Two decisions Monday, one by a federal judge in New York and the other by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., were powerful signals that the pendulum has swung away from the tough-on-crime policies of a generation ago. Those policies have been denounced as discriminatory and responsible for explosive growth in the prison population.
Critics have long contended that draconian mandatory minimum sentence laws for low-level drug offenses, as well as stop-and-frisk police policies that target higher-crime and minority neighborhoods, have a disproportionate impact on members of minority groups. On Monday, Mr. Holder announced that federal prosecutors would no longer invoke the sentencing laws, and a judge found that stop-and-frisk practices in New York were unconstitutional racial profiling.
Alfred Blumstein, a Carnegie Mellon professor who has studied race and incarceration issues, said Mr. Holder’s speech and Judge Scheindlin’s stop-and-frisk ruling both addressed policies that “were attempts to stop crime, but they weren’t terribly effective.”
Together, he said, the events indicated that society was “trying to become more effective and more targeted and, in the process, to reduce the heavy impact on particularly African-Americans.”
I prefer Alexander and Blumstein’s comments to some of the other overwrought proclamations regarding Holder’s speech and the ruling on Stop and Frisk (and yes, for those long-time readers wondering “do you still think Holder is the most inept AG ever?” the answer is yes).
Was it a good speech (and about 5 years too late)? Sure. The judge’s ruling was also a step in the right direction. But “historic” or “game-changing” or “ground breaking?” Shake yourself.
Why? Because Holder’s policy for ratcheting down the mandatory-minimum sentences affects only federal level prosecutions, convictions and incarceration. The federal system accounts for slightly more than 200,000 of the 2.2 million people behind bars. A reduction of even 10% in the federal system will barely even register in the national numbers.
Most of those incarcerated in the “War on Drugs” are incarcerated at the state and local level. Until they move away from the get tough policies (which some, admittedly, are doing) we won’t see a wholesale de-carceration take place for quite awhile.
The ruling against Stop and Frisk is also welcome. Stop and Frisk was a relic of the Guiliani era in NYC, part of the Wilson/Kelling/Bratton “Quality of Life” zero-tolerance policing which adherents claimed reduced crime in Gotham and elsewhere.
Of course, it had nothing to do with lowering crime, as critics have pointed out for over a decade, but it took Judge Scheindlin’s ruling to not only point that out, but perhaps begin putting nails in the coffin of the heavy handed police tactics which have been used to muscle and intimidate lower-income, disproportionately black residents of New York for nearly 20 years.
But if you think everyone’s on board (cautiously or deliriously), think again. The proponents of git tuff still exist and they will be heard.
William G. Otis, a former federal prosecutor and an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School, described Mr. Holder’s move as a victory for drug dealers that would incentivize greater sales of addictive contraband, and he suggested that the stop-and-frisk ruling could be overturned on appeal.
Mr. Otis also warned that society was becoming “complacent” and forgetting that the drug and sentencing policies enacted over the last three decades had contributed to the falling crime rates.
I will make no attempt to summarize the arguments on their merits. I will just say very briefly that the AG’s action seems to take root in a jaundiced view of our criminal justice system, a system that, certainly in the view of its inmates, is a failure.
At a tiny fraction of the cost of entitlement programs, stern sentencing has helped drop the crime rate 50% in 20 years, thus contributing to thousands if not millions of crimes that were never committed, and thousands if not million of potential victims who were not abused, beaten up, molested, swindled and robbed.
May all our social policies be that “broken.”
For some, the fantasy that the get tough policies produced the drop in crime will never die, no matter what the overwhelming evidence shows to the contrary. And as I’ve warned for several years on this blog, all it will take is a slight uptick in crime nation-wide (more likely to occur as the economy turns around), and they will be bleating down your door with calls to return to the good old days of the lock ’em up 80’s and 90’s.
Meanwhile, to continue the good news of the day, and updating a story I’ve written about a few times, Whitey Bulger was convicted yesterday in Boston.
James (Whitey) Bulger, the mobster who terrorized South Boston in the 1970s and ‘80s, holding the city in his thrall even after he disappeared, was convicted Monday of a sweeping array of gangland crimes, including 11 murders. He faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.
Looking back on it, Bulger’s defense erred by not invoking the Stand Your Ground laws of Florida and elsewhere. I mean, dude was just defending his territory, wasn’t he? Snicker.
Anyway, a good day over all for those of who study crime and punishment. Cautiously optimistic, indeed.
This may be one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time.
As David Carr points out in the NYT, this kind of parody is usually only seen on Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. To watch an actual MSNBC show and host mock itself is both refreshing and obviously troubling.
Following the shameful verdict in the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, cable news outlets were filled with angry white men discussing what “we” can do about the “black criminal culture” that is “so obvious” but that “no one will talk about.” Not only does the video parody this kind of knuckle-dragging thinking, it also changes labels and throws Wall Street crime under the same banner as “white” street crime.
That so many people watch cable news shows and assume what they’re hearing is the truth is not surprising. News (and reality, for that matter) has atomized along racial, ideological and political lines. If you’re liberal and Democratic, you go here, if you’re conservative and Republican you go there. If you’re white, you watch this, if you’re black you watch that. You get to hear exactly what you want, confirming every prejudice you already have, without any shred of disagreement in the process.
But are we really that polarized, politically anyway? Worth reading is this latest column (“The Stench From the Potomac”) by Frank Rich. From a meta analysis, he explains why the politics in D.C. isn’t broken or gridlocked or hopelessly dysfunctional. It is in fact, working extraordinarily well and in harmony, just as Mills envisaged 50 years ago under the rubric “the power-elite.”
The larger point being: the appearance of discord keeps the masses distracted. Whites scapegoat blacks, the poor stay at war with the middle class, men are from Mars women are from Venus, ad nauseum.
And while you’re pounding your fists, standing your ground, red-faced with “outrage” at this or that group, the power-elite picks your pocket and laughs all the way to bank.
More than two weeks past George Zimmerman’s acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin, the story is losing significant steam. Though decreased coverage is inevitable, fractured activism and a lack of sustained attention will only allow history to repeat itself. As expressed by President Obama, “the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.” Writing as a non-African American, but still a person of color, it is important to stress some common ground.
In the 1990s while competing in track and field for the University of California, Riverside, I remember one of my teammates, Paul, approaching me after practice. Though we were neighbors and teammates, Paul and I did not know each other well. He was a long jumper and I a 400-meter hurdler.
Paul asked me if I wanted to go jogging later that night. I agreed, and for the next few months, we would jog for about 30 minutes after the sun had set. As our friendship grew, Paul eventually disclosed why he asked me to go running with him.
Previously when Paul had gone jogging, he was stopped three times by Riverside police, who asked why he was out running at night. Paul was Black, and hence, had committed the violation of “jogging while black.”
Standing about 6 foot, 2 inches tall with a lean, athletic musculature, Paul had an intimidating presence. But within America’s cultural landscape that so often associates blackness with danger, Paul’s skin color intensified the way he was stereotyped as a potential criminal.
