2020 Presidential Endorsement: Biden-Harris

As has been my custom, I’m going to provide blog endorsements for criminal justice propositions and candidates as the November election approaches. Today we start with the top of the ticket–candidates for President and Vice-President.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been getting dozens of idiotic political fundraising gambits via email and text. One of my favorites was the faux survey: “Do you prefer Sanders and Klobuchar/Biden and Warren/Harris and Castro to Trump and Pence?” To which I often replied, “I prefer a colonoscopy and a root canal to Trump and Pence.” I think what we have here is not what I would have wanted, but it’s nowhere near a colonoscopy and a root canal, and it’s a light-years-far cry from Trump-Pence.


Suppose, for your birthday, you receive a catalog with two gift choices: a steaming pile of poop and a basketball. You must have one or the other; if you pick, you get the one you chose, and if you don’t pick, one will be chosen for you. You can’t opt out. Alas, you wanted a pony. But a pony is not on offer.

What do you do? You might pout, you might shout, but eventually you pick the basketball. Because there’s something you know for sure: you don’t want the pile of poop.

You don’t scribble, “I WANTED A PONY!!!!!” with your colored pencils all over the catalog. There is no #%^@ing pony. There’s only poop and basketball.


Six years ago, an Orange County federal judge, Judge Cormac Carney, ruled that the death penalty in California was cruel and unusual because of the delays in its administration. This decision provoked much excitement in the anti-death-penalty community. It did not mean immediate abolition, because it was just one habeas case. But it could lead to abolition, and all the Attorney General had to do was refrain from appealing the decision and get out of the way. At the time, I organized a petition, which 2,178 people signed, essentially urging then-Governor Brown and then-Attorney General Harris, both of whom were personally opposed to the death penalty, “don’t just do something! Sit there.” Many lawyers and advocates were extremely excited about the prospect of finally getting to work on ridding ourselves from the shame and the expense of California’s broken death penalty. And then, two days before the appellate clock was to run out, the AG’s office decided to appeal the decision.

To my surprise, and to their credit, one of AG Harris’ assistants called me on my cellphone and explained why they decided to do so. They interpreted Judge Carney’s decision as making new law on habeas, which is prohibited, per Teague v. Lane (1989), because of retroactivity issues. The technical wrinkle is this: habeas petitioners’ cases are already final, and if a new law is announced in their cases, it cannot apply to similarly situated defendants, because their cases are also final. So the Supreme Court decided to relegate habeas to the law of yesterday, which is unfair and outrageous, but it is technically the law.

Jones v. Chappell then landed at the Ninth Circuit as Davis v. Jones. At the oral argument, Jones’ attorney made a valiant effort to argue that Judge Carney did not make new law, but rather applied good old Furman v. Georgia. The effort failed, though it did have some merit. The decision was a big disappointment, and we ended up with six more years of a death penalty in which no one was executed but your tax dollars, and mine, funded $150 million a year per death row person in litigation fees. Our effort to repeal via voter initiative didn’t work, and met with nasty resistance in the form of a competing, misleading, unjust proposition, which is still tangled up in litigation to this day. It also met with the preciousness of progressives who believe that the good was the enemy of the perfect, and astoundingly voted no on abolition. So it went until Gov. Newsom finally pulled the plug, but of course, without judicial support (or legislation,) we’re still paying the litigation fees, and we will continue to pay until some brave judge does something or until a majority of Californians finally votes to abolish.

I was very upset about the AG’s decision. I thought it was the wrong call, policywise and moralitywise, and said so on numerous occasions.

I am writing this because phone calls from news agencies looking to do some muck racking have already begun. I’m going to decline any and all interviews about Harris, and I want to be crystal clear why. My target audience is the folks who were hoping for a different ticket. I explained the background above to clarify that I, too, had a different ticket in mind. I wanted Elizabeth Warren to be the Presidential nominee. But Elizabeth Warren is not on the ticket.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are.

I want to make it crystal clear that I am shelving any and all reservations about the Democratic 2020 ticket, and am urging you to vote Biden-Harris, with or without enthusiasm. Your enthusiasm is not that important (though, if you can muster some, you’ll feel better.) Your vote is. Monumentally so.

