zoning for high-income single family housing that remains unaffordable & inaccessible to most racial minorities). The “ghetto” as popularly conceived has been purposefully manufactured through discriminatory legal structures and selective residential opportunities favoring privileged white citizens at the expense of disadvantaged minority populations.

Occurring alongside these discriminatory and exclusionary residential developments, America has also experienced dramatic industrial restructuring, shifting the U.S. economy away from relatively high-paying, blue-collar occupations toward low-wage, low-security service sector opportunities, further cementing the alienated condition of those residing in distressed neighborhoods.  The opportunity structure for all working class Americans has arguably become more limited, and admittedly millions of white working class families are routinely struggling financially, mired in realities of low-wage retail and hospitality jobs (or the “gig” economy).  Those with high levels of skill, college pedigree and connections are doing relatively well in today’s “winner-take-all” economy, while day laborers without college degrees or Rolodexes increasingly confront headwinds to economic security.  Families of color disproportionately comprise the working class, thus economic restructuring and fading opportunity structures are felt most acutely in low-income minority areas. In turn, high-poverty urban neighborhoods are relatively void of immediate economic opportunity and community anchors, resulting in disinvested environments of relative instability and disarray.  Civic organizations, rich social connections, and quality, high-paying jobs (and accompanying financial and social assets) – the glue that binds healthy communities – are largely absent in low-income urban neighborhoods.  These distressed contexts ultimately matter to the outlook and proclivities of behavior among inhabitants.

STLGhettoTom19Robert Powers; Built St. Louis

Individuals growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods are continually reinforced with a sense of social exclusion and persistent overexposure to non-mainstream norms and social cues.  These citizens are hermetically exposed to relatively high levels of traumatic criminal activity and rarely digest mainstream expectations of college and career stability.  Immediate opportunities are at fast food restaurants and convenience stores or in the underground economy, not accountancy and law firms. Inhabitants disproportionately observe drug dealers and athletes achieving financial success not doctors and engineers, ultimately shaping the perceptions, expectations and outlook of many inner-city residents.  When merely surviving the day becomes paramount, any notion of long-term investment and stability becomes completely foreign.  Notions of opportunity costs decline and there is very little to lose. It is the immediate ghetto environment itself, under-resourced people living almost exclusively alongside other under-resourced people, that fosters an underclass subculture that marinates within itself day after day, year after year, decade after decade.

The adage that individuals are the “product of one’s environment” rings partially true and privileged white people need to do a better job acknowledging the ways in which distressed settings and external stressors can reinforce alienation, hopelessness and certain antisocial behaviors.  There is a mythology that one has complete and total agency over one’s actions and fortune. Certainly personal responsibility plays an important role and we should remain highly critical of self-sabotage and self-defeating behavior, but the persistent exposure to external stimuli also shape individual perspectives and actions. When living among concentrated distress and desperation, one’s opportunity costs are low because there are few opportunities to begin with. Thus, social and economic isolation can invite an increased likelihood of non-mainstream behaviors like gang membership, drug addiction, unwed births, etc.

InnerCityBlues2North St. Louis; Thomas Gatheman

Along with selective suburbanization and economic restructuring, a third structural phenomenon continues to fuel urban injustice in the 21st Century.  Derived from the “Southern Strategy” of Presidents Nixon and Reagan that sought to garner the political support of disaffected Southern whites following the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, America launched a discriminatory “war on drugs” waged primarily within depressed inner-city areas, ultimately leading to the mass incarceration of young men of color.  Michelle Alexander’s widely acclaimed The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness meticulously documents the manner in which biased law enforcement – and broader criminal justice system – has lead to a renewed racial-caste system that disenfranchises people of color.  It is no longer literacy tests and separate lunch counters, but rather muscular drug policies that animate today’s disenfranchisement.  Although white and non-white people are found to possess and use drugs at similar rates, law enforcement eschews suburban cul-de-sacs and college campuses, targeting efforts surgically in low-income minority neighborhoods.  It is poor Blacks and Latinos in ghettos and barrios that are routinely over-policed and feel the brunt of the drug war.  In turn, many familial anchors necessary to neighborhood vitality are quite literally sitting behind bars.  An estimated 2 million Black men are currently “missing” from homes and communities, vanished into the netherworld of prison cells and barbed-wire fencing. Once branded a felon, minority offenders face substantial barriers to successful assimilation back into society. They are routinely discriminated against by potential employers and lose basic citizenship protections, such as voting rights and the ability to receive financial aid for educational purposes. Meet the New Jim Crow.

