Sunday, April 13, 2014

Isaiah Washington Quietly Returns to Grey's Anatomy - More Low Ball Politics in Florida

Isaiah Washington as Dr. Preston Burke
When actor Isaiah Washington was forced off the ABC hospital television dramady 'Grey's Anatomy' in 2007 it made big headlines in part because of the popularity of his character Dr. Preston Burke and also because of the actor's controversial comments about a co-star.

During the fall of 2006 he had an on-set argument with co-star Patrick Dempsey (who plays "McDreamy") and used a homophobic slur in reference to co-star T. R Knight (who plays George).

The incident prompted Knight to publicly announce he was gay in October, 2006 and ABC executives removed Washington from the show before the season finale when accusations that the network was tolerating homophobia gained traction in the media and Washington repeated the slur during a backstage interview at the Golden Globe Awards while trying to explain the incident to the press.

It struck me as interesting that the recent news that Washington will be returning to 'Grey's Anatomy' in May to reprise his role as Dr. Burke received far less media scrutiny than his controversial departure did. It was barely a blurb in the Deals section of a recent March issue of the 'Hollywood Reporter'.

Despite the fact that Washington released a public statement apologizing for the slur back in 2006-2007, offered to explain his side of the story in a televised interview and even recorded a public service commercial spot for GLAAD, the pressure from gay-rights advocates at the time and the negative press was too much and he was sacked. According to reports, even seven years later Washington is receiving some negative comments on social media because of his return to the show.

His return coincides with actress Sandra Oh leaving the show at the end of this season and while 'Grey's Anatomy' is still hugely popular, it's not the ratings smash it once was for ABC and it is in its 10th season. Certainly high-profile public figures are held to a much higher degree of responsibility when it comes to comments that are perceived as bigoted, sexist, racist or homophobic and they should be held accountable.

But I can't help but get the sense that the entertainment industry still finds itself particularly uneasy where African-American actors, especially those considered sex symbols, are concerned. Going back to 1957 when Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn famously dispatched mobster Johnny Roselli to kidnap Sammy Davis, Jr.  and warn him about his relationship with actress Kim Novak when she was under contract to Columbia.

The leading mainstream roles for male African-American actors on prime time network television in America are generally few and far between - but the roles on hit television shows, rarer still.

Bill Cosby broke barriers when he was cast as Alexander Scott on the espionage drama 'I Spy' alongside Robert Culp on NBC in 1965. Cosby won Emmy Awards for Outstanding Continued Performance By An Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series for three straight years, 1966 - 1968.

Those actors of color who do get the opportunity to play characters considered sex symbols are even more rare on network television. It's interesting how good the physicians role has been for black male television actors; and while NBC isn't perfect they deserve credit for some of their casting choices.

Cosby helped reinvigorate NBC (and the television sitcom) as Dr. Cliff Huxtable with the highly successful 'The Cosby Show' from 1984 - 1992. Two-time Academy Award-winner Denzel Washington broke through as a sex symbol as Dr. Phillip Chandler on the ground-breaking and highly acclaimed hospital drama 'St Elsewhere' which aired on NBC from 1982 - 1988. Even amongst a highly talented cast, Denzel stood out for his exceptional on-screen presence, above-average acting ability and non-conventional (for Hollywood anyway...) good looks and sex appeal. Blair Underwood was certainly a television sex symbol (albeit as an attorney) on NBC's 'LA Law' which ran from 1986 to 1992.

It's more than fair to say that Isaiah Washington, owes much to Denzel Washington and while there is a similarity in manner, looks and on-screen presence, the former has faced a much rockier career path; in no small part due to his own choices. But I'm a 'Grey's Anatomy' fan and I'm happy he's coming back and who knows? No one likes a comeback story more than Hollywood. Just ask Robert Downey, Jr.  

So to wrap up, I know I gripe about voter suppression a lot on this blog, but hey; it's voter suppression. Did you read that the Miami-Dade County Elections Department ruled that all bathrooms at public polling sites will be closed to voters?

When I read the article on ThinkProgress.org I could only shake my head. The state of Florida seems to have absolutely no boundaries when it comes to ethics, Democracy and the rule of law. This was the state where lines during the 2012 Presidential elections made for waits of up to six hours for people to vote in majority Democratic districts; now they want to scare voters off by closing the bathrooms too? Really?

