Law

Historic Settlement in Jennings

Great news from two friends of the Systemic Justice Project:

A small city bordering Ferguson, Mo., has agreed to pay $4.7 million to compensate nearly 2,000 people who spent time in the city’s jail for not paying fines and fees related to traffic and other relatively petty violations.

Alec explains the systemic place of this litigation:

“This historic settlement is part of a national movement to change how indifferent we’ve become to putting human beings in cages, and to end the notion that courts can be used as tools of revenue generation rather than places of justice,” said Alec Karakatsanis, whose Washington-based nonprofit organization, Equal Justice Under Law, brought the suit with the Arch City Defenders, a Missouri nonprofit group, and the St. Louis University School of Law.

See the full New York Times story here.

Spotlight and Systemic Journalism

Newspaper-clipart-10

Christopher Benson has written a great piece on Spotlight and the problems with an individualistic, rather than a systemic, focus:

[M]erely exposing individual wrongdoers does not go far enough if systemic flaws enable wrongdoing to continue.

That is the driving dramatic question for the movie and the emerging motivation for the Globe journalists.

Even more, though, it is a compelling challenge for the journalism profession on matters of race. Too often, we are content to frame stories about racial conflict as individual problems and not as institutional ones.

College campus tension, excessive police force, even racial political pandering are all framed as anomalies, problems caused by misguided individuals. As with “Spotlight,” that frame excludes what should be our real focus. As a result, we wind up missing a critical realization: We just might be part of the system we are “going after.”

Benson references instances of System Justification Theory, writing:

This is not a left-right bias, or even necessarily a black-white bias. This bias can spring from something seemingly benign — a belief that the system is fundamentally sound. People tend to believe problems only arise when individuals abuse the system. There is an unquestioned belief in the rightness of our institutions.

This tension between targeting bad individuals and focusing on systems is summarized in this dialogue, which Benson quotes:

Baron: “We need to focus on the institution, not the individual priests. Practice and policy …”
Bradlee: “Sounds like we’re going after (Cardinal Bernard Francis) Law.”
Baron: “We’re going after the system.”

I highly recommend reading the full piece, which has as many lessons for law and legal education as it does for journalism, here.

Whitney Benns and Blake Strode on Systemic Racism

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Systemic Justice Project alums Whitney Benns and Blake Strode have a powerful and vital piece in The Atlantic about 21st century debtors’ prisons in St. Louis, but really about systemic racism. They write:

As the recent deluge of reports and litigation confirms, and many have long known, thousands of people throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area are routinely sent to jail because they cannot pay local court fines and fees. These people are poor, and they tend to be black. While there are many terms to describe this—including, importantly, unconstitutional—there is one with historical resonance reserved for such a practice: debtors’ prison.

Whitney and Blake use the terminology of systemic intent to explode the false dichotomy between individual intent (which is easy to isolate and condemn) and amorphous systems (identification of which as often leads to helpless shrugs as to calls for action):

There is a tendency to understand intent, much like racism itself, as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Bias, both conscious and unconscious, is real and destructive. But the systemic intent at work in a place like St. Louis is more a matter of inertia than personal biases. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the system has a life of its own. Local courts and jails are not rife with injustice and racial disparity because they are staffed with ill-meaning personnel; they exhibit these problems because they are the product of structures and policies designed with racial hostility. That is to say, ultimately, these structures and policies have worked precisely as planned.

Their weaving together of the individual and the systemic reminds us that it is the decades of deliberately racist intent that allows racism today to be hidden “in the seemingly colorblind tedium characterizing the bulk of city affairs.”

The story of the debtors’-prison crisis in St. Louis is partly one of individual failings by local officials and institutional actors whose job security depends on collective indifference to the status quo. But to regard the story solely, or primarily, as one of individual failings is to fundamentally misunderstand the problem itself as well as the structural forces responsible for the design of the region. This design did not emerge last week, last month or last year. It is the many-headed hydra produced by conscious and sustained efforts many decades ago.

I highly, highly recommend that you read the full piece here.

Letter from Birmingham Jail

MLK birmingham jail

16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run off, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle–have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger-lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Published in:
King, Martin Luther Jr.

Exxon, VW and the TPP

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There have been recent developments in three important stories. First, the full text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has been released. Second, the New York Attorney General has opened an investigation following revelations that Exxon Mobil’s scientists were warning it about the dangers of global warming as early as the 1970s. Third, Volkswagen is reportedly considering offering monetary compensation to purchasers of its diesel cars that the company programmed to give falsely low results on emissions tests.

