Saturday, July 28, 2007

Report Card

In the comments to this post (linking here), one of my regular commenters asks how often people of various races file complaints against police officers. I have no idea how to find such information, but I want to explore the issues surrounding reporting police misconduct, and why it might not tell us as much about whether racial profiling (or police sexual harassment) is a problem as we might expect. The commenter herself relays that she considered and decided against filing a complaint when a police officer sexually harassed (I agree that term seems a bit bloodless for what we're talking about, but I don't know another) her, so perhaps she can tell us how well my thoughts cohere to her experience.

Making a formal, legal, complaint is not a cost-free process. There are countervailing pressures that push against formal protests against discriminatory conduct. Martha Minow, Professor of Law at Harvard University, explained some of these dynamics in her fantastic book, Making All the Difference: Inclusion, Exclusion, and American Law:
“[A]ccording to one study, two-thirds of white women and members of minorities who report they have experienced discrimination on the job refrain from complaining to any third party, including legal officials, despite their rights under the laws against discrimination. Kristin Bumiller’s study of discrimination victims who do not sue concludes that they perceive the high costs of complaining and the real benefits [of] ‘lumping it,’ or absorbing the injury without complaint. Her interviews show that complaining through the civil rights laws means accepting the role of victim, which is itself demeaning and also ‘transforms the conflict into an internal contest to reconcile a positive self-image with the image of oneself as a powerless and defeated victim.’ In addition, complaining forces the individual into a visible role and, paradoxically, demands the differential treatment of public attention and dispute because of allegations of differential treatment. A new label, ‘troublemaker,’ also carries negative consequences for the individual. And besides risking a painful reconstruction of the discrimination event before an agency or court, the potential complainant may fear that the process will be unavailing. Other people may fail to confirm the story, or the legal system will prove unresponsive; meanwhile, the individual loses control over the incident and the process. There are special costs involved in hoping and then losing, costs that may even be more painful than never hoping at all.

Besides avoiding the negative consequences of complaining, people may discover direct benefits from enduring discrimination without complaint. Members of minority groups, especially minority women, come to expect discrimination as inevitable and may find an opportunity to exercise strength and pride in surviving without confrontation. The very act of submission may be an expression of autonomy and dignity precisely because it is a chosen response. Similarly, in her study of a religious Baptist town in Georgia, anthropologist Carol Greenhouse found women who tended to internalize conflicts within their families, coming to terms with such conflicts by refining their own roles and by focusing on their spiritual identities. Although this solution may work for some, it suggests complex reasons why people refrain from using the avenues of relief that law makes available. Most important, individual decisions to swallow injury fail to alter sources of hurt or discrimination, leaving those who cause harm undisturbed." (92-93)

We assume that if nobody is complaining (or if nobody is winning their complaints), then nothing is going wrong. This is a severely misguided perception. I believe there are four factors that might influence whether victims of illegal treatment file a formal complaint.

1) Resources: It requires resources (monetary, and otherwise) to file these sorts of complaints. Some people can afford it. Others can't. Insofar as certain types of mistreatment disproportionately effect people with fewer resources, we'd expect to see fewer complaints.

2) Likelihood of success: It takes significant investments of time, resources, and energy to pursue certain claims. Most people only will do so if they feel there is a real chance that they will be vindicated at the end. Obviously, part of this factor is simply whether or not the victim feels like he or she can garner enough evidence to make the case. But also playing in to this factor is the perception the victim has of the adjudicating body. If she does not have faith in the integrity of the judicial process, or does not believe that her complaint will be adjudicated fairly, then she might not want to put herself through the ordeal knowing that she'll get nothing out of it. Police harassment is often he said/she said, and the "he said" has the authority of a badge behind it (and the "she said" a low-income youth who may or may not have a criminal record). It is entirely understandable that many victims of real wrongs are skeptical of their ability to be vindicated in court, regardless of what actually happened.

