The New Jim Crow Comes to UC

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Cincinnati is not known as a city with stellar racial politics. From the 2001 uprising following a string of police murders of young black men culminating in the killing of unarmed 19 year old Timothy Thomas to the more recent discovery that the highly gentrified, increasingly segregated, area of Over-the-Rhine is home to the greatest level of income disparity in the country (according to census data), it is clear that there is not only still a long way to go, but also that things may be getting worse.

A new admissions policy at the University of Cincinnati is characteristic of the all encompassing system of institutionalized racism that Michelle Alexander wrote about in her book, “The New Jim Crow” released in 2010. UC is switching to the Common Application, a one-size-fits-all admissions application used by hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide, which requires member institutions to ask for a list of both misdemeanor and felony convictions.

According to Alexander, a new form of legal discrimination has emerged since the end of the civil rights movement and the dominance of electoral and legislative politics. While political forces have rightly defended institutions like affirmative action, they have not remained vigilant as other kinds of racism have emerged in society. Ex-criminals are faced with a number of issues after they are convicted which make it difficult, if not impossible, to vote in elections, find housing, work, food assistance, medical care, and other essentials. Alexander points out that African Americans, especially young males, have been disproportionately charged, convicted and jailed under the War on Drugs. This system of incarceration and lingering consequences, while claiming to be unbiased, actually creates a situation similar to the explicitly racist Jim Crow laws that dominated race relations in the South from reconstruction the civil rights era.

While the university may do what it wants with the information on convictions, a document sent from the UC admissions office to the faculty senate, who were discussing the switch in February, includes some indication that it will be used in a review of prospective students: “For the colleges, guidelines would need to be established regarding qualitative factors that can be used to either positively or negatively impact admissions consideration by the reviewers.” 1 This statement can mean a number of things, the new information could be used to determine whether students may be admitted into certain programs (or the university at all), be able to live in dorms, or take part in other activities — to essentially be full members of the university community, academically and otherwise. There is no question, however, that the information will be used; the branch campuses will not switch to the common application with the main campus, but they will be adding the question about convictions to their applications.

Taken to the extreme, the effects could be devastating for the university that fetishizes its “diversity” and the fact that it is an “urban campus.” UC has had its share of racial issues in the past decade. Most recently, the University Police tased and killed Everette Howard, a black high school graduate who was on campus for a summer program before going to college in Tennessee. The documents released surrounding the tasing were initially heavily redacted and, possibly because of a lack of a strong organized public outcry, the officer who tased Howard is still on the force; the chief of the university police retired months after the incident, however, this didn’t seem to have any connection with the death.

UC’s actual diversity initiatives unfortunately seem to be falling short of their own low goals. Available demographic data indicated African Americans have consistently decreased as a percentage (11.2 percent to 8.9 percent) of the student population over the last 9 years that statistics are available for (2003 to 2011). This is as overall enrollment has reached new records. Applications from black prospective students have also decreased after peaking in 2009. In 2010 the percentage of staff that is African American stood at the lowest point since at least 2003. 2

Recently, one repeatedly cited solution that the university administration has put forward to the problem of falling diversity is to add an admissions representative in the Chicago area to increase out of state applications. Such a step, along with the new admissions requirements seems to take one step forward and two steps back. It is unclear if diversity is the actual goal of the admissions representative in Chicago, it seems equally likely that it would be a strategy to help patch up the crumbling budget, as any student enrolling from that area would pay out of state tuition, much higher than the skyrocketing rate that Ohio residents pay to go to the public university.

The common application added the question about convictions in 2006, codifying discrimination into the last place where, not only the ruling class, but the general public, has repeatedly told the least fortunate to turn to in order to get ahead. Paul Street calls mass incarceration a “self fulfilling prophecy”, noting a number of ironies embedded in the way society operates, chief among them the inverse relationship between wages and crime. Street writes, “according to one estimate, a 10 percent decrease in wages is associated with a 10 to 20 percent increase in the likelihood of incarceration.” 3 Couple this with the realities of capitalism: that more education is directly related to a higher wage and a total lifetime salary and that African Americans can expect to earn much less than white counterparts over the course of their lifetime. 4

The contradictions are rampant: more education is the only way to guarantee a higher wage, but, somewhat paradoxically, the system puts in place barriers to enrollment, which will only promote lower wages and higher crime.