What's next in Florida? Setting dogs loose on voters who vote Democratic? Pathetic.

And let's not even start on the Stand Your Ground Laws in the Sunshine State; which basically seem to be a green light to shoot and kill unarmed African-Americans. Did you hear about the prison guard in Florida who beat the crap out of a prison inmate then used the Stand Your Ground Law as defense against assault charges? Sunshine State indeed.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Taibbi Tackles the Inequities of America's Two-Tiered Society - Heidi Klum in 'Red-Face'?

Journalist-author Matt Taibbi
As the most unproductive and heartless US Congress in American history gears up to block a Senate bill to restore unemployment benefits to over 3 million members of the long-term unemployed, it's not hard to feel discouraged by the steady un-Democratization of this nation.

This week a private research study shows that in 2013, US corporations held a staggering $2.1 trillion in profits overseas to avoid paying taxes at a time when they're making record profits at home, flailing about the evils of raising the minimum wage and being coy about starting to rehire Americans on a large scale. 

On top of that we discover the cash reserves of the nations largest banks are underfunded by billions of dollars a mere six years after the financial meltdown of 2008 - and we all know who was on the hook for that one - and who was let off the hook.

Lately the conservative members of the Roberts Supreme Court are making it seem less a politically autonomous branch of the Federal government dedicated to interpreting the Constitution, than a disassociated bunch of cranky old farts perpetually stuck in the intellectually-nonsensical ideological bubble of the Fox News world.  

Case in point (bad pun intended): the high court's recent decision to further undermine the Democratic process in this nation by making it more difficult to define political corruption, while simultaneously making it easier for wealthy political donors to pour enormous sums of money into the election process.

And remember, that's after they struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, essentially making it easier for state legislatures to make it harder for citizens to vote.

But just when things look bleak, Matt Taibbi cuts through the fog with his signature blend of relentless hard-hitting journalism. On Monday I heard an interesting interview with Taibbi on NPR as he discussed his latest book, "The Great Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap".

Click the link above and give it a listen if you've got a few minutes. In the past couple years his essays in Rolling Stone have taken on the issues that the mainstream media has totally shied away from; topics like the deep-seated corruption within the US and global financial system, the complexities of the LIBOR scandal, the rigging of commodities markets, the mortgage crisis and the implosion of the housing market and of course, the massive inequities in the US justice system.

Taibbi said after spending years on topics related to the financial meltdown, he was personally struck over how difficult it seemed to be to bring any individual from the corporate or banking sector to trial or jail time; yet it was and is frighteningly easy to jail someone for welfare fraud, possessing small amounts of illegal drugs - or simply for no reason at all beyond an over-zealous police force, lack of access to legal counsel, overwhelmed public defenders' offices and prosecutors seemingly determined to keep US prisons filled with non-violent offenders.

To borrow a quote from the new book cited in the NPR article about Taibbi:
"Poverty goes up. Crime goes down. The prison population doubles. Fraud by the rich wipes out 40 percent of the world's wealth. The rich get massively richer. No one goes to jail."

Don't hold your breath waiting for CNN, NBC, ABC, FOX or CBS to broach that topic on prime-time news. Outside of Frontline and Bill Moyers on PBS and Vice on HBO, mainstream media doesn't see the biggest story in this nation as much of a story at all. That's just sad; and unfortunately not unintentional. Bread and Circuses...

Anyway, to some lighter fare. Now let me just say first that I have no axe to grind with super model turned fashion show host and arbiter of good taste Heidi Klum. I've a seen a few episodes of Project Runway, and she's pretty sharp and has a good sense of humor in a no-nonsense German kind-of-way.

So what the hell was she thinking promoting a Germany's Next Top Model photo shoot featuring hot young German frauleins posing in 'Red-Face' in Native American costumes and scenarios?

As ThinkProgress.com reports Klum is receiving flack on her Facebook page, social media platforms and from a host of Websites and blogs for lending her name, face and reputation to this ill-advised promotional campaign that incorporates Native American stereotypes and imagery.

Given Germany's ongoing struggle to move beyond the dark legacy of the Third Reich and its institutionalized racism before and during World War II that led to millions of deaths, how could Klum not know what a disaster a group of young German girls dressing up as provocative little Indian-sex kittens would be? Och! Heidi!

