Crime And Policing

I keep harping on the difference between “what” and “how”–and the too-often-unrecognized importance of “how.” I’ve been frustrated, for example, by public reactions to recent Supreme Court decisions that have largely focused upon agreement or disagreement with the holdings– ignoring the Court’s far more concerning willingness to break Constitutional rules about standing and jurisdiction.

That tendency to focus on the “what”rather than the “how” also characterizes most public debates about crime. Most pundits begin with the assumption that public safety requires more policing, and even critics of police misbehavior rarely dispute that assumption. They just want better hiring and training practices.

So I was fascinated by a New York Times essay by noted legal scholar Radley Balko titled “Half the Police Force Quit; Crime Dropped.”

Balko began with what we all know–the horrific incidents that have become common are not the result of “rogue” officers–they reflect institutional cultures.

In a staggering report last month, the Department of Justice documented pervasive abuse, illegal use of force, racial bias and systemic dysfunction in the Minneapolis Police Department. City police officers engaged in brutality or made racist comments, even as a department investigator rode along in a patrol car. Complaints about police abuse were often slow-walked or dismissed without investigation. And after George Floyd’s death, instead of ending the policy of racial profiling, the police just buried the evidence.

The Minneapolis report was shocking, but it wasn’t surprising. It doesn’t read much differently from recent Justice Department reports about the police departments in Chicago, Baltimore, Cleveland, Albuquerque, New Orleans, Ferguson, Mo., or any of three recent reports from various sources about Minneapolis, from 2003, 2015 and 2016.

Balko points to a common response by many in law enforcement: all this criticism is preventing police from doing their jobs “right.” Many officers- defeated and demoralized–quit. Fewer police, more crime.

Lying just below the surface of that characterization is a starkly cynical message to marginalized communities: You can have accountable and constitutional policing, or you can have safety. But you can’t have both.

As Balko notes, calls for more police fail to take into account the ways in which police brutality and misconduct erode public trust, and how that erosion of trust affects public safety. He then points to the experience of a prosperous Minneapolis suburb.

Golden Valley is 85 percent white and 5 percent Black — the result of pervasive racial covenants.

“We enjoy prosperity and security in this community,” said Shep Harris, the mayor since 2012. “But that has come at a cost. I think it took incidents like the murder of George Floyd to help us see that more clearly.” The residents of the strongly left-leaning town decided change was necessary. One step was eliminating those racial covenants. Another was changing the Police Department, which had a reputation for mistreating people of color.

Golden Valley hired a high-ranking Black policewoman and a Black Chief of Police, prompting members of the overwhelmingly white police force to quit — in droves. And police unions continue to warn officers against joining the Golden Valley force, despite excellent pay and a relatively low crime rate.

What happened after the police force lost some half of its officers?

Crime declined.

Balko concedes that Golden Valley is far from a perfect model; it’s a wealthy community with very little crime. But he also notes that its experience isn’t unique, either.

When New York’s officers engaged in an announced slowdown in policing in late 2014 and early 2015, civilian complaints of major crime in the city dropped. And despite significant staffing shortages at law enforcement agencies around the country, if trends continue, 2023 will have the largest percentage drop in homicides in U.S. history. It’s true that such a drop would come after a two-year surge, but the fact that it would also occur after a significant reduction in law enforcement personnel suggests the surge may have been due more to the pandemic and its effects than depolicing…

At the very least, the steady stream of Justice Department reports depicting rampant police abuse ought to temper the claim that policing shortages are fueling crime. It’s no coincidence that the cities we most associate with violence also have long and documented histories of police abuse. When people don’t trust law enforcement, they stop cooperating and resolve disputes in other ways. Instead of fighting to retain police officers who feel threatened by accountability and perpetuate that distrust, cities might consider just letting them leave.

In Indianapolis, the Republican candidate for mayor is basing his campaign largely on his “plan” to improve public safety–a plan to hire more police officers and to “let them do their jobs.”