In the coming months, we will hear a lot about who Biden and Harris are, but one thing I’m pretty clear on is that they are colossally different than the criminal junta that has been running things in the last three and a half years, buying their way to power through treason and backroom deals with enemies, locking up children, letting families starve, making nepotistic appointments of unsuitable, barely-literate idiots who ruin whatever they are in charge of, destroying our precious planet, sending government goons to beat and abuse protesters, encouraging and goading non-government goons to shoot, run down, and murder people, trafficking in horrific tropes to ally themselves with actual Nazis.

The situation, in short, is this, my friends. Behind Curtain no. 1: Nazis. Behind Curtain no. 2: not Nazis.

The pony is not on the ballot. The bedrock of our democracy is. You’re not getting a custom-fit ticket, you’re choosing from a catalog with two products. The choice is obvious.

More News of COVID-19 in CA Prisons

A few important items from the last few days:

Democracy Now! devoted an episode to the San Quentin COVID-19 disaster, including conversations with folks on the inside, as well as Ella Baker Center’s State Campaigner James King, commenting on the structure of Quentin and why it is incompatible with healthcare:

Today at 1pm, the #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition is hosting a virtual press conference on FB Live, featuring updates on the situation in prison, the Plata v. Newsom litigation, and the habeas corpus cases that have been consolidated at the Marin Superior Court. FYI, I am authoring the brief on behalf of amici curiae the ACLU of Northern California and twenty of my colleagues, criminal justice and corrections experts. I will post the brief in full here after it is filed.

The first article based on data collected by the UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project is out from JAMA, showing that the the adjusted COVID-19 mortality rate in the prison population is 3.0 times higher than would be expected if the age and sex distributions of the US and prison populations were equal.

Finally, my article California’s COVID-19 Prison Disaster and the Trap of Palatable Reform is out from Boom California and offered free to the public on Boom’s open access platform. I decided to publish with Boom, rather than with a paywalled academic journal, because I think it is crucial for anyone in CA who is looking for background on this crisis to learn the background and understand why the proposed solutions are inadequate. Please share widely with your networks.

Outbreak “Abating” at Quentin? It Can Easily Return

I’m noticing public attention wavering away from the San Quentin disaster, and my concern is that the slowing down of the contagion has lulled people into a false assumption that the prison is doing what it should and conquering this challenge. Lest you believe this, let’s talk about what’s happened in other places. Avenal (pictured above) is a case in point. As in previous posts, Chad Goerzen and I are using CDCR’s own data, from the COVID-19 tracking tool.

The outbreak in Avenal happened early on in the pandemic, and was probably one of the most severe outbreaks before the transfer from CIM to Quentin. Avenal’s casualties were among the first behind bars, too. At the beginning of June, most tests were coming in negative, and prison authorities probably thought that the outbreak had abated. Then, in mid-July, case numbers started climbing up again.

Another example is CIW, pictured below. Note the alarming numbers in early May, the decline in testing (and in cases! in late May and in June, and then the spike in numbers of cases in mid- to late-July.

There are other examples of apparent abatement followed by a resurgence of the outbreak. Here’s the data for CMC, where initially there were only a handful of cases. As opposed to other prisons, you can see that CMC continued to test people periodically, on a weekly basis, even when they had no contagion, and the in late July they caught a new wave with dozens of new infections.

Here’s the picture for Corcoran, which seems to have had three waves of outbreak. You’ll note that one of them followed the ill-fated transfer from Chino. Corcoran did test a lot of people in early July and found no infections, but toward mid- to late-July we’re seeing infections again.

Finally, here’s a more ambiguous resurgence in LA County State Prison. Note that this prison was conducting very few tests between the two waves, so what they are seeing from early July onward could simply be a consequence of the increased testing.

What can we learn from this, particularly from the examples of Avenal and CIW? The obvious takeaway is that a serious outbreak does not protect a prison from a recurrence. There are numerous reasons for this. The jury’s apparently still out as to the extent to which recent infection and recovery effectively inoculate a person against a recurrence. It seems that people who get reinfected are less contagious, but this is highly dependent upon their medical condition and environmental immunosuppression (and there’s no absolute certainty that the person was actually reinfected after recovery, rather than just continuously sick or just expelling dead cells.) If, indeed, reinfection is possible–whether or not to the same contagious extent–then a mere staff member who gets takeout on the way home could restart the cycle. But this is exacerbated by the renewal of prison transfers which, I believe, start again today. We now know, because (or, actually, despite) the scant reporting from BSCC, that several jails are hotbeds of COVID-19, with dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of infections. The slow drip of people out of state prisons is going to be offset by the incoming bottleneck of people from jails, and one can only hope against hope that they’ll bother testing people on both ends of the transfer this time.