It really hasn't been a good PR month for Germany.

The April issue of Vanity Fair Magazine features Alex Shoumatoff's brilliant expose article on the recent trove of over 1,280 artworks originally stolen and confiscated from Jewish families, art dealers and collectors (fleeing Germany or sent to the camps from Germany and France) in WWII that ended up in the Munich apartment of a strange German recluse named Cornelius Gurlitt.

Seriously, you really have to read this Vanity Fair article to gain some insight on this monumental art theft. Gurlitt's father was an art dealer for the Nazis and helped to broker the sales of thousands of pieces of art Hitler labeled "degenerate". Gurlitt's apartment was packed with an estimated billion dollars worth of priceless art by a range of master painters including Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin, Dix and more.

One of the most interesting tidbits from the article: cosmetic billionaire Ronald Lauder, who's supported efforts to return looted art to the original Jewish owners for years, claims the German government has housed tens of thousands of pieces of looted art in the basements and vaults of it's museums since the end of the War; knowing full well where they came from. 

It's a rather disturbing read, but an enlightening one as well that lends insight into a crime against humanity which in many ways, is still going on to this day.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Utter Stupidity at Sea

Eric, Lyra (1) Charlotte & Cora (3) Kaufman - (Photo-AP)
By now thousands of people across the world have directed irate online comments at Eric and Charlotte Kaufman, the parents of a one year-old daughter named Lyra and a three year-old daughter named Cora. (pictured left)

The Kaufman's are making headlines for their ill-advised decision to make a 6,914 mile journey across the southern Pacific Ocean from the western coast of Mexico to New Zealand.

It's one thing to take your one and three year-old daughters to New Zealand, but putting them aboard a 36-foot sailboat for a journey across the open ocean that can take months strikes me as one of the dumbest f---ing things I've ever heard of.

While I can certainly admire the skill and preparation it takes for professional sailors or adventurers to undertake a dangerous crossing of the Pacific in a 36-foot sailboat, the idea of two parents putting a 1 year-old baby and her 3 year old sister on the boat is questionable decision making at best, and a delusional parenting choice that borders on neglect at worst.

The Kaufman's are defending their decision after issuing a distress call 900 miles off the coast of Mexico when they lost the ability to steer their boat and had to be rescued by a coordinated effort involving the US Coast Guard, the California Air National Guard and the US Navy. As the NY Times reported their 1 year-old Lyra had a fever and was covered in rashes - who takes a baby on any kind of trip less than two weeks after being infected with Salmonella?

I'm not an adventurer or anything, but I was a Boy Scout for years. I've hiked, spent two weeks living in a tent, repelled off cliffs, done cold weather camping in winter, been spelunking deep into caves in the hills of West Virginia and gone on extended canoe trips down rivers. I've been snorkeling in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Costa Rica and I learned to scuba dive in the Bahamas. I've been sailing in the Atlantic with people who'd spent years on the water.

The one thing all those experiences had in common was that there was always extensive preparation before setting out, knowledge of the terrain and weather conditions, exhaustive reviews of safety measures and procedures, careful practice with and knowledge of all equipment and we NEVER took unnecessary risks. The idea of taking a 1 and 3 year-old into such a dangerous condition? Absurd.

I definitely think children should learn to experience the outdoors as soon as they're able to, and under the proper supervision. ALL children should learn to swim.

But I loose patience with people who take stupid risks because they arrogantly think it's cool or that they're somehow immune to the power of nature. People who make decisions like that and involve young children are liable for prosecution as far as I'm concerned.

 Nature is beautiful but it can turn on you FAST and smart people respect it. Lakes, streams and rivers are beautiful and should be enjoyed; but they can turn deadly if circumstances go bad. If you've ever been caught in an undertow current within sight of the shore, or know someone who drowned in a creek, you understand the immense power of water; and how quickly it can take a life.

But the ocean is a whole different ball game as the Kaufmans learned; and members of the Coast Guard, Air National Guard and Navy risked their lives to save them.

There's a lot of things going on in the world worth blogging about, but parents endangering their own children to satisfy some kind of lust for adventure or attention?

