Contemporary “Tipping Points” in Racial Criminal Justice

For my group paper we have been working on an analysis of race relations in contemporary America and what “tipping points” have caused and invoked change within our society. For my section of the paper I was looking at the current situation with the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown cases and if these are the newest “tipping point” for our society with the civil rights and what it will mean for the society as a whole. After presenting our paper to the class today, Dr. Pool started to discuss the points of the newest case that has just arose in Baltimore with the arrest and death of Freddie Gray. The point that really struck me was the fact that six of the officers that had handled the situation were arrested just like many other civil rights cases in the past, and have been charged with crimes from manslaughter to murder. Dr. Pool stated that she believes that these six officers may be let go at some point and will be found not guilty of their crimes. If this is the case, then I believe that my piece of the paper about the Trayvon Martin case being the contemporary “tipping point” may be invalid and this new case would be the “tipping point” for what it would mean to our society and criminal justice system. To me it would set a new set of standards for police officers across the nation that no matter what happens during an arrest they will be found not guilty because the American people will see the police force as group of people who are above the law and if we convict them of such heinous crimes then who is to police the police force? The two other contemporary cases of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin were between one member of the security/police force and a young boy, in the case of Freddie Gray it was six police members who each could have chosen to use different means of restraining Mr. Gray in the back of the van to prevent him from harm while driving. Although the two previous cases may have started the fire that is blazing through all of America with the police brutality and the targeting of minorities in crimes, they both may have just been the kindling to the much larger fire that will be when the decision is decided of these six officers. Either way that the jury decides the fate of these six police officers I believe that it will be groundbreaking change that will become something that is looked upon for future references of police brutality and how situations between police officers and those arrested.


Changing your mind

So last weekend I went to my grandma’s house for a family event. My grandma is eighty three years old and still kicking. I love her very much and admire her for many reasons. However some of her comments about the protests in Baltimore took me by surprised and got me thinking about how to talk to someone with a completely different view point than myself and more specifically how to change their mind.

While we were watching the news at the breakfast table a story on the protests in Baltimore came on and the first thing she says is, “Look at what these thugs are doing”. At first I was shocked into silence because my grandma is usually pretty accepting and if she doesn’t share her opinion on something like this, she’s usually pretty mild and quiet so I was struck by this outcry. I then asked her why she called them thugs and she said that’s because that’s what they are. She then changed subjects and I was still so shocked I didn’t know what to say.

Upon further reflection a few things about this interaction stuck with me and got me thinking. First of all was the way the media is reporting on the “riots”. Apparently PEACEFUL protests have been going on since the incident more than almost two weeks ago but the news really picked up on the story when they turned violent. There was looting and property damage and immediately the media sprang to action. Suddenly these “thugs” were “rioting” “unnecessarily” and didn’t deserve any respect or actions based on their entirely valid requests. So I guess I gave my grandma a little forgiveness because if you only watch one news station–probably conservative–and don’t do any research on your own, you have no way of knowing exactly what’s going on.

The second thing that struck me came bout when I was listening to a This American Life episode–sorry not sorry I love podcasts. This episode was called The Incredible Rarity of Changing One’s Mind and it’s about getting people to change their minds and how incredibly wrong that is. It starts with an interview with an advocacy agency in California working to legalize gay marriage. Its workers would go out into the street and purposefully try to talk to people who voted against legalizing same sex marriage and understand why so as to better be able to counter their arguments. They realized that the more personal stories and appealing to logic worked. (To be honest I haven’t finished the whole episode so there might be further comments). Anyway, I would be interested to see how this would function in an example like what occurred between me and my grandmother. Would it function across different generations? Or with regards to race? What about a white person talking to another person about the black lives matter movement?


A few months ago I went to see Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams who spent half the time doing stand up and the second half talking about herself and her experiences with the daily show. It also happened to be Naked Week (which name is self-evident) and she had joked about how she did not join a social contract in which she agreed to have naked people in the audience, which there were none of thankfully. It was extremely timely that Jessica Williams, who has often provided witty comments on race and women in the United States, framed what she would be exposed to using a “social contract.” This brought to mind the comment, “I didn’t sign up for this” whenever I or a fellow minority discuss microaggressions on campus; encounters which White students didn’t have to experience despite being part of the same community, the same social contract.