He clearly doesn’t understand that we won’t get to “what”–less crime–unless we address the importance of “how.”


It’s All About Race

I have previously shared my youngest son’s analysis of the 2016 presidential election–an analysis with which I have come to agree, and which subsequent academic research has confirmed. As he put it, “there were two–and only two–kinds of people who voted for Trump: those for whom his racism resonated, and those for whom it wasn’t disqualifying.” 

I was initially reluctant to accept so oversimplified an analysis, but in the years since, study after study has confirmed its essential accuracy, and research clearly connects the importance of racism to the continued allegiance of Evangelical voters to Trump.

An article from the Brookings Institution is instructive. The linked article begins by looking at the characteristics of  White Evangelical voters, and finds that, overall, they are older and predominantly Southern. The aging of the cohort is due to America’s declining religiosity, and the departure of younger Americans from a Christianity seen as intolerant of racial diversity and the LGBTQ community. As the authors delicately put it, younger Americans are more “progressive”(i.e., less threatened) when it comes to “diversity.”

Evangelicals are 30% of self-identified Republicans–and they vote. Fifty-nine percent of them are older than 50; 52% hail from the South; 42% have a high school diploma or less; 69% identify as conservative. They have been shrinking as a percentage of the population–White Evangelicals are currently 14% of all Americans.

Interestingly, the current political divide between Evangelicals and others  on the issue of abortion is actually rooted in racism,  as has documented:

The movement to end legal abortion has a long, racist history, and like the great replacement theory, it has roots in a similar fear that white people are going to be outnumbered by people believed to hold a lower standing in society. Those anxieties used to be centered primarily around various groups of European immigrants and newly emancipated slaves, but now they’re focused on non-white Americans who, as a group, are on track to numerically outpace non-Hispanic white Americans by 2045, according to U.S. Census projections.

It’s been decades since the anti-abortion movement first gained traction — and the movement has changed in certain ways — but this fundamental fear has never left, as demonstrated by attacks on people of color, such as the shooter in Buffalo, New York, who expressed concern about the declining birth rates of white people. That’s because the anti-abortion movement, at its core, has always been about upholding white supremacy.

The Brookings  report focuses on Evangelicals’ continued devotion to Trump, which it attributes to “shared anger and resentments rather than a shared faith.” As the authors write,

White Evangelical politics is now predominantly the politics of older, conservative voters for whom ‘owning the libs’ and pushing back against cultural and demographic change has become a sacred obligation.

The movement of White Evangelicals to the GOP began long before Roe v. Wade–it was prompted by backlash against civil rights and voting rights. The continued role of racial reaction, which also prompts opposition to immigration, has been well documented.

In a 2018 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center,  38 percent of Americans said that the U.S. becoming more diverse would “weaken American customs and values.” This opinion was most prevalent among Republicans, who by a margin of 59 to 13 percent said that having a majority nonwhite population would weaken rather than strengthen the U.S. (Twenty-seven percent said it wouldn’t have much impact either way.) Another poll, conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, found 47 percent of Republicans (compared with 22 percent of Democrats and 22 percent of independents) agreeing with the statement that “there is a group of people in this country who are trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants who agree with their political views.”

It has to be emphasized that the allegiance of White Evangelicals to the GOP under Trump isn’t new–they have voted overwhelmingly Republican for a long time. What I’ve found hard to wrap my head around was the fact that more White Evangelicals “converted to Trump’s cause” during his presidency than defected from it. How rational people could view Trump’s bizarre behaviors in office and increase their support simply astonished me–and is inexplicable without reference to the increasingly blatant racism displayed by Trump and the contemporary GOP.

So what does all of this mean for the 2024 election?

The historical affiliation of White Evangelicals and other “racial grievance” voters with the GOP means they are probably unmovable. They can be counted on to vote–and to vote for any candidate with an R next to the name. They are not a majority even in very Red states–but absent effective GOTV efforts, their anger and cohesion can elect truly despicable people.