3) Personal costs during the proceedings: Certain types of complaints are more likely to result in attacks on the victim during the proceedings than others. Rape cases would be the paradigmatic example here: rape survivors are put on the stand and berated about their sexual history, implied to be sluts, and are forced to re-enact an extraordinarily traumatizing event in exquisite (some might say pornographic) detail. There really isn't any parallel to this in, say, a robbery case. There is heavy stigma attached to making certain claims, and not everyone wants to cast themselves in that role.

4) Costs of losing: Sometimes, losing a case just means you lost a case. Other times, it means much more than that. A rape trial that doesn't lead to a conviction often brands the survivor a liar. Losing a racial discrimination lawsuit makes one a "whiner" who tried to "play the race card" to hide his own incompetence and/or criminality. If you sue your employer for racial discrimination and lose, you've pretty much just wrote a ticket out of your job. A friend of mine complained about sexual harassment in her school, and was retaliated against severely by both the student body and the administration, escalating both the harassment and branching into physical violence. And ultimately, she got no remedy at all (I forget whether the administration white-washed her complaint, or she "voluntarily" dropped it). I found this out when she relayed this information to a co-worker who wanted to complain about sexual harassment they were both facing at their job, four states away from her old school (I worked there too, but in a different division). She wanted no part of it, she didn't want to risk going through it again. In this way, the cost of losing significantly increases the risk in filing complaints, deters legitimate victims, and thus makes it less likely that real cases will see daylight.

Certain types of wrongdoing are more likely to implicate these factors to a greater degree than others. As a result, these crimes are less likely to be reported, and the public perception as to their prevalence is likely to be low compared to their relative frequency. Crimes that have a sexual or racial dimension are disproportionately likely to touch on these factors, and that is something that needs to be kept in mind when discussing and addressing them.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Apostrophe S

Why is it that I have so much trouble with apostrophes? I continually screw them up, in both directions. That is, I'll write a sentence that has both a plural and a possessive or contraction, and give an apostrophe in the former, but not the latter. E.g., "[T]o reiterate, the FRC has expressed no problem with teacher's [sic] leading their students in prayer--so long as its [sic] to Jesus." So it's not that I over- or under-use apostrophes, I just use them in the exact wrong cases. The same thing happens with "their" versus "there"--I flip them around constantly.

It just makes me feel like an idiot sometimes.

Hello Stribbers!

I was trolling through my hit counter, and I happened to notice that someone got to my site through Google Reader. My presumption was that only somebody I knew would be so kind as to put my site on a permanent feed, and I was curious if I could identify who it was. But according to the counter, the source of the hit was from somewhat at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Neat-o, I thought, somebody from the vaunted Mainstream Media has my blog on ready alert!

So if I do, indeed, have a fan who works for the Strib, welcome!


USA Today has an interesting article reporting on complaints that some schools are giving Muslim students "special treatment." The examples range from building prayer centers at colleges, to special recess periods for mid-day prayers in elementary schools. The FRC is going ballistic, though they can't seem to figure out why. Half the time, it's because of the perceived lack of parity--they argue that Christians don't get similar accommodations. The other half, it's outrage that we're helping Muslims (icckkkky!). They're not really consistent positions--nothing that the Muslim students are receiving is beyond what the FRC wants for Christian students. The FRC continues to want prayer for me but not for thee, which is to be expected, I suppose. But it does put a damper in their righteous fury.

And my take? Well, I obviously approach such questions from an anti-subordination perspective, which recognizes that Muslim students are not the "norm" in American society and thus might require accommodation in order to freely practice their religion. This accommodation must then be balanced against other, competing values--such as non-endorsement of religion. Some of the examples cited in the article strike me as completely unproblematic. Colleges (public or private) providing facilities for their students to pray is nothing new at all, and I am glad that they are providing equal accommodations to Muslim students as to anybody else. On the flip side, there are some clear cases where lines were crossed--the teacher's aide that led students in prayer at a California elementary school is obviously over the line (although, to reiterate, the FRC has expressed no problem with teachers leading their students in prayer--so long as it's to Jesus). The special recesses are a harder case: unlike Christianity, Islam requires its adherents to pray at specified times. Even still (barring information I don't know), I'd prefer that there not be a special recess session only for Muslim students. Rather, recess should be scheduled so that it overlaps with the time Muslims need to pray, and anybody should be able to pray privately and unobtrusively at that time.

