It’s September. No Sufficient Recourse from the State. Only Remedy is in Court.

Remember when, on July 10, Gov. Newsom announced the release of up to 8,000 people by late August? And remember when I said it was too little, too late, too reactive, and too obsequious to public opinion?

It’s now mid-September, and it’s time to see these releases. The picture of occupancy in California prisons as of yesterday’s count (the weekly count happens on Wednesday) is at the top of this page. If you wish to look at CDCR’s original data, from which I compiled the above, it’s right here.

We’ve seen an overall reduction to 96,827 total–here’s a great piece by the Chron’s Bob Egelko to give you some historical perspective on how we got there–but how that affects your prison experience or your exposure to COVID depends on where you are. More than half of the CDCR institutions are still in the red with above-capacity populations. Others are hovering at or neat 100%, which is a big improvement, but still very crowded and doesn’t do much for social distancing. And, for San Quentin and some other prisons, the reduction to 100% will not offset the basic architecture of the prison, which is dilapidated and lacks ventilation. Moreover, consider the bottleneck in county jails, and the extent to which transfers from jails might offset this population reduction.

State courts (and federal courts, though their hands are largely tied due to the limitations of the Prison Litigation Reform Act) must act to provide relief. As you see, there’s no safe destination.

Oral Argument in In re Von Staich

“There’s no need to act hastily.” –CDCR counsel Kathleen Walton

“Yes there is. Yes there is. There is a need to act hastily.” –Justice Kline, CA 1st District Court of Appeal

Oral Argument, In re Von Staich on Habeas Corpus, September 8, 2020

Today, the First District Court of Appeal heard oral argument in In re Von Staich, the San Quentin COVID-related habeas case. The hearing opened with a legal debate on whether CDCR, who disputes the declarations and reports made by physicians about the conditions at San Quentin, should have provided actual evidence to refute these reports. CDCR representative Kathleen Walton argued that the habeas rules did not require her to provide these facts, and pressed the court for an evidentiary hearing; Brad O’Connell, for the petitioner, argued that CDCR made no attempt to plead the facts or meet them at all. Justice Kline characterized the prison’s response as “conclusionary statements, not facts”, and rejected CDCR’s argument that the issues they briefed on (whether CDCR provided adequate cleaning, sanitizing, masks, continuation of of holding petitioner Von Staich with other inmates, whether COVID is still spreading at the prison, etc.), were the focus of the case. “What we believe this case is about”, said Justice Kline, “is whether there is persuasive evidence that the court must do what the Plata court cannot do, which is to reduce population of San Quentin to a level that can permit the administration of social distancing within that prison.”

After confirming that CDCR can, indeed, release people serving life with parole, and discussing the legal mechanisms to do so (including the Governor’s emergency authority to release), much of the discussion consisted of CDCR peddling various falsehoods and the Justices not having it. At some point, Ms. Walton intimated that they estimate that some of their vigorous efforts to contain COVID in prison were hindered (they don’t know to what extent) by “inmates refusing to cooperate”, including testing and reporting symptoms. Justice Kline countered with the possibility that people were disincentivized from cooperating because the prison relied on spaces with a punitive connotation (solitary confinement cells) for the purpose of medical isolation (a problem pointed out in the AMEND report and in our Amicus brief.) This struck me as a problem that correctional health professionals should have perhaps taken into account *back in March* when they were repeatedly warned of outbreaks in prison. Fancy that, prison health officials having to consider the possibility that people might try to avoid being transferred to solitary!

Discussion then turned to release policies, with Justice Kline extensively mentioning our brief, which highlighted the most obvious demographic for successful releases: aging people doing long stints for violent crime. The AG representative responded that the petitioner in this particular case was judged to be “moderate risk.”

The next topic on the table was, again, the argument that the court was an inappropriate forum, and somehow “duplicative” of the Plata litigation. Justice Kline explained: “You keep making arguments that assume we have the same interests as the federal court. We are not being asked to evaluate the quality of care and attention to covid they are providing. [The federal courts] are looking into that.” To top the outrage, the CDCR representative tried to spin Judge Tigar’s Plata stance as “he didn’t find an Eighth Amendment violation.” Justice Kline wasn’t having any of it and responded that it is a matter of public knowledge that Judge Tigar *urged* state courts to do something because the PLRA stopped him from acting. In short, said Justice Kline, the COVID crisis at Quentin is a state prboelm, happening at a state department of corrections, which is the duty of state courts to address–in particular at Quentin, which is unique in being the system’s oldest and most dilapidated prison.

