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Feb 28 2012

So high, so low

So I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: mandatory minimums are racist. When we finally strip away the facile understanding of ‘racism’ as an intentional discriminatory act by a bad person against someone else, we are able to recognize that people, institutions, and traditions can be racist. The lack of intentionality is immaterial with respect to whether or not an action is racist – a better yardstick to use is whether or not it has the same effect that an intentionally racist (or “really” racist) action would. Put another way – I can be racist without even trying, and so can a non-conscious entity such as an institution (or even a non-entity like a policy).

Judged by this metric (which is arguably far more useful and accurate than the one used to detect ‘classic racism’), mandatory minimums serve to exacerbate existing racial disparities by removing the capacity of the system to take societal factors into account. In other words, they’re racist:

The legislation, a medley of 10 bills on the Harper government’s tough-on-crime agenda, includes mandatory-minimum-sentencing rules that will curtail judges’ abilities to deal out alternative sentences. That could undo a decade-long effort to find culturally specific ways of diverting inmates such as Mr. Findlay away from serial engagements with the justice system. Native Canadians make up less than 4 per cent of the general population, but they account for 22 per cent of prison inmates. Many of those are young men who have grown up in poverty and high unemployment, and who have lower-than-average education levels.

Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said recently that aboriginal children are more likely to go to jail than to graduate from high school. More will go to jail after C-10, and many will end up in the gangs that flourish in western and northern jails, where more than 70 per cent of inmates are aboriginal. “What we’re doing with C-10,” says Jonathan Rudin, program director of the ALST, “is to increase our reliance on things that don’t work.”

As much as I disagree with (and dislike) the current government, I simply cannot bring myself to believe that they are intentionally trying to trap First Nations Canadians into a cycle of poverty and despair in which many spend their most productive developmental years in detention, but again the intent is completely meaningless. The bill that they are propagating does not have the capacity to determine intent, and as such its effects will be the same as if Mr. Harper was on an anti-Native crusade. Even if one cannot fault the ostensible intention of the bill – punishing criminals – one simply cannot (or at least should not) ignore the fact that this approach places an undue burden on the people who can least afford it. There’s also the fact that it may result in releasing more criminals than it locks up, but that’s an efficacy argument rather than an ethical one.

And far beyond these kinds of esoteric, highfalutin arguments about the definitions of racism and institutions and equivalence, there is the fact that these kinds of policies end up with nakedly, undeniably racist consequences:

Incidentally, just the day before the tragic killing [of black teen Ramarley Graham], the New York City media was buzzing about the 2011 marijuana arrest numbers. There were more than 50,000 marijuana arrests in 2011, the second-most in NYC history and the most in more than a decade.  The NYPD bust more people for small amounts of marijuana than any other crime in the city. And these 50,000 arrests are overwhelmingly young black and Latino men – even though, according to the government’s own data, they are no more likely to use or sell marijuana than young whites.

The amazing thing is that 7/8 of an ounce of marijuana is decriminalized – if police find marijuana in your belongings, they’re supposed to just give you a ticket, instead of arresting you, unless the marijuana is being smoked or in “public view.” So if under an ounce is supposed to not lead to arrest, why are 50,000 arrests happening a year? Because the NYPD stops and frisks more than 600,000 people – mostly young black and brown men – and then tricks them into emptying their pockets. And when marijuana is then pulled out, the police arrest them for marijuana in “public view.”

Laws like the ones contained in Bill C-10 are not about reducing crime, and I don’t think the government has claimed otherwise. They are about punishment of ‘criminals’ – a process that creates an ‘other’ class and then inveighs against them. There is no group that is easier to ‘other’ than those who are already ‘othered’, meaning black and Native kids (and, to a certain extent, Latin@s – a much bigger issue in the USA than here, but still an issue here). What this approach leads to is the deepening of pre-existing racist attitudes about what criminals ‘look like’, which inform the kind of decisions borne of ‘gut instinct’ that lead to the disproportionate harassment and jailing of people within visible minority communities. It leads to race being used as a qualification for ‘reasonable suspicion’, rather than as a moderating factor that can inject nuance into judicial decision-making. It leads to increased alienation of groups that are already deeply cynical and suspicious of the intentions and actions of the majority, which only serves to deepen their ‘othering’.

All of this happens not because the government is made up of evil racists who hate brown-skinned people, but because of their staunch refusal to accept the fact that those attitudes are a part of the cultural background ‘noise’. Because of their reticence to consider that these ideas intersect with their axiomatic ideology in ways that all but ensure that our historical white supremacy is strengthened and bolstered and preserved for future generations to ‘enjoy’. Because of their inability to consider the viewpoints of those who disagree, preferring instead to demonize and dismiss rather than develop and debate.