Some are not bothered by being asked “where are you from, from?” or find nothing problematic with casual (explicit and implicit) racially charged comments (i.e. can I touch your hair?, were you born here? etc.) At first, I thought this was troubling. It has been my experience that I and most people I share my life with are often irritated by these situations. However, after reading people like Charles Mills, W.E.B. Du Bois, Cheryl Harris, it has contextualized immensely both were these microaggressions come from and why those receiving them may be OK with it. What is now find troubling, is how to explain these histories to people who won’t be attending prestigious liberal arts colleges any time soon. This is when I am immediately hit with my own privilege of being in such an institution- that they don’t need Mills to understand that whites supremacy is still the political structure in the United States.

Re-watch the Dear White People trailer. Discussions we’ve had in class about where the definition and classifications of race has come from legally. Socially, microaggressions are an extension of the “dilemma” of how race is perceived institutionally. For example, in terms of gender, saying “you throw like a girl” is not only a social construct but based on a system in which it was forbidden that women play certain sports. Even when women were and are now allowed to play almost all sports, it is still seen as less than by the sports industry. Now back to race. Since for decades, the only way to be granted citizenship is to be white- does this not have long lasting effects? It is evident that the tension between who and what being “American” entails play out strongly in microaggressions. (See this advertisement)

Another counter argument is that focusing on being “politically correct” stirs some people away from the “much-needed-conversation-on-race.” The question I ask here then is, who are these people who can’t have these discussions without knowing they have “get out of jail card”? Non-whites are so much more often made aware of their race (and sex/gender/sexuality). If we analyze the institutional roots of this and decide that the system rather than the individual is to blame, then why can the privileged individual “go the extra mile” to avoid microaggressions and have leveled, meaningful conversations?

Microaggressions are subtle but still an unnecessary burden. I do not believe they are blown out of proportion regardless of how well the intentions of the perpetrators are. What do you think?

Reflections on Baltimore

Michelle Alexander’s analysis in the New Jim Crow can be so closely applied to the current “riots” in Baltimore.  Alexander writes that it is not only the African American lack of opportunity or poverty- but it is the fact that they are legally not allowed to “move up” in institutions, limiting mobility. She finds that African Americans are treated like an inferior “undercaste” which are “permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society.” This hierarchical system over time is bound to cause anger, as any marginalized society would be.  In this sense, “racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive.”

Even for those who are very well but still educated believe American “meritocracy” works. They are often blinded by their own privilege, internalized repression or color blindness. The genius of this system, she writes, lies in that the failure of African American failure is seen as “voluntary.” This is seen in responses like “why don’t those thugs get a job? Why aren’t they in school?”

Time and time again, law enforcement and the Supreme Court use the language of the “public order.” What is seemingly invisible here is that “order” is a privilege. Simply because people didn’t see the riots, doesn’t mean that they weren’t happening or that they take other forms. Order cannot be possible in a state of institutional injustice. This comes from a long history of thinking of order as the binary opposite of chaos, peace the binary opposite of war, when in fact, the two can exist simultaneously.

Looking at binaries is especially important in the language of violence versus non-violence that has been used (i.e. “I’m not racist but I can’t support violence, they should peacefully protest). What kind of violence is acceptable? Is the excessive use of force by the police not violence?

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse.” The public mourning for a burned CVS more than for a human life taken away from his family and friends is a culmination of how racist law enforcement and racist members of society intersect to accomplish this level of dehumanization not drastically different than that during slavery and the Jim Crow era as Alexander argues.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. When you look at the context in which African Americans in the US are subject to structural violence on a daily basis, it is no longer so shocking that cops are able (and do) manage to kill young innocent black men. As Michele Alexander quotes a letter by James Baldwin to his nephew in 1962, “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish.”

Of course, there will be those who immediately will resort to the #NotAllCops argument and forget that as Lopez argues, “legal actors are in some sense both conscious and unwitting participants in the construction of race.” Even good cops, Black cops, cops with a conscious are part of a bigger institution which legally legitimatizes the social perception of the black/brown body as a criminal.