In short, keep your eyes on the human rights crime. It’s slowing down not because we are succeeding, but because the virus is succeeding. And state officials–at the Governor’s mansion, at the prisons, at the courts–are not doing enough to stop it in its tracks.

Just What We Need from the L.A. Times: Tired Tropes, Misinformation, Hatred and Dehumanization

During this pandemic, I’ve seen some hate-baiting news coverage of the COVID-19 disaster in prisons, but today’s article in the L.A. Times truly takes the cake. I am astonished at the unfortunate choice to title the article “California is releasing some murderers due to COVID-19. Some say it should free more” (UPDATE: as you can see from the picture above, our feedback helped and they changed the tone of the headline.) The “some” to which the original headline referred, who are discussed in a mocking and discrediting tone in the piece, represent robust, decades-long criminological evidence that the distinction between so-called “violent” and “nonviolent” offender is meaningless from a public safety perspective.

It is incomprehensible that, as a deadly pandemic ravages prisons and inflicts punishments that can’t be found anywhere in the California Penal Code, the L.A. Times recurs to these cheap tropes to attract its readerships. The writers chose to interview victims who, while entitled to their personal opinions, are not the statewide curators of victims’ perspectives, and do not represent the thousands of compassionate human beings whose lives were wrecked by violent crime and nonetheless believe that prisoners were not sentenced do die by COVID-19. They also, astoundingly, dragged–yet again!–the tired trope of Willie Horton to foment hatred and dehumanization.

Because I think this is shameful, lazy, hate-baiting journalism, and because I don’t need to read newspapers whose criminal justice analysis hasn’t progressed since the Reagan Administration, I am canceling my subscription to the Los Angeles Times. If you share my views, give their customer service department a piece of your mind tomorrow morning: 213-283-2274.

Prison Workers’ Union Files Grievance; Silence from the Prison Guards’ Union

The union that represents health care workers, clerical staff, custodians and other prison employees, SEIU Local 1000, has filed a wide-ranging grievance against CDCR and CCHCS (the Federal Receiver’s prison health services) for employing them, throughout the state, in unsafe conditions. Megan Cassidy for the San Francisco Chronicle reports:

The grievance, filed July 28, alleges that union officials documented safety violations at all 35 prisons owned and operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR.

“Some of these prisons have already had serious COVID-19 outbreaks,” the grievance states. “(Prison and prison health care officials) should still be able to prevent outbreaks if they take all possible and reasonable steps to prevent them.”

The grievance lists numerous violations:

  • Inadequate supply of hand sanitizer machines and disinfecting wipes
  • Common areas at worksite are not being cleaned throughout the day
  • No training received on the state’s COVID-19 health and safety guidelines
  • Employees are not getting notice when someone at your worksite has tested positive for COVID-19
  • Not everyone at institution wears a mask
  • Six foot physical distance is not being maintained at worksite
  • Failure of adequate testing of staff and inmates
  • Transfer of inmates without adequate testing [this pertains to the infamous transfer from Chino, which brought COVID-19 to Quentin and Corcoran–HA]
  • Failure to quarantine or isolate inmates with suspected exposure
  • Failure to maintain adequate internal command or control
  • Failure to provide safety protocols to protect staff from infection
  • Inadequate supplies and types of PPE

The union demands taking the following steps:

  • Take all necessary steps to ensure employee health and safety
  • Ensure that each institution has a COVID-19 incident command center with both medical and custody staff
  • Have a clear written plan for spaces/areas that will be utilized to isolate/quarantine suspected and COVID-19 confirmed inmates at each institution.
  • Ensure that management at all levels understands their responsibilities and role in preventing the further spread of COVID-19.
  • Halt the movement of inmates between prisons and intakes from counties [this is crucial because, as I learned today on Twitter from people on the inside, transfers are scheduled to resume this coming Monday – HA]
  • Ensure that DAI and CCHCS are doing everything possible to maintain six foot physical distance between persons (including allowing all employees possible to telework), providing adequate hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes and are enforcing that everyone wear masks/or face coverings
  • Ensure that all employees are trained with the latest State of California health and safety guidelines and that all employees are noticed about possible COVID-19 exposure at their worksite.

