Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

This is another book that I highly recommend.  Especially for anyone that lacks any kind of firsthand connection to the criminal justice system.  The author, Bryan Stevenson, met his first death-row inmate when he was just 23 years old and still in law school.  He has since gone on to not only write this book, but also found the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and argue several cases in the US Supreme Court, including one to end mandatory life sentences for minors.  EJI also recently opened the The National Memorial for Peace and Justice1,2.

The book is filled with real accounts that are at once tragic, inspiring and enraging and also likely eye-opening for many.  Stevenson does a great job of blending storytelling with modern history to take the reader on a journey not soon forgotten.   A justice system devoid of mercy has very often produced outcomes that were far from just.  Stevenson is a real-life super hero who’s impact will last for generations to come.  His book is a timeless reminder that we, as police, attorneys, judges and potential jurors, must remember that the scales of justice require mercy and not vengeance.

On a personal note, I think of this book each and every time I see or read about an incident on the news that makes me want to condemn someone.  I think, “wait, do I know for sure that they really did what they’re being accused of?”  I’m also more hesitant to condemn someone for life if the incident occurred when the person was a minor.

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Are You A Racist? Am I?

Webster’s dictionary didn’t have a definition of “racist” at the time of this writing, but it defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” and also “racial prejudice or discrimination“.  You could spend all day looking up definitions of race, racism, racist and discrimination.  At the end of the day, I’m pretty sure you’d be able to provide evidence that you’re a racist and/or that you’re not, simply by selecting the right combination of definitions.  That’s not the point is it?

We get so hung up on the connotations of the label that we lose sight of the rationale behind using the word.  The words racist and racism are used in conversations about everything from lynchings to affirmative action.  Some people use a definition that requires intended malice, some require an oppressor/oppressed relationship and others use it whenever race played any part anything.

I think everyone can agree that a White guy marching with a tiki torch and shouting about White power is a racist. (Well… almost everyone).  Most people agree that a White employer selectively hiring only White employees based on race is a racist.  There are also people that believe a Black guy marching in a beret and leather jacket shouting about Black power or a Black employer hiring only Black employees is a racist… or, more specifically a “reverse racist”.  (That’s a stupid term because if you reverse racism, then… wait… I guess then you have justice.  So, maybe it’s not such a stupid term. )  Further, when you start trying to nail down racial “discrimination” it really can technically be applied in any case where a decision is made based on race.   Whether that decision be in favor of or an effort to oppress a group of people being categorized into a “race”.

What does all that mean?  I have no idea but, here’s what I believe: Programs designed to help create a more equitable society are not racist.  A TV network like BET isn’t racist because it is an attempt to correct the imbalance of all the other networks.  Using the concepts of race to help college student populations more accurately reflect the demographics of society is not racist.  Creating a Black History Month to offset the other eleven months where people ignore and dismiss the achievements and contributions of Black people is not racist.  I believe these things are working to combat the effects of racism.  Like Newton’s 3rd law, every racist oppressive action must be met with an equal and opposite anti-racist action in order to achieve equilibrium. (I may be misquoting that.)

So, that’s what isn’t racist but, what is?  In my opinion, any action that results in furthering the oppression of another race.  That includes the obvious like preventing people from voting, refusing them bank loans, not hiring them and denying them entry to places of business.  What is not so obvious is that it also includes choosing a different car salesperson because the White one looked more familiar, voting to fund only local schools at the expense of underfunded cities that lack income due to historical oppression, refusing to acknowledge racial disparities in measurable statistics, diminishing or undermining activist efforts by oppressed groups and even colorblind apathy toward the struggle of oppressed groups.  Expecting an oppressed group to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” requires being willfully ignorant of the lack of school funding, mortgages and jobs that might make that possible.  Choosing to disregard or ignore the impact disproportionate policing and incarceration have on families, support networks and employment opportunities allows the cycle to continue and therefore, willfull ignorance and apathy are no less racist than flying the stars & bars and shouting slurs from the bed of a pickup.

So… Are you a racist?  Am I?  I think we all carry racial bias.  Whether it’s subtle or overt, whether we’re actively working to overcome it or not. If you live in the United States, odds are, you’re biased.  Those biases have a real-world impact on other people and bickering about the label is missing the point.  Personally, I have absolutely done things, said things and worn things that were racist.  I like to say those things were out of ignorance rather than malice because hate was never in my heart.  The outcome was the same though, so that’s an irrelevant distinction.   The truth is, my race affords me the luxury of ignorance but, that’s no excuse for actually being ignorant.  So, label me a racist or not.  Either way, I’ll work harder to eradicate racism. Why?  Because feelings being hurt over a label doesn’t really matter when compared with the daily, real-world impact of racism on its victims.

