On CNN from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, The Root Politics Editor Jason Johnson discusses the fallout from Melania Trump’s convention speech and accusations that she plagiarized from Michelle Obama.
Think fast – what event would bring together Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, “The Wire” and “Homicide” creator David Simon, “Orange is The New Black” creator Piper Kerman, Eric Holder, Rick Perry, the Koch Brothers AND the ACLU in one room?
I couldn’t think of one either, until I attended the Bipartisan Summit for Criminal Justice reform held in Washington D.C. on Thursday. The event, brought together some of the most politically disparate and oppositional forces in American politics, who on this particular issue, have finally come to an agreement. America’s criminal justice system is broken, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to finally do something about it.
“This was such a ripe moment for this, there was a vacuum and we filled it” says Jessica Jackson the national director of #CUT50, an organization dedicated to cutting the nation’s incarcerated population by 50% over the next decade.
The conference itself was the brainchild of political polar opposites Newt Gingrich and Van Jones. After battling each other for over a year on CNN’s “Crossfire,” the two only agreed on one issue: America’s incarceration rate was too high. Jackson refers to it as their “CeaseFire” moment. What initially began as small lunch of maybe 100 people, grew into a conference of over 600 including sponsors and speakers from the White House, FreedomWorks and the Center for American Progress.
How Did we Get Here ?
When politicians on the right are still doing legislative backflips to keep the death penalty and liberals are afraid of being “Dukakis Soft” on crime, how did something like incarceration move the political will? Money.
“Governors of states are looking at the budgets and they can’t balance. Prisons are #1 in the budget and schools are usually 17th.” Says Jackson. “Its impossible in a recession to balance budgets when you’re spending this much on incarceration. The narrative is changing, it’s not just “those people” who are going to prison.”
The financial costs of imprisoning the U.S. population at a rate similar to apartheid South Africa is hitting this nation’s “laboratories of democracy” in the pocketbook. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal spoke about how it costs almost $19,000 a year to maintain a person in juvenile detention. Former Texas governor Rick Perry spoke about how building and maintaining prisons was a serious drain on state budgets. What’s more, even the costs associated with police misconduct and brutality, in the form of lawsuits, fines and settlements are bringing the left and right together to restructure how law enforcement occurs.
What Does Bipartisanship Look Like?
The solutions offered at the conference, certainly by the higher profile speakers like Eric Holder and Mark Holden, senior counsel for Koch Industries, were varied but made a tremendous amount of sense and the applause didn’t have even a hint of partisan bias. Via video conference Rick Perry spoke about closing down prisons and spending more money on prevention and specialized criminal courts to deal with non-violent offenders.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal literally got choked up on stage talking about how much drug courts for non-violent offenders were cutting down incarceration rates and putting people back on the right path. “If you ever run out of material for a good sermon,” he started slowly. “Go to a drug court graduation. Those people, they may not look like much, but when they graduate, they are more proud than probably anybody in this room was at college graduation.”
Several leaders talked about “Ban the Box” initiatives in states, where state job applications are no longer allowed to have the “have you ever committed a felony” check box, something that literally keeps thousands of convicts trying to re-enter society from obtaining even the lowest level jobs.
“Orange is The New Black” creator Piper Kerman discussed the challenges of re-entry for women, and the need for stronger communities both in and out of incarceration for reform. David Simon creator of “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “The Wire” and “Treme,” spoke both to the audience as a whole and then did a sit down discussion with President Obama about prison reform. He eloquently pointed out that the drug war had ruined two generations of police, by focusing training on getting arrests as opposed to actually solving crime. Throwing a bunch of guys up against a wall and emptying their pockets doesn’t solve crimes, it just fills prisons.
“The arrest rates for rape, robbery, murder are going down, and the one thing that makes cities safer is competent retroactive investigation of felonies.” Simon said to a nodding president Obama.
“But to do that you have to use and not be used by informants, you have to know how to testify in court, you have to write a search warrant that will hold up.”
While the actual number of rapes, robberies and murders in America have gone down in the last two decades, the clearance rate of solving these crimes has dropped by almost 10 percent.
It wasn’t a complete love fest at the event. There was an odd tension when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took the stage to introduce David Simon and essentially endorsed “Stop and Frisk” policies. This was followed by nervous laughter when Gingrich joked that he was looking forward to Eric Holder returning to private sector as soon as possible.
Over the last 6 years we Americans have had to suffer through some of the most rancorous political dialogue in modern American history, bolstered by an unfettered explosion of money being pumped into politics by private sources dedicated to demonizing all opposing ideologies.
Moderator Van Jones joked that there were several conference attendees who were on YouTube decrying him as a communist and anti-American. And yet despite this, a room full of power, money and strong ideas felt like real change in America. People left the conference with work to do and new ideas to implement at the state level rather than just business cards and brochures.
I don’t know if I believe that the U.S. prison population will be cut by 50 percent by 2025, but I do know that for the first time in years I actually believe Republicans and Democrats, at least the ones in that room, are equally committed to trying.
This article originally appeared online at NBC BLK.