These are difficult issues. We are not served by demonization of those whose faith is different from ours, nor by reflexively falling back into old paradigms of Church/State relations that do not adequately account for religious pluralism in America. Sensitivity, as usual, is the order of the day.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

It Doesn't Wash Off

UNC Law Professor Eric Muller reposts a message sent to the Brown alumni listserv by a Black alum of the college. It's entitled "How Many Gun Barrels Have You Looked Down"? It shows how even wealthy, otherwise privileged Black people still face devastating racial harassment. This guy is by no means economically disadvantaged. He went to Brown. He has no criminal record. He has DOD clearance. And yet, he estimates he's faced a gun barrel aimed by a police officer around a dozen times. I'm in a roughly similar economic strata. My tally? Zero.

It is important to hear stories like this, and I've posted similar ones before. But by and large, these tales do not penetrate into mainstream (White) discourse. And that's problematic. It really plays into why I so strongly support diversifying social institutions. When writing on Barack Obama's judicial criteria including empathy with marginalized groups, I quoted Jack Balkin on the need to situate our view of the world within the confines of our particular social position:
If we do not investigate the relationship between our social situation and our perspectives, we may confuse our conception of what is reasonable with Reason itself. If we do not see how our reason is both enabled and limited by our position, we may think our judgments positionless and universal. We may find the perspectives of those differently situated unreasonable, bizarre, and even dangerous, or we may not even recognize the possibility of another way of looking at things.

I've discovered that the best check against the opinions of other groups appearing to be "unreasonable, bizarre, and even dangerous" is simply rote repetition. I recently chatted with a friend about this, and she said she'd had similar experiences as a woman talking about jogging in certain places at night. Some of her male friends dismissed her concerns as paranoia. As it happens, I have many female friends who have relayed similar concerns, so when she told me that there were certain paths she wouldn't run in the evening, I didn't find it odd or strange. But had I not talked to many women about this, I can certainly see how it might seem foreign. After all, I never feel any hesitation about walking or running where I want, when I want. Certainly, there are some high crime areas I might avoid. But there is no place at Carleton that I wouldn't feel comfortable at alone in the evening.

Similarly, reading just this piece, I may be able to dismiss the author's recollection as biased, or just aberrational. It rings so foreign to my own experiences. But I'll tell you--whenever I talk to my Black friends--of whatever social class, they tell the same stories. I went to a summer program at Yale University, and two Black girls in my unit were livid at being basically run out of a store in downtown New Haven. I shopped in New Haven all the time when I was there, never had anything remotely resembling a problem. A friend of mine at Carleton was pulled over by the cops outside of Northfield, on some random traffic thing, and they held her up for hours. Pretty much stranded her in a cornfield. She was in tears. This is a girl who grew up in Apple Valley, interned for a US Senator, and oh yeah, attended Carleton College. The only time I've seen the Northfield police is breaking up loud parties. What more should she be doing to insulate herself from police harassment? When I hear the same stories over and over again, from people I know and trust, verifies these happenings in a way that hearing a set of statistics, or even complaints from a civil rights leader, doesn't. There is no linking factor, no explanatory event, that connects these oh-so-similar stories other than race. Because, as the Brown alum explains, no matter how rich you get, what car you drive, what job you have, or what zip code you live in, being Black doesn't wash off.