It would seem that capitalism is incapable of promoting any sort of achievement among African Americans. African Americans in Ohio skew toward the lower end of educational achievement (some high school, high school graduate, or some college or associate’s degree) compared to whites. 5 Additionally, black educational attainment for males aged 25-34 is at the lowest level since the generation born before civil rights. 6

Under capitalism, it is desirable to have a class of low paid workers, if that class is further divided along racial lines, all the better. In 2009, the median net worth of black households was less than half of what it was in 2005, doubling the tenfold gap between black and white households to a twentyfold difference, according to the Pew Research Center. 7 This also comes at a time when the cost of education is increasing at an ever growing rate; public colleges and universities were the first targets for austerity after the 2008 recession and continue to be hit hard by budget cuts. In addition to enacting pay freezes, firing faculty and staff, and severely limiting the number of tenured professorships, these institutions have passed the burden onto the backs of the students themselves.

It is necessary to understand the societal significance of the criminal justice system and to realize the limitations of the broader system that has a long history of racism and discrimination. In Ohio, black men had a 640 percent higher rate of imprisonment than white men in 2009. 8 After the 2001 uprisings, a collaborative agreement with black activist leaders mandated audits of the Cincinnati police over the course of the next several years. These audits showed, time and time again, that traffic stops and other searches disproportionately affected the black community (blacks were stopped as much as two times more often), even though the hit rate, that is, the rate that contraband was found, was the same as white citizens. 9 A forthcoming paper from Francis T Cullen and John Paul Wright of, interestingly enough, the University of Cincinnati’s Center for Criminal Justice Research makes no illusions to the state of young black offenders in a town like Cincinnati, noting that “[being] a minority, especially from an inner-city community, dramatically increases one’s prospects of significant contact with the criminal justice system.” Cullen and Wright conclude their paper by calling for society to take measures to save youths from a life of crime–denying educational opportunities based on previous convictions seems counterproductive given the previously referred to correlation of education, wages, and crime.  10

Important to Alexander’s thesis is the apparent colorblindness of the criminal justice system. Alexander explains that the colorblindness is actually cover for the the system’s structure of racism. It is interesting to note that the changes to UC’s admissions policies are coming just as the university switches to a “holistic review” process for determining admission, seemingly throwing out any “blindness” when it comes to choosing new students. The criminal justice system, acting as the agent of the New Jim Crow, is a tool to maintain an attractive social order that leaves poor blacks at the lowest rung of the ladder. We should not make the claim that UC’s admissions department is racist, that is an unwarranted accusation, however, we should realize that asking for conviction information on applications only serves the aims of the ruling class: to make it harder, if not impossible, for the working class to attain a good schooling (at any level–not just college) and, conversely, to only allow those of the right pedigree to attain a higher education.

The vigilance of NGO’s and others who seek to protect the gains of the civil rights movement is not enough to counter the gradual spread of discrimination in other areas. On the other hand, campaigns that spring forth as a reaction to a single case of injustice and fold at the close, good or bad, do not have the lasting effect needed to effectively combat all instances inequality and racism. Cincinnati’s characteristic lack of a lasting, proactive, anti-racist movement, made up of every kind of person, means racist policies like the New Jim Crow can and will always manifest themselves, in our criminal justice system, on our police force, and now, in our schools.