In a similar vein, our local law enforcement agencies have become more “militarized” in the years following 9/11 with injections of heavy artillery and SWAT tactics, and the brunt of militarized policing is oftentimes felt (quite literally) among people of color in under-resourced areas.  The recent eye-opening 105 page Ferguson Report from the DOJ confirmed many suspicions, unearthing widespread discrimination and egregious breaches constitutional rights and basic human dignity.  Minority citizens of North St. Louis County live in a state of semi-occupation, consistently harassed and brutalized in an concerted effort to issue an unprecedented amount of tickets, fines and warrants.  The goal is not to enhance public safety or build community bonds, but rather to extract maximum pain (financially and physically) from the citizenry in an oppressive moneymaking racket.  Minority citizens of North St. Louis County effectively live under a punitive apartheid police state that seeks not to serve but to actively target and punish.

Structural challenges faced by people of color are real and enduring and deserve attention and investment in potential solutions.  Equality of treatment and opportunity, the platitudinal ideal of America, was always a cruel myth and remains elusive in the 21st Century.  Yes, a modest percentage of the overly ambitious and actively mentored can beat the odds, but we should also work toward equalizing the odds and improving structural equality!

GhettoPovertyRandom2East Cleveland, OH; cyburbia.org

Isolated, high-poverty neighborhoods in contemporary urban America were purposefully manicured through systems of white supremacy and discriminatory policies and practices of residential exclusion. This much is certain. It is no accident or random happenstance that low-income minorities are neatly segregated into the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of urban centers. These distressed places exhibit a relative dearth of immediate economic opportunity and social organization and therefore tend to reinforce disorganized behaviors among underclass inhabitants.  Reversing these trends will take broad awareness and understanding across the populace and willingness to more equitably allocate public resources across the metropolitan landscape.  Prospective policy adoptions, including criminal justice reforms and targeted investments in infrastructure, education, jobs/apprenticeship training, and regional integration programs must be explored.  These are our fellow citizens living on the margins of society amid the land of plenty and merely desire an equal voice in society. A voice they have never had.  Roundly criticize the property destruction in Ferguson, but also be aware of the history of racial oppression and systematic disinvestment that leads citizens toward mass unrest and bursts of protest.  Attempt to see the wisdom in Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words, “rioting is the language of the unheard.”  After you’ve finished chiding the looters, make sure to save some invective for discriminatory systems that continue to disenfranchise and subjugate our fellow humans.


Political Movements as Killers? Only if You Disagree with the Cause

As America was digesting their Thanksgiving feast this past November, Robert Lewis Dear was engaging in a brutal act of carnage inside a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic.  One police officer and two civilians were killed, while another five police officers and four civilians were seriously injured in the multi-hour standoff.  The immediate reflex from many pro-choice advocates placed direct causal blame on the inflammatory rhetoric of some pro-life advocates (e.g. “baby killers”, etc.), along with selective editing in a “sting” video from a pro-life advocacy group.  If only they would tone down the anti-abortion rhetoric, these twelve police officers and civilians would be alive and unscathed! This reflex to engage an easy self-serving causal story that sloppily blames the entire “pro-life movement” and “anti-abortion rhetoric” completely misses the complex individual and situational triggers that likely underlie such episodic actions.  The causal story is likely much more complex than political opponents are usually willing to admit.

In the case of the Planned Parenthood shooter, Robert Lewis Dear was found to be suffering from debilitating mental illness and was also struggling with personal situational difficulties – financial stress, failing relationships, etc.  It is likely this dynamic combination of individual and situational factors that led to Dear’s murderous actions, not the vocal advocacy to stop abortions or anti-abortion rhetoric more broadly.  Might the extreme rhetoric of some pro-life activists and edited video from an advocacy group have played some marginal role in Dear’s actions?  Maybe, especially as another short-term situational trigger.  But the causal arrow from anti-abortion rhetoric to Planned Parenthood killing rampage is anything but clear cut.   I believe that a similar dynamic is now occurring among much of white conservative America in the wake of two police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

The recent murderous actions of Micah Johnson in Dallas and Gavin Long in Baton Rouge were absolutely horrific.  Just as police brutality toward citizens is unacceptable, violence toward police officers is equally odious, even in response to discriminatory police behavior.  Those types of heinous actions are ultimately debilitating to the noble causes of equal treatment and criminal justice reform.  However, just as we observed in the case of Robert Lewis Dear, it appears that a complex mix of individual and situation triggers likely underlie these attacks, not Black Lives Matter activism or broader criminal justice reform movement.

