Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Jim Crow, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration: Issues that need to be discussed

By Barbara J. Miner

"More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began."
— Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

The Derek Williams homicide is no longer front-page news. But that doesn’t mean that all-important issues have disappeared about the role of the police and our criminal justice system in communities of color.
Those concerns need to be discussed, even as the federal investigations continue of Williams’ death and possible patterns of civil rights violations.
The police serve an undeniable and all-important function: to serve the community and to protect citizens from crime. But it would be naïve to ignore problems in our criminal justice system that beset not just Milwaukee but urban areas across the country.
What does it mean that more African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War?
Has our criminal justice system, particularly in urban areas, become a sophisticated form of control rather than protection? To what extent might our criminal justice system contribute to, rather than ameliorate, neighborhood dysfunction in poor communities of color?
These are uncomfortable and disturbing realities, and go far beyond the behavior of any single police office or police chief, or indeed of any one city. They involve much deeper and broader policy decisions at the federal, state and local level.
A national discussion is needed, but one that also reaches into every neighborhood of every city. Including Milwaukee.

If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to read Michelle Alexander’s book: The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Whether you agree with her or not, her perspective cannot be ignored.
As Alexander notes in her introduction:
What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of foot stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service — are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.
Among other things, Alexander’s book dissects the repercussions of the painfully misnamed War on Drugs in the 1980s and 1990s — a war that fueled a rise in imprisonment unmatched in human history. By the 21st Century, it became impossible to ignore that the War on Drugs had also morphed into a war on urban communities of color.
By 2005, the United States held roughly 25 percent of the world’s inmates, with an incarceration rate that dwarfed all other country. As Alexander notes in her book, most of the drug users and dealers in the United States are white. Yet roughly two-thirds of those imprisoned for drug offenses have been Black or Latino.
A year ago, former President Jimmy Carter called for an end to the global drug war. In a New York Times opinion, he noted that just before he left office in 1980, there 500,000 people incarcerated in America. “At the end of 2009 the number was nearly 2.3 million,” he wrote. 
Milwaukee has not been immune to these national realities, and has become a leader in Black incarceration. In 2005, for instance, Wisconsin had the second highest rate of Black incarceration in the country, fueled by Milwaukee statistics. The rate was more than ten times the rate for whites.
The rise of mass incarceration has significantly impacted Milwaukee’s most-impoverished families and neighborhoods. A 2009 report from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute notes that most of the jailed adults in Milwaukee County are in their 20s and 30s — prime working years. African American males particularly affected.
“The absence of many males of prime workforce age and the numbers of men incarcerated and released from state correctional facilities each year have tremendous impact on the earnings and stability of families,” the report states.
The non-profit, non-partisan Sentencing Project notes that changes in sentencing law and policy, not increases in crime rates, explain most of the increase in the prison population in recent decades.
The realities of our criminal justice system “raises a moral problem that we cannot avoid,” argues Glenn C. Loury, a professor of social sciences at Brown University, in his book Race, Incarceration, and American Values. “…We ought to ask ourselves two questions: Just what manner of people are we Americans? And in light of this, what are our obligations to our fellow citizens — even those who break our laws?”
Regardless of what happens in the Derek Williams case, such questions won’t go away
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Romney's disastrous education agenda: Lessons from Milwaukee

By Barbara J. Miner

When I hear Mitt Romney’s seductive rhetoric about school choice, I think back to the beginning of Milwaukee’s voucher program — the country’s largest and oldest voucher initiative.