Notes:

  1. UC Faculty Senate Notes, February 9th 2012 avalable at: http://www.uc.edu/content/dam/uc/facultysenate/senate/docs/facultysenate/fspreparatorypackets/FS_prepack_February_9_2012.pdf
  2. Various reports. Available at: http://www.uc.edu/president/reportcard.html
  3. Paul Street, “The Vicious Cycle: Race, Prison, Jobs and Community in Chicago, Illinois and the Nation” Chicago Urban League, retrieved from: http://www.publicsafety.ohio.gov/links/ocjs_Prisonersin2009.pdf: 38
  4. Andrew Sum,Ishwar Khatiwada, Joseph McLaughlin and Paulo Tobar, “The Educational Attainment of the Nation’s Young Black Men and Their Recent Labor Market Experiences: What Can Be Done to Improve Their Future Labor Market and Educational Prospects?” Center for Labor Market Studies Northeastern University Boston, Massachusetts, 2007: 12.
  5. U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Detailed Tables, Table 201, Cincinnati-Middletown, OH-KY-IN Metro Area, Educational Attainment, Black or African American alone or in combination with one or more other races, White alone.
  6. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement, 2011.
  7. Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry and Paul Taylor, “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks, Hispanics” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends, 7-26-2011.
  8. Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services, “Prisoners in 2009,” Retrieved from: http://www.publicsafety.ohio.gov/links/ocjs_Prisonersin2009.pdf: 3
  9. Ohio ACLU. “Appendix by ACLU to Five Year Rand Report,” 2009 Retrieved from: http://www.acluohio.org/issues/PolicePractices/CincinnatiAgreement/AppendixByACLUToYear5RandReport.pdf: 2
  10. Francis T. Cullen and John Paul Wright. “CRIMINAL JUSTICE IN THE LIVES OF AMERICAN ADOLESCENTS: CHOOSING THE FUTURE,” 2011, Retrieved from: http://www.uc.edu/content/dam/uc/ccjr/docs/articles/wright_articles/CJ_IN_LIVES.pdf: 4, 46

Streetvibes – Occupying the rift

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I was interviewed by Cincinnati’s Street Newspaper, Streetvibes, on thoughts on continuing the encampments. Though it does sound like I am endorsing “diversity of tactics” at the end, I think this does a good job of capturing the core of the sides of the “to occupy, or not to occupy question” (which might not actually be a question with a binary answer).

Read the article on Streetvibes’ website. 

By JIM LUKEN

Faithful Streetvibes readers know that the Meetup page offers up a bi-weekly account of an individual’s life story. As you can see, this time, there are two stories, and the focus is on a serious conflict, not so much between the two individuals featured here, but between two sides of an issue that, in a sense, affects the ongoing life of downtown Cincinnati.

Now that the city has granted Occupy Cincinnati (OC) members (as well as  anyone else) permission to  express their first amendment rights at a small area of Piatt (Garfield Park) 24/7, a number of individuals from the movement have chosen to do just that, to re-Occupy the park.

For the past three weeks (as of April 7), individuals from the movement have been at Piatt Park all day long, leafleting, and all night, holding vigil. They are proud to re-Occupy the park again. Others in the local Occupy group feel that what these folks are doing is a waste of time and energy.

Streetvibes Readers: read the two stories and decide for yourselves. Send Streetvibes letters stating your point of view. Should the demonstrators remain there at the statue of Garfield… or not?

Reginald Hill

Meet Reginald Hill. 46. Navy veteran. Native of OTR. 4th of seven children. Father of one, grandfather of three. Long-time independent taxi driver. Grass-roots activist.

“In the middle of the night (at Piatt Park), it is usually pretty calm and dark, of course,” he says. “I often feel lonely and despairing, not knowing if the group as a whole (OC) understands the significance of having a 24 hour space for free speech.”

The protestors are not permitted to lie down, although they often do, catching sleep in snatches as best they can. Hill says that some nights have been very chilly. In the middle of one night, a cold rain fell. The protestors went across the street to stand under the overhang of the library. According to Hill, the police drive by often during the nights. Usually they don’t bother those gathered at the statue, he says. But that night they demanded that the activists return to the park, where they sat for hours in the rain.

Reginald—his friends call him Reggie—has very personal reasons for spending so much time there in the park. “I think it’s important to show that this space is needed, because of all the arrests that happened at this location.” Hill states proudly that he was arrested at both Piatt Park and—two days later—at a middle-of-the night demonstration at Fountain Square [All charges were recently dropped against all the arrestees].