This was a long time coming; I’m surprised the union is taking these steps only now, but there’s something else that bothers me. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Scotland Yard Inspector Gregory asks Sherlock Holmes, “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” Holmes replies, “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” Gregory says, “The dog did nothing in the night-time.” To which Holmes answers, “That was the curious incident.” I bring this up because, if there’s any union that should expected to vociferously defend the interests, safety, and health of its members, it’s the strongest union in California— the CCPOA.

I’ve spent quite a while today on the CCPOA’s website, trying to find a sliver of a reference to COVID-19. Nothing on the front page; nothing under “news and information.” They do take care to mention a study according to which PTSD rates among prison guards rivals that of war veterans and to take pride in a 5% salary raise from 2019, but nothing whatsoever about the obvious. CCPOA guards face as much risk from the virus as the workers represented by SEIU Local 1000; the CDCR reporting system does not distinguish between guards and other staff members. To-date, CDCR reports 1976 COVID-19 cases among staff, as well as eight deaths.

CCPOA is not a particularly timid union. As Josh Page explains in his wonderful book about the union, CCPOA has been at the helm of much of the punitive animus in California, branding itself as a tough-on-crime organization and partnering with (or puppeteering) Crime Victims United of California, with whom CCPOA shares numerous board members. CCPOA and CVU are largely responsible for the public perception of punitivism as natural and ubiquitous, a perception not shared by many survivors of violent crime. And here we have a matter that’s not about fancy penological philosophy, but is actually the bread-and-butter of what a union is supposed to do: protect its members’ health and safety on the job. Instead, here’s what the Sac Bee reports about their salary negotiations with Gov. Newsom:

California correctional officers would take one furlough day per month and defer raises for two years under a proposed agreement their union has negotiated with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association’s two-year agreement appears to be the first deal a state union has reached with the administration over pay cuts Newsom proposed for all state workers to help address a projected $54 billion budget deficit.

The tentative agreement will require a vote from the union’s 26,000 members to pass and will need approval from the Legislature.

The agreement uses a personal leave program to reduce officers’ pay by 4.5% — roughly the equivalent of one day of work per month — for two years. In exchange, the officers receive 12 hours of paid leave per month, the equivalent of one and a half days of work.

A 3% raise the officers were scheduled to receive July 1 is deferred until July 1, 2022.

The agreement would reduce the state’s spending on correctional officers by 8.99%, or about $395 million, according to a cost summary of the agreement. Correctional officers make up a large share of the state’s general fund spending on its workforce, accounting for about a third of general fund payroll spending.

Newsom’s original proposal of two unpaid leave days would have reduced the state’s spending on the group by 9.53%, or about $419 million, according to the summary.

The agreement softens the impact of the cuts on correctional officers’ pocketbooks by suspending a paycheck deduction that funds the health care plans they’ll use in retirement. That change allows workers’ to keep 4% of their paycheck that had been going to future health care costs.

The state also would cover an increase to health insurance costs of .54 percent, according to the summary.

The deal would suspend holiday pay for seven of the 11 state holidays, eliminate one personal development day for the term of the agreement, suspend night and weekend differentials and make other tweaks to pay.

This is not great for CCPOA, though it does somewhat soften the blow of the salary cuts. But how could CCPOA negotiate with the Governor, amidst a pandemic, and not mention their working conditions, even in passing?

The curious thing about the guards’ COVID-19 interests is that the best thing that can be done for them, which is, obviously, mass releases to allow for social distancing and minimally competent healthcare, stands in opposition to what their leadership has advocated for in the last forty years. CCPOA built its power advocating for more and longer prison sentences, getting its political cache from being “the toughest beat” and from the sheer enormity of the California correctional apparatus. But this does not necessarily reflect the rational self-interest of its members, which even in ordinary times would find it safer and easier to wrangle and supervise fewer people in a less crowded facility. In that respect, the virus is not so much reversing the interests of the guards as it is putting them in clearer focus. And if this is the case, then it seems that CCPOA is not really representing its members properly, and we’re seeing a pretty dire example of political capture.