In particular, I remember Nov. 14, 1990. On that day, I learned an important lesson on the difference between rhetoric and reality.
I dropped my two daughters off at day care and began my job at the Milwaukee Journal. The city editor, a gray-haired Irishman who filled every stereotype of the gruff newshound, called me over. I was to do an on-the-scenes report at a private school receiving publicly funded tuition vouchers.
Like most people, I hadn’t given much thought to this new and unique initiative. Vouchers had been promoted as “school choice” for poor black kids, and seemed a worthwhile experiment.
I grabbed my reporter’s notebook and headed to the school. I sat in on some classes, which seemed little different than at schools across the city. But teachers approached me in the hallways with vague stories of turmoil and advised I attend a parent meeting the following evening.
I went to the meeting, only to be blocked by a somewhat beefy lawyer. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that it was a private school and I would not be allowed to attend the meeting.
I huffed and I puffed, but the lawyer was right. Private schools do not have to follow Wisconsin’s open meetings and records laws.
I never found out what happened at the meeting, although within a few weeks the teaching staff was slashed by a third and the principal was gone.
I did, however, learn the first of many lessons about school vouchers. In essence, vouchers are a mechanism to funnel public dollars into private schools. They are an abandonment of both public education and our country’s democratic ideals.
And now we have Romney promising a national voucher plan to save American education.
Romney knows the term “voucher” is politically toxic, so instead he uses the rhetoric of “choice.” The heart of Romney’s agenda: students will be able to use federal education dollars to attend any school—public or private, religious or non-sectarian, charter or digital.
“I want the kids that are getting federal dollars … to be able to go to the school of their choice,” Romney said at the first presidential debate. It was not a new position, first outlined in his education white paper last May. At the GOP convention, school choice was the only K-12 education reform mentioned in Romney’s acceptance speech.
Romney’s plan would launch an unprecedented shift of federal dollars into private schools. It would also be an about face from demands for increased accountability. By their very nature, private schools do not have to follow the same requirements as public schools in releasing information.
Milwaukee’s program has long been a model for other cities and state programs, from Cleveland, to New Orleans, Florida, and Indiana. Beginning in 1990 with 300 students in seven non-sectarian schools, by 2012 vouchers had expanded to almost 23,000 students in more than 100 private schools, most of them religious-based. In size, the voucher program now rivals Wisconsin’s largest school districts, but with minimal public accountability or oversight.
For more than twenty years, supporters of vouchers for private schools have had a chance to prove their assertion that the marketplace and parental choice are the bedrocks of educational success, that unions and government bureaucracy are the enemies of reform, and that vouchers will lead to increased academic achievement.
After two decades and more than $1.27 billion in public funding, however, the Milwaukee voucher program’s enticing promises have not materialized.
The first apples-to-apples comparison between Milwaukee’s private voucher and public schools wasn’t until 2010, a testament to how difficult it is to demand public transparency from private schools. State test results showed that students in private voucher schools performed significantly worse in math and about the same in reading as their public school counterparts. Recent results have been similar.
Nor has Milwaukee’s voucher program met the promise of increased parental satisfaction. A longitudinal study on achievement, in its final report, noted that only17.5 percent of the voucher students remained in a voucher school after five years. The comparable figure for the public schools was 43.5 percent.
Fundamentally, however, the issue of school vouchers goes beyond education achievement and parent preference. Above all, vouchers are an abandonment of this country’s commitment to public schools—a commitment rooted in an understanding that strong democratic institutions require a citizenry educated not just in the three Rs but also in their civic responsibilities.
Every state constitution in the country enshrines the right to a free and public education for all children—an honor that is not bestowed on other requisites for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, whether housing or employment or healthcare.
In the current debates on vouchers, there is strikingly little discussion of the relationship between democratic values, civic responsibility, and public education. Instead, education is treated as a mere commodity, with parents and children reduced to mere consumers.
Do our urban public school systems have deep-seated problems? Without a doubt. But at the end of the day, they are the only institutions with the commitment, capacity, and legal obligation to teach all children.
In Milwaukee, vouchers have created separate and unequal school systems. The education of students with special educational needs is just one example. The percentage of special ed students in Milwaukee’s public schools is about 20 percent. At the private voucher schools, the comparable figure is less than 2 percent.
“All together, the 102 voucher schools are serving a special education population that is equal to what the Milwaukee Public Schools serves in just one of its district schools: Hamilton High School,” Milwaukee superintendent Gregory Thornton noted last year.
Vouchers were promoted in the 1990s as a way to help poor black children escape failing schools. But that rhetoric has disappeared in Milwaukee. Voucher supporters have expanded vouchers to middle-income families and have made clear they want to make vouchers available to all, including millionaires. Vouchers for poor children was just a first step.
For more than twenty years, I have listened to the voucher movement’s seductive rhetoric of “choice” and “parent power.” If I didn’t know better, I might proclaim, “Sign me up today!”
Milwaukee, however, has more than two decades of reality-based vouchers. The lesson from this heartland city?
Vouchers are a vehicle to funnel tax dollars into private schools. Using the false promise of “choice,” they are an unabashed abandonment of public education and of our hopes for a vibrant democracy.
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This opinion originally appeared on Common Dreams, a web-based, non-profit news center created in 1997 to promote the common good.