Law enforcement is one of many institutions that treat the deviation from Whitness™ as disruption of the public order, even without the visible display of a “riot.” Demanding one’s rights in a capitalist state which benefits from our silence through a vicious labor cycle, is and has always been a riot. Who gets the right to be “violent” and why?

Nothing will change until people realize that severing Freddie Gray’s spine also breaks the severs the very concept of “life, liberty and the pursuit of justice”, when it is important to march for justice so that peace and order can be for all even when it means “breaking the law” in a state emergency.

Cecily Strong’s joke at the First Black President’s final White House Correspondent’s Dinner, “Your [Obama’s] hair is so white now, it can talk back to the police” was funny because it’s true and I wish it wasn’t.

Don’t Ask…..Assault Again

Recently in class, we discussed the issue of leaving off the question about criminal history on job applications. I found this extremely interesting in light of recent events at Indiana University in Bloomington. This past week was what IU students like to refer to as “the greatest college week in America” or better known as Little 500. While the premise of the week is rooted in the bike races for both men and women, much of the attention was shifted to cover the story of the murder of Hannah Wilson. Thursday night, Hannah was heading to a very popular bar in Bloomington called Kilroy’s when her friends decided she was too inebriated to enter so they put her in a cab. Parked outside of the bar was a man in a car that appeared to look like a cab, so the friends paid for the cab upfront and Hannah gave her address to the driver. Everything appeared normal as the driver dropped her off and she put her keys and phone on the counter once she entered her home. However, the night took a turn for the worse when Hannah’s friends came home to see her stuff on the kitchen counter but could not find their friend. They sent out a missing persons alert which was not sent out to the community until a person found a dead body in Brown County, just south of Bloomington.

After further investigation, the body was confirmed to be Hannah’s and she died from blunt force trauma to her head just weeks away from graduation. The murderer was found hours later on Friday night due to a cell phone left by her body. When authorities went to question Daniel Messel, 49-year-old white male living in Bloomington, they found blood and hair in his vehicle, as well as claw marks on his arms. This man has a long history of domestic violence and aggravated assault charges on his record and has been in and out of jail. The media outcry hours after the story broke blamed Uber because word had gotten out that he was an Uber driver, but Uber came forth and said they had now history of this man working for them nor would he have gotten the job with his criminal background. So, this makes me really think no we should not get rid of the background check on people when applying for jobs.

Based on this story, it seems the background check saves companies from hiring someone with this extensive criminal history. However, we have read and discussed how this is not always the case. Some ‘criminals’ are convinced to take the plea deal even though they did not commit a certain crime. Some ‘criminals’ are not in fact criminals and others get brought in on minor infractions but pay more time based on their race. Therefore, this leads me to question: what would the scenario be like if Messel were black? Would he have paid more time in jail for his crimes? Would he have even been allowed out? How would the media reaction differ?

Mom of the Year

Ever since the death (now declared murder) of 25 year-old Freddie Gray, peaceful demonstrations have been taking place in the streets of Baltimore, MD demanding justice in the face of police brutality. It wasn’t until the middle of this week that a “disgruntled minority” grabbed the attention of major media outlets through disruptive forms of protest, setting cars on fire, and throwing rocks at police. There is much criticism and praise concerning this form of “rioting”, and the media’s position on both ends have often highlighted the worst of the worst, rather than highlighting the sustained momentum of a street movement working to dismantle the “powers that be” of police brutality in Baltimore. Video after video, article after article, has made visible the “thugs” and the “mischievous” black youth standing on top of cars and destroying a CVS, while simultaneously making invisible the majority of black protesters who have been absolutely peaceful. There have also been protesters, including rival gang members, who have sought to prevent violence and disruptive forms of protest, all the while demanding unity and justice for Gray. (Sidenote: As incomplete media narratives sought to shape the baltimore protests in a negative light, counter-mainstream media vigorously sought to display the fact that these so called “riots” happen in white communities all the time after sports games, and they are often deemed celebratory).

But one media sensation has caught the attention of both the white and black community. Meet (if you already haven’t met her), Toya Graham, Baltimore mother of 6. A video of her smacking her son continuously after catching him about to throw a rock toward the police went absolutely viral on not only social media, but major news outlets,  (especially Fox news, see video here).