SCOTUS Temporarily Relieves OC Jail from Obligation to Take COVID-19 Precaution Measures

Yesterday, in a 5-4 vote, SCOTUS stayed a lower court’s preliminary injunction that required the Orange County Sheriff to implement certain COVID-19 safety measures. The decision, Barnes v. Ahlman, is brief, with only Justice Sotomayor writing for the dissent (what a superb law-and-society Justice she is–and a fantastic writer.) Before delving into the decision, it’s worthwhile looking at the BSCC reports for the OC, which I’ve placed above. Now, the webpage claims that they updated it yesterday, but it also claims that the numbers we’re seeing are for the week between 7/19 and 7/25, which is adds to my impression that BSCC reporting, which is already woefully late to the game, needs considerable improvement if it is to be informative. For what it’s worth, during that week–and things might’ve exponentially spread since then–the OC jail system had at least 17 cases and had tested less than 10% of their population. Moreover, Justice Sotomayor writes that “[a]t the time of the District Court’s injunction, the Jail had witnessed an increase of more than 300 confirmed COVID–19 cases in a little over a month.” You wouldn’t know this from the BSCC page, because for unfathomable reasons they don’t report cumulative cases, nor do they provide the data they had before the dashboard was created. I really hope that the COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project will be able to obtain better information, including cumulative and historical numbers–apparently the numbers exist, because local newspapers were reporting on them weeks ago–but I’m not holding my breath. In any case, putting together Justice Sotomayor’s summary and the BSCC data points to a worrisome situation: they’ve had hundreds of cases and they are currently doing hardly any testing, which could explain why they numbers seem small.

Anyway, back to the decision. Justice Sotomayor refers to the decision to stay the injunction as “extraordinary.” Ordinarily, the conditions for granting a stay require (1) a “reasonable probability” that SCOTUS will actually grant certiorari to hear the case, (2) a “fair prospect” that SCOTUS will subsequently reverse the decision on the merits, and (3) “a likelihood that irreparable harm [will] result from the denial of a stay”. None of these apply here: the Ninth Circuit ruled on clearly established law–it found ample proof of “deliberate indifference” because the jails were forewarned about this months ago and knew the risks–and, even if the Eighth Amendment is not grounds enough for relief, there is an alternative claim under the ADA. Therefore, odds that SCOTUS will hear this case and reverse are slim. Worst of all, the “likelihood of irreparable harm” is obvious from the facts, described in “dozens of inmate declarations”:

Although the Jail had been warned that “social distancing is the cornerstone of reducing transmission of COVID–19,”
inmates described being transported back and forth to the jail in crammed buses, socializing in dayrooms with no space to distance physically, lining up next to each other to wait for the phone, sleeping in bunk beds two to three feet apart, and even being ordered to stand closer than six feet apart when inmates tried to socially distance. Moreover, although the Jail told its inmates that they could “best protect” themselves by washing their hands with “soap and water throughout the day,” numerous inmates reported receiving just one small, hotel-sized bar of soap per week. And after symptomatic inmates were removed from their units, other inmates were ordered to dispose of their belongings without gloves or other protective equipment. Finally, despite the Jail’s stated policy to test and isolate individuals who reported or exhibited symptoms consistent with COVID–19, multiple symptomatic detainees described being denied tests, and others recounted sharing common spaces with infected or symptomatic inmates.

That the Sheriff’s Department gets to benefit from a pattern of recklessness and obfuscation is sickening in itself, but what’s really sickening is that even as I type this, more cases are preventable. What kind of public official spends their times and resources fighting an order to implement sensible precautions, instead of actually implementing them? BSCC’s feebleness is all over this, starting with the flimsy data collection effort and continuing with these disturbing practices at the county level. The other thing that nauseates me is that there’s no reason to assume that everything is tickety-boo at the other jails, and we now need to expand our list of “known unknowns” at the county level to actual practices of the ground. We can’t make definitive extrapolations from this OC example without knowing more, but if the OC “inmate health and safety” is just a facade, there’s no assurance that other jails are following their own COVID-19 protocols.

What Kind of World Is This?

As I’m collaborating with a legal effort that might help some people at San Quentin get home, safe(r) from the raging pandemic, members of the #StopSanQuentinOutbreak forwarded me this video, which was broadcast on yesterday’s news. Will you just watch this, please, and answer me–what kind of world is this?

BSCC Publishes Data on COVID-19 in Jails

Finally, the BSCC has published its COVID-19 data on juvenile and adult county facilities. But don’t rejoice yet: it’s very sparse. For Alameda County, Santa Rita Jail is still seeing active infections, as you see above. Thankfully, so far no cases in Alameda youth facilities, but they also report having done less than 11 cases (which could or could not mean zero tests.)