Paul, me (upper left-hand corner) and some of our U.C. Riverside teammates.
Paul asked me to go jogging with him because he knew I would serve as a preventative buffer, insuring that police would not harass him while he was attempting to improve his athleticism. The dozens of times we jogged at night, we did so without police aggravation – my white privilege served its function.
Race beyond black and white
The thing is, I am not white. My father is Japanese American and my mother Caucasian, resulting in my skin having a tannish hue, not un-similar to George Zimmerman’s. People across North America frequently assume I am Latino.
My experience with Paul was a mild introduction to race relations in Southern California, illustrating the ever-changing complexities that shape racialized privilege and oppression. However, two decades removed from this experience, now teaching sociology at the University of Auckland (New Zealand), Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal tell me dimensions of race privilege and oppression have changed very little, if at all.
Young Black males are encouraged by society to enhance a fierce, physically imposing athleticism. Perhaps more than any other demographic group, they are tracked into sports requiring explosive athletic abilities (basketball, football, track and field). Yet when Black males present a daunting physicality, they increase the risk of being stereotyped as violent criminals who threaten the social order.
“Most Black males are encouraged to do either sports or something in entertainment as a career goal, not to be in law enforcement, a lawyer, a doctor, or an engineer” said Mike Wright, an African American high school teammate of mine who also competed at the university level. “We are influenced heavy on athleticism and usually start building ourselves physically our first year in high school. Over time it becomes more and more common to see a group of Black males physically fit walking through public places and society will view these males as ex-cons.”
This was the pervading stereotype that drove George Zimmerman to – with gun in hand – stalk Martin, characterize Martin as a transient thug, and kill him. Likewise, when my friend Paul was following the conventional rules, improving his athleticism, he was hassled repeatedly by police. I cannot tell you how many hundreds of times I have gone running at night, how many dozens of times police have driven by and never stopped me.
This is not to say that non-Black ethnic minorities have it easy, but the contextual circumstances that shape racism’s intensity differ, and point to the fact that America is far from a post-racial society. Recent polls in the United States have framed Zimmerman’s acquittal in black-whiteterms, noting that substantially lower proportions of African Americans than Caucasians feel the shooting of Martin and subsequent verdict were justified.
Framing public response to Zimmerman’s actions and acquittal in this way has its merits, but leads to critical problems. America is, and never has been simply black and white. Diverse Latino reactions have only been marginally dissected in the press, despite Zimmerman being half Peruvian.
Furthermore, by presenting reactions to the Zimmerman verdict in black-white terms, the multi-faceted, messy ways that race is constructed are forgotten, making problem solving unrealistic.
Yes, central to this tragedy are racial profiling and as President Obama said, a systemically problematic criminal justice system. However, this tragedy also speaks to the conflicting messages society sends to young Black males – be big, brash, aggressive and physically menacing as entertainers, but in public spaces that are predominantly Caucasian, revert to embody the subservient house-slave. These inconsistent, discriminatory messages must be confronted if society can truly enact positive change.
Sustained multi-ethnic action required
In May 1961, seven Black and six Caucasian activists boarded busses in Washington D.C., headed for Alabama and Mississippi. These freedom riders were testing court orders, which mandated that interstate transportation terminals be desegregated. Without protection from state law enforcement, the freedom riders were attacked multiple times by mobs, wielding rocks, lead pipes, baseball bats, and chains.
Coverage of the freedom riders’ victimization exposed Americans to the ferocious racism that existed across America’s deep South, but also illustrated that the fight for civil rights did not rest solely upon African American communities’ shoulders. This is a lesson we can all reflect upon now.
From a legal perspective, Zimmerman’s acquittal renders his killing of Martin legitimate. However, this is not a viewpoint everyone shares, including many non-African Americans. Without co-opting African American leadership, it is crucial that non-African Americans who disagree with Zimmerman’s actions and the attendant verdict continue to speak out.
As my old teammate Mike Wright argues, “The only time the United States has ever excelled as a nation is when the American people have come together against a common cause – the end of slavery, the marches with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, all the way up to this Zimmerman case. Many Whites and other ethnic groups have fought side by side with Black people throughout history but the American government and media will have everyone thinking that everything is Black and White.”
Vehement dissent with Zimmerman’s actions and acquittal are not reserved to Black communities. If the United States is to truly evolve, if laws like “stand your ground” are to be ousted, if cultural trends are to be altered that do not send harmful mixed messages to racialized groups, non-African American activists must fight side by side with Black communities in the push for equity over the long haul.
Following the good news from SCOTUS Wednesday, we need to recognize the egregious error they made the day before in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) which invalidated part of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965.
The strangest thing about Roberts’ majority opinion is that he acknowledges not only the success of Section 4 of the VRA (concerning the 6 southern states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia and parts of North and South Carolina) by noting increased minority voter participation, minority office holders and the like, but he even cites the repeated attempts of the southern states in question to erect barriers and dilute minority access to voting in response to the Act.
And because it’s all been so extraordinary and accomplished what it set out to do (he actually writes: “There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act”) that now it’s time to get rid of it.
That’s like saying, “because I plugged the leak 20 years ago and it worked, it’s now time to pull the plug and move on. It’s not 20 years ago, after all.” The logic is as tortured as it is circular.
Worse, he blithely claims that the south just isn’t the same old south that it was once, dismissing outright the dissent’s eloquent list of “second-generation barriers to minority voting” that have come about (and been shot down, thanks to VRA) over the past 50 years.
From Ginsburg’s dissent:
Efforts to reduce the impact of minority votes,in contrast to direct attempts to block access to the ballot, are aptly described as “second-generation barriers” to minority voting. Second-generation barriers come in various forms. One of the blockages is racial gerrymandering…Another is adoption of a system of at-large voting in lieu of district-by-district voting in a city with a sizable black minority…discriminatory annexation by incorporating majority white areas into city limits…”
And so on. Maybe it’s because I live in Georgia, but I can cite very specific examples of each of the above that have played out in just the last few years. We go through it state-wide every ten years because of the Census, and locally, whenever they damn well feel like it. Here in Athens we just went through a very ugly racial gerrymandering of our county commission districts that ended up under DOJ review and in a flood of lawsuits. Now, such remedies won’t be available for review.
The worse thing about the majority’s “reasoning” is the naive and simplistic view they have of race today in the south. There is this head-in-the-sand belief that racial discrimination is a thing of the past (even though Roberts actually says “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that”) and that just because blacks and Hispanics vote and hold office today, it’s all good.
If you think that undoing section 4 of the VRA is not going to be taken advantaged of at every turn going forward, you know nothing about the deep south. This is only the beginning of an intense desire which exists in many, many circles to return to the bad old days of the past and keep “them minorities” in their place (see also: the Paula Deen brouhaha and her vociferous defenders).
