On driving.

On driving.

MARK SCHLERETH: Everybody’s done it — it’s depending — depending upon how much cheating you think it is. And again, I think to me it’s setting your cruise control in a 65 mile an hour zone at 72 and think “I’m not gonna get a ticket for that because nobody’s gonna give me a ticket for going, you know, 6 or 7 miles an hour over the speed limit.”

STEPHEN A. SMITH: Well, to touch on your last point, Mark Schlereth, as just a fun way of getting into it, most brothers that are behind the wheel, we anticipate we may get pulled over if we go seven miles over the speed limit. Let me just throw that out there as an aside.

— ESPN First Take Podcast, May 21st, 2015

When I was nineteen and visiting a high school buddy at his college, a cop tailed me for two miles, flashed his lights after I parked, then sauntered up and complimented me on my impeccable driving. I’d ferried a carload of friends down from Northwestern for the weekend, and by way of a “thanks for letting us crash on your couches” offering for my (twenty-one-year-old) buddy, we’d stopped at a liquor store to pick up a case of beer and a bottle of rum just after hitting town.

Unbeknownst to me, a recently-passed law made it illegal for minors to operate any motor vehicle being used to transport alcohol, even in the trunk1. Since I’d driven, then sat chatting in the car with a friend while our twenty-one-year-old companions ducked into the liquor store, the cop who spent his evenings idling on a ridge overlooking the parking lot (fighting crime one entrapment site at a time!) pegged me for an easy mark.

It’s true. I’m a privileged dude. I grew up in a wealthy suburb outside Indianapolis. At nineteen, I was having my first interaction with the police. I answered the cop’s questions because I naively thought that’s what you do, with the denouement being confiscation of our alcohol and citations — six hundred dollars all around — doled out to me, the underage driver, and my of-age friends, accomplices to the crime.

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that my friend riding shotty had a baggie with a quarter ounce of pot in his coat pocket. To my suddenly paranoid mind the whole car seemed to reek from the furtive smoking he’d done during our drive, but I was a wealthy-looking white kid — the cop yoinked our sack of booze from the trunk without asking to search the car.

I’m less oblivious now. My high school was pure Wonder Bread, roughly what you’d expect in a suburb full of Republican doctors and lawyers served by an illegally-bigoted real-estate association2. Big houses and pale bland robot kids. I had black friends in college, but my mild touch of Asperger’s meant I never noticed their treatment by the outside world. Hell, we were college kids. We mostly walked around campus or hung around the student housing co-op, smoking pot and playing chess. We rarely even saw the outside world together.

During graduate school my big-C Consciousness score bumped from dead zero to something I hope is at least passable. My brown-skinned colleagues were routinely belittled by their advisors, and there weren’t many of them, and all the janitors were black and Latino, and the verbal abuse showered upon them was worse. Very frustrating to see. Although it’s shameful that it took me so long to notice.

White-looking white dudes in this country are free to be placidly oblivious. Maybe a bit less easily now — shortly after I finished my Ph.D. the national media started giving some coverage to the most egregious police abuses, like murdering people in the street3 — but, given all the “War on Police” coverage rolling on Fox News4, it can’t be that hard to remain ignorant.

As far as my own blindness goes, I’m trying to atone. I’ve done a lot of reading lately; I went through twenty-three years of education without picking up a single book by Hurston, Baldwin, Ellison, or Morrison. I’d blame my teachers but, at some point, didn’t it become my own damn fault?

Still, better late than never. I teach now, twice a week at the local jail. I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners, an advocacy organization that sends free packages of books. I run a correspondence writing program for inmates across Indiana, hoping that I can help some of our nation’s most stigmatized citizens find an audience for their stories.

And I drive really, really slowly. Like 27 in 30 m.p.h. zones. Like consistently below the speed limit, even downhill. Because heartbreaking work from contemporary thinkers like Michelle Alexander got me thinking about the Fourth Amendment.

When it comes to harping about the Bill of Rights, Democrats yelp most about the First Amendment, Republicans about the Second … although Republicans will invoke the First, too, when it comes to their right to emblazon courthouses with religious iconography, or to deny pizza to homosexual weddings (only tasteless straight people would even consider serving greasebomb pizza at a wedding, but still), or to banish mandatory medical information from their “pregnancy crisis centers.” The First and Second Amendments bogart all the big press.