Things look grimmer, as you’d expect, in Fresno, where people in jail are suing the sheriff over inadequate prevention and treatment. Note that, to get a sense of the cumulative outbreak, you need to look at “adult outcomes” at the bottom. They report 507 cases resolved (how many of these folks were released? hospitalized? isolated? no answers.)

I’m not sure why this tool isn’t providing us with an aggregate picture for jails, like the CDCR one does, but I’m glad it at least groups jails from the same county on the same page. I would have liked to see the juvenile and adult jails on the same page. In any case, this allows me to overlay data from the L.A. Times for each county onto the situation in the jails and show how the traffic of staff and residents between the community and the institution operates. My suspicion is that, given the shorter stays in jails, we’re going to see more interactions between jails and the community. I also worry about whether some of these places are acting now as “bottlenecks” because local prisons are seeing outbreaks.

In other news, CCI and Avenal are in very bad shape, again, which indicates that we cannot assume that the outbreak truly abated there (or, for that matter, anywhere else where there’s no new infections.)

Why I’m Leery of Racial Confessionals

“Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle.”

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Thrice in the last two weeks I’ve been required–by my workplace, by my mindfulness meditation teacher training–to participate in a public conversation with colleagues about race. “Required” is perhaps the wrong word; no one’s forcing me to attend, and once I attend, it’s not always mandatory to speak. But given Ibram X. Kendi‘s much-quoted exhortation that you can either be racist or antiracist, it doesn’t feel like there’s much of a choice. Moreover, twice I’ve now been called on by name to speak, and in the upcoming meeting we will all be expected to chime in.

If you’ve read this blog before, you probably know how much I care about social change; working on these issues in the criminal justice field is what I’ve done all my adult life. I’ve “done the work,” as my younger friends like to say, many times, not only when waves of racial horror, police killings, or a new horrifying statistic about economic or health outcomes penetrates the collective consciousness and brings about a wave of white contrition and performance. I’ve been through many iterations of the all-too-familiar dynamic Tre Johnson describes in his Washington Post op-ed (he falls into his own trap, but at least he sees the trap.) You, gentle reader, might have navigated these waters at least as often, as a white person or as a person of color (or anything in between), or you may be new to this. It feels dangerous to offer any heresy, but I hope I’m old enough and have earned enough cred in the social justice milieu that I can be transparent: I have serious reservations about the utility of these public conversations, which puts me in a conflicted position about how to responsibly participate.

 First, I’ve now experienced several settings in which people from other countries were required to participate in a conversation that has a quintessentially USian flavor–the themes, the materials used, the examples, the jargon. I’m a naturalized American citizen and have lived here for twenty years–I went to UC Berkeley, for Heaven’s sake–and even I don’t feel fully at home in these conversations. When I use this vocabulary, this inflection, I don’t sound sincere to myself–I sound like I’m ventriloquizing an American, rather than being one. Moreover, I can see how people who come from totalitarian countries might experience these group conversations, which are earnest and kindly meant in America, as echoing the thought-control confessionals and struggle sessions from their home countries (they certainly feel like that to me sometimes, and I didn’t grow up during the Chinese cultural revolution or in a Siberian gulag.) I also worry about the tendency to lump non-U.S. cultures into our bins of “white people” versus “people of color” for the purpose of forming racial affinity groups, which is an oft-recommended practice in books about race. Many people I like and respect get a lot out of participating in such affinity groups, but people who are outsiders to American culture might not feel like they have much more in common with white Americans than with black Americans (and before you tell me it’s about how someone is perceived, or what privileges they get, let me remind you that, as an American, you actually have no idea how people are or are not perceived in their home countries.) Because of these problems, the common exhortation “talk to your fellow white people!” always puzzles me and many non-US-born people I know. Whenever I encounter these discourses and techniques foisted on people who don’t share the context for them I cringe: how can the people who plan and facilitate these sessions bend over backwards to be culturally sensitive in one way while displaying, at the same time, breathtaking obtuseness in another?