I always tell my students that you don’t have to drive too far outside of metro Atlanta, or much more than 10 minutes or so from Athens, and you are entering into a different world…a world where time stopped about a hundred years ago. Here’s a quick excerpt from an AJC expose on Greene County, just minutes from Athens, from 2004:
The civil rights movement was gathering force when Dr. William H. Rhodes Jr., the son of a local druggist, returned home in 1962 to open a family medical practice. The new brick office downtown included a design feature common in the South: a “colored” waiting room accessible by a separate, backdoor entrance.
Today the segregated waiting rooms remain a fixture of Rhodes’ practice — even though, he quickly points out, black patients are free to come in the front door if they choose.
Some do. But a few older patients continue to use the “colored” entrance, as they still call it, just as they did when they were young and had no choice.
“Some of them prefer to come to the back,” Rhodes says.
This is life today in many parts of the rural south. And to assume that Tuesday’s decision won’t make things worse is beyond comprehension. While we have definitely made great improvements in the south over the past 50 years (and how I wish the Chief Justice were right, and it was as simple as “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is stop discriminating on the basis of race”) , the decision in Shelby County will go down as major setback for race relations in this country.
I’ll defer to William Faulkner, who apparently the Chief Justice has never read: “In the south, the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
David Neiwert has made a career of studying hard right-wing movements, mainly through his blog Orcinus, but also at Crooks and Liars and Alternet. In his latest book, And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing The Dark Side of The American Border, Neiwert explores the minutemen movement that gained popularity in right-wing circles, with media uncritical cooperation, back in the early 2000s, as he retraces the steps that led to the assassination of Junior Flores, a small-time marijuana dealer and his young daughter Brisenia, by minuteman leader Shawna Forde and her accomplices (one of which was never identified and remains at large).
The book opens with the chilling 911 call made by Brisenia’s mother, who was wounded during the attack but survived and was able to identify her attackers. From there, Neiwert follows several investigative threads that shape the narrative: (1) the border context, especially Arivaca, where the murders took place, with its mix of wealthy ranchers, and near-poor locals, like Flores (which is where the whole marijuana trafficking comes in); (2) the nativist movement latest incarnation with the minutemen; (3) the rise and fall of Shawna Forde within that movement.
I would not say that Neiwert is the best writer as there are quite a few stylistic repetitions but the narrative is indeed compelling and thoroughly sourced. It does a good job of weaving together local context, individual trajectories, and social movements and their convergence during that one night in Arivaca.
As Neiwert shows, there is nothing really original, in terms of social movement, regarding the minutemen:
“The Minuteman movement that grabbed national headlines in the first decade of the twenty-first century was not a spontaneous eruption of border nativism, as the media would often portray it. Rather, it was the direct offspring of the border militias of the 1990s, which were the stepchild of the Klan Border Watches of the 1980s, which in turn were modeled on a 1960s vigilante movement calling itself, ironically, the Minutemen.” (Loc 494-497)
And the underlying ideology for these movements is always the same as well: the United States is being invaded by hordes of non-White savages from the Third World, who commit all sorts of unspeakable crime and bring medieval disease to this country, and it is up to white men with guns to protect and reclaim it. These movements perfectly fit Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities as members of these movements are linked together through series of myths and made-up stories that reinforce the ideology and are now easily circulated through the Internet.
The fear of uncontrolled immigration has long been a topic of concern for militia, christian identity, white supremacist movements in the Pacific Northwest, and in the border states in the Southwest. These are the same people who believe in black helicopters, New World Order, and la Reconquista. they would fit Adorno’s Authoritarian Personality typology.
And their favorite tactic has been that of the lone wolf: the individual who acts on behalf of the movement but with enough distance from it so that the movement can deny its link to the individual when things go South: think Erik Rudolph or Timothy McVeigh, and now Shawna Forde.
The larger context, though, for these movements is as follows:
“The extremist right in America has always fed on real grievances that go either unaddressed or are mishandled by the mainstream system— by government, and in particular the federal government. In the 1980s and ’90s, they channeled discontent with badly malfunctioning federal farming and land-use policies in rural America into uprisings like the Posse Comitatus and Patriot/ militia movements and their various offshoots, such as the Montana Freemen. This led to armed standoffs with federal agents and varying waves of domestic terrorism, all of it emanating from the American heartland.
What these extremists always tell their audiences is that there are simple reasons for their current miseries— inevitably, it is a combination of a secret cabal of elite conspirators running society like a puppet show at the top, crushing the middle-class working man from above, while a parasitic underclass saps his strength from below. This usually plays out, in the world-view of right-wing extremists, as being part of a secret conspiracy to enslave ordinary working people and destroy America.
What gives them special traction, however, is their knack for finding unaddressed grievances and exploiting them as examples of this conspiracy, thus manipulating working-class people who have legitimate problems. Their agenda comes wrapped in an appeal telling people that they not only feel their pain but have the answers to end it. And their strategy works, time and again.
In the twenty-first century, right-wing extremists became focused on a similarly dysfunctional immigration system as a means to recruit believers, in part because nativism is part of the genetic structure of the racist American right, dating back to the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan, and in part because it was such a ripe opportunity target. After all, American immigration policy in the past forty years and more has time and again proven a colossal bureaucratic bungle that no one has been able to untangle.” (Loc 893-908)
And then, there was something even more specific that triggered the rise of the minuteman movement:
“The big gorilla among these was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was negotiated by Bush Sr., Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, and Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1993, and then ratified with the active support of Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton. The treaty, which in creating a trilateral trade bloc opened up the ability of investment capital to cross borders freely, was sold to the American public as, among other things, an essential component in controlling immigration.
Cheap American corn put over a million Mexican farmers out of business, and that was just the beginning. With the economy collapsing around them, scores of manufacturers who specialized in clothing, toys, footwear, and leather goods all went out of business. The only upside to NAFTA for Mexico— the arrival of new manufacturing jobs, including auto-building plants, as they departed the United States for cheaper shores, and of a fresh wave of maquiladora, the plants where various manufacturers would outsource their labor to Mexico— proved illusory.
In the meantime, the American economy— riding along first on a technology bubble and then on a housing bubble— was bustling, creating in the process in excess of five hundred thousand unskilled-labor jobs every year, the vast majority of which American workers either would not or could not perform. Yet the antiquated American immigration system only issued five thousand green cards annually to cover them.
The result was a massive demand for immigrant labor in the United States and an eager supply in Mexico seeking work. At the border, where a rational transaction should have been taking place, there was instead a xenophobic crackdown aimed at keeping Mexican labor in Mexico, with predictably limited success.
Typically they would travel to one of the old border-crossing towns— Nogales or Ciudad Juarez— and there contract the services of a coyote, or guide, who would take them out into the countryside and across the border and hook them up with transit to wherever their destination might be. As the tide rose and the crackdown increased, the prices for these services started to rise as crossing the border became harder and harder work.