To see why these stories are connected it is important to understand that the TPP (like its sister agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, currently being negotiated between the EU and US) is not really about tariffs, which are already very low between the negotiating countries. Instead, one of the important chapters is on “technical barriers to trade.” As described in the executive summary provided by the US Trade Representative (USTR), the chapter:

ensures that technical standards-setting, conformity assessment procedures, and technical regulations are fair and transparently developed, with opportunities for meaningful input and “bottom-up” participation in standards-setting.

There is a lot packed into this, but two key concepts are “conformity assessment procedures” and “bottom-up.” The USTR explains that

TPP parties will provide “national treatment” to one another’s conformity assessment bodies—that is, testing and certification performed by another Party’s qualified conformity assessment body will be accepted as confirmation that its products, services, or systems meet requirements of the other Party. This will make it easier for U.S. exporters to have their goods tested or certified only once before accessing other TPP markets, reducing costs and burdens for U.S. businesses.

This means that if one country’s testers determine that product meets regulatory standards, all other countries will have to accept that determination. In other words, a corporation can shop around for a country with lax product testers, have their products determined to be in conformity, and then avoid testing in all other signatory countries.  Of course, countries with regulators that are eager to please business interests or, equivalently, are easily captured by those interests, will win that competition for business. There is even the possibility of product testers in one country approving products barely used in that country, so they don’t have to worry about the costs of poor regulatory enforcement.

This race-to-the-bottom dynamic  sounds bad enough, but is made worse by bottom-up participation. Again, from the USTR’s own explanation:

U.S. private standard-setting bodies operate from ‘the bottom up,’ with participation by businesses, engineering and scientific associations, academics, government agencies, and the broader public.

To translate, private companies work with other private companies to set the tests they will have to meet. The USTR describes this as a way “to work with companies across a sector to develop appropriate standards that are consensus-based.” It’s nice that “the broader public” get to participate too, but the idea that you or I are playing any role in this process is absurd. It’s a basic axiom of public choice theory that the public will, in practice, be inaudible beneath the din of powerful, wealthy, special interests. “Bottom up” is a euphemism obscuring the role played by powerful institutions that are designing the regulations to which they will be “accountable.”

Volkswagen was able to deceive the public and its consumers for years about its car’s carbon emissions because it could ensure that it faced an emissions test that it had designed a way to cheat. The company’s job would have been even easier if it only had to persuade one country’s regulators to adopt the test that suited it, and easier still if that test had been carried out by a private company which would presumably have to compete with companies in other countries for the business. It’s hard to imagine what that competition could possibly consist of other than a drive for cheaper tests that are easier to pass (limited only by the need to maintain the camouflage of legitimacy).

The great thing about a competitive market, at least in theory, is that participants compete by offering continually less expensive or more desirable products. But there is no reason to believe that that competition would be limited to offering better products. The illusion of “better” is sufficient.

Corporations seek potential profits with the same certainty and moral limits as water does when seeking its own level.  If it is profitable to lie and cheat — even if such conduct contributes to the destruction of the planet — then corporations competing for that profit will tend to lie and cheat. Sure, some business people may have scruples and moral limits, but others will not.  The former will have to compete with the latter if they hope to stay in the game.  Any moral duties limiting one’s ability to compete will be modified by duties to maximize shareholder value.  When torn by such mixed incentives, people are masters at creating and exploiting any moral ambiguities to do the wrong thing.  When the law and competitive forces themselves create those ambiguities and rationalizations, the hard work is done.

This is the lesson of Exxon and VW. We shouldn’t trust the claims of corporate spokespeople, nor should we trust them to regulate themselves. As Hanson and Kysar wrote in 1999,

[M]anipulation of consumers by manufacturers is not simply a possibility in light of the behavioral research but. . . an inevitable result of the competitive market. Cognitive biases present profit-maximizing opportunities that manufacturers must take advantage of in order to stay apace with competition. . . . [N]ot only can manufacturers achieve these effects, but the hidden hand of market forces requires that they do so in order to remain competitive.

As Akerlof and Schiller more recently wrote in Phishing for Phools (quoted by Chris Dillow here):

Competitive markets by their very nature spawn deception and trickery, as a result of the same profit motives that give us our prosperity.

