Category: Race


College Preparedness, Law, and the Structure of Standards

The Pathway of Preparedness

There is a current debate concerning whether the standard of college preparedness should be written into the structures of education law.  The college preparedness argument has been rising to the fore due to the revisions to the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act-popularly known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA)-proposed in the Obama Administration’s “Blue Print for Reform.”  President Obama’s suggested revisions would replace the current NCLBA math, English language arts, and science proficiency standards as a means of evaluating schools with various other measurements, including whether students at schools are being prepared to be “college and career ready.”   The proposed change to the legal federal assessment standard is driven by the administration’s view that post-secondary education is essential to individual, communal, and national competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century. President Obama has announced the goal of regaining the global lead in the proportion of the citizenry obtaining post-secondary degrees by 2020.  In the realm of education, law is increasingly being relied upon to create incentives, structures and values which have traditionally been thought to be in the realm of private production.  The traditional conception of the public school is properly being recast from a provider of information and skill, to the central institution in communal renewal.

However, the federal focus on college preparedness, as with many educational initiatives of the Obama administration, has received criticism.  Critics of this emphasis argue that college preparedness is a one size fits all category which will inevitably stigmatize students without the ability or proclivity to attend college, and thus contribute to greater levels of failure and higher school drop out rates due to psychological pressures.   Such critics contend that there are many solid middle class trade careers of value which can be viable options for students without the skill level or desire for college.   However, defenders of college preparedness are often concerned with a specific context-the inadequacy of our educational systems to address the needs of dis-empowered minority groups, especially in the urban context. College preparedness champions often believe that critics do not fully understand and/or acknowledge the causation of the extreme racial disparities in educational outcomes.

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Guns & Katrina, Reconsidered

Remember when post-Katrina New Orleans turned into a teaching moment about the importance of using guns to protect yourself?  Over at the VC, David Kopel wrote (on September 5, 2005)

“Given the absence of a sufficient police presence in order to stop the looters, I strongly agree with Glenn Reynolds that such looters should be shot on sight by armed citizens. A citizen’s arrest and detention isn’t possible as a practical matter. Shooting the New Orleans looters is, under present circumstances, an appropriate response to the collapse of civic order, and a first step towards the restoration of that order.”

The necessity of shooting looters was widelydiscussed.  Kerr, Solove, Volokh, Muller and I all dissented.  It’s worthwhile, then, to read this article looking back five years later at what actually happened after the hurricane:

“The narrative of those early, chaotic days — built largely on half-baked anecdote and unfounded rumor — quickly hardened into a kind of ugly consensus: poor blacks and looters were murdering innocents and terrorizing whoever crossed their path in the dark, unprotected city.

“As you look back on it, at the time it was being reported, it looked like the city was under siege,” said Russel L. Honoré, the retired Army lieutenant general who led military relief efforts after the storm.

Today, a clearer picture of post-Katrina violence is emerging, and it is an equally ugly one, including white vigilante violence, police killings, official cover-ups and a suffering population far more brutalized than many were willing to believe. Several police officers and a white man accused of racially motivated violence have recently been indicted in various cases, and more incidents are coming to light as the Justice Department has started several investigations into poststorm civil rights violations . . .

“One case is that of a former Algiers resident, Ronald J. Bourgeois Jr., who is white and accused of being part of one of the vigilante groups. He was recently indicted by the federal government on civil rights charges in the shooting of three black men who were trying to leave the city. According to the indictment, Mr. Bourgeois, who now lives in Mississippi, warned one neighbor that “anything coming up this street darker than a brown paper bag is getting shot.””

I don’t mean to blame any of the bloggers (like Glenn Reynolds or David Kopel) who called for looters to be shot on sight.  Obviously, they were writing about the facts as they knew them.  But the retrospective story is a sobering reminder that unleashing private violence – and encouraging armed self-help – doesn’t necessarily lead to the restoration of civic order.  It may, as it turns out, result in biased, erroneous, decision making and awful tragedy.

“Punishing the Poor” and “Texas Tough”

Many legal scholars wonder why even small steps toward sentencing reform are tough to make. The US has an extraordinary level of incarceration; “with about 1.6 million people in our penitentiaries and an additional 800,000 in our jails, the United States locks up its citizens at a higher rate than any other country in the world.” Are we simply worse people, or are there larger causes at work? I recently noticed two books that help frame the issue of US criminal justice in a larger context of economic change and inequality.