Justice Stewart then challenged the CDCR representative, quoting our argument in our Amicus brief that they have basically arrived at each of the three courts handling these lawsuits and argued it was not the appropriate forum. The CDCR representative, in turn, tried to harmonize their position by creating a hierarchy of sorts between the different litigation efforts.

Even though this was, overall, a good day for the petitioner, the court did press petitioner’s representatives on the appropriate remedy. Issuing an order to release 50% of the prisoners, said Justice Kline, is “something I’m not sure I’m willing to do. . . not confident that my court has the ability.” Indeed, the role of the appellate court might be limited to assessing whether the current conditions at Quentin allow the social distancing necessary to stop the spread in that facility, and to put in some guidelines about particular issues that would apply across the board. Justice Kline also commented that the lawsuit has already resulted in a benefit to Von Staich himself; he’s been isolated and no longer as exposed to COVID as he previously was. In light of these issues, the question to petitioner’s attorneys was, “What would you have us say?” The response from Richard Braucher (for the petitioner) was that the only ways to reduce the population at Quentin were via release or via transfer.

Which is where the argument for petitioner touched on some real talk. The elephant in the room, of course, is the rise in cases at other institutions not at stake in this lawsuit. Petitioner’s representative specifically mentioned the situation at Avenal, which has become dire in the last few days, and is currently the worst COVID Petri dish in the state. Here’s the picture there:

We’ve been tracking the CDCR prisons as well as CA counties for months now, and I should probably say that I’m not at all sure whether this is a third outbreak or the continuation of the second one; testing has been sporadic and erratic and basically reflects Trump’s philosophy of “no testing –> no cases.” Nonetheless, it indicates active disease, and it’s not the only place with hundreds of cases. Folsom is doing abysmally as well:

The Court, however, expressed the need to restrain the extent of their inteference with prison business via a direct release order. They pressed petitioner’s representatives on this point, and I think I would have argued that CDCR *needs* help and guidance from the courts because it had *ample* opportunity to do the decent thing and didn’t do so. Even the current CDCR plan is dated, inadequate, targets the wrong people, and we now hear will take the better part of a year to implement, which will come woefully late for the folks who will get sick or even die in the interim. That launched a discussion of how petitioner’s counsel would craft the priority of releases, to which they replied that the two lynchpins of the policy should be age and medical condition.

This opened the door to some breathtakingly cynical takes from the CDCR representative, the gist of which was that there was “no need to act hastily”–presumably because the urgent call to release 50% of the people in prison happened before the reductions in population and because now, after so much damage has already been done, they’re implementing some new program for sanitation and PPE equipment. Basing an argument that no remedy should be offered on the fact that the harm’s already been done was pretty much what I expected them to argue; CDCR has maintained that they are winning the fight against the virus, when in fact the virus has already won and continues to win, again and again, in prisons where COVID was thought to have abated. Justice Kline responded from the heart: “Yes there is. Yes there is. There is a need to act hastily.” People have gotten sick and died, he said, and we must ensure that no more of this happens. We now wait to hear what the Court will decide.

Blackface Scandals Are the Logical Conclusion of the Performative Goodness Race

As if we don’t have bigger tofu slices to fry–with 57 days till the election, we absolutely do–the academic/activist left is atwitter (pun intended) about yet another blackface scandal. This time, it’s Jessica Krug, African and Latin American history professor at George Washington University, whose identity as “Jess La Bombalera” was, as it turns out, fictitious: she grew up Jewish in Kansas City. Facing imminent unmasking by colleagues who suspected that something was awry, Krug published a self-excoriating screed on Medium, in which she admitted to fabricating “a Blackness that I had no right to claim: first North African Blackness, then US rooted Blackness, then Caribbean rooted Bronx Blackness.”