There may be some good reasons to have corporations (see Coase). But it is in their nature to prioritize profits over truth and morality. For profit, corporations almost always exaggerate and overstate the cost of compliance with environmental regulations, because that’s the rational thing for them to do. For profit, the tobacco industry lied for decades about the health effects of smoking while half a million Americans were dying every year:

In 2006, US District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that the tobacco industry’s campaign to “maximize industry profits by preserving and expanding the market for cigarettes through a scheme to deceive the public” about the health hazards of smoking amounted to a racketeering enterprise.

None of this is meant to imply that corporations should be abolished; the point is that it is time to rethink the role of corporations in policymaking. The TPP is a perfect example. The deal was negotiated in secret, with the public not given access, and even members of congress only allowed to see certain sections without staff present and without being allowed to take notes. The text has only been available through leaks until it was just released, with the negotiations completed. However, hundreds of corporate advisors had access throughout the negotiations, in a prime example of what “bottom-up” participation by business really means. It’s regulatory capture in prototypical form. Corporations used the access they were granted to preserve their future access by cementing “bottom up” participation, and by ensuring that the TPP is riddled with provisions, such as investor state dispute resolution, that benefit them at the expense of the public, workers, and the environment.

Even if Coase is right that we need corporations, Stigler is right that they capture our regulation. And Hanson and Yosifon are right that it goes much deeper than our simple vision of a regulatory agency, so instead of the solution to capture that corporations proposed (deregulation), we need to find a way to continue to regulate them while rejecting the ideology that leads us to show them so much deference.

Why Rely on the Nudged to Nudge the Nudgers to Prevent Evil Nudging?

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Richard Thaler writes in the New York Times about the problem that nudges can be used for good or bad. He specifies three principles for nudging, and then writes:

As far as I know, the government teams in Britain and the United States that have focused on nudging have followed these guidelines scrupulously. But the private sector is another matter. In this domain, I see much more troubling behavior.

Later, Thaler warns against the lazy use of the presumption that markets are good and regulation is bad:

Some argue that phishing — or evil nudging — is more dangerous in government than in the private sector. The argument is that government is a monopoly with coercive power, while we have more choice in the private sector over which newspapers we read and which airlines we fly.

I think this distinction is overstated. In a democracy, if a government creates bad policies, it can be voted out of office. Competition in the private sector, however, can easily work to encourage phishing rather than stifle it.

Thaler’s identification of the problem seems correct, and further research would turn up many more examples of private sector nudging than a subscription to The Times of London and trip insurance on a United flight. The first couple articles in a series on arbitration clauses that the New York Times started on the same day Thaler’s article was published gives some sense of the relationship many companies have with their consumers and their sense of their corporate responsibilities. However, the fact that Thaler understands the problem makes his proposed solution particularly disappointing:

As customers, we can help one another by resisting these come-ons. The more we turn down questionable offers like trip insurance and scrutinize “one month” trials, the less incentive companies will have to use such schemes. Conversely, if customers reward firms that act in our best interests, more such outfits will survive and flourish, and the options available to us will improve.

Turning down questionable offers and scrutinizing one-month trials is good advice, but the whole concept of nudging is premised on the insight that consumers are not very good at following that sort of advice. If, like Thaler, we reject the premise that the government is more dangerous than the private sector, the implications of the social psychology studies that influenced Thaler and his co-author Cass Sunstein to develop libertarian paternalism might justify a more robust role for regulating companies that dominate so much of our lives. This is surely more urgent than applying some of the same strategies that the private sector has long been using for good nudging.

Thaler’s example of “evil nudging” that the market encourages rather than stifles is “the mortgage industry in the early 2000s”:

Borrowers were encouraged to take out loans that they could not repay when real estate prices fell. Competition did not eliminate this practice, because it was hard for anyone to make money selling the advice “Don’t take that loan.”

For Joseph Singer, the lesson of the subprime crisis is “No Freedom Without Regulation.” Singer’s book talk contains a brief summary, in which he emphasizes the dependence of the market upon regulation and the consequent incoherence of the claim to favor “free markets” while disliking market regulation. Once we abandon the “markets good/regulation bad” presumption (see p23 of Chen and Hanson’s “The Illusion of Law”), there is little reason for Thaler to insist on blending  paternalism with libertarianism, which leaves him relying on consumers to change the incentives for companies to manipulate them (the nudged nudging the nudgers), an implausibly small solution to a major problem.

A foundational premise of the Systemic Justice Project is that large commercial interests are advantaged in shaping our situations and manipulating consumers and citizens as well capturing institutions and systems.  For a sample of underlying theory and evidence for those problems of “market manipulation” and “deep capture,” see “Taking Behavioralism Seriously: Some Evidence of Market Manipulation,” “The Situation: An Introduction to the Situational Character, Critical Realism, Power Economics, and Deep Capture,” and “The Situational Character: A Critical Realist Perspective on the Human Animal.