There is evidence suggesting that both Johnson and Long appear to be suffering from untreated mental illness and challenging personal situations that likely triggered their murderous actions.  During the multi-hour standoff in Dallas, police report that Johnson was singing and laughing manically and left cryptic messages written in his own blood.  In Baton Rouge, Gavin Long was an ex-marine reported to be suffering from PTSD and harbored extreme anti-government views.  Might the occasional hyperbolic rhetoric of “killer pigs” and “frying like bacon” have played some marginal role in Johnson and Long’s actions?  Maybe, especially as another short-term situational trigger.  But the causal arrow from hyperbolic rhetoric to killing rampage is anything but clear cut.

In the case of Dallas especially, the BLM protests were reportedly peaceful and achieving understanding with Dallas PD.  Pictures of hugs, handshakes and goodwill flooded social media throughout the day.  Indeed, Dallas PD reforms and demilitarized community policing have reduced excessive force claims exponentially over the past decade.  Meaningful progress was being made on both sides.  Then one seemingly mentally disturbed individual ruins any progress and gains in mutual understanding.  These murderous actions of Johnson and Long appear to be couched within bigger issues such as mental illness, easy gun access, veteran reentry, financial distress, etc. as much as BLM activism or protests for criminal justice reform.  We should be able to denounce extreme rhetoric without tying an entire political movement to the murderous actions of a relative few.  Admittedly, it is difficult to give political opponents the benefit of the doubt.

Just as Catholics and pro-life supporters should not be viewed through the unflattering lens of dehumanizing “baby killer” rhetoric, molesting priests, and episodic abortion clinic attacks, advocates of criminal justice reform and equal treatment should not be viewed through the unflattering lens of dehumanizing “fry like bacon” rhetoric and episodic attacks on police officers.  Unfortunately, there have been periodic police killings since there have been police.  Indeed, murders of police officers are down in recent decades and despite these two recent horrific incidents there is no definitive uptick in murders of police officers in recent years.

If we start seeing a pattern of coordinated armed militias of BLM activists killing much larger numbers of police officers, then there will be cause for concern that BLM has turned much more militant and sinister.  Until then, these appear to be lone wolves – needles in a haystack – without any direction association with BLM or legitimate criminal justice reform.  A sloppy emphasis on BLM advocacy as the definitive cause of recent police killings is nothing more than a self-serving attempt to disqualify legitimate voices of discrimination and minimize the need for criminal justice reforms.

On Mizzou

How could there be a concerted effort to fire a university president over a mere handful of overtly racist incidents?  In a multi-century system of white supremacy and racial apartheid, some ugly residue remains and will spill out occasionally.  That is just life in America.  A few imbibed fraternity brothers shouting the N-word should be confronted and condemned, not the university leadership.  One incident of swastika feces smear does not a crisis make.

This narrow emphasis on a handful of egregious and outlandish racist violations eschews deeper issues of systematic racism and regularly hostile environment faced by students of color at Mizzou and university campuses nationwide.  Indeed, this is a reoccurring theme in how white people generally view racism – as episodic, individualized acts from “bad” white people usually involving the N-word – not as more entrenched, system-wide concerns with enduring disparities and systemic discrimination in everything from housing and employment to education and criminal justice.  It is a game of technicalities, never about the uneven structuring and privileges of the game itself.  To be labeled a “racist” is viewed as much worse than participating in a system that broadly advantages certain groups over others.

That type of old-school Jim-Crow style racism, centering on the biological inferiority of Blacks, still exists to some degree, but is now roundly derided and easily criticized.  In current times, racism is not as loud nor gauche.  It is casual, “stealthy” and structural racism that remains much more pernicious.  The type of covert racism and accompanying historical ignorance that largely goes over the head of white naivety. It is now socially unacceptable to refer to Black people as subhuman n*****s.  Even the most ardent white supremacist has received that memo, and we certainly see fewer of those types of overtly racist displays. KKK cross-burnings are winning fewer friends in the 21st Century.  However, it is not that racism and broader systems of white advantage have ceased to exist entirely.  It has merely evolved. It is this inability or unwillingness to acknowledge and address the festering wounds of historic inequities and nuances of contemporary racial discrimination that ultimately led to President Wolfe’s resignation.