Much of this was happening on people’s private lands along the border or on federal lands leased out to ranchers who worked them. And so naturally those people were increasingly coming face to face with the brutal realities being created by American border policies— the dead and the dying and the desperate, all wandering through the desert in hopes of reaching the Promised Land. Most of these encounters were simply with people who wanted a drink of water, but some were not so benign, and these moments could be fraught with danger, at least in the minds of the ranchers if not in reality. The crossers also left trash in the desert that was a danger to livestock, and they frequently cut fences, meaning the loss of livestock.” (Loc 993-998)
That’s the larger context for the emergence of the latest version of the nativist movement. But this movement would never have taken off as it did if it had not been for the active, uncritical support of media figure Lou Dobbs (he of the immigrant plague fame) and Fox News. The leaders of the minutemen had almost open, non-stop access to the media that way and they used it skillfully to spread their made-up narrative of border atrocities. And so, if the government was not going to protect and secure the borders, then, real (white) Americans would take matters in their own hands and guns and do it themselves. Hence were born these border watches.
However, if you want to build a respectable right-wing movement that you hope to mainstream, and out of which you hope to make political careers, you need to be careful whom you attract. And so, right from the start, the leaders of the movement, mainly Jim Gilchrist and Chris Simcox, took pain to explain that their movement and its members were not trigger-happy racists, that all border watchers were vetted through background checks (none of which were true). But, of course, also right from the start, the movement attracted white supremacists of the Stormfront type.
What is another theme of the book is that most of mainstream media slept on the job when it came to examine the roots, realities, and membership in the movement, which made it complicit in it:
“In one important way, the Minuteman Project was indeed a success, but not for actually doing anything substantive to stop illegal immigration. Rather, it was eminently successful in mainstreaming and legitimizing extremist vigilantism. After all, not only was it eagerly embraced by a gullible press, but in short order it was given the blessing of a wide range of public officials and politicians.” (Loc 2645-2648)
And, so, the coverage of the border watches was mostly shallow, superficial, and positive. So that even the most basic claims made by movement leaders, that could easily have been verified, such as how many people actually showed up for border watches (hint: much less than reported by movement leaders) went unexamined.
However, it did not take long for discord to threaten the movement unity. According to Neiwert, that is neither new nor surprising;
“The Minutemen’s fractious behavior was in many ways a product of the combative personalities its core ideology attracted. The long history of nativist organizations in America is littered with the same story: gathered to fight the perceived immigrant threats of their respective times, and riding a wave of scapegoating and frequently eliminationist rhetoric, they all have in relatively short order scattered in disarray, usually amid claims of financial misfeasance and power grabbing. This was true of the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, and all of their many shortlived descendants since then.” (Loc 2851-2855)
Neiwert goes into some details on the clashes of personalities that ended up breaking up the movement into separate organizations as well as turf wars over who gets to use the label “minutemen”, and the financial shenanigans within the different splinter groups. But it was the perfect context in which someone like Shawna Forde would thrive.
There is one book in the French comic Asterix, titled La Zizanie (discord, in English), and it follows a Roman agent who has a knack for starting conflict between people, while always pretending to be on the outside, with clean hands. He starts the discord, then, sits back and enjoys the strife that follows.
Based on Neiwert’s description of Shawna Forde, she was exactly like that. If Shawna Forde had not ended up being a cold-blooded killer (now sitting on death row), one would feel sorry for her miserable childhood: the abuse, the repeated abandonment, the complete absence of security and nurturing. No wonder she became a delinquent early in her life.
From that awful childhood, she turned into a manipulative sociopath, a constant liar, stirring up trouble and conflict without seeming to, then, watching the explosions and trying to benefit from them. And she probably tried to have one of her husbands murdered.
But it is this character who managed to work her way through the minuteman movement, awarding herself a variety of inflated titles, and, from ended up in Arizona, to coordinate border watches. But Shawna Forde loves money, so, she needed a way to get it. She came up with the plan of ripping off drug dealers. That is how she ended up leading the murders at the Flores home. Minutemen have since tried to make it look like Junior Flores was a kingpin, but Neiwert’s research reveals a more complicated reality (included the fact that the biggest drug deals in this story was one of Shawna’s accomplices, and former friend of the Flores family).
After the murders, of course, everybody in the minuteman movement was scrambling to distance themselves from Shawna Forde but there is no denying that she was deep into the movement, had access to its leaders, was well considered and promoted. But that is the point of the lone wolf tactic: to provide plausible deniability. Except, in this case, it was harder to accomplish. And so, the murders at the Flores home dealt an almost fatal blow to the movement.
But even with after the killings, the mainstream media continued to carry water for the movement:
“Much of the media calculus in its handling of the Flores murders appears to have been founded on two key narratives favored by media outlets: it ran directly counter to the long-running narrative depicting the Minuteman movement as a collection of friendly neighbors out watching the border in their lawn chairs, and most significantly, it was concluded by the people calling the news shots that because Junior Flores was in fact a marijuana smuggler, he had essentially asked for the fate that descended on his family. After all, weren’t drug-related murders a common occurrence on the border?
As Dan Shearer at the Green Valley News discovered when he began examining the facts on the ground, these kinds of crimes are decidedly not very common, even on the border, despite the media hype and the hysteria stirred up by Minutemen like Shawna Forde. She may have fully believed, as she told the Norwegian documentarians, that life is cheap on the border: “Shootings and deaths occur on a daily basis out here.” They do occur— but neither that frequently, nor are they greeted with a shrug.” (Loc 6191-6194)
However, in 2008, the economy collapsed and a new president got elected:
“They don’t call themselves Minutemen anymore, because of Shawna Forde— or more precisely, thanks to Gina Gonzalez and her will to fight. There are still border watchers out there, and the shells of the national Minuteman organization linger on in a zombielike half-life. But the Minutemen and their nativist supporters have gone on to greener, Tea Partying pastures now.” (Loc 5998-6001)
And when all was said and done, the minutemen did not have much to show for all their bluster and inflated claims. But none of that seemed to matter as Tea partyer had by then turned their attention to health care reform.
“Whether embodied in thing or in person, the enemy in essence represents putrefaction and death: either its instrumentality, its location (dirt, filth, garbage, excrement), its carriers (vermin, pests, bacilli), or all of these together. . . .
The enemy typically is experienced as issuing from the “dregs” of society, from its lower parts, the “bowels of the underworld.” It is sewage from the gutter, “trash” excreted as poison from society’s affairs— church, school, workplace, and family. The enemy’s visitation on our borders is tantamount to impending pestilence. . . .
The enemy’s presence in our midst is a pathology of the social organism serious enough to require the most far-reaching remedies: quarantine, political excision, or, to use a particularly revealing expression, liquidation and expulsion.” (Loc 6362-6370)
These rhetorical forms were clearly present in minutemen internal discourse. Of course, for the media, there was a wholly different rhetoric dedicated to refuting accusations of racism. However, what minutemen have achieved is the mainstreaming of the dehumanizing “illegal alien” label that is now commonly used in by media and politicians.
