Wednesday, April 29, 2015


While looking at the social media responses to recent events in Baltimore it became clear that some - if not most - people are clueless about what's happening outside of their world. Here are some of the Facebook comments about the events in Baltimore that drew my interest:

"Why are they destroying their own communities" 
"Just start shooting the no good f***ing thieves and the coroners is a good place for them" 
"If you don't send your kids to school ... if you don't demand of them that they apply themselves in school and if you don't lead them by example as good parents ... budgets big or small have little impact ... this is a cultural problem"

What comments like these miss is that there is no sense of community where there is no hope.

What comments like these miss is that punitive measures alone have put us where we are today.

What comments like these miss is that a history of racial antagonisms and economic violence have led to disproportional incarceration rates that rob families of the building blocks necessary for creating and sustaining healthy communities.

Finally, what these comments miss is that there's a history of imposed joblessness and exclusion, backed by repression, that has denied an entire segment of America access to the promises of the American Dream.

Let's take a look.

One of the goals of the Civil Rights movement was access. Whether it was gaining access to the ballot box, higher education, or quality jobs with good wages, the goal of the social movements of the 1960s was to create a level playing field for people of all stripes.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped deal with voter discrimination and issues of segregation. An entire generation of people of color were given a political voice, economic promise, and hope through education. Today, unfortunately, we find a mixed picture where many of the gains made during the 1960s have either stalled, or are suffering setbacks.

As evidence, it's clear that recent redistricting patterns and voter ID laws not only work to undermine democracy in America, but may even be turning back the clock on some of the gains achieved by the civil rights movement. Commenting on this, Reagan-appointed 7th Circuit Court Judge Richard A. Posner made it clear that we need to recognize that voter ID laws are effectively designed to discourage voting among the weakest and least represented groups in America.

Making matters worse, while women, people of color, and our nation's youth have to fight to prove who they are at the ballot box, the Citizens United decision has created an environment where those with money get almost unlimited access to our political system.

As civil rights leader and UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta put it, the issues of civil rights today "are much more complex." Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is much more blunt, and refers to these developments as "second generation" barriers.

We can see the complexity behind these barriers on the education front.

Soaring college tuition costs have both undermined access and increasingly put more of those who graduate from college into crushing patterns of debt. Since the mid-1980s tuition in the California State University system - where I teach - has gone from about $600 a year in the mid-1980s to over $5,400 annually.

Fee hikes like this across the country have contributed to the quadrupling of student loan debt in the nation since 2003. It's also one of the reasons why total student loan debt today stands at $1.2 trillion.

The end result is that access to both the ballot box and higher education have become more difficult for America's middle class, the poor, and people of color.

When you shut off shut off someone's voice and mind things can turn nasty very quickly.

Things aren't much better on the jobs front either.

On the jobs front things have become positively bleak for those without an education in the inner cities of places like Baltimore and Detroit. Specifically, with robotics dominating the day, manual or blue collar labor has become a smaller part of our evolving "third industrial revolution." With diminishing access to both higher education and vocational training what we're learning is that our modern economy is built on what economist Nouriel Roubini says is a "rather shaky foundation."

If robots are doing more of our menial work, who's going to purchase the goods we produce?

But technology is only a small part of what's been happening in places like Baltimore and Detroit. For the better part of 40 years U.S. trade policies have systematically hollowed out the jobs infrastructure of America's inner cities. This is why we really shouldn't be surprised to find unemployment rates of 30 percent and higher in these regions.

What's happened in America's cities didn't happen by accident either. As I've pointed out elsewhere:

Contrary to what you've heard, the fiscal problems of Detroit, and the challenges that confront America, are not so simple, or the result of labor unions. The 79,500 Michigan jobs/workers that were displaced or shipped to China between 2001 and 2007 didn't happen because of mysterious "magic of the market" forces. Nor did Detroit's tax base suddenly disappear because of incompetent political leadership (though the incompetence didn't help).
Michigan's jobs and manufacturing picture worsened - as did the nation's - because of policies taken by the federal government over the past 30 years. These policies rewarded companies for shifting manufacturing jobs around the world. When jobs leave so does the tax base. Pretty simple.
Now, someone reading this might be screaming at their screen right now that unions priced the American worker out of the global labor pool by demanding too much. Think again.
Germany produces twice as many cars as the United States. Their unionized auto industry pays workers significantly more than what the U.S. auto industry pays. Indeed, when you take out what it costs for health care (Germany has universal health care) we find that German auto workers make about two times what their U.S. counterparts earn, while benefits for German workers are substantially more rewarding (8 weeks paid vacation, free day care, etc.).

So, yeah, government trade policies have helped gut the jobs base of America's inner cities. But we did little to nothing to help those most affected by these policies to transition into new lines of work.

Incredibly, we expected things to work out, as if some kind of invisible hand or magic market pixie dust would make things better over time. Detroit and places like Baltimore help to make it clear that Market Tinker Bells don't exist in the real world - especially when the federal government is offering tax credits that encourage companies to ship high paying jobs over seas.