Monday, October 15, 2012

What does Flynn really believe about the role of the police in Milwaukee?

By Barbara J. Miner

The Student Association of UW Milwaukee took out a half-page ad in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Monday that took Police Chief Edward Flynn to task for recent comments describing UWM students as “guests.”
The ad did not mention Derek Williams. But it’s impossible to reflect on the tensions between Flynn and the student association without seeing a link between the two issues.
Thus far, I have been an agnostic on whether Flynn should resign. One reason is that Milwaukee’s ongoing problems in police/community relations — especially in the African American community — go far deeper than the temperament and attitude of one man, even someone as powerful as the police chief.
Perhaps it’s also because, as someone who has a bit of an Irish temper, I understand that comments in the heat of the moment do not always reflect one’s deeper beliefs.
Which is why Flynn’s comments on UWM students as “guests” are so troublesome. They were not made in the heat of the moment, but rather as part of a lengthy letter explaining his view of the role of the police in dealing with rowdy students and responding to neighborhood complaints of being kept awake at night.
What’s more, given that the comments came from the chief, on official letterhead, and must have been proofread and approved by others, Flynn’s statements can be seen as official police department policy.
In his letter, Flynn wrote: “I view your students as ‘guests’, since most do not own property in Milwaukee and they do not directly contribute to the tax base. As guests, they should be exhibiting appropriate conduct. I will stand firm in representing the rights of city residents who deserve quality of life. They should not be expected to endure sleepless nights every weekend.”
The comments are off-base on so many levels, not the least of which is lumping together the university’s 30,000-plus students and those who party hard, get drunk and play loud music. And the idea that only those who own property contribute to the city’s tax base is absurd.
Most disconcerting is Flynn’s seeming belief that in the City of Milwaukee, owning property is essential to full citizenship. Flynn’s comments reveal a shallow understanding both of citizenship and of U.S. history.
Since our nation’s founding, there have been seminal struggles to expand the scope of those granted the rights and responsibilities of citizenship — struggles that have shaped and defined our democracy.
Flynn’s views can be seen as less enlightened than even those who owned slaves; they hark back to the 18th Century when the Constitution granted the right to vote only to white men who owned property. (By the 1850s, most property restrictions for voting had been lifted for white men. It took the Civil War to extend voting rights to African Americans, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to eliminate Jim Crow restrictions on voting. Women did not get the right to vote until 1920.)
Flynn’s comments also run the risk of making it seem that police responsibilities to serve and protect extend only to property-owning citizens. That’s a frightening thought, with repercussions that go far beyond police policies toward students on the east side. What, for instance, might it say about protecting and safeguarding undocumented men, women and children on the south side? Or renters in the central city? Or homeless people who sleep under city bridges?
Problems with police/community relations in Milwaukee certainly predate Flynn. But at the same time, a police chief shouldn’t inflame tensions and divisions. And s/he certainly should make clear that all the people of Milwaukee, whether or not they own property and exhibit “appropriate” behavior, are worthy of police respect and protection.
When he was first hired, Flynn seemed to understand the need to improve ties with the community. But his recent conduct makes one wonder. What does Flynn truly believe about the role of the police in Milwaukee? 
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Tonight's vice-presidential debate: A Catholic smackdown?