Add authoritarian personality types to the mix, and you get Neiwert’s not-very-optimistic conclusion:
“If nativist sentiments in America ever were to build beyond short-lived, self-destructive movements like the Minutemen, the potential for large-scale evil, as Staub defines it, would grow exponentially. When such movements remain small and naturally attract psychopathic elements by practicing a politics that sneers at empathy as weakness, the tragedies they produce will generally be on a small scale like the murder of Junior and Brisenia Flores or numerous other acts of violence against Latinos inspired by inflammatory nativist rhetoric. Translated to a larger scale as a mass movement, where those same antisocial personalities obtain real power, these propensities will produce tragedy on a much larger scale.” (Loc 6406-6410)
An important read that also has the secondary effect of explaining a lot about the Tea Party movement (which already seems to have fizzled the same way that the minutemen did), its rise, media uncritical reporting, inflated claims, imaginary narratives, etc. The very same elements are present and it is no surprise that they attracted the same crowd that needed a new home after Shawna Forde had trashed the place.
You should also check out this report (pdf) on the persistence of residential segregation in US metropolises.
“In this report we look for clues about how the growing diversity is being managed at the level of neighborhoods. How diverse is the average person’s neighborhood becoming, and how are historic patterns of segregation changing? The Census Bureau has now released tract-level data from Census 2010 that allow us to identify these trends:
Declines in residential segregation between blacks and whites since 2000 continued at about the same pace as in the 1990s. Segregation peaked around 1960 or 1970. Between 1980 and 2000 it declined at a very slow pace, but there were reasons to expect a potential breakthrough since then. The new data show another decade of steady but slow decline.
Hispanics and Asians are considerably less segregated than African Americans, and their segregation levels have remained steady since 1980. In addition, since both these groups are growing, there is a tendency for their ethnic enclaves to become more homogeneous. As a result these groups live in more isolated settings now than they did in 2000, continuing a trend seen since 1980.
The average non-Hispanic white person continued to live in a neighborhood that is very different racially from those neighborhoods where the average black, Hispanic, and Asian live. The average white person in metropolitan American lives in a neighborhood that is 75% white. Despite a substantial shift of minorities from cities to suburbs, these groups have often not gained access to largely white neighborhoods. For example a typical African American lives in a neighborhood that is only 35% white (not much different from 1940) and as much as 45% black. Diversity is experienced very differently in the daily lives of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.”
However, the persistence of racial homogeneity in the context of greater diversity also means this:
As the report notes,
“Stark contrasts are readily apparent between the typical experiences of whites versus that of each minority group. In 367 metropolitan areas across the U.S., the typical white lives in a neighborhood that is 75% white, 8% black, 11% Hispanic, and 5% Asian. This represents a notable change since 1980, when the average whites’ neighborhood was 88% white, but it is very different from the makeup of the metropolis as a whole.
The experience of minorities is very different. For example, the typical black lives in a neighborhood that is 45% black, 35% white, 15% Hispanic, and 4% Asian. The typical Hispanic lives in a neighborhood that is 46% Hispanic, 35% white, 11% black and 7% Asian. The typical Asian lives in a neighborhood that is 22% Asian, 49% white, 9% black, and 19% Hispanic.”
The persistence of these patterns of residential segregation should surprise no one. The creation of racial enclaves was by design, as was explained in the documentary The House I Live In, and simply explained here:
But also in this article by Ta-Nehisi Coates where he explains the depth and breadth of institutional discrimination as illustrated in the ghetto as public policy:
“But the most affecting aspect of the book is the demonstration of the ghetto not as a product of a violent music, super-predators, or declining respect for marriage, but of policy and power. In Chicago, the ghetto was intentional. Black people were pariahs whom no one wanted to live around. The FHA turned that prejudice into full-blown racism by refusing to insure loans taken out by people who live near blacks.
Contract-sellers reacted to this policy and “sold” homes to black people desperate for housing at four to five times its value. I say “sold” because the contract-seller kept the deed, while the “buyer” remained responsible for any repairs to the home. If the “buyer” missed one payment they could be evicted, and all of their equity would be kept by the contract-seller. This is not merely a matter of “Of.” Contract-sellers turned eviction into a racket and would structure contracts so that sudden expenses guaranteed eviction. Then the seller would fish for another black family desperate for housing, rinse and repeat. In Chicago during the early 60s, some 85 percent of African-Americans who purchased home did it on contract.
These were not broken families in need of a lecture on work ethic. These were black people playing by the rules. And for their troubles they were effectively declared outside the law and thus preyed upon.”
Go read the whole thing. It’s well worth it.
Where Americans live is often not a matter of choice but of public policy, based individually, but more importantly, institutionally on racial considerations. Individuals may have become less racist but the policies, practices and structures created by race-based institutional discrimination are hard to dismantle because they are often invisible, or interpreted, mistakenly, as reflections of individual choices.
The racism in this is embedded in so many ways. First off, of course, there is the “jew down” phrase. This is not unique. There are other such expressions, such as “being gipped”, or “Indian giver”. My grandparents spent most of their lives in Algeria, when it was a French colony, and, as non-racist and pro-independence as they were, they did use the phrase “Arab work” to describe shoddy work, and if they wanted to describe a shapely backside, they used the expression to have a butt “like an Arab trunk”.
So, the charming fellow in the video is tapping into a long cultural history of denigrating minorities through casual language and phrases that imply dishonesty and carelessness, not the way moral, decent people – i.e. the dominant group – behave.
But look more closely at the video. As soon as he uses the racist phrase, you can see the guy in the upper-left corner starts to laugh. He’s in the know. And then, at the .45 mark, someone off-camera reminds Johnson of what he just said. Now listen to Johnson’s reaction to be called on it. And, of course, he kinda apologizes by doubling down. And everybody laughs.
This is what happens when one member of the in-groups blurts out in public what is usually limited to talk among in-group members, in private, out of sight. When that stuff inadvertently comes out in public, one guy smiles because he knows that’s the stuff they talk about in private and, oops, the old man blurts it out. Look at the way the guy in the upper-left corner laughs and swivels around in his chair, looking for other witnesses, wink-wink, nudge-nudge.
And the non-apology apology is accomplished as a big joke on pretending to paying a compliment that actually taps into the stereotype of the Jews and money (they’re good at it… we know they control the global economy but they can be good at small business as well!).
The finishing touch is the subtle and dismissive head shake, shrug, and smirk at the end, as if to say “what is the nonsense? Why do I have to apologize for this? Everybody knows it”.
And everybody laughs, because we’re among friends and we know this stuff to be true, except this time, someone said it in public with a mic. But they all know it’s true. And that is that shared set of beliefs, that they know is supposed to remain private and not said in public, that is the source of their laughter.
I think this is a very important film to understand fully the War on Drugs. For many years, I used the PBS Frontline documentary Snitch to discuss the war on drugs in the US, but that movie has gotten old and a bit outdated. THILI can comfortably take its place because things have not gotten any less messy than they were when Snitch was made.
The film itself is about 1h40 long and the first half felt a bit disorganized to me as Jarecki jumped from one thing to another, from one case, one city, one person to another. I don’t really care for personal, tearing-at-your-heartstrings stories. But as the second half rolled around, it became gripping, and, to me, at least, way more interesting because it was less about individual cases, and more about the sociological aspects of the war on drugs.