But it’s the Fourth Amendment that actually needs our help. Protection from unreasonable search and seizure. As you may have noticed, I have at times had non-zero quantities of marijuana on or around my person. My youthful indiscretions were less egregious than those of any sitting president of the last sixteen years, but they were certainly prosecutable offenses. And yet. I got to finish college, earn my Ph.D., marry, raise my children. No police officer thought to poke his nose into my pockets, cluck what have we here, and charge me for the eighth that I was holding. But just last month I sent a care package to a dude my age, my height, my weight, who has been in prison since he turned 19, six years of that in solitary, all stemming from a conviction of “possession with intent to sell” a very ordinary quantity of marijuana.

Dude has no beautiful wife. No beautiful life. I sent him, among other things, some erotic stories to read5. In his letter he apologized for even asking for them, but explained that after six years in solitary he felt so achingly lonely.

All of which he earned by being black. Caught with less pot than I’ve at times had in my own vehicle.

But he was searched. I was not.

In a world with real Fourth Amendment protections, he would’ve been safe. His life could’ve been like mine. He’s my age, my height, my weight! Except for more melanin and shorter dreads, his picture even looks like mine.

The heart of the problem is that you can’t do much in this country without a car. And the illustrious members of the Supreme Court have issued a series of rulings that cumulatively result in our Fourth Amendment rights evaporating almost as soon as we step into a car6. These are lucidly described in David Harris’s George Washington Law Review essay, “Car Wars: The Fourth Amendment’s Death on the Highway.” Unless you’re prone to high blood pressure or apoplectic rage, you should give it a read.

The Supreme Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment was designed to protect innocents. As soon as you break a law, you give up your rights. Doesn’t matter that incorrect use of a turn signal is totally unrelated to the likelihood you’re dealing drugs — once you slip up, any cop who wants can nab you. Question and answer time! Trawl for outstanding warrants time7! Stroll around your vehicle with the drug-sniffing dog time!

The tangle of laws on our roadways is brutal, too. At times it might seem impossible to know and follow them all. Worse, it is often literally impossible to follow them all.

That’s why white people should drive more slowly.

Almost every road has a posted maximum speed. In most states, if you drive one mile per hour above that limit, you’re breaking the law. Fourth Amendment rights? Gone!

I’ve got itchy feet. I listen to music in the car. I plan out stories in my head. What can I say? Sometimes my mind isn’t totally focused on the driving. So it’s pretty common for my speed to fluctuate a few miles per hour here and there. To stay consistently under the limit, I have to aim for something like eighty or ninety percent of the maximum speed. 27 m.p.h. in a 30, say. 49 in a 55. Then my slight moments of inattention won’t bump me over.

But most states’ vehicle codes also contain a clause stipulating that you are in violation of the law whenever you drive at a speed “that impedes or blocks the normal and reasonable movement of traffic.” 8 The normal movement of traffic in most places I’ve lived is about ten miles per hour above the posted limit, which means that any driver below the limit will be in technical violation of the “impeding traffic” clause9. Which means, again: Fourth Amendment rights? Gone! The courts have ruled that technical violation is all it takes. And, yes, I’ve been stopped for driving “suspiciously slowly.”

The driving habits of the majority ensure that there is no speed at which minority drivers will be safe from harassment.

You might wonder, am I ranting about all this just to protect criminals? After all, if a dude doesn’t have marijuana in his car, or coke, or pills in somebody else’s name, then he’s got nothing to fear. Right?

Let’s set aside the sheer degradation of being searched, being presumed to be and treated like a criminal, and simply point out that this supposition is incorrect. The innocent are not safe. From Douglas Husak’s Overcriminalization I learned that some states prohibit “the possession of paraphernalia — items used for a variety of purposes, such as storing or containing drugs. Defendants may be convicted without knowing that the items that qualify as paraphernalia are typically used to commit drug offenses.

This is by no means a toothless prohibition. Did you know that some people use soda straws to store or transport heroin? I didn’t. Not until I read about Tyrone Tomlin, who was arrested in 2014 in New York City — and beaten severely, causing irreparable brain damage, during his 21 days at Rikers — for possession of a soda straw. The soda in his other hand was insufficiently mitigating evidence to keep him safe and free.

Have you ever driven with a soda straw in your car?

Or, how about money?

Seems ridiculous that it would be illegal to have U.S. legal tender in your vehicle. But, for some people, it is. Why? Because money is sometimes used in drug transactions. Which means that if a police officer stops someone — perfectly legal whenever any stipulation of the vehicle code has been violated, which, given that every speed technically violates either the posted maximum or the “impeding traffic” clause on most roads, means roughly whenever the officer wants — and searches the car, and finds money, that money can be confiscated. Especially if the driver looks like someone who might’ve intended to use that money to buy drugs. Or if the driver looks like someone who might’ve earned that money by selling drugs. Basically, if the driver looks black.