Massive turnout has never been more important.


Protecting Privilege

There is very little I can add to the mountains of commentary criticizing or defending the  Supreme Court’s decision to overturn affirmative action in University admissions. I do think it is important, however, to focus on its impact, which will be almost entirely limited to colleges and universities that are considered “elite.” As several analysts have pointed out, the U.S. has somewhere between 3,500 and 5,500 colleges and all but 100 of them admit more than 50% of the students who apply. There are only about 70 that admit fewer than a third of their applicants.

In other words, the schools most Americans attend admit most of the people who apply to them.

The fact that the Court’s ruling will have a limited effect does not, of course, excuse a decision that race cannot be considered, but legacy status, recruited athlete status, and financial aid eligibility—aka  “affirmative action for Whites”– can.

Americans make competing arguments about affirmative action in college admissions: defenders point to the undeniable educational benefits of diversity in the classroom and  the persistent effects of this country’s history of racial injustice; opponents point out that perceptions of favorable treatment diminish recognition of individuals’ accomplishments, and that race is no longer a clear proxy for disadvantage (should a Black doctor’s son who attended cushy private schools have a “leg up” over a poor White applicant?)

The fact that most perceptions about admissions aren’t accurate–I’ve served on admission committees–doesn’t mean they aren’t damaging.

The Court’s decision reminded me of a long-ago discussion with a relative. She was about my age, and we both had sons who were entering college. She was incensed that one of her sons had failed to gain admission to a particular, competitive school (I no longer remember which one), and attributed his rejection to affirmative action. If there wasn’t “favoritism for ‘those people,’ she was absolutely convinced her son (who was actually pretty unimpressive) would have been accepted.

I’ve read bits and pieces of the dissents, and–as a lawyer–find them persuasive. But as we’ve seen with other decisions of this radical Court, nuanced  legal arguments rarely translate accurately into the ensuing political and social debates.

As the months pass, I may revise my current assessment of the impact of this decision, but right now, here’s what I see:

  • People like my relative will be deprived of an argument that they use to justify their (already obvious) racial grievance.
  • America’s changing demographics–a change that has already triggered the nasty expression of overt bigotries–will ensure the continued diversity of the great majority of university classrooms–especially as so many colleges are seeing fewer applicants and experiencing fiscal challenges.
  • The impact of the decision will fall almost entirely on the elite institutions that produce the most privileged members of American society. The Chief Justice’s ruling (aptly described by Justice Jackson as a “let them eat cake” decision) will protect his alma mater and other elite universities from the equalizing effects of a more diverse student body.

The truth is, those elite universities are already experiencing what has been called the “gamification” of admissions. Families with the means to do so have engaged in multiple efforts to assure their offsprings’ success, from coaches to help with essays and SAT preparation, to actual bribes that led to jail terms for some celebrity parents.

What would a fair process look like? After all, the use of race–or legacy status, or athletic prowess, or wealth–is almost always applied to a pool of applicants all of whom are eligible for admission. Arguments about merit are beside the point–these schools get many more applicants who meet or exceed their criteria than they can admit. The issue is: when you have identified 200 students who can clearly do the work, and you have room for only 100, how do you decide which ones to admit?

One of the better suggestions would substitute socio-economic status for race; given the continued structural racism of American society, Blacks should be well represented in an underprivileged cohort. (Letting more poor kids of any color into Harvard and Yale would certainly increase diversity…)

According to survey research, a majority of Americans oppose affirmative action in higher education. Much of that opposition is because people don’t understand how it actually works, but there’s no denying that a lot of it is simple racism and a defense of privilege.

Meanwhile, a rogue Court continues to eviscerate legal precedent, with consequences that will likely extend far beyond the issues of the cases being decided…


Florida Man

I am constantly confounded by the evident belief of Republican presidential candidates that the way to GOP hearts is be overtly autocratic, bigoted and/or “in your face” corrupt.