That's the worst kind of stupidity: the kind that could have been avoided in the first place.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

It's Viva Las Vegas For GOP Contenders & Ken Detzner Rides Again

Voter purge-obsessed Florida Sec of State Ken Detzner
March may be coming to a rain-soaked close here by the banks of the Delaware River but if you harbored any doubts about Republican focus on the upcoming fall mid-term elections, kiss 'em goodbye.

Between the Supreme Court challenge by Hobby Lobby to undermine the contraceptive portions of the Affordable Health Care Act, ongoing Republican efforts to prevent eligible US citizens from voting in the November Congressional elections and a massive fund-raising campaign, the GOP is in game mode and all bets are off.

They're trying to hold onto their majority in the House and six is the magic number for them to re-gain the Senate. According to the slew of e-mails from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee clogging my overburdened in-box, a single GOP fundraiser last week raised a staggering $15.1 million.

Not a bad take for one nights work. Evidently the fiery but frequently senseless right-wing rhetoric of the recent CPAC conference motivated Republicans to whip out their checkbooks.

Remember when presidential candidates used to actually court the approval of American voters?

Last week a steady stream of potential GOP presidential candidates made the pilgrimage out to Las Vegas to seek the blessing (and campaign contributions) of global casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

You remember Sheldon right? After pouring $19 million of his almost $37 billion fortune to prop up Newt Gingrich's hopeless snoozer of a 2012 presidential campaign, Adelson then backed Mitt Romney once Newt crapped out. (And Sheldon made his fortune in gambling?)

Even walking-political liability Chris Christie is out there trying to make his case. He's happy to get the hell out of New Jersey for a few days and is apparently undeterred by the fact that pricey attorney/fixer Randy Mastro's NJ tax payer-funded whitewash "investigation" (which exonerated hizzoner despite not interviewing Bridget Kelly or David Samson) is almost universally viewed as a total sham by both the public and press.

Governor Christie seems to be laboring under the delusion that convincing David Samson to "retire" from his post at the head of the monumentally corrupt Port Authority will quench the thirst of the restless hordes calling for the truth about Bridge-Gate.

But wooing the backing of big GOP donors in Vegas may be the least of Christie's host of problems.

He's also got some 'splainin' to do to the members of the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting out there in Vegas regarding those anti-Semitic comments made by the Gov's own staffers about the GW Bridge traffic snarl in front of Rabbi Mendy Carlebach's house. Adelson is RJC's largest financial backer as well as a board member. Oops.

Julie Bykowicz wrote an excellent summary of the GOP players out in the desert seeking Sheldon's blessing on Bloomberg.com; check it out.

Finally, based on the ongoing Republican obsession to prevent US citizens from voting in essential swing states, one might almost be led to believe the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has a Sith lord on their payroll who can use the dark side of The Force to manipulate the minds of Republican secretaries of state like Ohio's notorious vote suppressor Jon Husted and Florida's vote suppressing zealot Ken Detzner (pictured above), to believe in a mythical plot of wide-spread voter fraud.

Data from organizations like the Department of Justice demonstrates that actual cases of voter fraud in the United States are so numerically infrequent (.00000013 out of 197 million votes cast in 2006) as to make it make it almost nonexistent.

But that hasn't deterred groups like True the Vote from using fabricated statistics and rhetoric-filled fear-mongering to support arcane voter ID laws, limit polling stations in districts that skew Democratic, and curtailing voting hours that make it easier for people who work to vote.

Republicans simply haven't been able to sell a simple majority of Americans to back GOP their legislative initiatives or presidential candidates in years, so men like Husted and Detzner have taken on the dirty work; doing everything in their power to try and systematically purge Democratic voters from the election rolls.

The state of Florida recently put the halt on yet another voter purge list filled with thousands of names the Republican party wants to remove the voter rolls led by the voter suppression ideologue, Detzner; the same guy who in 2011 ordered local Florida election districts to send out letters to thousands of voters informing them they were "non-citizens" and did not have the right to vote.

It turned out the purge list was filled with errors and most of the people were actually citizens who were eligible to vote. According to ThinkProgress.org a letter was even sent to a 91 year-old WWII veteran. The article by Josh Israel reports Detzner recently tried yet again to purge more voters but was once again shut down by the state because of inaccuracies and mistakes in the list.

It's a sad state of affairs when a political party simply stops trying to sway voters with new ideas and instead pours millions of dollars into widespread efforts to illegally strip people who won't vote for them of their most basic Constitutional right.