I was especially glad to see a whole group of excellent contributors such as the great William Julius Wilson, Michelle Alexander, David Simon, of The Wire fame, Marc Mauer, Charles Ogletree, and Lincoln historian Richard Miller.
And, I won’t have to do my usual song and dance in class anymore, explaining how drug policy in the US is guided by racist considerations. There is a great short segment on just that. The film also does a great job of explaining how urban policy, by creating ghettos through redlining, fostering white flight to the suburbs, and the loss of inner-city jobs, also created the conditions for the emergence of an underground, informal economy based on drugs. And then, how the war on drugs policies unleashed the whole criminal justice system on disadvantaged, impoverished and precarized groups. And in inner cities, drug dealing is the only company in a company town. The film also shows the web of contradictory constraints that drug offenders face when they get released.
Interestingly as well, Jarecki interviews a lot of people from law enforcement and courts and demonstrates how the war on drugs distorted the functioning of these organizations by creating new systems of incentives based on mass arrests, mass conviction, and mass incarcerations, and how it distorted relationship between law enforcement and low-income communities. And how it has made a lot of private industries very profitable. And it only all cost $1 trillion dollars and 45 million arrests to get there.
“Nobody respects good police work more than me. As well as being a police reporter, my first book was about good police work. And there are a lot of detectives who I admire for their professionalism, for their craft, for their skill, for their nuance. The problem is that the drug war created an environment in which none of that was rewarded.
In a city like Baltimore, you can sit in your radio car and make a drug arrest without understanding or requiring probable cause [reasonable suspicion], without worrying about how you’re going to testify in court without perjuring yourself, without learning how to use and not be used by an informant, without learning how to write a search and seizure warrant, without doing any of the requisite things that makes a good cop into a great cop, somebody that can solve a murder, a rape, a robbery, a burglary. These are crimes that require police work. A drug arrest does not require anything other than getting out of your radio car and jacking people up against the side of the liquor store.
The problem is that that cop that made that cheap drug arrest, he’s going to get paid. He’s going to get the hours of overtime for taking the drugs down to ECU [the evidence control unit]. He’s going to get paid for processing the prisoner down at central booking. He’s going to get paid for sitting back at his desk and writing the paperwork for a couple hours. Then the case is going to get called to court and a prosecutor’s going to sign his overtime slip for two, three hours to show up for a case that’s probably going to be stetted [dropped] because it’s unconstitutional. And he’s going to do that 40, 50, 60 times a month. So his base pay might end up being half of what he’s actually paid as a police officer.
Meanwhile, nobody is learning the rudiments of police work that might make a patrolman into a good detective. In Baltimore, the clearance rates – our percentage of arrests for felonies – for rape, murder, robbery, auto theft, for the things that make a city unlivable – are half of what they once were.
Our drug arrest stats are twice what they once were. That makes a city unlivable. It creates a criminal atmosphere that has no deterrent. It makes a police department where nobody can solve a fucking crime.”
As the film progresses, the contributors’ words get harsher, as they take in the broader and broader picture of what has happened for the past 40 years (40 years!). David Simon, especially, explains how this policy – the war on drugs – is a way of disposing of the bottom 15% of society, considered to useless and disposable, and get rich (for some) while doing it. Ultimately, he calls the war on drugs a holocaust in slow motion.
In that sense, the war on drugs is a success. Not a success in terms of its publicly stated goals, but a success in terms of social control of the precarized classes. There is especially a very good segment on how methamphetamine is the new crack, except, this time, it is the displaced white, blue-collar workers who are targeted, and increasingly going to prison. The connection between economic deterioration for the working class, informal illegal economy and drug policy is a direct one. It is the social control of this potentially volatile population that mass incarceration successfully accomplishes.
So, again, with some qualification regarding the first half of the film, this is a great documentary with a lot of different, shorter segments that can be used separately. And, if my students are representative, they love to talk about drugs, so, this film has many segments that should provoke good discussions.
I do not follow sports, except for the World Cup of Soccer. And I especially do not follow American sports such as baseball, basketball or football (or as we Europeans call it, American football, since the real football is what Americans call soccer). But, I do enjoy reading Dave Zirin’s columns and books. So, I was happy to pick up his latest, Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down.
The book is a global tour of what sports trends that Zirin finds encouraging as they match his lefty politics. So, he takes us on a tour that includes the role of soccer fans in the revolution in Egypt and more broadly the Arab Spring, or athletes as labor fighting back against corporate league bosses and owners, women pushing for greater opportunities, and gay players coming out. Overall, Zirin sees major shifts in the world of sports, hence the “Game Over” title, as it points to the idea that sports is not the same. Something dramatic is changing. And as with any progressive change, there is backlash.
“Over the last thirty years, the athletic-industrial complex has transformed itself into a trillion dollar, global entity. One way it’s done this is by making its product and its players as explicitly apolitical as possible. From Peyton Manning to Derek Jeter to Danica Patrick, the dominant message projected by athletes has been that it’s far more important to be a brand than an individual, and that a modern jock should never sacrifice commercial concerns for political principle. This credo echoes Jesse Owens, the great Olympic star, who once said, “The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside.”
ESPN, twenty-four-hour talk radio, and a seemingly bottomless appetite for distraction have exploded the size of our sports world— and its profits— into the stratosphere. In conjunction with this expansion, politics has also been actively discouraged by management and slammed by sports columnists. Legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell toward the end of his life dubbed it rule number one of “the jockocracy”: sports and politics just don’t mix.
Yet over the last several years, the specter of politics has been haunting sports. Cosell’s Golden Rule has been repeatedly and flagrantly breached. More athletes are speaking out across the political spectrum as a series of revolutions, occupations, and protests has defined the global landscape. The real world is gaining on the sports world and the sports world is starting to look over its shoulder.” (Locs. 258-270)
As always, Zirin has a punchy writing style and he definitely takes sides. At the same time, there is, unsurprisingly, in every line, an undying love of sport. But Zirin always has an eye for the relationships between sports and society, dominance and resistance. This is true here as well.
“Our sports culture shapes societal attitudes, relationships, and power arrangements. It is where cultural meanings— our very notions of who we are and how we see each other, not only as Americans but also as individuals— play out. It frames the ways in which we understand and discuss issues of gender, race, and class. And, as ever, it is crucial for understanding how these norms and power structures have been negotiated, struggled with, and resisted.” (Locs 367-370)
The book is rich in stories in context that will keep even the least interested reader (like me) interested in the subject. Overall, in the US, Zirin sees the end of the “shut up and play” rule where athletes are not supposed to have opinions beyond their brand preferences. And there is often a price to pay if players do speak up and get political.
At the same time, Zirin reminds readers that players are labor, with unions, operating in environments of unprecedented corporate power and owners who engage in David Harvey’s accumulation by extraction, passing on the burden of the economic crisis and bad managements to the players. In that sense, sports is a perfect reflection of socioeconomic trends that affect the American society as a whole.