Loic Wacquant’s Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity proposes that the “hyperinflation” of the US prison population results from a change in the state’s focus: from promoting economic security to promoting physical safety via a “zero tolerance” policy for even nonviolent offenses. As one reviewer explains,

The penal state, in Wacquant’s telling, has mushroomed up to take the place of the welfare regime, to control those populations at the margins of the market economy. In their classic book Regulating the Poor (1971), sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward argue that welfare rolls fluctuate in response to social unrest, swelling when the poor become politically aware and more difficult to pacify. Wacquant takes their claim a step further, suggesting that in a neoliberal age, poor people are not bought off—they are locked up.

According to Wacquant, media and law enforcement elites team up to “erect[] a garish theater of civic morality on whose stage political elites can orchestrate the public vituperation of deviant figures. . . .and close the legitimacy deficit they suffer when they discard the established government mission of social and economic protection.” Like the “security theater” lambasted by some anti-terrorism experts, the penal system explored by Wacquant is “about” far more than its stated purpose of keeping good citizens safe. Rather, it becomes what Wacquant calls “autophagous,” provoking a self-renewing cycle of recidivism, widening insecurity, and ever more crackdowns, by virtue of its very brutality. The book reminded me of Niklas Luhmann‘s social theory of “autopoetic systems,” which constitute and reconstitute themselves according to an inner logic that may have little to do with the overall health or welfare of society.

I was reminded of Wacquant’s book when I heard an extraordinary C-Span lecture by Robert Perkinson, the author of Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire. I’ve previously speculated on why Texas is such a darling of the Wall St. Journal editorial page, and Perkinson’s book helps piece together more clues on the state’s role in modeling penitentiary policies for the nation. Like Wacquant, Perkinson focuses on the role of race and inequality in explaining prison demographics:

More than half a century ago, at the height of Jim Crow, African Americans were going to prison at roughly four times the rate of whites; now the black imprisonment rate is seven times that of whites. If present trends continue, a third of all black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. Millions more, due to felony disenfranchisement, will lose the right to vote, one of the dearest prizes of the black freedom struggle. My book, Texas Tough, is an attempt to reckon with . . . the bleak reality of persistent prejudice and unequal justice. . . . [T]he book homes in on the entwined histories of racism and the law, uncovering the origins of America’s exceptionally harsh approach to criminal justice in the broken promises and iniquitous profits of the young republic.

Texas Tough . . . relates the troubled life story of a single southern prison system, one that started out with the construction of a pine-log barracks in 1842 and that has grown into the largest, harshest incarceration complex in the United States. It describes how a plantation-based penal system, long dismissed as a brutish backwater, managed to become a pacesetter in hardline prison management; how a retributive ethos of criminal justice that developed on slavery’s frontier eventually took hold nationwide. . . . In short, it explains how the land of the free became the most incarcerated society in the history of democratic governance.

Perkinson describes the remarkable role of slave and quasi-slave labor in Texas; as I recall from his lecture, the state capitol building was first built with slave labor, and then after it was burned down during the Civil War, it was re-built with “leased convicts.” Apparently there are also farms in Texas with crops which have never been picked with “free labor;” they transitioned from slave plantations to leased convicts to prison labor. Both facts haunted me as I recently visited UT Austin for a health law conference, with the capitol building often in sight.

Both Wacquant’s and Perkinson’s book focus on how one system of punishment can rapidly become a “model.” For Perkinson, Texas displaced more humane models of rehabilitation to become a model of “getting tough” on prisoners. Wacquant worries that the resulting US system of punishment has become a model for the EU, providing parties of the right with a new model for social order that parties of the left feel powerless to critique or resist. Both authors’ theories of “contagion” reminded me of two recent works; Spencer Waller’s The Law and Economics Virus and Joe White’s treatment of stories in his work on health care finance. Building on models of memes from Dawkins and Balkin, Waller shows how certain fields are uniquely susceptible to legal economic modeling, and others have inherent structural features that resist it. Joe White shows how “herd behavior” can follow mass adoption of certain stories about efficiency and effectiveness, often in the absence of compelling information about their results:

The most striking aspect of the accounts of market behavior in health care in the 1990s is that activity appears to have been influenced by shared stories, which rose, fell, and were changed in the health policy and business communities. . . . The free flow of capital did not serve health care values such as cost control and access. . . . Behavior followed stories that in significant cases turned out to be untrue. The health care herd stampeded in one direction and then another.

The prison policy stampede appears to only be going in one direction, but may end up no more effective than the managed care merry-go-round of the 1990s (except, of course, for producing profits). My sense is that anyone who opposes prison reform will have to reckon with Wacquant’s and Perkinson’s arguments.