Which brings me–once again–to “Florida Man,” aka Ron DeSantis. (I am hopeful this will be the last time I focus on DeSantis, since my reading of his trajectory suggests he will not be the nominee…but hey! I was equally certain that no sane political party would nominate Trump, so my prognostication skills aren’t great…)

As we’ve seen with TFG,  this particular breed of politician exhibits what a friend used to insist was a prime motive for seeking political power: to help your friends and f**k  your enemies. We’ve seen this dynamic in DeSantis’ petulant efforts to punish Disney for daring to criticize His Majesty’s anti-gay bigotry.

An even more recent–and telling– exhibit, courtesy of Robert Hubbell:

Like other red states, Florida is doing its best to prevent car manufacturers from selling electric vehicles. This week, DeSantis signed legislation prohibiting “direct to consumer” sales of electric vehicles, a marketing approach that bypasses automobile dealerships. Elon Musk pioneered the “direct-to-consumer” approach and uses it exclusively to sell Tesla cars.

So, one would think that the Florida legislation banning direct-to-consumer sales of cars would be bad news for Tesla. But you would be wrong—because the legislation exempts Tesla from the ban. 

As a result, large auto manufacturers like Ford, GM, and Chrysler are prohibited from selling electric vehicles directly to the consumer, while Tesla is free to do so. It is amazing what a presidential endorsement can buy in Florida!

DeSantis’ has declared war on anything he considers “woke”–evidently, any effort to ensure equal treatment of, or information about, previously marginalized Americans. A recent post to Daily Kos shed light on DeSantis’ animus toward New College, a small liberal–“woke”– institution in the state.

The narrative has been that this is a small college that DeSantis is trying to take over for his culture war and leave it at that. It is true that DeSantis is effectively destroying Florida’s universities with the help of his supporters’ openly hostile resentment of higher education. And yes, he’s making Florida toxic to not just out-of-state students, but Florida’s own students and professors who are deciding it’s best to leave the state and go somewhere less oppressive. Not to mention the medical students who are canceling their residencies in Florida due to abortion laws. But there’s so much more than that.

To begin with, no outlet has even described the unique way New College operates. It’s modeled after the New College of Oxford University in England. There are no grades: all courses are pass/fail. The student is responsible for his or her entire course planning, and there are no required courses. There’s few organized sports, and no fraternities or sororities. This school is only for the most highly motivated students who have the maturity and intellect to chart their own path and create their own approved course structure. New College has always scored at the top of national rankings, such as The Princeton Review and Forbes; and has ranked fifth in U.S. News & World Report’s annual review of public schools for higher learning. It is a very small school, with under 1,000 students, but has produced more Fulbright scholars than either Harvard or Yale.

The post attributed DeSantis’ determination to transform New School “into a sham school catering to bigoted yokels” to something that occurred on its campus 10 years ago, and ties it into “the resurgent white nationalist movement in Florida.”

For a school that has produced some notable alumni, one of the ones they tend not to feature is a young man by the name of Derek Black. He is the godson of David Duke and the son of Don Black, the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Don Black founded the first neo-Nazi online forum and world’s most prominent white nationalist website, Stormfront.

When Derek Black came to New School, he was a committed neo-Nazi. The experience changed him.

In 2013, Derek sent a letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center that rocked the white supremacist movement to the core, and outraged the hate communities in Florida. The key phrase was this: “I do not believe advocacy against ‘oppression of whites’ exists in any form but an entrenched desire to preserve white power at the expense of others. I am sorry for the damage done by my actions and my past endorsement of white nationalism.”

DeSantis candidly admits he targeted the school for its “progressive culture.” That culture dealt a blow to  Florida’s white supremacist movement, and that movement is  a core part of DeSantis’ base.

And the core of today’s GOP.


The Past Isn’t Past

For the past couple of years, I’ve been reading books on American history–some general, several by scholars focused on slavery and Jim Crow, and still others exploring specific movements–for women’s suffrage, for civil rights, for LGBTQ acceptance. I’ve come away from these descriptions of times past with the realization that in far too many ways, the past really isn’t past–that world-views that were powerful “back then” are far more present than I’ve wanted to believe.