Or perhaps, Republicans are just terrified of what conservative author and pundit Ann Coulter recently termed the "browning of America"? Annie get your gun!!

And Republicans like John McCain are up in arms and outraged about Putin annexing Crimea?

Seems to me the GOP has it's own kind of Anschluss going on right here in America, only instead of guns and bogus diplomacy, they're using false voter fraud accusations to manipulate the electorate in a devious effort to assume further control over state legislatures, the House of Representatives and United States Senate.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Heather Mac Donald's "Common Sense" - Sheriff Joe Arpaio Just Can't Stop Profiling Latinos

Conservative urban affairs expert Heather Mac Donald
Clearly not everyone is going to draw the same conclusions from statistics and data presented in a report and that's fair; after all this is America and the 1st Amendment applies to all.

In my previous blog comments on the disparities in how discipline is meted out to students in American schools, I referenced some alarming statistics from the Department of Education showing some gaping differences in which students were more likely to receive harsher punishments from teachers and administrators.

It seemed to me reflective of the same kinds of disparities seen in sentencing and incarceration in this country and might offer insight into perception issues that impact the "school-to-prison" pipeline problem where some US states spend more on prisoners than they do on students.  

Evidently conservative author, essayist and political commentator Heather Mac Donald (pictured above) looked at the same data from the DOE and came to a much different conclusion.

As reported by Media Matters on Monday, in a piece in the National Review Online, Mac Donald dismissed the DOE study, instead positing that a combination of single parent homes, broken family structure and non-specific genetic behavioral differences specifically inherent in black children were the more likely cause for the disparities in discipline.

Mac Donald's conclusion? "Given the black-white crime disparities it is equally common sense that black students are more likely to be disruptive in class as well."

Exactly who's "common sense" she is referring to probably isn't hard to figure out, and as Media Matters reported, her totally unsupported conclusions go against the findings of more balanced experts and research on the subject of discrimination impacting discipline standards in schools.

Such flagrantly opinionated conclusions are hallmarks of Mac Donald's numerous columns which have appeared in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, National Review, USA Today and of course the always-balanced NY Post. 

Mac Donald has carved out quite a career as a Buchanan-esque sociologist railing against victim-hood, entitlements, welfare, crime...you get the picture.

The kind of thinker today's right-wing conservatives salivate over, she wields her academia-cred as a product of Andover, Yale, Cambridge and Stanford to offer views on race, urban affairs and crime cut straight from the Dinesh D'Souza school of thought. She wrote a book in 2003 with the intriguing title, "Are Cops Racist?" She was born in 1956 so one assumes she did grow up in the same America of Bull Connor and former LAPD chief Gates; perhaps she was just permanently scarred by the race riots of the 60's.

Given her contempt for non-whites she chooses to reside in New York (she recently defended the NYPD's Stop & Frisk policy) which makes her even more of an enigma to me.
 
Perhaps she harbors political ambitions? This concerns me. She's obviously more intelligent than Sarah Palin, and more nuanced than Michelle Bachmann but is only slightly less-detached from mainstream American reality than Michelle Malkin so it's hard to know what she would be like as a candidate; or God forbid, Chancellor of New York City's schools.

Speaking of "Are Cops Racist?" did you hear about Maricopa County (Arizona) sheriff Joe Arpaio?

He was hauled back into Federal court on Monday with a top deputy for ignoring a court order to stop intentionally using the resources and man-power of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office to target, profile, harass and arrest Latinos and function as an anti-immigration vendetta force.

He just can't stop! Sheriff Joe is the 81-year-old six-term sheriff famous for housing prisoners in open-air tents under the baking Arizona sun and forcing them to wear pink prison garb.

According to Fernanda Santos of the NY Times, Arpaio and his chief deputy Jerry Sheridan not only refused judge G. Murray Snow's order to stop targeting Latinos at their places of work and pulling them over; the two men were caught on video openly mocking the Federal court order issued last year and were laid out (and sternly warned) in court today by the judge.

I've got nothing against Heather Mac Donald or Sheriff Joe, they just confuse me. Despite their respective experience they seem hopelessly locked into a narrow, one-dimensional view of America where I view diversity as a strong point of society and a linchpin that defines America.

I suppose some people just can't get past their own common sense.
  