Kimberlé Crenshaw at Harvard Law School

On February 12 and 13, 2015, Professor Crenshaw made three outstanding, public presentations at Harvard Law School — at events organized by Harvard Law School’s Students for Inclusion.  All three talks are compiled talks in this video.

In the first talk, Professor Crenshaw tells several “war stories” from her time as a students at Harvard Law School, following the 1981 departure of Professor Derrick Bell. She describes the efforts she and her classmates made to fill that curricular gap, the failure of the HLS administration to fill that gap in a way that satisfied student demands, and the protests and curricular creativity that followed.  She discusses what that experience revealed about Harvard Law School, legal theory, and law at the time, what the students learned about creating an intellectual project, and how those experiences and lessons marked the beginning of Critical Race Theory.

In the second talk, Professor Crenshaw discusses the role of race in conventional legal pedagogy and what her efforts to create a different sort of classroom dynamic looks like.

In the third talk, Professor Crenshaw speaks about the important role of student activism in elite legal institutions like Harvard Law School — particularly in a moment when racial injustice is as salient as it is now.  She also discusses “how we got here” to a “post-post-racial moment” and about what might be learned from previous struggles about how to go forward in the struggle for racial justice.

“these practices have no place in our society.”

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This morning, Alec Karakatsanis and a team of Tennessee lawyers filed a class action civil rights debtors’ prison lawsuit in federal court in Nashville. The complaint alleges a systemic corruption, extortion, and racketeering conspiracy that has corrupted the basic delivery of justice in Rutherford County.

The Complaint is devastating in several ways.  For a sample of the powerful stories it contains, read pages 24 – 31 of the complaint (pdf) describing the experiences of Cindy Rodriquez.

The investigation, which will be described in an upcoming New York Times article, was assisted by several HLS students.

Here’s the Complaint’s Introduction.

This lawsuit is about constitutional violations and corruption in the Rutherford County probation supervision system. The Plaintiffs in this case are all people living in poverty who are victims of an extortion scheme in which the Defendants have conspired to extract as much money as possible from misdemeanor probationers through a pattern of illegal and shocking behavior. The crux of this scheme is a conspiracy to funnel misdemeanor probation cases in which court debts are owed to a private company, which then extorts money out of individuals who have no ability to pay court costs, let alone private fees. The private company, whose goal is to maximize its own profits, acts as a “probation officer” to collect those debts—as well as to assess and collect its own additional and substantial fees and surcharges—through repeated and continuous threats to arrest, revoke, and imprison individuals who are indigent and disabled if they do not pay.

As a result of this extortion enterprise, the Plaintiffs and others similarly situated have lost their housing, lost jobs, lost cars, undergone humiliating physical intrusions on their bodies, suffered severe medical injuries, sold their own blood plasma, sacrificed food and clothing for their vulnerable children, and/or diverted their low-income disability checks—all in order to pay private “supervision fees.” They have languished year after year on recurring terms of “user funded probation” under constant threats to their physical well-being, and they have been repeatedly jailed because of their poverty. This cycle of ever-increasing debts, threats, and imprisonment has left the Plaintiffs and thousands of people like them in Rutherford County trapped in a culture of fear and panic.

This civil rights action is brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”), the United States Constitution, and Tennessee law to stop the Defendants from continuing to operate a racketeering enterprise that is extorting money from some of the most impoverished people in Rutherford County under constant threat of jail and to prevent the Defendants from misusing the probation supervision process for profit. The treatment of named Plaintiffs Cindy Rodriguez, Steven Gibbs, Paula Pullum, Yolanda Carney, Jacqueline Brinkley, Curtis Johnson, Fred Robinson, and each of the other Plaintiff Class members reveals systemic illegality perpetrated as a matter of ongoing design, policy, and practice by Rutherford County and Providence Community Corrections, Inc. (“PCC, Inc.”), the private company with whom the County has conspired.

By and through their attorneys and on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, the Plaintiffs seek in this civil rights action the vindication of their fundamental rights, compensation for the violations that they suffered, punitive damages to punish the Defendants and to deter similar misconduct in the future, and injunctive relief assuring that their rights will not be violated again. In the year 2015, these practices have no place in our society.

Download the Rodriguez Complaint.

Related posts here.