And this emphasizes why it is important to have these diverse social connections. If every person I converse with about jogging is male, then of course talk of women feeling unsafe on certain jogging paths will feel odd. It doesn't cohere to our experience--we all jog and none of us have any problem. If I have no Black friends, then stories about police brutality or harassment will feel overstated or aberrational. You've faced a police gun twelve times? You must be doing something wrong--all of my friends are good, law-abiding men and women, and they've never faced anything like that. Jerome McCristal Culp has lamented the tendency of Whites to perceive the experiences of people of color as a kind of "shrill craziness," and this, I feel, help explains why. Remembering that our perspective may be constrained by our position is important, for it indicates that a monolithic social circle is also an incomplete one--that we cannot know it all by ourselves, and that we have to make sure our views and policies are informed by the experiences of a representative cross-sample of the community.

Towards a Feminist Theory of Rape Defense

I remarked once before that one of my recurring fears is of being falsely accused of a crime. I have no idea why this particularly misfortune sticks in my head so persistently, but it does. As a result, in my various writings and musings on feminism and its related topics, I have been perpetually intrigued by the question: How does a feminist defend himself against rape charges? While I have seen many (very justified) criticisms of a variety of common rape-defense tactics (slut shaming, “she was asking for it”, etc.), to date, I have never seen any examination or recommendation of what would constitute a morally acceptable defense against the accusation of rape. I myself do not have the answer, so I pitch it to the blogosphere, so that voices wiser than mine might find a solution.

I understand why this question may have been overlooked. Feminists are principally concerned with getting society to take seriously rape and sexual violence against women. By and large, our problem is certainly not that we are provide insufficient opportunities for accused rapists to get off. Many feminists, quite understandably, feel that society pays far greater attention and directs greater sympathy to the perpetrators of such violence than it does to the survivors of it. Devoting time and attention towards defending the accused seems to divert resources away from some of the most vulnerable women and straight into the hands of the patriarchy. Perhaps most importantly, treating the question of innocent accused rapists as one of paramount importance may have the effect of buttressing the all-too-common and all-too-dangerous perception that false accusations of rape are prevalent and predominant.

I am not unsympathetic to those concerns. And I want to stress that I do not write this post gleefully, as a “gotcha”, nor as the brave crusader leading feminists into waters they dare not tread. There are excellent reasons for why the feminist movement focuses on what it does. Yet, I feel like the question I pose is an important one for several reasons. First, and obviously, there are some false accusations out there; ideally, having theory and practice available to handle such situations will not be confused with endorsing that situation as paradigmatic. Second, believing that a rape happened is not the same thing as believing that the particular person charged is the guilty party. Remembering that rape prosecutions are part of the criminal justice system writ large, we cannot ignore the racial aspects inherent in this discourse. The racial inequities present in all parts of the criminal justice systems surely are just as extant (if not more so) in rape cases as they are anywhere else. The gap in the theory that currently exists does not fall equally—like so many other things, it disproportionately affects members of subordinated races and classes. Third, not providing avenues for rape defense that are consonant with feminist conceptions of justice drives the accused into the arms of our enemies. We do not expect the guilty, much less the innocent, to forfeit their defense against criminal charge; if the only viable defense procedure is one that denigrates and degrades women, then that is the one they will use. Fourth, perhaps most abstractly, not theorizing in this area makes us the enemy for a class of people which—for better or for worse—has significant social visibility. People who see a given institution or community clamoring for their criminal conviction, without providing any hearing or consideration to their protestations of innocence, will quite understandably be hostile to that institution or community. The American community, to stress, is not clamoring to convict the perpetrators of sexual violence. But insofar as the feminist community only speaks to guilt and not innocence, it can reasonably be viewed in this manner. People who are falsely accused of crimes have (fairly, I think) a lot of moral force in American political discourse. We do not want them devoting that power towards dismantling the feminist project. Bluntly, I don’t think our footing is solid enough to withstand the assault.