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Mariah Parker

The first time I learned of Mariah Parker was when I saw a photo of her swearing in ceremony.  She had been elected to a seat on the Athens-Clarke County Commission for District 2 in Georgia.  I absolutely loved the image.  It made me feel proud of my country in a time when politicians rarely did.  I savored that feeling, let it wash over me for the better part of 24 hours before I let the sense of dread begin to chisel its way in.  You see, I knew the image would be met with backlash and that backlash would largely be rooted in willful ignorance and manufactured outrage.

We are living in very interesting times.  The United States is at a crossroads, a transition moment between past and future that will be taught in future history lessons.  That’s the thing about history.  It evolves in real-time but the further away we get, the more we condense it into what seems like a single moment on a timeline.  That moment is right now.  We are living in a time when someone like Mariah Parker, an individual that would historically be marginalized on so many different levels, can run for and be elected to political office.  We’re also living in a time of renewed commitments to oppression.  Overt racism, sexism, nationalism and every other kind of bigotry you can imagine are in the public spotlight in ways they have not been for most of my lifetime.  Yet, despite all that resistance, Mariah Parker won.  Did I mention she won by 13 votes?  It doesn’t get too much tighter than that.

I look at the photo and like to think we are 13 votes past a tipping point.  I see a proud mother, looking on at her stereotype-shattering daughter.  I see a determined young woman, fist in the air, being sworn in by a female judge.  A judge who, not too long ago, likely wouldn’t have been in her position either.  I think of how brave Mariah Parker is to not only run for public office, but to stay so firmly planted in the convictions that motivated her to run by placing her right hand on a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.  I look at the photo and I am in awe of all that I see.

I’ve been following Mariah Parker’s politics as much as I can.  There’s not a lot of national news about county commissioners after all.  In fact, there’s as much news about her hip hop music career as Linqua Franqa as here is about her policy performance lately.  She’s definitely progressive and her campaign website states, “I will listen to you, work for you, and fight for local policies that will strengthen our neighborhoods and protect our working families.”  I believe her.  I believe this is a woman that embodies a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people*“.  Most of all, I believe we haven’t seen or heard the last of Mariah Parker.

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X

This is probably one of the most important books I have ever read.

Seriously, it should be required reading in high school.  Like all of us, Malcolm’s life was a journey.  That journey tends to be lost when a person becomes a high-profile public figure.  The public gets a glimpse of the famous people, really almost a character that’s created by the media and word of mouth.  Alex Haley’s interviewing and commentary help the reader really understand the man behind the legend even though Malcolm’s no-holds-barred telling of his journey would have been a worthwhile read on its own.

I came away from this book incredibly jealous of Alex Haley.  The unrivaled access he had to Malcolm, the invaluable amount of time they shared is something I never thought I’d covet until I read the book.  Malcolm’s insight into society and race relations are as timely and relevant today as ever.  The book is excellent at not only telling the history, but also has a unique perspective because it captured so much insight in real-time.

This book has something in it for everyone, regardless of what you already know (or think you know) about the life and times of the man commonly referred to as Malcolm X.  It is a truly important work that deserves to be read by as many people as possible.  While I certainly learned more about Malcolm X, I also learned more about myself along the way.

 

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Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick gave an interview to NFL Media back in 2016 where he explained his position.  He told them, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color… To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”  Please indulge me while I pick that apart, from bottom to top, and offer my opinion.

There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”  This is the core.  You either believe the constant stories of lived experiences, the incarceration statistics, the prosecution statistics, the studies on disproportionate policing and use of force, or you don’t.  If you believe that there is something inherent to having more melanin in your skin that somehow makes you deserve disproportionate treatment, then you must know that’s textbook racism.  However, you likely understand the issue Kaepernick wanted to protest if you acknowledge how disproportionate things are when you watch the news and see White mass murderers, men shooting police with BB guns and even actual cop-killers get taken into custody while, running away from police because you have a knife in your pocket, traffic stops, selling cigarettes, playing with toy guns, or even shopping for a BB gun, and simply watching football in your own apartment result in dead Black bodies.  Now, before you go commenting that there’s White people killed at traffic stops and Black murderers being arrested alive, let me point out that the issue is that it’s disproportionate.  The numbers shouldn’t even be equal, much less skewed the way they are, because there’s far more White people in the United States and the use of force and “accidental deaths in custody” stats don’t reflect that.  There are systemic problems with racial bias in our entire justice system and policing is no exception.

To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.” Colin Kaepernick leveraged the resources he had available to him in order to get his message heard.  I understand why people that are unaffected by what he is protesting would prefer not to have their entertainment time interrupted with having to care about other people.  After all, football may be the only time they get to shut out the world, their family issues, their financial problems, work, etc… and just watch two teams battle it out trying to move a ball down a field.  However, it’s extremely difficult to reach those very same people at “a convenient time”.  I’ve heard people complain that it’s not the appropriate venue in which to be protesting or it’s not the right time, etc… Well, I challenge those people to clarify when/where is it appropriate?  They likely never even would have seen his website without his protest.  Kaepernick had to have known kneeling would be controversial but, it’s that very controversy that elevated the message.  Putting a sign in his yard or posting on a blog, like me, would reach a much smaller audience than he had the capacity to reach.  People’s lives are at stake and he was right to raise awareness of that.