Hill believes that the return of the 24/7 occupation is having a positive effect. He points out that he and his friends have already handed out over 1700 flyers. “It gives us the opportunity to engage by standers, to find out what they think of the Occupation. And it also gives us the ability to have youth become active in the movement.”

Hill expresses no overt anger at the other members of Occupy, who prefer to do committee work and to develop direct actions. But he often feels abandoned by the larger part of the group. He points out that some of those who stand there at the statue leafleting are themselves homeless. They might be described as “ragtag.” Whereas the others, who do their activist work at the OC warehouse facility, or from their computers at home tend to be more middle-class.

“The informational and the technological work to keep our movement alive must be done,” Hill affirms, “But supporting those of us (i.e., those on the street) who support your ideas is also important.”

“All of us,” Reggie avows, “need to be aware of all the people and to be inclusive, and not to exclude anyone because of status or class.” At several OC General Assembly meetings he has begged other members to come to the park late at night, “just to get a feel of what it is like and what we are doing down there.”

Hill has been active in both Occupy Cincinnati and Occupy the Hood, which focuses more on issues relating to foreclosures and the urban poor. Politics and political action is in his blood now. At some point, maybe for the 2014 elections, he hopes to run for city council. In the meantime, he is emphatic. “Occupy has become a family to me, and I would do anything for my family. I’m occupied with the thoughts of Occupy all the time, always ready to create more pressure in order to affect change. Nothing counts,” he concludes, “but more pressure.”

Ben Stockwell

Meet Ben Stockwell. 22. Socialist. Computer programmer for the University of Cincinnati. Second of three boys from a Kings Mills family.

Young Ben Stockwell has been a committed activist for some time now. Already his activist work has had a significant effect on a shadowy, ultra-conservative organization that is only now coming into public view.  A year ago, he and a small group of local friends “outed” this secretive lobbying group known as ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC was holding its national meeting here in Cincinnati. “We felt we had to do something,” Ben said. That “something” brought Ben’s group national recognition, and brought ALEC under media scrutiny at last.

On the day of this interview, Ben and I celebrated the announcement that Coca Cola and Pepsi—under activist pressure—had just then abandoned their connections to ALEC.

Stockwell has been a hard-core member of Occupy Cincinnati from early on. But he is not in favor of the re-occupation of Piatt Park. “I don’t hold any grudge against them or anything,” He says, “But I would like to have conversation about why they think it is so important.”

As Stockwell sees it, the encampments that characterized Occupy Wall Street and its imitators all over the country (and world) were a striking visual symbol of the emerging fight against the ruling class. “Early on I think it was great. It got people excited about what we were doing,” he argues, “but I’m not sure a reoccupation can have the same effect. Before (last fall), people were flocking down to see and support the occupation. Now people are only coming across the occupyers accidentally.”

Ben seems fully appreciative of the value of confrontational, in-your-face, tactics when it comes to activism and movement building. “One of the nice things about the (physical) Occupation is that it did kind-of prefigure the collective spirit, and it drew a core of committed activists.”

Stockwell understands that he was one of those drawn into the Occupy movement by the power of those multi-colored tents and the energy that surrounded them in so many places. He became one of the committed core. He still follows the goings-on of Occupyers in various places.

“Greensboro, North Carolina,” he explains, “voluntarily left their physical occupation, and now they work on issues, like foreclosures and the environment. I don’t think we should be occupying for occupying’s sake.”

There are things Ben Stockwell does believe we should be doing. ‘I’d like to see us turn toward more traditional organizing, like canvassing, holding community meetings, essentially going to the people, instead of requiring the people to come to us.”

Stockwell is readying himself for the long struggle to bring true democracy and a level playing field to our common life. In the fall, he will be matriculating at UC, and seeking a second bachelor’s degree (his first was in computer science), this time in sociology.

In terms of his disagreement with Occupyers like Reginald Hill, he concludes, “We don’t have to resolve this thing tomorrow. I hope everyone who is involved realizes they have to put as much energy as they can into a variety of tactics. Some of these tactics, we haven’t even thought of yet.”