Depending on how cynical one is, one may not believe that any theoretical feminist-friendly rape defense will be use often, if at all. This, I submit, is not relevant. While I do think that there is someone, somewhere, would want to defend himself against rape charges without contributing to the perpetuation of patriarchal hierarchy, the utilization of the defense is only part of its function. Also, and equally, it serves as a presented substitute for the status quo. Judges are not going to sustain objections to illegitimate defense tactics if there is no known alternative way for the accused to defend himself. Our norms regarding a fair trial and innocent until proven guilty require the judiciary to leave open some mechanism by which the accused can plead his case. Without alternative defense procedures, the current set appears to be inevitable, inalterable, and unchangeable. Working to develop a rape defense strategy that is both feminist and viable will put a crack in that wall. I do not mean we should in any way abandon our stance as protectors and advocates for the survivors of sexual violence. But the status quo is serving nobody’s interests. We need to step beyond comfortable turf here, if we are to make progress, and create a justice system that convicts the guilty, frees the innocent, and protects the dignity of all.

Two further notes:

1) For purposes of this discussion, what difference does it make whether the person proclaiming his innocence is a) truly “the wrong guy”—he never met the accuser, b) concedes having sex with the accuser, but argues it was consensual, or c) simply lying?

2) What do we do when unambiguously guilty parties use the projected defense? Part of its purpose, recall, is to mitigate the effects of defense tactics that turn upon further denigrating or marginalizing women. That won’t occur if guilty parties do not see the tactic as viable. Yet, the prospect that a “feminist” project may allow guilty rapists to go free is repellent. Is there any way around this?

Try Incarcerex!

Bwahahaha. Slash: sad.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Deathly Hallows Review


The final chapter of what arguably is the biggest literary event since the Bible is upon us, in the form of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. With a legion of die-hard fans ready to snap up millions of copies on the day (hour, moment) of release, there was a stronger than normal risk of let down. But while shaky at some of the seams and an ending that feels just a little bit forced, altogether Rowling has put together a quite satisfying and pleasurable finale to her seven part extravaganza.

Hallows continues right where Book Six left off with the death of Albus Dumbledore. While much has been spoken about the growing darkness of the series, the fact remains that Rowling has generally shied away from killing off any characters that are too close to the reader’s heart—in this, Dumbledore and Sirius Black are the lone exceptions. This poses a problem—the purpose in eliminating Harry’s mentor figures is to reinforce the sentiment that he is completely alone, and must face the threat of Voldemort himself, yet unless the series was to take a serious change in tone, Ron and Hermione will be at Harry’s side throughout his quest. Rowling is left in a bit of a bind, forced to isolate Harry without harming those closest to him. However, her solution to this dilemma is masterful. As any boxing fan knows, the most severe injuries are not done with the highlight reel headshots, but rather are suffered from an accumulation of solid but unspectacular punches. This is a lesson Rowling has learned well, and brought into being with the elimination of Harry’s owl, wand, and his house-elf friend Dobby. Three of Harry’s oldest links to the wizarding world, their absence has much the same effect as if she had gone for the big name slaughter, while also being far more subtle work (indeed, Ron’s brief departure, intended to be an emotional swing for the fences, ended up affecting me far less). The flip side of this is the early resolution of some of Harry’s more minor feuds—winning Kreacher’s loyalty, reconciling with Dudley, and even coming to terms with Malfoy sharpened the focus of the book to where it belonged—the ultimate confrontation between Harry and Voldemort.

On the other hand, the action sequences seem just barely under Rowling’s control, as if she is holding the book together with both hands. This created an unfortunate whiplash effect—pages upon pages of relatively slow reading, punctuated by occasional outbreaks of pure anarchy. In many of the most intense sequences, it was difficult to follow exactly what was happening, and I had to reread passages two or three times to ascertain what exactly had happened. This led to one of my more peculiar reactions—aversion to the book for fear of the film. I noted in my review of the Order of the Phoenix movie that, at its climatic moments, it was closer to a Final Fantasy boss fight than actual cinema, and Book Seven has many, many moments that seem ripe for CGI hell. There were too many moments where too much was happening, and Rowling’s skills were not up to the task of keeping it all straight and clear. This was an unfortunate distraction, and one that will, undoubtedly, be magnified on the big screen.