 I recently finished a book titled Marse, written by a forensic psychiatrist named Kirkpatrick, who’d discovered–relatively late in his life–that the great-great grandfather for whom he was named had been a slave owner. In high-school, he and a Black acquaintance with the same last name had jokingly called each other “cuz.” When the two of them reconnected, some forty years later, the classmate shared his ancestry research, which had uncovered the fact that his forebears had been owned by the author’s ancestors–hence the same name. 

Kirkpatrick was stunned–that bit of history hadn’t been part of his family’s lore.

“Marse” is an old Southern word meaning “master,” and Kirkpatrick chose it as the (somewhat awkward) title of the book. Given his professional background, he fashioned his research as a “psychological autopsy” into the minds and behaviors of the Southern planters who believed themselves entitled to own other human beings.

Kirkpatrick’s description of the psychological effects of the “peculiar institution” on  slaveholders was instructive. He delved into the psychological mechanisms with which Marse justified the ownership of other human beings — the personality distortions, defense mechanisms, and psycho-pathologies that were an arguably inevitable effect of owning human “property.”

What was especially fascinating to me was the extent to which all White Southerners, those who owned slaves and those who didn’t, believed that Christianity and the Bible affirmatively promoted slavery as a positive good. Kirkpatrick devotes an entire chapter to  Evangelical pastors’ arguments justifying White dominance, arguments that Blacks were little more than animals who didn’t have souls, insisting that God had decreed the propriety/necessity of slavery, and arguments emphasizing that Jesus never spoke out against enslavement.

Southern Evangelicals, having cited chapter and verse, successfully enlisted the Bible to justify the overwhelming majority of slaveholders and non-slaveholders in defense of slavery as ordained by God.

The parallels between the psychology of antebellum slaveholding and today’s racists are unmistakable. The poor Whites who formed the bulk of the Confederate army identified with the slaveholders; they hated Black enslaved people and believed them to be inferior.

As Kirkpatrick writes, it would be naive to think that the psychological pathologies that enabled slavery didn’t continue to shape the nation’s economic, social and political systems over the century and a half that followed the Civil War.

In his final chapter, Kirkpatrick draws a compelling parallel between today’s Trump supporters and the Southern Whites who fought for slavery and for White Christian social dominance. He compares the South’s belief in the “Lost Cause”–the revisionist belief that the South’s losses in battle were the result of chicanery–that the South had been the victim of “Yankee vandals” engaged in an immoral and political power grab– to Trump’s Big Lie that his election had been stolen through fraud and theft.

Kirkpatrick draws a straight line between today’s MAGA movement and those “Lost Cause” Southerners. Like “Lost Cause” believers, Trump supporters feel  cheated and victimized–and are consumed with resentment and rage, “denying to themselves just how fearful they are about the changes taking place in the social and political fabric of our nation.”

The fact that the rioters who stormed the Capitol constituted a lynch mob dramatically links the events of January 6, 2021 back to the racist white supremacy of American slavery and post-Reconstruction violence of the Jim Crow era in American history.

The chapter traces what Kirkpatrick calls the “through line” of racist White supremacy and the psychology of those pre-Civil War slaveholders to  today’s MAGA GOP and Trump.

I don’t want to suggest that today’s White Christian ideology comes solely from “Lost Cause” Southerners;  this video (sent by a reader) of 22,000 American Nazis gathered in Madison Square Garden before WWII demonstrates that bigotry didn’t come only from the South.

Americans are just now coming to terms with the realities of the nation’s past. Much of that past is immensely positive–but making continued progress will requires us to grapple with the other parts, the parts that were wrongheaded, savage, and shameful.

We will never understand where we are if we don’t know where we’ve been, and we won’t defeat the MAGA throwbacks unless we understand the complicated and ugly roots of their hatreds.

Accurate history matters.