Police officers have seen MTV. They’ve seen videos with young black men flashing bills and braggin’ ‘bout the bricks they moved to get ‘em. Doesn’t matter that these videos are fiction, that many were produced and disseminated by white people, that studies have shown that the vast majority of both drug users and drug dealers in this country are white10. Facts are trifling things compared to how people feel.

Without Fourth Amendment protections to contend with, police officers have enormous latitude to make their prejudices come true. If the police think a certain type of person looks like a criminal, they can focus their attentions on similar-looking people, which will lead, lo and behold, to the capture of many criminals who fit that description.

To me, this sounds unfair. But because the unfairness is visible only through aggregate statistics, the risk that any particular driver will be stopped, searched, and incarcerated unfairly is considered to be merely “conjectural” or “hypothetical.” No young black male can know in advance that he will be the unlucky driver discriminated against today. So the Supreme Court has ruled that individual citizens do not have standing to introduce these statistics into any court case, even though anyone glancing at the data can see that they’re unfair11.

I’ll admit, the stakes here may seem small. When you next find yourself behind the wheel, you might feel an urge to goose the engine, nudge over the legal limit, get where you’re going a little sooner. After all, as long as you personally are not a police officer unfairly targeting minority drivers, are you causing any harm?

Yes. I would argue that you are. By contributing to the “normal” flow of traffic above the designated limit, you preclude the existence of any legal speed. This is a harm we cause collectively. But there is more: by arriving at your destination early, you profit from injustice. Those who profit from injustice are tainted by it. As a white person grappling with these issues, I find these words from Jim Wallis’s America’s Original Sin particularly instructive:

White people in the United States have benefited from the structures of racism, whether or not they have ever committed a racist act, uttered a racist word, or had a racist thought (as unlikely as that is).  Just as surely as blacks suffer in a white society because they are black, whites benefit because they are white.  And if whites have profited from a racist system, we must try to change it.  To go along with racist institutions and structures such as the racialized criminal justice system, to obliviously accept the economic order as it is, and to just quietly go about our personal business within institutional racism is to participate in white racism.

Acting alone, neither you nor I can cure the ailments of our society. But each and every one of us, individually, can forgo those perquisites allotted to us unfairly. If you, like me, look white, you could choose to violate the speed limit. You would probably face no penalty. But others, through no fault of their own, do not have that choice. They pay for your privilege.

In a world where others are required to drive slowly, shouldn’t I?



1. Indiana Code 7.1-5-7-7 stipulates, among other things, that “It is a Class C misdemeanor for a minor to knowingly transport [an alcoholic beverage] on a public highway when not accompanied by at least one (1) of his parents or guardians.” In case you were wondering about the retrograde pronoun usage, an earlier passage of the legal code stipulates that “the masculine gender includes the feminine and [sic] where appropriate, the single number includes the plural.” Equivalent laws are on the books in several other states, such as Massachusetts, but for the life of me I can’t imagine that any of these laws has made the world a safer place.

2. Harsh words, but true. It’s rumored that a company in the area once issued permits for black employees to display on the outsides of their cars because the police, knowing that black people couldn’t possibly live there, would otherwise pull them over for a little casual harassment. As recently as 1996, a black state trooper was stopped a block from his own home because a cop thought it inconceivable that he belonged anywhere nearby. The Indianapolis chapter of the NAACP brought a class action suit — this was by no means an isolated incident — that was settled in 1999, at which point the local police department claimed they would no longer systematically target older cars and black- or brown-skinned drivers.

3. You could argue that Eric Garner’s death in the arms of Daniel Pantaleo was somehow accidental. But Walter Scott was clearly murdered. And these are only the men whose deaths, like horrifying low-res snuff films, were captured entirely on camera. Of the thousands of black men killed by police in the past few years, some hundred of them unarmed, it’s hard to believe — grand jury judgments aside — that no other instances constitute murder. I’d list names — they deserve remembrance — but do you realize how long that list would be?

Some of their names: 1999-2014.   2015.   2016 – present (unprocessed data).

4. Yes, the shootings in Dallas were frightening. And two officers were senselessly murdered in New York City. But the “War on Police” coverage began long before Dallas and has been incommensurate with the actual harms suffered by our men in blue. I’m not sure violence wreaked by one or two unhinged individuals constitutes a war. After the tragedy at Sandy Hook, nobody claimed there was a “War on Elementary School Children.”