By Barbara J. Miner

One thing is certain about tonight’s vice presidential debate.
A Catholic will win.
Some clever headline writers are calling the debate “A Catholic smackdown.” But far more is stake than a tussle between two candidates.
The gulf between the policies of Joe Biden and Paul Ryan reflects a divide both within this country and within the Catholic Church. Should the priority be placed on issues such as abortion and contraception, as many bishops prefer, or on demands for social justice?
On Wednesday Oct. 10, a diverse group of more than 100 theologians and academics released a sharp critique of Ryan’s budget.
The critique is titled “On All of Our Shoulders — a reference to Ryan’s favorite author, Ayn Rand, whose book “Atlas Shrugged” put forth a libertarian perspective of Atlas and his mythological task to carry the world on his shoulders. (Yes, this all gets a bit thick, but what do you expect from Catholic theologians?)
The statement is not a quick read, but the basic point is clear in the opening sentences:
We write as Catholic theologians, academics and ministers concerned for our nation and for the integrity of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. We write to hold up aspects of the Church's social doctrine that are profoundly relevant to the challenges our nation faces at this moment in history, yet are in danger of being ignored. At a moment when the ideas of Atlas Shrugged influence public debate and policy, we write to proclaim the Catholic truth that the stewardship of common good rests upon all of our shoulders together. This is a responsibility we dare not shrug. We fulfill this obligation in myriad ways, but indispensibly among them, through the policies of our government. We highlight these principles of the Church's social doctrine in the hope that their substance will better influence our political and policy debates.
And, just to be clear. the theologians go on to state: “Our concern is that Ryan and his Catholic supporters, must be informed … that some of his positions are fundamentally at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

A Catholic critique of Ryan’s budget proposals first surfaced in the popular media during the “Nuns on the Bus” multi-state tour last summer to highlight the nuns’ work on behalf of poor people and to organize against Ryan’s budget. 
And now there is the “Ohio Nuns on the Bus.”
Beginning Oct. 15, Catholic nuns in Ohio will start a 1,000-mile tour throughout the state to call for “solidarity, justice and the common good. And to supported “a faithful budget that affirms the life of all God’s children — not just the wealthiest few.”
As Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr notes, “It’s no accident that the nuns are waging their Ohio campaign against the Ryan budget during the week of the vice presidential debate.” 
“Who better than a group of women who have consecrated their lives to the Almighty to remind us that our decisions in November have ethical consequences?” he asks.
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This blog is cross-posted at my blog, “View from the Heartland: Honoring the Wisconsin tradition of common decency and progressive politics.” At the blog, www.barbarajminer.blogspot.com/, you can also sign up for email notifications.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Second Vatican Council: 50 years later, the fight continues for the soul of the Catholic Church