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color“.  That is why he knelt.  Some people interpret that as a lack of respect for the flag.  Lack of pride is not synonymous to disrespect but, I won’t argue semantics because I can see that perspective.  I will argue that everything we say we stand for ought to count for something.  The promise of The United States ought to mean something.  The freedom, equality and basic civil rights that our troops have fought and died for around the globe ought to be for something.  Our country and our anthem have had a less than equitable past.  Our flag, with it’s stars and stripes, represents not only our past, but our present.  One might even argue that the colors embody the same ideals of purity, innocence, hardiness, valor, vigilance, perseverance and justice that are embodied in our Great Seal.  That’s nice but, respect must be earned.  People are dying because our country is not living up to its own ideals, and I understand how hard it is to stand in support of that.  I believe a true patriot, with genuine love of country, would do anything to bring the country closer to the founding principles that it, and its flag, are supposed to represent.

Why would anyone want to silence that level of selfless patriotism?  I firmly believe that anyone manufacturing outrage over perceived disrespect of the flag/anthem/troops and working to oppress the sentiment being expressed by Kaepernick’s protest isn’t 1/10 the patriot that Kaepernick is.  Has anyone ever wondered why Mahatma Gandhi was so disrespectful to food since he went on as many as 17 different fasts?  Of course not.  That would obviously be founded in deliberate misunderstanding and nobody would take that seriously.  Well, if you think Colin Kaepernick should have found a better avenue for his protest, or that his protest is irrelevant, or worse that he should just “shut up and play football“, then I don’t take you, your fake outrage or your fake patriotism, seriously either.  What I do take seriously is the racism in your heart.  We need to work on that.

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Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

My first exposure to Trevor Noah was seeing him host The Daily Show on Comedy Central.  I have always been a fan of Jon Stewart and have even been lucky enough to see him live.  Trevor had some very big shoes to fill and I feel like it took him a little bit to find his rhythm on the show.  He seems to have found it though and I have really come to enjoy his evolution of the show.

There’s so much more to him though.  I mean, we all knew he was clever and funny and most of us knew he was born in South Africa.  I picked up the book because I wanted to know more about the life that helped mold Trevor into the man we see today.  I have to say, the book was fascinating.  I won’t spoil anything here by sharing the details.  I will say that the clever wit that makes him such a perfect host also makes him a master storyteller.  The book is chock full of insightful stories that give us a taste of his history.  Trevor doesn’t stop there though.  The book has a way of making stories from the past, seem pointedly relevant today as well.  That was the layer that surprised me.

I absolutely believe the book is a must read for any Trevor Noah fan, but even if you’re not a fan, the interesting weave of life stories is relatable enough that I’m sure you’ll be able to connect on some level.  The book definitely left me wanting more Trevor Noah.  Thankfully, that’s an easy appetite to feed right now.

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Why I’m Not Colorblind.

Do you ever hear people say, “I don’t see race.” or “I’m colorblind.” when you’re having a discussion about racism?  Many people that don’t have a constant reminder of the existence of racial concepts in our society prefer to pretend they don’t exist.  I imagine it’s easier that way.  They don’t go around deliberately trying to categorize and oppress people so, they figure it doesn’t impact them.  They claim to be “colorblind”.

I’m one that firmly believes race is a made-up concept invented to oppress people. That doesn’t mean I don’t see race.  Being blind to race also means being blind to the very real impact the concepts of race can have on people.  Even though I don’t classify people for the sake of my own personal gains, I still need to be aware of how that classification by others serves to oppress groups of people and often to my benefit.  I mustn’t ignore the concept of race simply because I’m not personally trying to categorize and oppress anyone.  This is true, even for people that wish the negative impacts of race didn’t exist.   We must see race in order to fix racism.  We need to focus on seeing the real-world modern effects of race and work hard to fix the historical damage while simultaneously working to overcome the deep seeded biases we are all raised with.

If you also acknowledge that there are bigots and racists in this world, then you simply must work to understand how those concepts of race may be hurting or benefiting people.  That includes yourself!  You may passively be benefiting at the expense of others simply based on another person’s views on race.  (There’s a term for that and it may be the subject of another post someday.)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, being colorblind means being blind to a part of someone’s identity.  It means intentionally refusing to acknowledge that a person should have the option to include race as part of their own identity.  The key is to realize that it’s possible to see race without ascribing racist stereotypes to it.  People need to be empowered to define their own identity and it would be unjust to impose a “raceless” identity on them.

That’s why I choose to see and embrace race to the extent someone includes it as part of their own identity.  Even though I try not to judge a person’s character based on how society categorizes them, I choose not to be ignorant of racism and it’s systemic impact.  I refuse to be colorblind because who am I to take away someone’s race and all it has meant to them?  That would be might presumptuous of me wouldn’t it?

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