In recent decades, the N-word and focus on biological inferiority has been replaced in many ways by unflattering stereotypes concerning the work ethic, shiftlessness, and intrinsic criminality and “pathology” of Black people.  Racial degradation is consistently felt in these subtler alternative forms.  It is when a Black student enters the student center common area and hears that “she is just here for the welfare TV.”  It is when white passersby clutch their belongings tightly in the presence of Black male students.  It is when the white medical and law students wonder if the minority students are there because of affirmative action and unmerited racial preferences.  It is when Black students are singled out as having special insight about crime and deviance in criminal justice classes.  It is when Black students are followed more closely in the university bookstore than their white counterparts.  It is in the exclusionary tendencies of fraternity culture that caters largely to privileged white clientele in cloistered social circles.  It’s when minority students hear white partygoers whispering about who is “supposed to be there.”  It is when Black students rarely see professors that look like them due to lack of diversity in faculty hiring.  These more subtle forms of racial animus have tentacles woven deeply throughout society and are much more pervasive beyond a handful of townsfolk shouting racial epithets.

Persistent negative stereotyping is coupled with (and in many ways informed by) an inability or unwillingness among many whites to take a full, honest accounting of our racial history and the systemic inequalities that continue into modern times.  Put simply, there is a lack of basic historical understanding, racial awareness and cultural competence.  Recently, when Concerned Citizen 1950 activists confronted President Wolfe and asked for his definition of “systemic oppression”, he could not articulate a clear response.  I think there is an argument to be made that one should probably not be president of a world-class university system with those types of cultural blinders.

He couldn’t immediately speak to a legacy of segregation and social isolation. He couldn’t speak to deindustrialization and exodus of secure, high-wage jobs. He couldn’t speak to the ways in which the federal government crafted white-only suburbs and fostered home ownership among white-only families following WWII.  He couldn’t speak to the centuries-long accumulation of wealth, inheritance, and industry connections at the expense of minority populations.  He couldn’t speak to “legacy admissions” showing deference to alumni applications and elite donors.  He couldn’t speak to a racialized war on drugs, mass incarceration, and broader discrimination in the criminal justice system.  He couldn’t speak to continued discrimination in the housing and labor markets.  None of this seemed to be on his radar, at least in terms of agenda setting and issue priorities as university leader.  I think that exposes the fundamental divide.  Many people, including President Wolfe, might be able to acknowledge that racial disparities and discriminatory practices exist on some level, but are relatively indifferent toward the issue and don’t want to be bothered.  Conversely, there are those who desire to actively correct these continued inequalities and disparities, and view comfort with the status quo as emboldening rather than extinguishing systems of white advantage.  To not fight back is to acquiesce and tacitly accept unequal treatment.

While many appear baffled that activists would demand resignation, if you have read through the concerns of the protesters, I think the motivation becomes clearer. Wolfe was perceived (fairly or unfairly) as being indifferent and callous toward the concerns of minority students on the Mizzou campus. That indifference and inaction is perceived (fairly or unfairly) by the protesters as engendering the status quo of white supremacy instead of actively standing up against recent incidents and racial injustice more generally. Wolfe came across as being tone deaf to the very real concerns and experiences of the minority students on campus, and they believe (rightly or wrongly) that a change in university leadership at the top is necessary in order to advance racial justice issues.

I don’t know if demanding the king’s head was “right” or the best move (I don’t know if there is a single “right” move or how we could even make such an assertion with any confidence).  Direct action by its very nature is sloppy and lacks crisp algorithms.  Maybe it wasn’t Wolfe’s place to take action, and perhaps it wasn’t the place of the protesters to demand that awareness and action from top leadership.  Perhaps more of the ire should have been directed toward the Mizzou Chancellor or Provost, who have more intimate association with the daily functioning of UM campuses.  Perhaps the Mizzou football team should not have flexed their economic muscle and threatened to cease football activities.  Reasonable people can disagree with the tactics and appropriate intensity or magnitude of specific protest activities and ultimatums.  Youngish students rarely get it right the first time and there is a learning curve for everyone involved here. However, the racial justice issues raised by Concerned Student 1950 are real and enduring and warrant sustained attention.  To dismiss those concerns as “P.C.” or “campus fascism” is to miss the big picture entirely.  Ultimately, this was and remains an opportunity for the university leadership to address endemic and systemic issues across the totality of campus life, not a handful of fraternity brothers screaming the N-word.