5. Every prison has a unique set of regulations as to what type of books they’ll allow inmates to receive. Some prisons set a limit on quantity, others specify “no hardcovers,” or “no spiral bindings,” or, and this is trickiest for a volunteer-run organization struggling to send out free books, “no used.” This dude was at one of the “no used books, no hardcovers” facilities. Let me tell you, not many people have donated pristine paperback copies of My Secret Garden lately. I wound up sifting literotica.com for tasteful stories (I have no problem with Saxon-derived language, but no way am I sending anything with violence or the word “slutty” in it), then spending half an hour in front of our one-page-at-a-time-or-it-jams, single-sided-only printer to put together a forty-page pamphlet for him. Hopefully the guards let it through.

6. I’d like to blame this development on the usual suspects, the quintet of crusty hate machines appointed by the political right, but I can’t. Whren v. United States, for instance, was decided unanimously. This case hurts most, setting a precedent that the police may stop any driver who violates any stipulation of the vehicle code, even if that violation alone, independent of an officer’s preexisting desire to stop a particular driver, would never be considered sufficient cause to pull someone over. Because most states’ vehicle codes span many hundreds of pages, everyone commits a technical violation sooner or later. After I finished my Ph.D. and was driving a U-Haul full of books and furniture from California to Indiana, I was tailed for several miles by a Utah state trooper who eventually dinged me for failing to signal for the requisite two seconds before passing a truck. I’d signaled for only a second and a half. Of course, after he stopped me he saw past the dreadlocks, army green cap, and sunglasses to my pallid skin and nice-as-pie wife and declined to even glance in the back. So it goes.

7. Even in Justice Sotomayor’s scathing dissent to Utah v. Strieff, in which the majority seems to have been bamboozled by recent quantum mechanical evidence from dual slit experiments about time-traveling information, ruling that the future discovery of a warrant makes illegal behavior by a police officer retroactively become legal, Sotomayor acknowledges that we have a long history of permitting suspicion-less warrant trawling of anybody driving a car. “Surely we would not allow officers to warrant-check random joggers, dog walkers, and lemonade vendors just to ensure they pose no threat to anyone else,” she writes, although she knows already that she is wrong — the majority would allow this. But Sotomayor has no beef with the haranguing of drivers: “We allow such checks during legal traffic stops because the legitimacy of a person’s driver’s license has a ‘close connection to road-way safety.’ ” Make no mistake: although she writes “legal traffic stops,” the modifier is redundant. Given the state of our roadways, all traffic stops are de facto legal.

8. This is true whenever you drive so slowly that “three (3) or more other vehicles are blocked.” In the small college town where I live this takes no more than a quarter mile driving dead on the speed limit. At two or three miles per hour below, that many cars can pile up within seconds of turning from my street onto the main road.

9. Not to mention the serious risks you incur by driving at or below the speed limit on a three- or four-lane highway; outside of rush hours, traffic flows at fifteen or more above on every city-circling interstate I’ve driven.

10. This claim is obviously subject to numerous assumptions. It’s difficult to accurately assess the frequency of illegal activities: I’ve lied on surveys before, and I can’t be the only one. Even though every survey indicates equivalent rates of drug use across ethnicities, disparities could exist. But it seems unlikely. Among people I’ve known, use of all drugs seems to be roughly correlated; I haven’t met people who never smoke, never drink, but are willing to drop acid or snort a line of coke. And the abuse rates for legal drugs, for which I imagine the data are more trustworthy, suggest that white people are slightly more interested in escaping reality than other ethnicities. As far as the racial distribution of drug dealers goes, the data are even more fraught. Total numbers are lower, which by itself means less trustworthy statistics, and it must seem even riskier to admit on a survey that you’ve been selling. So this conclusion is based instead on data that suggest people buy drugs from dealers who look like them. Again, there are caveats — even if everyone uses drugs at the same rate, and everyone buys drugs from dealers who share their ethnicity, it may be that some populations of dealers serve far more customers than others, which would mean fewer individual dealers.

If this were the case, though, we might expect incarceration rates to even out in the end. A naive expectation would be that high-volume dealers would receive longer sentences. That’s not what’s happened, though. Instead, black people are incarcerated at a much higher rate for nonviolent drug crimes, and they receive consistently longer sentences than white people for seemingly-identical infractions. Despite the fact that the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project serves a set of fourteen states where the population is only between five and ten percent black, about a third of the inmates we help are black (setting aside what it even means to be black in this country, a question far too tangled to be dealt with in a footnote).