Reparations and Gates-keeping

Henry Louis Gates writes in the New York Times that reparations discussion should include a focus on culpability of Black slave traders in Africa — a move which ultimately serves to weaken many reparations arguments. Why is the President’s advisor making these kinds of arguments — and why now? I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that it relates to the existing political environment.

A number of right wing critics have recently claimed that President Obama is seeking reparations. This includes Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh who have both repeatedly called health care reform a form of stealth reparations. The apparent reasoning is that health care reform will proportionately benefit Blacks as a group more than whites, because Blacks have a higher rate of uninsured individuals.

The underlying insurance statistics are clear enough — Black individuals lacking insurance make up about 19% of the group population, while the comparable percent for whites is about 10%. In fact a number of advocates (including me) have argued that this and other major statistical gaps are reasons to support reparations, because they show how slavery and Jim Crow inflict continuing harm today.

Beck and Limbaugh have flipped the argument around. Read More


Will Latinos Check Black on the Census?

Last week, I noted that conceptions of race in Latin American are different from those commonly held in the U.S.  Since then, I have received many comments both on Concurring Opinions and offline and have listened to several programs and panels on the U.S. Census and Latinos.  In this post, I want to explore why Latinos, even those who were raised in the U.S. or have lived here most of their adult lives continue to reject U.S. conceptions of race.  After all, immigrants often adopt the norms of their new country after a relatively short period of time (a generation?) so why not adopt U.S. definitions of race?

Undoubtedly, one reason why Latinos reject U.S. definitions of race is prejudice against Blacks.  Some Latinos deny their African ancestry because they hold negative views about African-Americans.  This is illustrated in a public service video that seeks to encourage Latinos of African descent to identify as both Hispanic and Black on the 2010 Census.  In this video, a Latina grandmother rejects her grandson’s friends because she erroneously assumes that they are African-American when, actually, they are Latinos of African ancestry.

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The U.S. Census and Latinos’ Conceptions of Race

My parents were filling out the U.S. Census a few nights ago when they reached a question that stumped them both—the race question.  The Census requires that individuals “answer BOTH Question 8 about Hispanic origin and Question 9 about race” and states that for purposes of the 2010 Census, “Hispanic origins are not races.”

Question 8 asks:

Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?

–No, not of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin

–Yes, Mexican, Mexican Am., Chicano

–Yes, Puerto Rican

–Yes, Cuban

–Yes, another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin –Print origin, for example, Argentinean, Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Salvadorian, Spaniard, and so on.

Question 9 asks:

What is Person 1’s race?


–Black, African Am., or Negro

–American Indian or Alaska Native –Print name of enrolled or principal tribe.

–Asian Indian



–Other Asian




–Native Hawaiian

–Guamanian or Chamorro


–Other Pacific Islander

–Some other race – Print race.

 My parents had no difficulty answering Question 8.  They are both from the Dominican Republic so they checked “Yes, another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” and printed “Dominican” in the box provided.  They did not know how to respond to Question 9, however.  My father, whose phenotype is that of a light-skinned Black man, wanted to select “White” because he equates Black with African-American.  My mother wanted to select “Black” because, in her view, “White” refers to Caucasian and, although her grandfather was a Spaniard, her grandmother was of African descent.  Confused, my parents asked their four adult daughters, all of whom were born and raised in the U.S., how we self-identified in the Census.  Three of us checked “Black” and one checked both “Black” and “White.”  My father finally agreed to check “Black,” not because he identifies as such, but because there were no other “adequate choices.”  When I asked him what race he would have selected had it been listed, he responded “Latino.”  For him, and many other Latinos, his race is not White, Black, or American Indian, but Latino—the result of a mixing of European (mostly Spaniard), African (brought as slaves to the Americas), and the indigenous people of the Americas (for example, Taino, Aztec, Mayan, etc.) Read More


Not-Quite-Live-Blogging Intersectionality (Part I: General overview, Thursday)

I’m at the UCLA Intersectionality conference, and so far it has been phenomenal. I’m going to post some brief notes about the sessions I’ve attended so far. I’m typing these up while in a session – the intersectionality teaching and reading workshop. Hopefully these will be moderately coherent.

The conference started with an introduction from Saul, and quick comments from co-sponsors (including me, because TJSL is a co-sponsor of the event. The opening event was very well attended – a hundred people or so (maybe?), even though it was at 10 a.m. on a Thursday. Read More


A double whammy for diversity

Law firms aren’t just laying off lawyers, they’re laying off racial minority lawyers. A recent story sets out the detail:

Large U.S. law firms became less diverse last year. That’s the key finding to emerge from the latest version of our annual Diversity Scorecard, which counts attorneys of color in the U.S. offices of some 200 big firms. In each of the previous nine years that we’ve compiled the Scorecard, the percentage of minority attorneys at all participating firms increased, rising from less than 10 percent in 2000 to 13.9 percent in 2008. In 2009, for the first time, that proportion dipped, to 13.4 percent. The drop in law firm diversity may be small, but it’s important. Overall, big firms shed 6 percent of their attorneys between 2008 and 2009 — and, amid the bloodletting, lost 9 percent of their minority lawyers. . . .