Prison Profiteers

Criminal justice in early America centered on vengeance and swift corporal punishment for sinners, criminals, and African American slaves.  When formal corrections eventually formed in the mid-19th Century,  there was a propensity to involve private sector actors and profiteering motives.  For instance, several states instituted “convict leasing” systems that provided cheap convict labor to commercial enterprises.  Prisoners were swiftly processed by local courts and transported as subsidized labor to private warehouses, railroads, and plantations.  Market-based corrections eventually waned in the early 20th Century as  prison maintenance became accepted as a core governmental function characterized by publicly-controlled prison facilities.

The Reagan years ushered in an administrative movement toward privatization or “contracting-out” of government services with market-based actors, especially in the area of human-support services (e.g. charter schools, non-profit health facilities, etc.).  Political elites of all ideological stripes have embraced the notion of “entrepreneurial government” that harnesses the dynamism and innovation of private sector actors in public service provision.  Over the past few decades, we have witnessed the privatization of schools, garbage collection, military services, mental health services, welfare-to-work offices, electronic record-keeping, and myriad other governmental functions.  In the push for privatization, public-private partnerships have also waded into more controversial waters, such as the administration of America’s prisons.

While incorporating private-sector actors into government functioning makes some policy sense, all government functions are not created equal and favorable market conditions do not exist universally.  Thus, the success of privatization is likely conditioned by specific policy areas and situational nature of the marketplace.  Free-market ideology alone does not guarantee improvements in policy implementation.  In the case of America’s prisons, it could be argued that privatization will do little to improve service delivery.

1.  A competitive market for prison maintenance services does not exist.  It is unclear that a market would exist at all without government support (prisoners are not exactly lucrative “customers” in the open marketplace).  At best the market functions as an oligarchy with a few major players seeking government contracts.  Correctional Corporation of America and the Wackenhut Correctional Corporation operate effectively as a duopoly, guaranteed contractual renewal irrespective of performance.  In short, there are few if any competitive rivals and minimal market pressure to function optimally.

2.  Profiteering motives could induce perverse incentives along several dimensions.  Maximizing profits means maximizing “customers” or in this case maximizing the number of prisoners.  Thus, prison corporations could potentially lobby for even more punitive criminal justice measures, producing a steady stream of clients (and revenues).  Mass incarceration strategies (e.g. War on Drugs) have imprisoned millions of Americans over the past few decades, and might only worsen under a privatized system.  Secondly, Maximizing profits also involves minimizing costs to personnel and services.  These could come in the form of company layoffs, cuts to worker wages/benefits, or cuts in prisoner services (like health care or food service perhaps).  Shareholders might enjoy extra dividends but prison security and prisoners themselves will likely take the brunt of privatization efforts.  There is a human cost to corporate “efficiency” that is likely magnified in the prison privatization context.

3.  Scholars and practitioners have suggested that a “paradox of privatization” exists in the provision of public services.  In short, the paradox states that shedding government functions to the private sector requires increased government oversight mechanisms to monitor private sector actors.  When the government contracts with third-party providers, more government is needed to make sure market actors are accountable to taxpayers.  Any cost savings reaped from private-sector prison management are blunted because of increased costs to government oversight.

4.  Last but not least there are thorny ethical issues related to corporate control and the power to incarcerate citizens.  Should corporations be in charge of punishment in America, an areas that has traditionally been the purview of government authority?  If we are going to incarcerate and punish millions of individuals, should there be some baseline public accountability?  Is it unethical to profit from the punishment of American citizens?

Today, approximately 3 million individuals populate America’s prisons, and the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  We should be striving to reduce the incarceration rate, and I’m not convinced that allowing corporations to profit from mass imprisonment will abate those trends.  We should think long and hard about the potential drawbacks to prison privatization before handing the keys of justice over to the Correctional Corporations of America.

Libertarian Ambivalence

Like many states before them, earlier this year, North Carolina voters approved a measure that banned same-sex marriage.  Subsequent reaction largely followed conventional political wisdom.  Conservatives mostly applauded the marriage ban, liberals mostly derided the ban, but I noticed a more muddled and mixed reaction from my libertarian friends.  Nearly everyone was appalled at the infringement of individual liberty but some still viewed the ban as properly constitutional, while others viewed the ban as grossly unconstitutional.  How can well-intentioned libertarians disagree over the dynamics of federalism and basic constitutional interpretation?