11. This case, City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, really was decided by a quintet of hate machines. A black driver was stopped for a minor traffic violation, dragged from his car, and choked until he passed out. In an ensuing court case, the driver sought to change Los Angeles police department policy such that future drivers would not be choked. His lawyer documented that most drivers choked this way were black. The Supreme Court threw out that evidence and dismissed the case. Justice Marshall wrote a dissent that clearly describes the harm caused by willful blindness to this type of statistical evidence: “Since no one can show that he will be choked in the future, no one — not even a person who, like Lyons, has almost been choked to death — has standing to challenge the continuation of the policy.

On Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad.’

On Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad.’

Whenever one of her students finished, my graduate school advisor took everyone out to dinner and paid for the meal.  These were expensive meals, too – between San Francisco’s culinary culture and Silicon Valley’s sudden money, many restaurants near Stanford turned very pricey.

I wouldn’t eat.  I’d order a glass of water, no more.  If it were lunchtime, I’d say that I planned to go running early in the afternoon.  If it were dinner, I’d murmur that K & I had eaten already.  My advisor would frown, but after the first few times this happened, she stopped arguing.  She probably thought I was anorexic, or deranged.

Nope.  But I’d read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.  In his words:

gift_us_newGift exchange must … be refused when there is a real threat in the connections that it offers.  In ancient tales the hero who must pass through hell is warned that charity is dangerous in the underworld; if he wishes to return to the land of the living, he should lend a hand to no one, nor accept the food offered by the dead.

Gifts from evil people must also be refused lest we be bound to evil.  In folk tales the hero is well advised to refuse the food and drink offered him by a witch.

We often refuse relationship, either from the simple desire to remain unentangled, or because we sense that the proffered connection is tainted, dangerous, or frankly evil.  And when we refuse relationship, we must refuse gift exchange as well.

If I’d nibbled an eight dollar plate of french fries, I probably wouldn’t have been trapped in California.  But it wasn’t worth the risk.  That was a world with which I hoped to maintain no ties.

urThe stakes for Cora, the hero of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, are higher.  I was miserable during graduate school, but Whitehead writes of a world in which innocent people are routinely tortured and murdered in all variety of grotesque, horrifying manner.

When Cora stumbles to the road after trekking for days through a secret subterranean tunnel, she sees several wagons trundling westward.  The first two wagons are driven by white men – she ignores the first, and, when pressed by the second, turns down his offer to help.

The third wagon was commanded by an older negro man.

You hungry?” the man asked.  He was from the south, from his voice.

I’m very hungry,” Cora said.

Despite her hunger, Cora could not accept aid from the whites.  Although her escape was facilitated by several white people (most of whom were then tortured and murdered for having aided her), she cannot trust strangers with pallid skin.

Indeed, a minor character, another survivor of the final massacre that Cora fled, gives a pithy summary of this distrust in her old age:

She lived on Long Island then, after roaming all over the country, in a small house with a Shinnecock sailor who doted on her to excess. She’d spent time in Louisiana and Virginia, where her father opened colored institutes of learning, and California.  A spell in Oklahoma … The conflict in Europe was terrible and violent, she told her sailor, but she took exception to the name.  The Great War had always been between the white and the black.  It always would be.

Several pages earlier, Whitehead proffers a speech from a character highly regarded for his intellectualism; this speech delineates the sides in this war:

Our ancestors came from all over the African continent.  It’s quite large. … They had different ways of subsistence, different customs, spoke a hundred different languages.  And that great mixture was brought to America in the holds of slave ships. … We are craftsmen and midwives and preachers and peddlers. … The word we.  We are not one people but many different people.  How can one person speak for this great, beautiful race – which is not one race but many, with a million desires and hopes and wishes for ourselves and our children?

For we are Africans in America.  Something new in the history of the world, without models for what we will become.

Color must suffice.  It has brought us to this night, this discussion, and it will take us into the future.  All I truly know is that we rise and fall as one, one colored family living next door to one white family.  We may not know the way through the forest, but we can pick each other up when we fall, and we will arrive together.”

The world in Whitehead’s novel is stark and brutal.  What’s worse, the most horrific elements of the story are real.

colson_whitehead_2014The Underground Railroad is a blend of historical fiction and Man-in-the-High-Castle-esque sci-fi.  The novel is set in a world that resembles the 1800s United States, but it is not our world.  Underground tunnels crisscross the country, secretly built by a coterie of technologically-advanced, presumably African-American citizens (when asked of the provenance of the tunnels, a character gnomically replies “Who builds anything in this country?”).  And a century’s worth of racial injustice has been condensed into the several years that Cora spends fleeing the torturers who claimed to own her.