Sending taxpayer funded trade representatives to negotiate trade deals, while we ignore the social and economic impact of these deals in America's inner cities, is a form of economic violence because of how it cripples the growth of economic communities. Our corporate citizens, as you can imagine, reap the benefits of outsourced jobs and higher unemployment in the United States.

Via Daily Kos we learn from the current edition of Rethinking Schools about the "Stop the School-to-Prison-Pipeline" movement. The Rethinking Schools editorial board makes it clear that our nation's students of color - African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Southeast Asians - are being unfairly targeted and pumped into a lifetime of prison and second class status because of zero tolerance and punitive expulsion policies in our school systems.

In "Schools and the New Jim Crow" Michelle Alexander explains how school discipline programs are instrumental in reintroducing Jim Crow into our national psyche:

In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.

In "Arresting Development: Zero Tolerance and the Criminalization of Children" Annette Fuentes writes about how the pipeline process begins:

A week before classes ended last spring, 13-year-old Diana Nava was waiting with her mother, Modesto, for the Los Angeles city bus that goes near her school. Even though her mother had awakened Diana early, she was behind schedule. An LA police officer patrolling for truants spotted them at the bus stop and gave Diana a ticket for violating the city’s daytime curfew. “My mother said, ‘She’s on her way to school’ but the officer said it didn’t matter.” For being late, Nava and her mother would have to go to court and face a $250 fine, a loss in time and money they could ill afford.

While these aggressive truancy programs were originally designed to financially punish and legally scare students and parents into regular attendance, they also ended up discouraging students from attending school. The school to prison pipeline is not difficult to enter for families who are experiencing transportation difficulties, financial strain, and family breakdown:

Jose Gallego’s story is a case in point. The 23-year-old explained: “I’m a high school dropout. I was supposed to graduate in 2008, but I missed a few days of school because my parents were going through a hard time. They kicked me out of school. So, then I started selling CDs downtown. I was arrested for selling CDs, I was locked up, and I got out with a whole different perspective. I never had been in juvenile detention. I didn’t know what to do. I started selling drugs. Now I’m lost. I’ve got a little brother and a little sister, they don’t look up to me anymore. I’m a two-time convicted felon. It’s hard for me to get a job.”

Other articles in the Rethinking Schools prison-pipeline edition include an autobiographical essay describing what it's like having a parent behind bars, how school discipline disproportionately affects people of color, and a look at the prison industrial complex.

Specifically, we learn that while our nation's population has increased 67 percent since 1970 that our prison population has climbed by 660 percent. As the editorial staff at Rethinking Schools make clear in their article:

... this is a phenomenon that cannot be explained by crime rates or drug use. According to Human Rights Watch (Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs, 2000) although whites are more likely to violate drug laws than people of color, in some states black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates 20 to 50 times greater than those of white men. Latina/os, Native Americans, and other people of color are also imprisoned at rates far higher than their representation in the population. Once released, former prisoners are caught in a web of laws and regulations that make it difficult or impossible to secure jobs, education, housing, and public assistance—and often to vote or serve on juries. Alexander calls this permanent second-class citizenship a new form of segregation.
The impact of mass incarceration is devastating for children and youth. More than 7 million children have a family member incarcerated, on probation, or on parole. Many of these children live with enormous stress, emotional pain, and uncertainty. 

The school to prison pattern that emerges helps us understand how the political and economic prospects of an entire class of Americans have been diminished or wiped out over the past 40 years. Simply put, our nation's educational infrastructure and prison system - intended or not - conspire to punish people of color, those who happen to be poor, and those without resources.

Access to the ballot box and higher education have been slowly cut off. Student loan debt has soared while jobs are being shipped overseas for the benefit of America's well connected corporate citizens. Throw in the fact that our high schools have become a feeder program for our prison system when it comes to people of color and it's not hard to understand how stunted opportunities, and a lifetime of frustration, can turn into demonstrations and riots at the slightest provocation.

Add in a senseless killing of a community member, which seems to happen on a regular basis, and our nation's racial tinder box is much easier to see, even if it is difficult to understand.

Then we have places like Ferguson, Missouri.

We learned after Michael Brown's murder that its municipal court system was a prized revenue generator for the city. It's punishing ticket-to-fine-to-warrant-to-jail system helps explain why Ferguson's police department handed out about 3 warrants per household every year. Things were so bad that one city council member commented that if one of the more punitive judges were to leave the bench that the city would have to consider the revenue effects on the municipality.

Unless we begin to open up and guarantee access for those most affected by America's second generation barriers we should expect more Baltimore's and Ferguson's in our future. Choking off an entire community's political voice, economic promise, and hope virtually guarantees they will happen, over and over.

This isn't rocket science.

- Mark

Edit: "Baltimore: The Big Picture" added May 4, 2015.

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