Ron Paul and other Libertarian Party elites (Gary Johnson, Jim Gray, etc.) talk rather flippantly about constitutional interpretation, framing the document as clear, obvious, or simplistic.  The mixed reaction from libertarian adherents to the NC marriage ban hints at a deeper complexity beyond the surface-level purity that libertarianism routinely exhibits.  The crux of this complexity lies in the inherent constitutional contradiction that simultaneously grants both individual freedom and states’ rightsand the fact that those two principles [individual freedom and states’ rights] oftentimes conflict with each other.

In short, when it comes to personal privacy issues some libertarians favor the individual freedom implied in the 9th and 14th Amendments, while others favor 10th Amendment states’ rights even when it restricts individual freedom, such as with the NC marriage ban.  Put another way, some viewed the NC measure as an unconstitutional affront to individual liberty (i.e. favor 9th and 14th Amendments), while others viewed it as a proper constitutional exercise in state sovereignty (i.e. favor 10th Amendment).

Take another example, the landmark Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which declared anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional, effectively liberating homosexuals from criminalizing Texas statutes.  Is there a “pure” or “correct” libertarian reaction to this ruling?  Probably not.

Some libertarians might champion the Lawrence decision on constitutional grounds that the 9th and 14th Amendments properly limit states’ rights and guarantee individual freedom to engage in private sexual behavior.  That is to say, an individual’s right to engage in private sexual behavior supercedes the 10th Amendment’s right of the states to regulate sexual behavior.  Conversely, other libertarians might deride the Lawrence decision on “principled” 10th Amendment grounds.  Anything that is not explicitly mentioned in the constitution should – always and everywhere – remain the purview of the states.  Thus, many libertarians would accept punitive governmental restriction that occurs at the state-level.  Because “sodomy” is not explicitly listed as a federally protected right (e.g. sodomy is not explicitly listed in the Bill of Rights) then states have the right to regulate and criminalize individual behavior at will.

One basic truism in American politics is that states’ rights is not tantamount to expanding individual freedom (think about Jim Crow segregation or militarized sodomy police squads), and libertarians will continue to exude muddled constitutional interpretation when these two principals inevitably collide.  Some will side with individuals while others with the states.  The idea that there exists one universally pure libertarian way to interpret the constitution is myth.

Built St. Louis

Urban sprawl and mass suburbanization have taken their toll on St. Louis City.  The central-city in particular has been largely abandoned, and has been decaying physically, socially, and economically for decades.  The population of St. Louis City reached a zenith in the early 1960s at approximately 900,000 residents.  Today, approximately 300,000 individuals reside within city limits, representing a 66% population decline.  That bears repeating.  66% fewer people reside within city borders today… 600,000 fewer people than just a few decades prior!  The mass exodus has been staggering.

Similar dynamics of sprawl, depopulation, and central-city abandonment have taken place across the broader American landscape.  While “metropolitan areas” continue to blossom, the population in central-city areas continues to decline, albeit at a much slower pace than in the 1970s and 80s.  Many of our great Rustbelt cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, etc. have witnessed crippling population loss to outlying suburban and exurban areas.  For instance, the “north-side” of St. Louis once was once bustling with social and commercial activity in areas like Gaslight Square. Here is what north St. Louis looks like today as a result of sprawl and abandonment.

A website called “Built St. Louis” (www.builtstlouis.net) meticulously documents the historic structures we have lost over the past few decades.  You will literally weep at the inner-city degradation and callous disregard of palatial brick homes and historic landmarks.  Built St. Louis demonstrates that we do not treasure “place” in America to the extent that other societies do, and it comes at our own peril.  Get lost for hours as Built St. Louis documents the structural landmarks and thriving communities that have gone missing.

The causes of sprawl are varied and complex from increased highway and automobile access, to racial politics or “white flight”, to inadequacies of liberal city governments, but those causal concerns are not driving this blog post.  In Robert Putnam’s seminal work entitled “Bowling Alone”, the author posits that suburbanization, characterized by isolated gated communities, automobile dependence, and lack of sidewalks has partially eroded our “social capital” and sense of oneness as a nation.  We have chosen to bulldoze many historic city buildings in the name of sprawl, but have we lost something bigger like healthy social interaction and community bonding?  Is sprawl ultimately detrimental to our sense of togetherness and social connectedness?  Something to ponder next time you take the T.R. Hughes exit ramp.

We should care when majestic structures are razed to pave another parking lot, but we should also be cognizant of the larger societal forces at play, and continually endeavor to better understand the consequences of sprawl on our communities and environment.