The 19th century American economy was pretty lousy, especially in the slave holding southern states. Over 600 banks failed between 1836 and 1851, the Mexican American War didn’t help and the cotton market had collapsed. Some economists speculated that the slave economy of the South just wasn’t an effective system anymore and that fundamental changes might need to be made. But renowned slave physician Samuel A. Cartwright had other ideas.
In his 1851 book Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race he argued that runaway slaves (a disease he dubbed Draeptomania) was the cause of many of the South’s economic troubles. If slave owners would only work to eliminate that disease along with slaves’ lack of a work ethic (which he dubbed Dysaesthesia Aethiopica) the economy would work out fine.
Cartwright’s diagnosis of the South’s financial woes was certainly a lot more palatable than a wholesale evaluation of southern economic policy. Even though it was 150 years ago, this attitude hasn’t changed much in America, which goes a long way in explaining a new WSJ/NBC poll that shows that most Americans think welfare is the biggest reason for continuing poverty in America.
Which of the following reasons do you think is most responsible for the continuing problem of poverty: (RANDOMIZE) lack of government funding and programs, the lack of job opportunities, racial discrimination, the breakdown of families, drugs, the lack of a work ethic, the lack of good educational opportunities, or too much government welfare that prevents initiative?
|Too much government welfare that prevents initiative||
|Lack of job opportunities……………………………………………||
|Lack of good educational opportunities…………………….||
|Breakdown of families……………………………………………….||
|Lack of work ethic………………………………………………………||
|Lack of government funding………………………………………||
|Other (vol.) ………………………………………………………………..||
|All equally (vol.) ………………………………………………………..||
Digging into the numbers it is not surprising that during an extended period of economic uncertainty, a majority of Americans, and mostly white Americans, think that welfare is the persistent cause of poverty. Why?
Welfare myths more powerful than the facts
All you have to do is unpack the question and consider the racial and economic history of the United States.
First, most social science research shows that to white Americans welfare automatically conjures up images of lazy promiscuous black women in the inner city, popping out babies like rabbits and turning government cheese vouchers into gold chains and plasma screen televisions.
Consequently for many Americans any question about welfare and the economy is really a question about race. This is not new, but in fact a longstanding narrative in American politics where during times of economic stress business and political elites have ‘protected’ the majority of whites from swallowing the harsh realities of American economics with a sugary dose of racial distraction.
The actual facts about welfare have always been pretty clear; whites and children are the greatest recipients and beneficiaries of various programs, but that’s not good fodder for talk radio. From the beginning of government sponsored welfare programs, discriminatory policies were enacted to keep blacks off the rolls (like excluding farm workers and domestics in the 1950’s) and even once those policies were removed media and politicians, especially on the right, insisted on maintaining the myth that the face of poverty in America was a black thing.
Politicians have played the welfare card
During times of economic hardship African-Americans make easy scapegoats, because it’s easier for many whites to digest than economic truth. The U.S. economy in the 1970’s was trashed by the oil crisis, Vietnam and failing manufacturing. But Ronald Reagan chose to pin the blame on black ‘welfare queens’ in the inner city who refused to work. The Gipper didn’t come up with that imagery, he just picked up that football and ran with it, like so many others since.
Inside Bill Clinton’s campaign war room his advisor James Carville famously posted a sign “It’s the economy, stupid” but outside on the 1992 campaign trail he promised America that he would “end welfare as we know it” to fix the economy. Black welfare moms were certainly an easier target than the Savings & Loans bank lobby.
In the 2000’s it seemed like the racial/welfare narrative might change when the face of economic graft and criminality became Enron’s Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff, the housing crisis and the bank bailout. Even conservative white America began to wonder if these captains of industry that were really just pirates in disguise were a bigger problem than welfare cheats.
But it didn’t last; by the 2012 GOP primary we were back to Rick Santorum saying he didn’t want to give white money to black people and Newt Gingrich saying blacks should demand paychecks instead of food stamps. It doesn’t matter that food stamp rolls swelled with white people during the recession, blacks on welfare was a safer target. All of which brings us back to the WSJ/NBC poll.
We should not be surprised that many whites think welfare/ black laziness is the cause of poverty in the United States; politicians and elites have been selling that snake oil during every economic downturn for 100 years no matter what the facts are.
Way back in 1851 a northern writer satirically pointed out that many European indentured servants ran away from their masters too, and perhaps Cartwright’s “draeptomania” diagnosis wasn’t a black disease but a white one as well. That perhaps the larger issue was abusive working conditions and not mental illness. Nobody wanted to listen to him back then either, just like for today’s WSJ/NBC respondents blaming victims is much easier than blaming the system.
This article originally appeared online at TheGrio.com.
Hiram College professor Jason Johnson was interviewed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation show Connect with Mark Kelley about the Alabama and Mississippi Republican presidential primaries.
Click here to watch Dr. Jason Johnson’s appearance on Connect with Mark Kelley. The interview begins at the 41:10 minute mark.
Professor Jason Johnson appeared on Headline News with Robin Meade to discuss Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum’s victories in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries.