The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Byron Halsey and Barack Obama: my vote to lose

So…Byron Halsey spent two decades in prison for the rape and murder of two children. Now DNA evidence suggests that his neighbor actually committed the crime, and the judge has thrown his conviction out. I don’t know all of the details of this one, but it is this kind of case that makes me nervous about the death penalty. It strains credulity to believe that no one has ever been executed wrongly. In theory, I don’t mind the idea of the death penalty—simply removing from the equation anyone who we’d never want on the street again? Fine.

But there are
1) too many cases where we can’t be absolutely certain.
2) Too many studies that demonstrate that poor people and people of color are more likely to be arrested, tried, convicted and/or executed for the exact same crimes that the wealthy and/or white are less frequently or harshly punished.

IF it were possible for the justice system to be completely fair, I’d go with the death penalty. But its not.

An admission: its been over a decade since I read the sociology studies that established a differential conviction/arrest rate based on race and income. Can anyone out there point me to more recent studies? If I’m wrong, I’d be glad to admit it.
Google “conviction rates race” and you’ll find this on Huffington Post:

“According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, among youths aged 12 to 17, the rate of current illicit drug use was 11.1 % among whites, and 9.3% among African Americans. [5] In a previous year, the same survey found that white youth aged 12 to17 are more than a third more likely to have sold drugs than African American youth. [6] The Monitoring the Future Survey of high school seniors shows that white students annually use cocaine at 4.6 times the rate of African Americans students, use crack cocaine at 1.5 times the rate of African Americans students, and use heroin at the same rate of African Americans students, and that white youth report annual use of marijuana at a rate 46% higher than African American youth. [7] However African American youth are arrested for drug offenses at about twice the rate (African American 314 per 100,000, white 175 per 100,000) times that of whites, [8] and African American youth represent nearly half (48%) of all the youth incarcerated for a drug offense in the juvenile justice system. [9]”

This would all go along with my theory that there is a 5-10% “disconnect” in perceiving the humanity of the “Other.” As a young person moves through the justice system, they would encounter this at every level—sometimes more, sometimes less, but averaging about 5%-10%. The effect would be cumulative, slowly shunting them deeper and deeper into the system. It would also be cumulative in terms of degrading their respect for the system, and therefore increasing their tendency to believe the actual rules of society are the rules of animal survival. Children must be programmed to understand why they shouldn’t steal, or hit. Only later when such programming goes so deep as to become “Right Action” is a fully mature, socialized human being created.

Again, in my opinion, the basic difference between Conservatives and Liberals is the tendency for the Right to select Nature over Nurture, and the Left to select Nurture over Nature. Ultimately, neither point of view can be “proven” but one’s orientation influences your belief in, say, social programs to prevent criminality (nurture) or building more jails to simply contain the “bad seed” (nature). Since to a degree our available tax dollars exist in a Zero Sum Game, this isn’t a joke, and is an incredibly important debate.

The problem in my mind, is that viewed from this perspective, the reason that the old saw “don’t discuss Religion or Politics” rings so true is that they are in essence the exact same thing. Both are Cosmological arguments that cannot really be resolved. Religion is more obviously a matter of “Faith”, but ultimately (from this perspective) so is Politics. But it masquerades as logic, which is a problem.
Feel a little overtrained today. Fasting day. I’m working out with Nicki later, so I think I’m going to give my personal workout a little rest. Still recovering from Arizona? Maybe. The weather was ghastly there. The combination of heat and humidity had health warnings flashing like crazy, and I may have become slightly dehydrated.
While I was there, I saw an old friend, S.D. As always, at one point he got very, very seriously into political discussion. He thinks that the Clintons are pretty much Satanic, and thought Barack Obama “a disgrace.” Curious, I asked him why. Took a bit to pin him down, but the thing he came up with most clearly was his support of Universal Health Care.

Now, I can understand someone thinking UHC is a bad idea for the country, but “disgrace” sounds a little harsh. That’s an ad hominem attack on an issue that needs to be discussed logically. My favorite fast-and-dirty measure of overall health of a society is the Infant Mortality Rate. Excuse me, but isn’t the IMR in most countries with UHC lower than it is in the United States? That ISN’T an absolute reason to have Universal Health Care—but it does suggest that an intelligent, compassionate person could have good reasons for supporting it.

Given that there are also in all probability good reasons to be wary of it, one would think that people of good will could discuss this issue calmly. Certainly no one is going to say publicly that they don’t care about the percentage of children who die. What WILL be done is debating the interpretation of the statistics, and questions about whether UHC is the best way to create a future for our children. Fine.

But the “He’s a disgrace” strikes me as a bit of reflexive and jingoistic nonsense, and automatic demonization of the political opponent. I hear this crap on Air America sometimes (Randi Rhodes is famous for it) and it suggests to me that certain issues simply make the forebrain shut down, until all that is left is sheer venom and fear.

That’s unfortunate, because what we need now is intelligent discussion. I’m reading articles and trying to listen carefully, but at this point my vote is Obama’s to lose. Part of the reason is that I think a black man who sounds and carries himself as intelligently as a white man is actually smarter. My reasoning has to do with the fact that he is straddling cultures, and in essence speaking a “second language.” Those of you who use Macs might understand this example. Remember SoftPC, the Windows emulation software? If you had a Mac that ran at the same processor speed as a given Windows machine, SoftPC ran slower than molasses. If it ran as fast as your native Windows machine, your Mac had to be MUCH faster.

It’s kind of like that with race. There are so many impediments, barriers, lacks of role models, that 5%-10% disconnect and so forth, that it’s like watching someone cross a finish line even with another runner—but carrying an anvil on his back. Who’s the stronger runner? One guess.

So I watch Obama, and grasp the magnitude of what he has accomplished, and my reaction is to believe that, had this same man been born white, he would have accomplished even more.

Now, there are those out there who think that blacks actually have advantages (there are a few these days, but I consider them inconsequential in comparison to the disadvantages), and I’ve actually had some of these folks suggest that I personally would have accomplished less, that perhaps my travails had simulated me to greater excellence.

There’s a problem with this. What, then, do they make of the fact that the average black tests, earns, and maintains higher incarceration rates than the average white? I can only think that, in their heart of hearts, they go with the “nature over nurture” position, and secretly believe that, were the average white person born into a black skin, they would out-perform the average black. I think this attitude is more common than most would admit.

To me, it’s like watching that guy with the anvil on his back cross the finish line, and then say: “gee, maybe that anvil stimulated him to greater excellence” and then looking at the majority of those with anvils, who naturally ran slower and even couldn’t finish, and saying “tsk tsk. They just didn’t have what it takes…”

But then, I’m obsessed with finding explanations that don’t require thinking group A is better or worse than group B. Whites aren’t more racist than blacks—there are just more of them, with greater institutionalized power and leverage.

I’m sure that my insistence on looking at things this way occasionally obscures real differences. Maybe blacks actually are inferior intellectually. Or maybe whites really are inferior morally and ethically. But people have been trying to prove one or the other position to me all my life, and I’m not buying.


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