Personally, I felt that this speculative re-imagining of America weakened the story.  By picking and choosing various injustices throughout history and shifting them into the past, Whitehead creates the illusion that these sins all pre-dated the Civil War.  After all, the passage about the “Great War” quoted above implies that Whitehead’s world experienced a similar abolition of slavery toward the turn of the century, else how could “colored institutes of learning” be opened in the south?

But the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, as with many of the abuses documented in Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, is so chilling because it transpired long after the Civil War – the syphilis study did not officially end until the 1970s.

And Whitehead imagines a region that has outlawed the presence of any human with too much melanin in his or her skin (perhaps even European immigrants living here stayed indoors, or routinely smeared themselves with thick swaths of titanium dioxide, lest they be mobbed & murdered for a tan).  But, within the context of a sci-fi alternate history, readers might believe that the violent enforcement of a “whites only” district ended long before it did in this country.

bloodattherootThese abuses were ongoing a mere thirty years ago.  From Carol Anderson’s New York Times review of Patrick Phillips’ Blood at the Root:

A few years later, in 1987, the civil rights legend Hosea Williams … took marchers … into Forsyth County [outside Atlanta].  It wasn’t a fair fight.  Men, women, children and Klansmen, proudly waving the Confederate flag and a noose, overwhelmed law enforcement and hurled stones, debris, and epithets as they surged at the nonviolent protesters.  “Keep Forsyth white!” scraped through the air like fingernails on a chalkboard.  The only thing that finally broke Forsyth County open was the pressure of Atlanta’s sprawl and the onslaught of economic development.

Especially at this moment in history, when millions of young black men are ensnared in our nation’s incarceration crisis, when dozens have recently been murdered by the law enforcement officers sworn to protect them, it feels strange to condense horrors into a small sliver of long-ago time.  Slavery itself in many ways continued into the 1940s, as documented in Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name.  If you read the Thirteenth Amendment, you’ll find that slavery is still constitutionally legal even today, as long as a mockery of justice is enacted first.  In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander documents how egregiously unfair these mockeries of justice often are in the present-day United States.

Some of the violence in Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is thankfully confined to the past.  The unpunished multi-day torture-cum-murder of re-captured fugitives, for instance.  And the Underground Railroad itself is an idea firmly rooted in the pre-Civil-War United States.

But I worry that, by linking these ideas to more recent examples of injustice, Whitehead’s novel won’t draw this violence into the present, but rather make contemporary injustice seem long past.  After all, we humans are adept at forgetting the suffering we cause.  After the slave catcher in Whitehead’s novel asks Cora whether she feels bad about having killed a boy during her escape, the slaver summarizes,

Of course not – it’s nothing.  Better weep for one of those burned cornfields, or this steer swimming in our soup.”


On Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth (until devolving into senseless tangents about cash transfers as medicine, the U.S. criminal justice system, work as exercise, and flawed science).

9780425277973As long as you think feeling angry is fun (does it say awful things about my personality that I do?), Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth is a fun little book.

Unlike Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, Tirado’s main focus isn’t analyzing why people are poor — she states, bluntly and in my opinion correctly, that the issue is simply not enough money.  Wages are low, hours are short (with bonus structural impediments to taking second jobs in order to compensate for short hours), and debt (especially medical debt) is high.

There are a few sections with analysis like what you may have read in Ehrenreich’s work, about the high cost of financial transactions for poor people, for instance, but primarily Tirado’s book is a narrative about her own experiences feeling spiritually and physically oppressed by poverty.  And that’s great.  I’m not sure there’s another book like this written by someone who’s lived in that world (a world shared by ca. 1/3 of the populace of the United States) for as long as she has, which is part of what makes the book so compelling.

I was very appreciative to have a tour guide whom I could trust to have all the little details right.  And, yes, it’s angering.  It’s bleak and off-putting.  But Tirado has a charming sense of humor, which helps her work go down easier… and, honestly, itshouldn’t go down too easy.  I’d like to think that people better off than Tirado should hate themselves a little while reading her book; couldn’t we have done more to fix things, so that her book would’ve never been written?

I know I didn’t do enough.  I spent many years doing biomedical research; my successes might help wealthy people live a little longer.  But, in terms of maximizing well-being, more research findings aren’t what we need.

Like, okay, the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis is something I care a lot about, and my father is an infectious disease doctor who has been researching ways to help for years, and has recently begun another research initiative in Kenya that local doctors and scientists will be participating in… but, still, is it possible that economic initiatives could ameliorate the crisis more readily than biomedical research?  Yes.  Definitely.  AIDS is still a big deal in the United States, for instance, but suffering is decidedly correlated with poverty.  If you’re lucky enough to be related to someone who works in the right clinics, you can hear stories about all sorts of people who’ve come up with a raw deal from life, but the few big news stories I’ve seen lately are set in regions of economic blight (e.g. this one, from my own home state of Indiana).