The data shows that, while minority lawyers as a whole lost ground, not all groups were affected equally. In proportional terms, African-Americans lost the most: the percentage of all black lawyers fell by 13 percent (462 lawyers), with the number of black nonpartners sliding by a startling 16 percent. Translation: Almost one in six African-American nonpartners left the surveyed firms in the space of a year without being replaced. In raw numbers, Asian-Americans dropped the most, by 9 percent (556 lawyers). The number of Asian-American nonpartners dropped by 11 percent, while the number of partners rose by 6 percent. As for Hispanic lawyers, their numbers dropped by 9 percent overall (282 lawyers). Hispanic nonpartners fell by 13 percent; partners rose by 3 percent.

Meanwhile, another recent article focuses on diversity declines in law school admissions:

Research by two social scientists suggests that the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings aren’t helping legal educators build a more diverse student body. Deans and admissions officers told the researchers that the pressure to maintain or improve their U.S. News rankings can mean fewer slots for diverse students, who tend to score lower on the LSAT and have lower grade point averages. “Selectivity” — LSAT scores, undergraduate grades and schools’ degree of exclusivity in accepting applicants — accounts for one quarter of each school’s ranking. . . .

“By creating strong incentives for law schools to focus more narrowly on test scores, rankings make it seem more risky to admit diverse students when those students tend to have lower test scores,” the report says. “Moreover, rankings ratchet up the competition for poorer students and students of color with high scores….Administrators say they often feel forced to choose between a higher median LSAT score and a more diverse student body.”

To synthesize: There are no jobs for Black lawyers; but hey, there are no Black law students anyway. Double whammy.


Natural Law, Imperialism, and the Birth of Free Exercise Jurisprudence

I have been researching Reynolds v. United States (1879), the Supreme Court’s first Free Exercise case, on and off for several years. For those who are interested, my paper on the topic is now available for download at SSRN. My interest in the case is historical rather than doctrinal. I am interested in what Reynolds, which held that religious polygamy was not protected by the First Amendment, and the anti-polygamy crusade that followed tell us about constitutional politics in the nineteenth century. Historians have generally situated the case within the context of the post-Civil War politics of Reconstruction. The anti-polygamy crusade kicked off by Reynolds is seen as an extension of Reconstruction into the West. I offer a new interpretation.

I began my research by asking myself what the theory of the First Amendment put before the Court by the Reynolds’s lawyers looked like. The Court — following the arguments of the Attorney General — characterized the Mormons as claiming that all religiously motivated action was exempt from the criminal law. This sort of absolutist position, the Court and the government pointed out, would allow absurd results such as the inability to criminalize religiously motivated murders. The Court, however, was knocking down a straw man. The Mormons never in fact made this claim. Rather, they argued that the First Amendment only protected religiously motivated conduct that was not malum in se, that is wrong in and of itself as opposed to being wrong merely because of the law (malum prohibitum). Actions could be judges as malum in se, they went on to argue, by appeal to a set of well-established natural law arguments. These arguments were based in part by a series of more-or-less positive analogies to non-Western legal systems. The Court responded implicitly to this argument by analogizing Mormons to Indians and the federal government to the British Raj. In other words, the Court in effect looked at “The Mormon Question” through the lens of imperialism.

This imperial analogy was more than a one-off rhetorical fillip in the Court’s opinion. It shows up all over the anti-polygamy battles, where it is important for distinguishing the situation in Utah from the situation in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction South. It also gets picked up on in the first generation of cases that invoke Reynolds and its progeny as precedent. These cases, known as The Insular Cases, arose in the context of the United States’ conquest of the Philippines in the Spanish American War of 1898 and addressed the question of the federal government’s authority to engage in imperialism and colonialism abroad. In these cases Reynolds was seen not as a First Amendment case as much as a case about the scope of Congressional power over a conquered people. My paper thus suggests that Reynolds and the anti-polygamy battles need to be seen not only in the context of the domestic debates over Reconstruction that proceeded them. Rather, Reynolds and its heirs must also be seen as a prelude to the international debates over imperialism that followed the Spanish American War.

For those interested, here is an abstract of the paper: Read More