Because there is no mandatory minimum of brains or human decency to form government.

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9 comments

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  1. 1
    Anthony K

    Reducing or minimising crime is a lot less important to well-off white people than being able to harrumph about kids today (and The Other) and how they all need a little discipline like we all had when we were young.

  2. 2
    smacr

    I applaud your effort on this and other race related issues here in Canada.

    However, the current government has no room in their tiny minds for the opinions or even evidence of anyone but themselves.

    They run things based purely on their own narrow ideology and have a proven record of ignoring not just dissenters but any and all evidence that doesn’t agree with their worldview.

    They only thing that seems to dissuade them from their juggernaut approach to governing, is public shame when the media occasionally becomes brave enough to call them on their untenable positions.

  3. 3
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    All of this happens … because of their staunch refusal to accept the fact[s]

    This could apply to just about every wrong-headed, evil policy Harper and his cronies implement. They want to line their pockets and set themselves up for a power trip. Facts just get in the way.

  4. 4
    Pen

    I believe that as societies we should not use prison punitively. People have a right not to be in captivity and when we breach that right we should be motivated by a very clear self-defense need. That might apply to known murderers and rapists, but not to drug crime. Then, when we do lock people up, it is up to us to as societies to assume the burden of paying for their maintenance to a pretty high standard.

    When people are committing crimes we’ve deemed anti-social rather than acutely dangerous, such as drug crimes or theft, we should really consider what is wrong with their relationship to society, or with society’s relationship with them and in the meantime, I don’t know, maybe we could try to act preventatively, with the minimum possible restrictions on everyone’s freedom.

  5. 5
    Robert B.

    If I was thinking about it without evidence, I would suppose that mandatory minimums would counter the effects of racism by not allowing the overprivileged to get off with a slap on the wrist. Which just goes to show how wrong you can go when you reason in advance of the evidence. (Especially if you’re also lacking relevant expertise – I’ve got no training on law or crime or social sciences generally.) I had read before now that the observed effect is to put more people of color in jail. I hadn’t explicitly thought of it as racist before, but I can totally accept your point about effect rather than intent.

    PS – I don’t know if this is a Canada/US terminology thing, or what, but I didn’t realize right away that “mandatory minimums” meant “mandatory minimum criminal sentences.” I was on paragraph 3 before I realized you weren’t talking about hiring quotas.

  6. 6
    Stephanie Zvan

    Or to put it another way (as I was thinking before I got to your comment), I certainly can fault a bill that has as its purpose punishing criminals. The purpose of any such bill should be to approximate that perfect balance between preventing future crime and protecting the rights of citizens. Focusing on punishment is almost a guarantee that you can’t accomplish the correct goal.

  7. 7
    ischemgeek

    ^ Also less important than the feeling of satisfaction from a harsh punishment… Talking to certain people in my life who support these policies, it’s very clear that some who support this stuff just don’t care whether or not it works. They just want to see harsh punishment handed out to someone in their Out Group.

    Strangely, these same people are perfectly fine with slapping the wrists of public officials who abuse the powers of their office, obstruct the election process, lie, leak information, cheat and ignore the fact that we have a Freedom of Information Act. Because, you know, those people weren’t really doing anything wrong. If the press gallery and Liberals and NDP and those damn commie hippy kids would just shut up and let them run roughshod over the country, they wouldn’t be forced to do such things.

    It’s for freedom that we have to let them ignore human rights, restrict privacy, and control information, don’t you know.

    … I swear, every day, Canada is starting to look more like our Southern neighbours in every bad way possible.

  8. 8
    Perry Bulwer

    “… I simply cannot bring myself to believe that they are intentionally trying to trap First Nations Canadians into a cycle of poverty and despair …”

    It was a century or more of intentional government policies that entrapped so many First Nations people in poverty and despair. If you cannot accept that the current government’s policies intentionally fail to address that poverty and despair, can you at least accept that the government is immorally negligent, and in my opinion, criminally negligent?

    Why is it that on Prime Minister Harper’s official website you can easily find information about how to rescue house cats, a foreign invasive species, but you cannot find any information on how to rescue indigenous children from the generational effects of state racism and discrimination and the pain and poverty that has caused?

  9. 9
    Crommunist

    So it’s a question of active discrimination vs. discrimination by omission (or neglect). I don’t think Stephen Harper cares much about First Nations people, except insofar as he can use them as a political lever. However, I don’t think he has an active dislike for them. I know Canadians who actively hate Aboriginal Canadians. I don’t think the Prime Minister is one of them.

    But, not to put too fine a point on it, it doesn’t really much matter whether he’s ignoring them because he hates them, or ignoring them because he’s short-sighted and non-empathetic. It has the same force and effect, which is why I am not shy about labeling it racist.

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