By Barbara J. Miner
When I read that Thursday Oct. 11 marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, I immediately was lost in memories.
Most of all, I remember Pope John XXIII, a kind-looking man who held saint-like status in my family, school and parish. I can still see in my mind’s eye the wall plate of John XXIII that hung in many a Catholic home — often next to a similar plate of John F. Kennedy.
I grew up in an all-encompassing Catholic world, which was typical for most Milwaukee Catholics in the 1950s. But thanks to Vatican II, which lasted from 1962-65, the church of my youth embraced the world in all its complexities and contradictions.
Nuns marched in civil rights protests, priests burned draft files to protest the Vietnam War, girls served at mass. Above all, everyone was talking about what it meant to be a Catholic in the world, not apart from it. A new word — ecumenical — became as important a concept as transubstantiation.
When Pope John XXIII explained why he called the Second Vatican Council, he talked of the church’s need to “open the windows and let in the fresh air.” I was too young to understand the liturgical debates swirling around the council. But I caught that spirit of change, and felt proud to be a Catholic.
Later, at least as far as the church was concerned, I lost that spirit. So did the church hierarchy. Obedience replaced dialogue, birth control became more important than social justice, and the Vatican reigned in those who questioned that the Pope’s word is God’s word.
Like many people raised Catholic, I rarely go to church anymore except on Christmas and, perhaps, Easter. But I still enjoy the Catholic Church’s unrivaled ability to blend ritual, pageantry and music, and I love the beauty of midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
But pick any number of issues — gay marriage, women’s rights, top-down church mandates — and the church of my youth is breathing stagnant air.
Faced with the seeming unanimity of the church hierarchy, I have tended to see the church as a monolith. But thanks to the Internet, it doesn’t take long to find out that the Catholic Church is engulfed by controversy. The spirit of John XXIII and Vatican II is far from dead.
Changing Demographics and Renewed Calls for Reform

One of the many realities facing the church is its changing demographics.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, 75 percent of the world’s Catholics lived in Europe and North America. By century’s end, the figure had dropped to 33 percent. By 2023, non-Hispanic whites will account for only 20 percent of the world’s Catholics.
What has been the Vatican’s response? To further centralize power and decision-making.
“Unfortunately, these [demographic] changes are not yet evident in the leadership of the church,” notes an Oct. 15 article in America, a Jesuit magazine founded in 1909. “During the conclave of 2005, for example, Italian cardinals cast 19 votes, equivalent to the total number from Africa and Asia combined. But there are just 55 million Catholics in Italy while Africa and Asia are home to more than four times that number. The recent appointment of cardinals on the part of Pope Benedict XVI also appears to favor the northern hemisphere over those areas where the Catholic Church is growing.”
Within the United States, controversy within the church is most evident in the Vatican’s attempt to control Catholic nuns fighting for social justice and calling for dialogue. In the court of public opinion, the nuns are winning, hands down. But whether the nuns will win over the church hierarchy is another matter.
In July, Pope Benedict XVI named a staunch conservative, Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller of Germany, as the new head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Congregation is the historical successor to the Inquisition and wields considerable power.
Among other things, Muller will oversee the Vatican’s review of the Leadership Conference of Woman Religious, which represents 80 percent of U.S. nuns.
In a column in The National Catholic Reporter on July 16, reporter John L. Allen Jr (widely recognized as an astute observer of Vatican politics) reported that in a homily in April, Müller strongly rebuked reform-minded Germans. “Being Catholic means being united with the bishop and the priests.” Muller said. “Ravings against the truth of the faith and the unity of the church will not be tolerated.” 
The former head of the Maryknoll order, meanwhile, warns that Muller’s comments are symbolic of a wider campaign by the Vatican.
“Under the guise of a ‘Year of Faith,’ the Vatican has launched an all-out assault on any theology or interpretation of Vatican II,” writes John C. Sivalon, the former Superior General of Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. “The [Vatican II] Council that was declared to open the windows is now being reinterpreted as closed shutters, protecting the Church from the gale force winds of a world searching for spiritual authenticity. While said to be a time of renewal, the ‘Year of Faith’ is really dedicated to the idolatry of doctrine, power and hierarchy.”
It’s far from certain, however, that the Pope and his supporters will be able to stifle calls for reform.
On Oct. 9, just as a Synod of Bishops began meeting in Rome to focus on evangelization, a European reform group issued a challenge to the Vatican. As Allen of The National Catholic Reporter wrote:
“‘We Are Church,’ the most visible Catholic reform group in Europe, issued a new call for ‘profound renovations’ in church structures and its relationship to the world, including a more ‘collegial and democratic church’, ‘gender equity and the acceptance of diverse sexual orientations,’ and ‘the ordination of women and married people.’”
Clearly, the fight for the soul of the Catholic Church is far from over.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.