And so, the lockouts we have all heard of over the previous years are about very basic labor issues:
“Our side of the table, the average career for a football player is 3.6 years. It takes you three years and three games in order to get five years of health care coverage when you’re done playing. If you play any less than three years you don’t get any health care coverage when you retire. If you play three years and three games, you still only get five years . . . so you take a guy who graduates from college at 22, the average career is 3.6 years, let’s say he plays four years. Players are retiring at the ripe old age of 26. Five years of health care coverage and everything after that, every injury you have is a preexisting condition. Try to find insurance for that. So when they say to me, it’s a battle between billionaires and millionaires, that’s where I start.” (Locs 520-525).
Of course, in different ways, a lot of Americans face this exact same situation with the health care system. Athletes get it much younger and much more dramatically.
This corporate power is accompanied by what has long been Zirin’s pet peeve, and the subject of his previous book, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (reviewed here), massive public subsidies to very wealthy teams and their “wronged billionaire” owners. And as with the American society where wealth has been transferred upwards over the past thirty years, the same goes for the big leagues, like the NBA, where massive wealth gets transferred from the public and the players to the owners.
But why was soccer fanhood so central to the Arab Spring?
“In many countries with an authoritarian bent, the clubs are allowed to exist and even thrive, under the tacit understanding that it’s better for young, frustrated men to take out their anger on themselves and the police than on the government.” (Locs 732-733)
Thus were born the Egyptian Ultras who were so present on Tahrir Square. And so, as much as they were supposed to stay away from politics, the Ultras trained themselves to be revolutionaries as they went against the other fans. Similarly, athletes and fans in Bahrain also took to the streets, with less success though. Several star players were arrested and tortured there.
Even more globally, to have the privilege of organizing a major sports event, such as the Olympics or the World Cup of Soccer often means a shock doctrine for the less privileged:
“Increasingly, these rising economic powers are also vying for the honor and prestige of hosting international sporting events. In the twenty-first century, such events require more than merely stadiums and hotels. The host country must provide a massive security apparatus, the means to crush any opposition, and the ability to create the kind of “infrastructure” that modern games demand. That means not just stadiums, but sparkling new stadiums; not just security, but the latest in antiterrorist technology; not just new transportation to and from venues, but the removal of unsightly poverty along those paths. That means a willingness to spend billions of dollars in the name of creating a playground for international tourists and multinational sponsors. What this all requires is what the decaying Western powers, at this point, cannot provide: massive deficit spending and a state police infrastructure ready to displace, destroy, or disappear anyone who dares stand in their way.” (Locs 993-1000)
For anyone following the British press, there was a lot of coverage of these issues before the London Olympics. And one just has to look at current events to find items reflecting exactly that:
“Brazilian riot police armed with batons, teargas and pepper spray have forcibly evicted an indigenous community from a dilapidated museum complex next to the Maracanã football stadium.
The forced relocation, which led to scuffles, arrests and accusations of brutality, comes amid growing pressure on the hosts of the next World Cup to accelerate preparations that have fallen far behind schedule. Renovation of the stadium, which will host next year’s final, was supposed to have been completed at the end of last year, but there are doubts that it will be ready for a friendly between England and Brazil in June.
The museum has been the focus of a protracted legal battle between squatters, who claim the site should be used to promote indigenous culture, and the municipal authorities, who want to knock down a graffiti-covered eyesore and modernise the area before the world’s attention moves to Rio de Janeiro.
“We were negotiating, and then the government resorted to force,” said Urutau Guajajara, a bare-chested man wearing a feathered headdress who described himself as a professor of the Guajajara ethnic group. “The police were very violent.”
“It was shocking,” said Ingrid Paul, an Argentinian who has lived in the community for the past three weeks. “The police were obviously preparing for a fight. They came in with masks at 2:30am. We were all affected by the gas, even a three-year-old child.”
After their eviction, some of the indigenous people were taken to temporary housing provided by the government. Others sang songs, smoked pipes and handed out leaflets declaring: “513 years of struggle: resist the expulsion of the multi-ethnic indigenous group of the Maracanã.”
In the aftermath, police and TV helicopters buzzed overhead. Officers armed with automatic rifles cordoned off the area and several dozen police vehicles – including armoured personnel carriers – lined the streets.
The government says it is necessary to raze the building as part of the renovation of a rundown area that is supposed to be transformed into a sports and entertainment hub.”
It is all here: the pushing the poor to the side so they don’t stain the perfect landscape for the global media; the militarization of security, the use private military / security companies with shady accounting and overspending of public monies; the forced and inadequate relocations. It is the cleansing of urban centers for the benefit of the global elite and the few who will be able to afford the steep ticket prices for the main events (with massive corporate buys that leave a lot of empty seats as happened in London). And ultimately, the public will be stuck with the bill. In the case of the World Cup in South Africa, Zirin coined this phenomenon “Invictus in reverse” where it even got worse:
“Then there were the assassinations. In a story that made international news but gained next to no notice in the United States, two people (on a discovered list of twenty) were assassinated for “whistle-blowing” on suspected corruption in the construction of the $ 150 million Mbombela Stadium. The Sunday World newspaper attained the list, which included two journalists and numerous political leaders.” (Locs 1230-1233)
Nevertheless, in a country plagued by massive poverty and the heritage of apartheid, enormous amounts of money were spent on infrastructure just for one global event, like the grandiose Moses Mabhida Stadium.
And of course, no political opposition must be seen or heard at global sports events. No dissent must be allowed. The poor and disadvantaged must be out of sight. Only the “approved” vendors are allowed, so regular street vendors are pushed out of the way and reap no benefit from the in-pouring of global money. And the global media will be silent on the police brutality that will necessarily occur. Nothing must ruin the global spectacle.
Inevitably as well, Zirin devotes a full chapter to the shame of Penn State and its revered coach in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.
“This is what happens when a football program becomes the economic, social, and spiritual heartbeat of an entire region. Joe Paterno was the personification of everything that made Penn State matter in football, in academics, and in much of the state. When something becomes that valuable, a certain mind-set kicks in: Protect JoePa. Protect Nittany Lions football. Protect the brand above all. In a company town, your first responsibility is to protect the company.
But Penn State never was an “outlaw program.” It was what every school was supposed to aspire to become. Now every athletic director or school president has to reckon with the fact that they have been looking up to an institution that places such value on football that children can become collateral damage. Let JoePa’s last teachable moment be this: If your football coach is the highest-paid, most revered person on your campus, you have a problem. If your school wins multiple championships and a booster drops money to build a statue of the coach, tear it the hell down. And if you think children are being raped, the minimum just isn’t good enough, no matter whether or not you wear a crown.” (Kindle Locs 1695-1703)
And Zirin has a few choice words as well for the students who rioted in support of Paterno and his team, a jock culture that has mutated into malignancy, as he calls it. And in the wake of the Steubenville horror, these words certainly ring true. At the same time, Zirin is also critical of the way the NCAA interjected itself into what is a legal matter. Zirin also has a full chapter on the NCAA and its exploitation of student-athletes in the context of state retrenchment from academia:
“Given the grim budgetary realities that surround state universities today, the numbers boggle the mind. According to USA Today, salaries of new head football coaches at the 120 bowl-eligible schools increased by 35 percent in 2011. Average pay has now ballooned to $ 1.5 million annually, an increase from $ 1.1 million. Over the last six seasons, football coach salaries have risen by an astonishing 55 percent. This has happened as tuition hikes, furloughs, and layoffs have continued unabated. In an era of stagnating and falling wages, compensation for coaching a college football team traces a trend line that rises like a booster’s adrenaline during bowl season. The question is how— not just how this is possible given the stark economic realities of most institutions, but how schools can be this shameless.” (Locs 1864-1869)
Intercollegiate sport is unsustainable but it is somehow sacred and therefore protected from cuts. And despite claims to the contrary, Zirin shows that money from athletics does not trickle to the rest of academic institutions.