This mess comes to us just a few years after the exposure of Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP official who cultivated an African-American-passing appearance and sparked a debate on whether “transracial” was a “thing,” and a few months after the death of author H.G. Carrillo (“Hache”) of COVID-19, which exposed his lifelong fabrication of a Cuban-American identity. Because of the nature of the identity-manufacturing–white people posing as black–Krug and Dolezal drew understandable ire, and both scandals erupted amidst waves of uprising about racial inequality.

Plenty of personal trauma and pathology is evident in both stories, but Durkheim taught us to see even the most personal phenomena as social facts. Given the progressive obsession with performance, these scandals are a Petri dish for dissection and, faithful to the trappings of the genre, most of these have revolved around the authenticity (or lack thereof) of apologies. But I found an especially insightful twitter thread by Yarimar Bonilla, who astutely remarks that it was “[k]ind of amazing how white supremacy means [Krug] even thought she was better at being a person of color than we were.” Bonilla offers revealing examples of how expertly Krug trafficked in the tropes of progressive oneupmanship:

She always dressed/acted inappropriately—she’d show up to a 10am scholars’ seminar dressed for a salsa club etc—but was so over the top strident and “woker-than-thou” that I felt like I was trafficking in respectability politics when I cringed at her MINSTREL SHOW. In that sense, she did gaslight us. Not only into thinking she was a WOC but also into thinking we were somehow both politically and intellectually inferior.While claiming to be a child of addicts from the hood, she boasted about speaking numerous languages, reading ancient texts, and mastering disciplinary methods—while questioning the work of real WOC doing transformative interdisciplinary work that she PANNED. She consistently trashed WOC and questioned their scholarship. She even described my colleague Marisa Fuentes as a “slave catcher” in the introduction to her book. Kind of amazing how white supremacy means she even thought she was better at being a person of color than we were.That pathology remains evident in her mea culpa article. Somehow she manages to remain ultra woke and strident, still on her political moral high horse, caling for white scholars to be cancelled –in this instance her own white self.

Yarimar Bonilla on Twitter, Sep. 3, 2020

Bonilla is not the only scholar who blamed white supremacy–in this particular case, Krug’s whiteness–for the scandal: elsewhere on twitter, Sofia Quintero quipped that “[n]othing says white privilege like trying to orchestrate your own cancellation.” But I think there’s something else going on here. As many people have observed, Krug materially benefitted from her deceit, through fellowships and opportunities open to underrepresented people of color. The benefits, however, don’t end there, and it’s time to be honest about this. Overall (no matter how much our Attorney General chooses to ignore this), white people enjoy preferential treatment across the board, starting with the very basic good fortune to avoid humiliating, dangerous, and sometimes lethal encounters with the police, and continuing through intergenerational wealth, opportunity, and representation. However, there are pockets and milieus–and they are not minuscule or insignificant–where being a person of color confers real, valuable social advantages. I happen to know this milieu, the academic-activist pocket, quite well, and I think the social dynamics in it explain a lot. It’s not just scholarships and fellowships (though there are examples of material benefits.) It’s the mantle of authenticity, the uncontested ability to hold a moral high ground, and the sometimes-explicit, sometimes-tacit permission to treat others publicly with disdain.

The moral high ground is not unrelated to material benefits in academia (such as they are, given the initial barriers to academia for people from marginalized backgrounds in the first place), but the mantle of superior morality in itself is a precious commodity for some academics/activists. Because white people cannot be black (or can they? Read Adolph Reed’s take on racial essentialism, if you can get around his disregard for Caitlyn Jenner), the next best thing is to be the best white person they can possibly be, which is why we engage in the pageantry of racial confessionals every time yet another horrific killing of a black person produces a swell of uprising against racial inequality (that there’s immense grief and rage is understandable, and it has to go somewhere, but it’s telling that it goes into this variant of moral theatre.) Krug and Dolezal knew full well that, in this competition, it’s turtles all the way down, and simply drew the obvious conclusion: the only way to win the performative goodness race, the ultimate white progressive oneupmanship, is to subvert the whole thing by becoming black yourself.