First Debate

In the general election, Romney can effectively argue that federalism allows Massachusetts to experiment with a health care mandate as a decentralized “laboratory of democracy.”  It is the 10th Amendment purview of the states to enact insurance mandates if they desire, but such actions should be limited at the federal level.  While Romney can appeal to voters on grounds of states’ rights, the functional policy question remains and he will likely have to defend his actions as governor at the first presidential debate.

Moderator (I’m thinking Jim Lehrer):  “Even if you believe mandates should be limited to state governments, why is it that you pursued and signed into law an insurance mandate in Massachusetts?  Why is a mandate good for Massachusetts?  Why does a mandate make insurance markets function more effectively  and make sense for Massachusetts citizens?  If this policy is good for the people of Massachusetts, how can you criticize  President Obama when he pursues similar policy approaches?

Romney: “Ummmmmm… Jim, can I use one of my lifelines?”

Hillbilly Hotdogs

Before moving to Cal State I taught at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.  Huntington is in many ways a picturesque college town with coffee shops, sushi spots, theater, and all the modern trappings one might enjoy in civilized America.  It is also located in the heart  of Appalachia and has a distinct hillbilly undercurrent.  For instance, Huntington holds the unflattering moniker of “fattest city in America.”   I am significantly overweight but felt almost svelte around town.  The establishment fueling Huntington’s waistbands:  Hillbilly Hotdogs.

Founded in 1999, Hillbilly Hotdogs boasts some 25+ different hotdog options from their extensive menu of Appalachian delicacies.  You can gorge on anything from the Taco Dog [6” dog covered with jalapenos, nacho cheese, crushed up nacho chips, chili sauce, sour cream, and shredded cheese] to Stacy’s Flu Shot [6” dog with jalapenos, chili sauce, spicy A-1 sauce, and sriracha hot sauce] to The Homewrecker [15” dog with EVERYTHING… Taco Dog plus mustard, relish, mayonnaise, bbq sauce, sauerkraut, and coleslaw].

The multitude of side dishes (served in collectable McDonald’s plastic bowls from the 1980s) are all deep fried and delicious.  “Fried Fixins” as they are known by locals include crinkle-cut fries (cheese or chili cheese options); garlic ranch fries; fried pickles; cheese sticks; jalapeno poppers; chicken nuggets; and deep-fried mac and cheese!  If you want to salivate via the interwebs, the full menu can be found at http://www.hillbillyhotdogs.com/menu.php

When you find yourself in West Virginia head directly to Hillbilly Hotdogs and then to the hospital for heart defibrillation!


Southern Strategy

48 years ago today, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Following the passage of the CRA in 1964, African Americans were granted equal access to “places of public accommodation” (e.g. restaurants, theaters, buses, bowling alleys, etc.), ending the brutal era of Jim Crow segregation and subjugation.  Needless to say, white Southerners – and the deeper heritage of white supremacy – did not agree with this federal push for racial equality.  The CRA ruptured racial fault lines and forever altered the American political landscape, much like the Civil War had done 100 years earlier.

In response to the CRA, the Republican Party apparatchik instituted the “Southern Strategy” in which they sought to gain political support from disaffected white Southerners.  Republican elites like Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan siezed upon a golden political opportunity to shift the South into the Republican camp by catering to Southern style cultural conservatism.  Indeed, Republican nominee Barry Goldwater vocally opposed the Civil Rights Act and dominated Southern states in the presidential election of 1964 – the first time a Republican presidential candidate had ever captured the South.  Four years later in 1968, Southern states supported segregationist candidate, George Wallace, and in 1972 overwhelmingly supported Nixon.  Patterns of Republican allegiance and burgeoning GOP political power in the Deep South have continued in near lockstep ever since.

Republicans undertake the Southern Strategy by playing on the propensity to stereotype racial minorities in negative and unflattering ways.  In short, conservative elites and right-wing media stir up whites’ fear and suspicion of “others” (e.g. minority groups like homosexuals, Muslims, African Americans, immigrants, etc.).  They stoke resentment toward African Americans and immigrants particularly, they have since the Nixon Administration and will continue to do so because it helps them politically.  Dixiecrats – ultra conservative Southern Democrats – are now partisan Republicans in the 21st Century and the deep South forms the backbone (if not the heart) of the modern Republican Party.