He does cover race, gender and LGBT issues in sport, with a specific focus on Caster Semenya and her shameful treatment by the sports authority, dedicated to determining her gender, even if it meant subjecting her to a series of degradation ceremonies. Zirin argues that there is something especially rotten when it comes to gender and track and field.
“Track and field has had a particular preoccupation with gender, especially when it intersects with race. Fifty years ago, Olympic official Norman Cox proposed that the International Olympic Committee create a separate category of competition for black women, “the unfairly advantaged ‘hermaphrodites.’ ” For years, women athletes had to parade naked in front of Olympic officials for inspection. This gave way to more “sophisticated gender testing” to determine if athletes have what officials still perceive as the ultimate advantage: being a man.
Let’s leave aside that being male is not the be-all, end-all of athletic success; wealth, coaching facilities, nutrition, and opportunity determine the development of a world-class athlete far more than a Y chromosome ever could. Essentially, the physical reality of intersex people calls into question fixed notions we are taught to accept about men and women in general, and athletes in sex-segregated sports like track and field in particular.” (Locs 2334-2342)
So, in the case of Caster Semenya,
“In the Caster Semenya case, there are important questions few in the sports media dared ask. Why should it matter if she is maxing out her every biological advantage? No one claims that basketball star Yao Ming had an unfair advantage because he is seven foot five. No one asked if swimmer Michael Phelps’s mammoth, flipper-like feet unfairly skewed the competition. If anything, he was praised for being, as one announcer said breathlessly, “built to swim!” Why isn’t Caster Semenya, with her slender hips and powerful muscles, “built to run”? If Semenya’s biology is not “normal,” it’s worth asking, what world-class athlete does have a normal body?” (Locs 2346-2351)
We can all suspect what the answers are to these questions. And they all point to our collective discomfort when it comes to intersex individuals and anyone, for that matter, who does not fit neatly in the socially-acceptable gender boxes. But Zirin sees a few hopeful signs of greater openness in the world of LGBT sports.
But racism has not disappeared either and Zirin is merciless towards NBA commissioner Stern:
“Racism reverberates with particular strength in the NBA because no other sport tries so aggressively to market African American players to an overwhelmingly white, middle-class “ticket-buying” audience. This dynamic causes a set of resentments and tensions that Stern seems unable to navigate. Instead of building bridges, he napalms them. Every scuffle, every fight, every elbow on the court is subject to the kind of hand-wringing that would be unheard of in fight-happy hockey. Every scandal is a commentary on the culture, attitudes, or even, as ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd opined, the “absence of fathers” in the African American community. In other words, race is discussed, but never explicitly— and never as a way of analyzing the assumptions of the analysts themselves. Instead, the discussion often merely reinforces racist attitudes about players, their backgrounds, and their states of mind.” (Locs 2766-2772)
So, as one reaches the end of Zirin’s book, which is mostly about hopeful trends, one does wonder whether these trends are real or just a set of nice anecdotes but far from social movements to make sports more publicly accountable, more labor-friendly, less racist, sexist and homophobic. Frankly, I don’t know. Sometimes, it seems as if Zirin is overplaying his hand but then, he’s the expert, not me.
But then, it does not take much to remind us of the persistence of racism in the world of sports, whether from audience at stadiums in Europe or sports commentators:
“The French national anthem, La Marseillaise, is, if you think about it, a pretty nasty song. It dreams, in one of its more memorable verses, that the “blood of the impure” will “irrigate our fields.” It’s a rousing anthem, to be sure, and I myself can frequently be heard humming it to myself in advance of a match being played by Les Bleus, or as I ride my bike or do the dishes. I’ve found that it’s sometimes hard to find a French person (at least if you hang out, as I do, with too many intellectuals), who can actually sing it without irony. And yet, over the past 26 years, the question of whether a particular subset of French men – those who play on the national football team – sing the Marseillaise under certain conditions has been a rather unhealthy obsession in France (we’ve blogged about it before, when Kinshasa-born flanker Yannick Nyanga sobbed uncontrollably during the anthem ahead of a rugby match vs Australia last year).
We are now being treated to what feels to me like Act 467 of this drama. Karim Benzema, as anyone who attentively watches French football matches knows, doesn’t sing the anthem before matches. In a recent interview, asked why, he answered in a pleasingly flippant way: “It’s not because I sing that I’m going to score three goals. If I don’t sing the Marseillaise, but then the game starts and I score three goals, I don’t think at the end of the game anyone is going to say that I didn’t sing the Marseillaise.” Pushed further on the question, he invoked none other than Zinedine Zidane who, like Benzema, was the child of Algerian immigrants to France – and who also happens to be the greatest French footballer of all time, and the one to whom the team owes its one little star on its jersey: “No one is going to force me to sing the Marseillaise. Zidane, for instance, didn’t necessarily sing it. And there are others. I don’t see that it’s a problem.”
Ah, Karim, but it is a problem, don’t you see? In fact, your decision about whether to vocalize or not, as you stand in line under the careful scrutiny of cameras, about to enter into a hyper-stressful and aggressive sporting match during which your every action will be dissected and discussed, is an unmistakable sign about whether or not the true France will survive or alternatively be submerged in a tide of unruly immigrants and their descendants.
Notwithstanding the fact that, as Michel Platini has noted, in his generation no footballers ever sang the Marseillaise, and that “white” footballers – even the Muslim Franck Ribéry, who at best mutters a bit during the anthem but is much more enthusiastic in his pre-game prayers to Allah – are rarely if ever asked this particular question, even so some will continue to insist that your choice not to sing is a window onto your disloyal soul. As the Front National explained: “This football mercenary, paid 1484 Euros per hour, shows an inconceivable and inacceptable disdain for the jersey that he is lucky to be able to wear. Karim Benzema does not “see the problem” with not singing the Marseillaise. Well, French people wouldn’t see any problem with having him no longer play for the French team.””
For the record, I’m French “de souche”, white. I know La Marseillaise is a stupid war song and I never bothered to learn it and I have never sung it in public events. But the whole “disdain for the French jersey” theme is not new and it came to the fore especially after the incident at the World Cup of Soccer in South Africa where the French team refused to train and practice and ultimately, left the tournament in shame (see my review of a French book on this very subject).