Second, the emphasis on rooting racist thought patterns–and on publicly talking about rooting them–leaves me feeling a bit queasy, because ultimately I don’t believe that the serious problems of racial discrimination and white supremacy in America can be cured through the purge of our internal bigotries. In partnering with community organizations fighting for criminal justice reform, and just in writing about this stuff for as long as I have, I have done significant work to dig out the ways that bigotries and biases which support injustices play a part in my thinking. I believe that this work is never finished, and requires lifelong diligence and, yes, mindfulness. But racism is not a personal feature; it is systemic and pervasive. The authors of the recent crop of antiracist literature often agree with this, but their prescriptions for these conversations, and the way the conversations are carried, suggest otherwise. Too often, these sessions look like confessionals in which people discharge their obligations to do the day-to-day work of donating, voting, organizing, and the like, and feel good about themselves simply by talking the right talk while exhibiting their superiority over others who didn’t get the memo. I’ll take a person who quietly donates to the ACLU, supports a candidate of color for a job, but does not proclaim their enlightenment from the hilltops over a self-proclaimed “antiracist” who beats themselves publicly over for their “white privilege” and does nothing else for the cause of racial equality any day. 

Which brings me to my final point: It is deeply important to live an examined life, but this examination, at least for me, loses 100% of its value when it is performed to an audience (see here.) I don’t doubt the good intentions and sincerity of many of my colleagues and friends who have participated in these public conversations, and I’m willing to accept that some may find value in sharing their internal tribulations with others. But I’ll be ruthlessly honest: for me, the minute a ritual of contrition is performed in this public manner, it acquires an unpleasant aftertaste of self-congratulation (and, worse, condemnation of others) that empty it of meaning. Whenever I feel this aftertaste in my own experience, I get suspicious about the authenticity of my perspective, and of my clear alignment with what I’m professing to support. That there are social rewards to reap makes it even worse. My time reckoning for the systemic injustices all around me is far better spent preparing an amicus brief, organizing a press conference, or writing an op-ed, than congratulating myself for my goodness in front of others (and yes, I’m well aware that this can be taken to be another move of moral superiority–“I do, you just talk”–but that’s exactly the point: there’s no end to this if it’s all about a competition of goodness. It’s turtles all the way down.)

This is, by the way, is another way in which the public racial conversation, especially among white progressives, is distinctly American. When I wrote Yesterday’s Monsters, I was struck by the way parole hearings adhered to the formula of a confessional. When people said at their hearings that their way to atone for the murders were to just be as good a person as they could, the Board rejected this; what they wanted was psychic excavation, not pragmatic steps. This was especially poignant in the cases of parole hopefuls who were born-again Christians: the ritual was natural and appropriate for them, but the Board said it was not enough, they needed more. Confession is integral to Catholicism as a vehicle for promoting prosocial behavior–just think of how central Saint Augustine’s confessions of his sinful life were to the demonstration of his profound change. A very similar dynamic is present in Protestant and Evangelical circles. Friends from these worlds, with whom I consulted when working on that part of the book, iterated the rhetorical tendency to up-talk past bad behavior to highlight one’s present transformation (one notable example is George W. Bush, when speaking of his “young and irresponsible” phase before becoming born-again.) This is how a deeply, fundamentally Christian nation–in which just the thought of an atheist President, or one who is not Christian, is still an anathema–performs exercises of moral improvement: You publicly proclaim your sins and someone else tells you it’s not enough. It’s a quintessentially American version of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

I have friends who worked tirelessly for racial equality in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. They are so happy to see new generations wake up and cry out against the horrors of police abuses of force, violent vigilantes, you name it, but they are puzzled by the rituals and processes we’ve come up with. To hear them talk about it, things were much simpler way back when: they marched hand in hand, they helped, and the deeper self examinations of identity stuff were simply not in the mix–either because the language for them did not exist, or because people perceived the existential threats they were battling as so urgent that grappling with their mental hygiene was simply not a priority. I don’t think things were simpler. Reading Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright, and of course W.E.B. DuBois, is a solid reminder that the complicated knots of identity have always been there. I know the people who attended the consciousness-raising groups of the 1960s and 1970s struggled with the same knots and performed the same confessions. This country’s identity is as inexorably bound in racial domination as, say, South Africa’s inexorable entanglement with its apartheid past, and no one who lives here can extricate themselves from the tentacles of this legacy. But the simplification, self-congratulation, and jockeying for position in the goodness scale, all that stuff doesn’t feel like the right place to put our energy, and I wish we could find a way to let go of that and do what needs to be done without our various selves getting in the way to the extent that they obscure the path ahead.