Except, as Bonilla astutely tells us, and as Krug and Dolezal have taught us, it doesn’t end there, because it turns out that white people haven’t cornered the market on performative goodness. It plays out in remarkably similar ways among academics and activists of color, where strident and edgy performance of authenticity confers the symbolic benefits of being better than other (less radical, less woke, more white-conforming) nonwhite people. Inevitably (and this is true even if you aren’t a white person pretending to be nonwhite), someone’s going to be woker than you, purer than you, more authentic and edgy than you (as Touré Reed wrote, the demand for this kind of performance is a problem in itself.) One’s own goodness is a helluva drug; one needs larger and larger doses, ad infinitum. On the brink of being unmasked, Krug correctly deduced that the only move left on the chessboard was self-cancelation: embracing an ethos of zero forgiveness and zero redemption must exact the ultimate price. After all, she says, “my politics are as they have ever been, and those politics condemn me in the loudest and most unyielding terms.”

Is there another way out of this grim festival of condemnation and self-condemnation? Yes, but only if we see the recent slew of blackface scandals differently. Whether or not Dolezal or Krug “get”, to use another odious idiom from this milieu, to be redeemed, is not particularly interesting to me; like Bonilla, I don’t think we can or should spend energy marinating in the bacchanalia of punishment that this sort of thing dredges up. Instead, I suggest that people like Dolezal, Krug, and Carrillo–like the many people who “passed” before them across racial lines in America–have valuable lessons to teach us about the social cost-benefit calculus of passing. If we view these scandals as social facts, we learn where the perceived advantages and drawbacks lie, and might come to important conclusions.

I remember reading Philip Roth’s The Human Stain with great interest and great discomfort. Roth’s protagonist, Coleman Silk, is an academic widely perceived as a Jew, whose life is destroyed following innocent quip at a classroom–using the word “spooks” for “spies”, a term that also carries racially-derogatory connotations. Subsequently, it is revealed that Silk is actually African American but had been passing as a Jew since a stint in the Navy. He completed graduate school, married a white woman and had four children with her, never revealing his African-American ancestry to his family. As Roth writes, Silk chose “to take the future into his own hands rather than to leave it to an unenlightened society to determine his fate”.

The Human Stain is crafted around a real story–the witchhunt against Roth’s friend Melvin Tumin for a similar innocent utterance. It’s not the only example: John McWhorter relays a similar incident, and if you want something more recent, this idiotic USC reaction to absolutely nothing is a prime example. Roth’s spin on this story of “cancelation” teaches us the same conclusions: endless competitions of moral superiority, lacking in compassion and forgiveness and hingeing on identity as the ultimate arbiter of all things, end up with the snake swallowing its own tail. It’s not a coincidence that Roth chooses to contrast the witchhunt with its logical conclusion: it’s the perfect confluence of our search for racial benefits and our appetite for meting out costs.

In other words, Krug, Dolezal, et al. are being reviled for being exceptions, aberrations, when they are mere corollaries of the game that everyone around them plays on the regular–a game of excoriations, public apologies, public rejections of apologies, obsessions with performance and appearance. I’m going to venture a not-very-wild guess that they are not the only ones. People of all colors in this mileu are so invested in this game, so I’d be surprised if there weren’t other passers around, trying to circumvent the white goodness competition only to find themselves playing the person-of-color goodness competition. Racism and racial inequality have wrought many ills, but this is one we can actually fix ourselves. Let’s stop playing this game, okay? It’s occupying so much cultural room that there isn’t enough left to do the actual work of racial equality–donating to worthy causes, supporting political candidates that move us farther in terms of racial and economic equality, revamping business to allow all families the chance of intergenerational wealth. How about, rather than tying ourselves up in knots about how we can come up with more, better, symbolic representation of our goodness, we call it quits and focus on quietly and efficiently doing the right thing? We could if we learned the right lesson from these scandalous morality tales, but I’m not holding my breath.

For a more lighthearted take on this, I highly recommend this hilarious conversation between Trevor Noah and Michelle Wolf. It suffers from some of the essentialist ailments I talked about (if she “passes” for a person of color, how can she “cry her way out of a ticket?”), but it’s so enjoyable nonetheless.