Now, raising 6 kids should alone merit some type of mom award, like sheesh, what’s a woman got to do to get some praise around here? I can easily imagine that Graham, as any mother would be, was genuinely worried about her son and what kind of epic, violent mess could spring forth from engaging the police in such a violent manner. After all, what immediate good could come from a black teenage boy throwing a rock at a fully armed and shielded line of police and guardsmen in an already racially charged environment? Did her son’s passionate action to display his hatred for police brutality in his own community warrant such a strong physical response from Mama? That’s not really our business. He’s obviously fine, though some have criticized Graham’s actions as excessively violent, giving a break down on how we should encourage mothers to use non-violent approaches towards their children. Interestingly, each blog post I read in this regard has contained a disclaimer of sorts about trying not to judge a single mother of 6 living in an impoverished community (gag me). But of course, critics went on to say their peice. In my opinion, Graham’s intention was to do what most mothers would do, to remove her child from a dangerous situation. That doesn’t make her a hero. She’s a single mother. She’s already a hero.
What is curious to me though, is how conservative media has used Graham to help shape their own narrative of the Baltimore protests. Further, it is puzzling how numerous black people, including Graham’s pastor, have jumped on this bandwagon of praising her for ripping her child off of the street. She is being called “Mom of the Year”, and it seems like white, conservative news reporters have jumped on this chance to make an icon out of Graham, asking her questions that entice her to basically condemn the “riots” happening in her city. I have no problem with Graham being called “Mom of the Year”, but I do have a problem with the way the media seems to be using Graham as a puppet to publicly denounce the “Baltimore riots”, which in white mainstream media is synonymous with the “Baltimore protests”. Treating this mom as a pawn in their warped media portrayal of the Baltimore protests is baffling and manipulative! And what’s worse is that she probably doesn’t even recognize what role she’s playing in their incomplete narrative of Baltimore’s criminal justice predicament.

Further, those who praise her on social media in the black community are also playing into this twisted phenomenon of “black exceptionalism”. Graham’s video-taped actions have helped in corroborating the agenda of critics of the Baltimore protests…critics who very obviously seek to delegitimize the efforts of peaceful and un-peaceful protesters alike. I take a step back and see this color-blind agenda playing out right before our eyes once again, where the white majority says, “Hey! This black person agrees with us, so we can’t be racist! These protesters are a bunch of THUGS who don’t deserve a nice CVS in their neighborhood!”. The intentional spread of Graham’s video took away from what was actually happening in Baltimore, MD that day, shifting the attention of many citizens towards “rioting”, rather than towards the desperate need to address the violent and fatal act of 6 police officers in an illegal arrest of another black individual. And it is here that I realize, we still have a long way to go in achieving a racially conscious society.. both in white AND non-white communities.


Rhetoric & Race

Everything is racialized; immigration, crime, labor, beauty ideals, food. Language and the words we use to describe things change according to race. A prime example example of this is who is “expat”, a term used for Westerners who live almost permanently in another country (aka immigrants).This article lays the discussion of who is considered an expat versus an immigrant and why very bluntly, “Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’. Just as the relationship between race and law is important to understanding each separately, the lexicon we use to describe in order to understand where it comes from.


Another racialized word concerning travel that also comes to mind is voluntourism; the combination of tourism and volunteering. This elicits images of white men and women taking pictures with black and brown women and/or children “in need.” They post the pictures on various social media outlets and receive the attention they sought. “The white savior complex” goes beyond the very blatant examples of missionaries and Western imperialism and Pocahontas to the method of work that many NGOs and nonprofits commit to. The debate which I often find myself wondering about is- are good intentions enough? For example, many students (including Denison) pursue study abroad options for example in places in East Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East in order to be the changemakers our liberal arts education teaches us to be- but where is the line drawn between making a difference and (subconsciously) embodying the white savior in new form?


I urge you also to examine the freely used words “Hispanic” and “Latino/Latina”? African American versus Black? In what context to these apply? Which is more accurate and who gets to say so? It is not because of an obsession with being “politically correct” but rather so that it is proof of the privilege we (as university students) were granted in being able to learn (critically) about the history of race in the US.