So, thank you Tirado.  I imagine most people already know what ought to be done to fix the issues she’s writing about — some minimum standard of medical care that people can receive debt free, higher wages, more worker protections (like getting rid of “at-will” employment and requiring schedules to be contracted in advance) — so I think it’s great that she wrote her book the way she did.  Specifically, not focusing on what should be done but rather presenting her own experience — which isn’t even as bad as it gets — in all its horrors.

And then, two minor responses.  I wanted to save these for the end because these sound rather like complaints, to me, but they aren’t meant to be.  Her book was good, and these are just two things I thought about while I was reading it.

She writes that the U.S. doesn’t have debtor’s prison anymore.  Just after that sentence, she does acknowledge that people can be thrown into jail for failure to pay court fees, but… how is that not debtor’s prison? Here’s John Oliver on the subject.

Like, yes, you have to be broke and violate a law before you can be thrown in jail, but it’s not really possible to live in the U.S. without violating any laws.  Which is obviously problematic in and of itself.  It’s insane to have a patchwork of laws on the books that people violate every day and then leave it to police officers’ discretion whether or not people will be charged with crimes.

For instance, when Tirado discusses driving strategies to avoid being stopped by the police, she says she always drives two miles per hour above the speed limit.  Which is illegal.  Driving one mile per hour above the speed limit is illegal.  If you really wanted to avoid breaking any laws, you’d have to drive a couple miles per hour below the speed limit… that way minor deviations wouldn’t result in an illegal speed.

At four miles per hour below the speed limit, though, you’ll get pulled over.  I’ve been stopped numerous times for driving too slowly, even at speeds only one or two miles per hour below posted limits.  And I even drive nice-looking cars!  A dent-free, rain-washed Honda Civic!  Previously a Toyota Avalon that had sufficient internal maladies that I called it “The Torpedo,” but the exterior was fine.  I’ve read that people in decrepit vehicles are pulled over more.

So it’s easy to be stopped by police and charged with something, at which point you’ll have to pay court fees, and if you don’t you’ll go to jail (as is well-documented in The New Jim Crow).  And if you try to avoid going to jail for debt by evading capture (as is depicted in On the Run), you might be executed.

I typically write these essays a few days before they go up.  I’m writing this one on April 9th; yesterday the video was released of another person being murdered without cause by a police officer, this time because he was running away (presumably because he didn’t want to go to jail for unpaid child support, court fees), and… wait, nope.  No “and.”  He was running away, so the police officer shot him, to stop him, then shot him again, and again… then planted a (ineffectual) weapon on the body to justify having murdered the man.  Why, again, would it seem reasonable to trust police officers to use their discretion in choosing which crimes should be punished?

[Note: Tirado has since informed me that the line about the U.S. not having debtor’s prison was meant to be a joke. Which was already pretty clear from her work, i.e. the immediate juxtaposition of that claim with the fact that they’ll lock you up for not paying court fees. But even though it was clear Tirado knows the score, I wrote the preceding paragraphs… how else was I going to work in the horrific idea that dudes are apparently now subject to debtor’s execution?]

The other thing I wanted to mention was, Tirado writes about how poor people generally don’t have time for / feel too exhausted for exercise.  But she also walks a lot, and her work is often physically arduous, much more so than any job I’ve ever held (which, right — I worked in laboratories for a decade, and since then I’ve been writing.  I’ve never had to endure anything worse than a little wrist pain while I was typing a lot and learning to lift a baby many times per day)… so I wanted to toss in a link to Crum and Langer’s study wherein hotel cleaning staff who were told that their day to day work is exercise became healthier.

ModelC5_1912Oops.  Okay, so, minor admission to make on my part.  I’d never read that paper until today — I simply remembered the coverage of it from the popular press — and there might be some, uh, minor problems.  My opinion is that you’d definitely want to conduct a study longer than 30 days to test something like this, especially because there are many wacky treatments that can result in short term weight loss and apparent health gains.  Indeed, another research group attempted to replicate their findings, and also continued the study for a slightly longer period of time — still not long enough if they were reporting a positive result, in my opinion, but they weren’t.  They reported seeing no change in health outcome.  Although they did see a change.  Measured blood pressure went down in their treatment group.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this in a previous post, but reading scientific papers can be frustrating.  Normally, I don’t do it.  In general, the way I’ve been trained to engage with scientific papers is to look at the pictures and read the figure legends, then read the abstract, then jot down my own impression next to the abstract.