But in a large part, Hallows benefits by standing on the shoulders of its gigantic predecessors. The book sags a bit in the middle, but Harry Potter is a large enough object to exert its own gravitational pull, dragging the reader along simply because she must know how it ends. Indeed, the entire book is in some sense window dressing for the conclusion. That’s the part we care about, and that’s the part on which the book will be judged. In this, I say that Rowling gets an A on the picture and a C+ on the details. Snape had surprisingly little face time, but his abiding love for Lily Potter was extremely well-presented, emotionally moving, and did an excellent job tying together a great many of the loose ends in Snape (and Dumbledore’s) behavior (admittedly, I could be clouded by pride here—I predicted this ending nearly as soon as I’d finished Half-Blood Prince). For an ending that focused so much on Lily’s childhood, however, far too little attention was paid to Petunia’s character. Voldemort, too, was—if I dare use the term—humanized in the end, which was an excellent addition that I was not expecting. And finally, the arcs of the Malfoy family were masterfully completed. While many foresaw Draco’s turn—if not to good, than away from evil—few would have predicted the behavior and starring role of his parents. This set the stage for a truly first-rate conclusion.

But in the particulars, Rowling’s magic fades just a bit. In part, this is due to the aforementioned problem with action sequences—the final battle was nearly Lord of the Rings-esque in its scope and fury, and it perpetually felt ready to burst through its seams and devolve into utter chaos. But more importantly, the ultimate resolution simply doesn’t feel natural or proper—as if the author lost her nerve at the very end. Rowling says that a character that was meant to die got a reprieve, and it shows. I would say that the lucky boy is Harry (the circumstances that led to his survival felt distinctly coerced into being), but for the fact that Hagrid is left alive for entirely inexplicable reasons—literally, the impression is that she changed her mind after the fact and hastily changed a few sentences in Microsoft Word. Ultimately, the entire scene could have used a bit more daring on Rowling’s part—whether to kill her main character, or murder a wider array of the familiar faces from the book (50 deaths in the Hogwarts battle, and only a half-dozen are worth mentioning?), or show a bit more panic in Harry’s steely resolve (look to Frodo for advice on how to pull this off), or something that would dissipate the persistent sense that she played down the ending she really wanted so as to not frighten the children.

Finally, I object to the fact that the close doesn’t really provide closure. Perhaps this is unavoidable—fans such as I do not want such a magical series to finish. But if this is the end, than Rowling should provide us with a little bit more wrap-up than the tiny meager epilogue. Geek that I am, I would have enjoyed a “where are they now” for the whole cast of characters, but I don’t feel out of line in asking for more than what I received. For example, Dolores Umbridge, incredibly, manages to become even more evil and loathsome in this book than she was in Book Five, yet there is no indication as to her ultimate fate (I was hoping that this would be where Harry snapped—torturing and/or killing the little toad. Nobody would blame him, and it would provide a nice break from his grim, heroic, and incredibly monotonous determination). The deaths of Lupin and Peter Pettigrew were surprisingly anti-climatic—especially given that they represented the last surviving members of James Potters’ old crew. Meanwhile, the orphaning of Ted Tonks felt like a cheap effort to replicate Harry’s experience all over again. I only pray that this isn’t the opening to the worst sequel/spin-off idea ever.

So the final verdict? Hallows is definitely better than the two low points in the series: Chamber of Secrets and Order of the Phoenix. After that, however, it becomes murky. A significant amount of its appeal, tension, and suspense were built by the efforts of its predecessors. Where Hallows is forced to stand on its own two feet, it tends to stumble. However, it does a stellar job tying up and reconciling the myriad loose threads Rowling had created along the way. The final book in the series, I feel, was never meant to be read stand-alone—it was intended to be and should be judged solely as a crystallization of that which came before it. In this, Rowling did a fine job, and certainly, nobody will finish the Harry Potter series feeling cheated.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Update from Massachusetts

I briefly have internet access, so I'm just updating to reassure y'all that I am alive, and that I finished Harry Potter in five lovely hours of reading. It was fantastic. I'll review it in full when I get back.