Here are just a few examples (among many) from right-wing media and various Republican elites:

(1)  Obama was “chugging 40s” instead of helping the Joplin tornado victims

–          Eric Bolling on the Fox Business Network

(2)  Obama was hosting “hoods in the hizzouse” by having the Prime Minister of Gabon over for a diplomatic meeting

–          Eric Bolling on the Fox Business Network

(3)  Obama was hosting a “violent cop-killer” by inviting rapper Common over for a poetry reading

–          Guest on Bill O’Reilly’s show the O’Reilly Factor

(4)  “None of these camel jockeys ever should have messed with us”

–          Guest on the Sean Hannity show – There is a continual effort in far right-wing circles to dehumanize and negatively stereotype Muslims and Middle Easterners as violent, savage, animalistic terrorists.  Muslims are invading and actively instituting draconian Sharia Law in America.  Fringe conservative groups distribute videos with ominous sounding voices talking about the impending doom of Muslim domination.  “They” (Muslims) are coming for “us” (whites)… Continual fear and white victimology.  Southern Strategy!

(5)  “Blacks should demand paychecks not food stamps”

–          Newt Gingrich on the campaign trail in late 2011.  Why does Newt specifically refer to “blacks” when talking about food stamps?  Most food stamp recipients are white and food stamp usage has increased across all demographic groups during this Great Recession, but he specifically castigates “blacks” on food assistance.  He does this for a strategic reason.  The Southern Strategy subtext is that blacks are lazy, undeserving, and demanding food assistance instead of actively seeking work, and thus stealing your (white) tax dollars to live lavishly on the dole.  Newt played the Southern Strategy like Charlie Daniels’ fiddle and actually won the South Carolina primary decisively!

(6)  “I don’t want to make black peoples’ lives better by giving them somebody else’s money”

–          Rick Santorum on the campaign trail in January of 2012.  This is the same racialized “welfare queen” meme that Newt utilized in South Carolina.  “They” (blacks) are lazy welfare moochers leeching off  “your” (white) tax dollars.  The ugly stereotype that blacks are “lazy” has deep roots in America.  It was historically used a a justification for slavery and has been part of white socialization throughout American history.  Unfortunately this potent stereotype remains ingrained in America’s collective conscious.  Modern conservatives stoke this racial antipathy by tying minorities to “welfare” whenever possible.  Reagan was a master with his “welfare queen” rhetoric.  He would talk about a (mythical) lady from the “south-side of Chicago” (hint, hint) that has  8 Social Security cards, gets 5 welfare checks, eats t-bone steaks every night, and makes nearly $200K peryear through welfare fraud.  Southern Strategy!

UPDATE (7/12/2012) – “If blacks just want more free stuff they should vote for the other guy.” – Mitt Romney on the campaign trail at a fundraiser in Montana after meeting with the NAACP earlier in the day.  You get it by now…

(7)  “President Obama is a racist that hates white people and white culture”

–          Glenn Beck appearing on the Fox and Friends morning show.  Glenn knows that stoking resentment, (Obama “hates you”) and fear plays well with his very right-wing audience.  Glenn is the new face of McCarthyism in the 21st Century… The new Red Scare continually casting suspicion and animosity toward “them.”  Glenn knows where his bread is buttered and he generally keeps a divisive racialized theme running in his projects.  For instance, his internet arm, The Blaze, continually runs stories about how the – mostly irrelevant and anemic – New Black Panther Party is threatening whites’ dominate position in society.

(8)  “Where is the birth certificate? Obama was born in Kenya!”

–          Donald Trump during the summer of 2011.  “Birtherism”, the (fallacious) belief that Obama was born in Kenya, is thinly veiled racism – not even thinly veiled really – and is popular only in staunchly conservative circles.  Birther conspiracy websites populate right-wing enclaves, and media outlets like The Blaze, Drudge Report, World Net Daily, Big Government, etc. openly stoke suspicion about Obama’s birthright citizenship.  Birtherism is probably the most obvious manifestation of racial resentment and latent racism in right-wing political circles today.

Coda:  I do not believe the modern Republican Party is inherently racist, nor do I believe most Republicans or conservatives are fueled by racism.  I also understand that divisive racial appeals exist in left-wing circles (e.g. shallow appeals to minority victimology), but the fact remains that the peculiar brand of Southern animosity and resentment is partially reflected in modern right-wing political movements like the Tea Party.  The Republican Party is becoming a cloistered Southern, white (and elderly) party in some respects and they will have to find avenues to reach a broader electorate if they want to compete in American elections long-term.