But I was trained to do that for a small range of fields — nothing much harder than quantum mechanics (“hard” here doesn’t mean “difficult,” btw; my preferred synonym is “intransigent”), nothing much squishier than cellular biology.  Whereas my recent research has covered a wider swath, which means I have to actually read papers, especially a review or two before I look at research results.

And it’s maddening sometimes, looking at a figure and thinking, “Oh, they’ve found this,” but then reading the text and seeing that they’ve stated “We found that.”  I’ve definitely posted a link to this previously, but Emily Willingham has written a very fun guided tour through this type of doublethink.  Or, if you’d prefer your meander through the vagaries of data interpretation be mega-bleak (i.e. about child abuse) instead of rather bleak (i.e. about sexism in academia), one of my own previous posts touches upon this idea as well.

Anyway, my apologies for the digression.  Definitely didn’t mean to go so far off topic!  It’s just that Tirado wrote about walking a lot and also said she doesn’t exercise.  Which reminded me of that study.  But how could I have expected that a high-profile psychology study might have flaws??


p.s. This essay was a bit of a downer, so I scrolled through the archives for an old “Dave vs. Dave” about economic injustice.  Here ya go!


On The New Jim Crow.

On The New Jim Crow.

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow was very good.  Very scary, very compelling, very good.  But I think her book would have been stronger if she had addressed what I felt was a gap in reasoning for her central claim…

… I should mention, also, that I’m writing this about two months after having read her book, and I don’t have the book sitting in front of me at the moment.  Most of what I read comes from the public library, so I check things out, read them return them.  And then sometimes find myself still thinking about them sometime later, which is good – means the book was good – but has the unfortunate side effect of making it more difficult for me to quote passages directly.  In the future, I’ll try to jot out notes as I’m reading, perhaps, instead of months later.

So, here is what I took to be Alexander’s central premise: blacks commit drug offenses at about the same rate as whites.  Blacks are imprisoned much, much more often than whites for drug offenses.  Numerous supreme court rulings have been made that effectively endorse this outcome – racial profiling by police is okay, as long as race is not the only factor considered, racial profiling to exclude members of a jury, equally okay, aggregate statistical data revealing institutional racism will not be considered because only individuals with standing can bring cases, and statistical evidence garnered from many individuals does not show that racism motivated the mistreatment of any one particular individual.

Generally horrifying, and rotten, and whatnot.  If you’re interested in that sort of thing, you should read Alexander’s book.  Her presentation is much more compelling than my summary of it.

Still, here is my main objection to Alexander’s argument: an extremely racist outcome could come about independent of racist mechanisms of the judicial system if there were compelling reasons for targeted police enforcement in black communities.

For instance, if police officers were robots programmed to frisk one out of every ten people they meet for drugs, and police officers are deployed amongst communities proportional to the amount of gun violence that occurred in that community during the last year, you might wind up with an outcome similar to our current situation.  Without the police-bots being racist, that is.

(I should have a link for the claim that gun violence is enriched in black communities.  But a lot of the statistics regarding gun violence seem somewhat suspect – in theory some of these statistics would be collected by the federal government, but they aren’t, and probably will not be anytime soon.  My claim is based on crumby data that I did find, but there’s a reasonable possibility that my objection is moot because this claim isn’t true.)

And that’s not to say that the outcome would be acceptable – there are a number of explanations you could give for why there was more gun violence in black communities, and a solid fraction of those might well include the idea that because black communities can’t trust white cops or the white judicial system, there is a greater chance that personally-enacted (as opposed to state-enacted) violence will be used to enforce property rights.  (I was sufficiently lucky in the birth lottery that I have no experience of this, but this idea is at least consistent with anecdotal evidence presented in Alice Goffman’s On the Run.)

So: The New Jim Crow was very good, but I wished Alexander had addressed the ways that past judicial racism might have engendered a present in which race-neutral enforcement strategies might yield the results we have now.  But her prescriptions still seem sound – no one of any ethnicity should be thrown in jail for drug possession, police should not be given leeway to enforce laws at their own whimsy.  Personally, I feel strongly that driving five mph above the posted speed limit in residential areas should be punished more severely than possession of personal-use quantities of any drug.  The former endangers innocents, and so there is reasonable justification for government enforcement.  The latter, alone, does not, and so there is not.  But this is not likely to change – drugs are scary, hitting pedestrians while staring at a cell phone is mundane.