Sunday, March 23, 2014

How Early Do Disparities in Punishment & Sentencing in America Begin? Try Pre-School

Guess who's most likely to be disciplined in US schools?


The reality of the huge gaps in disparities in America based solely on race in terms of indicators like unemployment, access to mortgages, insurance rates, car loan rates and total savings are glaring enough in these troubled economic times.

Perception is a huge part of that, and when we look at how perception impacts how disciplinary measures are handed out to students in US schools, some disturbing trends are evident.  

According to Department of Education statistics, disparities in punishment based on race in the US begin as early as preschool.

Of 8,000 preschool students who were suspended from school in 2011 (yes, that's toddlers suspended from school) an alarming 45% were black or Latino children compared to 26% of white children- even though the actual enrollment rates are actually the reverse.

It's a disturbing trend that continues right on through kindergarten, elementary, middle and high school. Between 2011 - 2012, a staggering 42% of K-12 students who were suspended were black, even though blacks make up only 16% of the overall population.

The math doesn't paint a pretty picture. But it does offer some insight into how the judicial system and law enforcement agencies serve as catalysts for channeling so many minority offenders into the vicious cycle of the American prison system - many of whom are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses.

There's no question that ground-breaking books like author Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" or historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad's    "The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and, the Making of Modern Urban America" originally published in 2010 have helped to bring a new energy to, and analysis of, the approach to prison reform in the United States.

Groups like The Campaign to End the New Jim Crow (CENJCPNJ) are part of a growing nation-wide network of grass roots movements dedicated to prison reform in a modern industrialized nation where the statistics are both alarming and unambiguous.

Despite ranking third behind China and India in terms of population, the United States is the world's leader in terms of the total number of human beings incarcerated in prisons. While our politicians are quick to point to China, Iran, Russia and other nations for their human rights violations, there's no nation on Earth that imprisons a higher proportion of it's own populace than America.

According to The Sentencing Project, there are currently more than 2.2 million men and women imprisoned in America; that represents an increase of 500% over the past thirty years.

Despite such daunting statistics, real gains have been made by organizations, scholars, legal experts, politicians and activists finding innovative ways to address the myriad injustices resulting from disparities in incarceration rates to enact meaningful change.

For example, according to an article in the Des Moines Register by Rekha Basu, recently a delegation made up of representatives from the NAACP and voting rights groups traveled to Geneva to petition the United Nations to address the issue of American ex-prisoners having their voting rights stripped away by state legislatures even after their sentences have been served and they've been released.

How does that translate in terms of numbers? According a report entitled "Democracy Imprisoned", a staggering 8% of the adult African-American population is disenfranchised from voting as a result of state laws that bar former inmates from the ballot box compared to 1.8% of non-whites.

Look at the statistics in some Red States: 23% of African-Americans can't vote in Florida, in Kentucky (Senator Rand Paul and Senator Mitch McConnell's state) 22% of the adult black population can't vote - in Virginia 20% can't vote. Or look at Iowa, African-Americans make up 3.2% of the total population there - yet they make up 26% of the prison population.

Criminalizing non-violent behavior isn't just limited to harsh drug sentencing laws these days either. Even though debtor's prisons were largely outlawed in the United States around the 1830's and the US Supreme Court ruled that jailing people for being unable to pay debts violated the Constitution in 1970, even today some cities and towns still lock people up for failure to pay debts.

ThinkProgress.org reports that four residents of Montgomery, Alabama recently filed a lawsuit in Federal court after they claimed they were locked up for unpaid parking tickets and forced to do cleaning work inside the jail to work off their debt.

Some cities and towns in Georgia not only lock people up for failing to pay debts, they make the debtors pay a monthly fee to Judicial Corrections Services; JCS is a private company based in Georgia that handles debt collection for a number of municipalities across the US.

Back in 2012 a judge in Harpserville, Alabama severed the town's contract with JCS because he deemed the company functioned as a "debtors prison" that piled excessive fees on people convicted of minor offenses then jailed them when they couldn't pay.

Of course companies like JCS aren't new in the United States. The south has a long and particularly disturbing history with debtors prisons and "work farms" that once functioned as a state-sanctioned method of keeping huge numbers of mostly poor rural African-Americans incarcerated doing arduous enforced physical labor sometimes for years over relatively low, or completely fabricated fees that courts knew the defendants couldn't pay because they were so poor.

For a nation that loves to present itself as a beacon of human rights to other countries, the US certainly has a broad range of issues going on within its own borders that require more public attention, as well as meaningful legal remedies to address them.

Perhaps if we can start by looking closer at why much higher percentages of black and Latino preschoolers are being suspended, we can find ways to stem the tide of young lives being steered into the American prison system; lives forever branded into a state of permanent 2nd class citizenship from being simultaneously shut out of the voting booth and the chance to find a job to become productive members of society. 

Sadly for many kids, it begins early and lasts a lifetime.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Rohingya Blues & Sundown Town USA

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar detained in Malaysia 2013
During director Steve McQueen's recent acceptance speech for the Oscar for Best Picture for "12 Years a Slave" he cited a startling United Nation's International Labor Organization (ILO) statistic that there are currently 21 million people around the world living in a state of slavery, enforced labor or indentured servitude.

Last Tuesday the BBC's Ian-Muir Cochrane wrote an interesting article examining that figure and exploring the question of how many slaves there really are. It's a valid question.


But perhaps the bigger issue is not the exact number but the fact that there are human beings living in states of enforced labor at all fourteen years into the 21st century. People who can be found on just about every continent doing every kind of work imaginable.

Like the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims trapped in the Rakhine province of Myanmar.

Because the government of Myanmar has refused to grant them citizenship since 1948 (when this nation formerly known as Burma gained it's independence) this oppressed Muslim minority are not only unable to work, they also fall victim to violent attacks at the hands of Buddhist extremists and even the police and military.

Torture, beatings, arrests, torched homes and forced expulsion from villages have driven thousands of Rohingya to risk their lives to flee to Malaysia; which has a much larger Muslim population.

The harrowing journey takes the Rohingya through Thailand and over open seas through a treacherous route detailed by a New York Times article on Friday where they often fall victim to smugglers and human traffickers who frequently sell them into indentured labor working on fishing trawlers that ply the waters of the Gulf of Thailand, or as laborers on the mainland in Thailand or other Pacific nations.

Thousands of Rohingya have perished or been enslaved over the past few years. While it's critical to  attach some kind of number to that nightmarish trade in enforced human labor and misery, is it more important to quantify it, or back global efforts to put a stop to it?

Perhaps the point Steve McQueen was making in his Oscar speech is that if people were moved by his film that portrayed the story of one man's effort to escape human bondage - then people also need to be moved enough to demand an effort to end the global human trafficking that goes on here and now as well. What's the difference if it's 21,000 or 21 million really?

On another note, this past Saturday night I was scrolling through some Twitter links looking for interesting stories and saw this link to The Grio.com about a recent Injustice Files television special on the Discovery Channel about the history of "Sundown Towns" in America by filmmaker Keith Beauchamp.

I like to imagine I'm a reasonably informed person, but I was pretty shocked to learn that Sundown Towns still exist in America today, where (depending on the town) black Americans, Asians of different nationalities, Hispanics or Jews are not welcome to live and are actually prevented from living.

Most of these places aren't in the south either; there are some though, like Vidor, Texas. Most are in northern, mid-western and Western cities and towns.

Some are close to major US cities. For example it's only very recently that some communities outside Detroit, Michigan like Dearborn Heights, or Grosse Points had people of color moving in as residents; they were once notorious Sundown Towns. (As in you better not be here when the sun goes down.)

That legacy still hovers today. Dearborn Heights is where 19 year-old African-American high-school graduate Renisha McBride was shot in the face and killed with a shotgun back in November, 2013 by 54-year-old resident Theordore Wafer after she knocked on his front door to ask for help in the early morning hours after she crashed her car nearby.

These segregated communities were the subject of a 2006 book by James Loewen titled "Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism". 

Rather than just be shocked about it I'm going to personally take a more positive approach and pick up a used copy of Loewen's book and read it to better understand this troubling aspect of American society which is none the less an important part of this nation's history.

One we should all know more about. Funny, I graduated from high school and college and the term Sundown Town was never mentioned in any class I ever attended or test I took.

But I guess knowledge isn't always pretty. As Albert Einstein said, "Any fool can know. The point is to understand." The latter is what I'm after.