Blow and Krugman

In “Restoring Faith in Justice” Mr. Blow says charges against six Baltimore police officers may be one step in repairing the system.  Prof. Krugman, in “Race, Class and Neglect,” says the many casualties of inequality can be helped by providing more resources and opportunities, which we can afford.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Last week, Baltimore’s chief prosecutor, Marilyn J. Mosby, charged six officers in the death of Freddie Gray. The charges included second-degree murder, manslaughter, assault, misconduct in office and false imprisonment.

(These were only charges. There will be a defense and a trial. The officers remain innocent until and unless proven guilty.)

Mosby said at a news conference on Friday as she laid out the case and announced the charges: “To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America: I heard your call for ‘No justice, no peace.’ ” She continued: “Last but certainly not least, to the youth of the city. I will seek justice on your behalf. This is a moment. This is your moment. Let’s ensure we have peaceful and productive rallies that will develop structural and systemic changes for generations to come. You’re at the forefront of this cause and as young people, our time is now.”

Mosby seemed to recognize in that moment that this case and others like it are now about more than individual deaths and individual incidents, but about restoration — or a formation — of faith for all of America’s citizens in the American justice system itself.

Faith in the system is the bedrock of the system. Without it, the system is drained of its inviolable authority. This is the danger America now faces.

After George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin through the chest and walked free. After there was no indictment of the officer who choked the life out of Eric Garner on video. After an officer shot and killed John Crawford in an Ohio Walmart as he walked around the store with an air rifle he’d picked up off the store’s own shelves, and another officer grilled his girlfriend until she cried, “accusing her of lying, threatening her with jail time and suggesting she could be on drugs,” according to CNN.

After the city of Cleveland claimed — then apologized for claiming — that Tamir Rice was responsible for his own death when officers shot him in the stomach — an injury he would later die from — in a park as he played with a toy gun.

According to The Washington Post:

“In the court filing, which was a formal response from the city to a federal lawsuit by the Rice family, city attorneys declare that Tamir and his family ‘were directly and proximately caused by their own acts…’ and added that Tamir caused his own death ‘by the failure… to exercise due care to avoid injury.’”

And after Anthony Ray Hinton sat on Alabama’s death row for 30 years — “one of the longest serving death row prisoners in Alabama history,”according to the Equal Justice Initiative, which won his release last month — for murders he didn’t commit. He was arrested and charged based on the assertion that a revolver taken from his mother’s home was used in two capital murders and a third uncharged crime. Even after experts found in 2002 that the gun didn’t match the crime evidence, prosecutors refused to revisit the case.

It took more than a decade of addition litigation before a judge threw out the case. Prosecutors finally conceded that the crime bullets couldn’t be matched to the Hinton weapon. “For all of us that say that we believe in justice, this is the case to start showing, because I shouldn’t have (sat) on death row for 30 years, Hinton told the press. “All they had to do was test the gun.”

Last year Glenn Ford, Louisiana’s longest-serving death row prisoner, was also set free after nearly 30 years facing execution for a murder that he also did not commit. According to The New York Daily News: “A judge freed Ford from the Louisiana State Penitentiary a year ago when evidence, believed to have been suppressed during the trial, surfaced exonerating him from the all-white jury’s decision in the murder of a nearly blind Shreveport watchmaker, Isadore Rozeman.”

The lead prosecutor in the Ford case, A.M. Stroud III, apologized in a column published by The Shreveport Times, saying: “In 1984, I was 33 years old. I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning. To borrow a phrase from Al Pacino in the movie ‘And Justice for All,’ ‘Winning became everything.’ ” He concluded: “How totally wrong was I.”

After last month N.P.R. reported that Mayor Rahm Emmanuel of Chicago was supporting a $5.5 million reparations package for victims of a former police commander and his officers in that city. As MSNBC’s Trymaine Lee put it, they “for decades ran a torture ring that used electrical shock, burning and beatings on more than 100 black men.”

All of this and more eats away at public confidence in equal justice under the law and reaffirms people’s worst fears: that the eyes of justice aren’t blind but jaundiced. As Langston Hughes once wrote:

“That Justice is a blind goddess / Is a thing to which we black are wise: / Her bandage hides two festering sores / That once perhaps were eyes.”

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Every time you’re tempted to say that America is moving forward on race — that prejudice is no longer as important as it used to be — along comes an atrocity to puncture your complacency. Almost everyone realizes, I hope, that the Freddie Gray affair wasn’t an isolated incident, that it’s unique only to the extent that for once there seems to be a real possibility that justice may be done.

And the riots in Baltimore, destructive as they are, have served at least one useful purpose: drawing attention to the grotesque inequalities that poison the lives of too many Americans.

Yet I do worry that the centrality of race and racism to this particular story may convey the false impression that debilitating poverty and alienation from society are uniquely black experiences. In fact, much though by no means all of the horror one sees in Baltimore and many other places is really about class, about the devastating effects of extreme and rising inequality.

Take, for example, issues of health and mortality. Many people have pointed out that there are a number of black neighborhoods in Baltimore where life expectancy compares unfavorably with impoverished Third World nations. But what’s really striking on a national basis is the way class disparities in death rates have been soaring even among whites.

Most notably, mortality among white women has increased sharply since the 1990s, with the rise surely concentrated among the poor and poorly educated; life expectancy among less educated whites has been falling at rates reminiscent of the collapse of life expectancy in post-Communist Russia.

And yes, these excess deaths are the result of inequality and lack of opportunity, even in those cases where their direct cause lies in self-destructive behavior. Overuse of prescription drugs, smoking, and obesity account for a lot of early deaths, but there’s a reason such behaviors are so widespread, and that reason has to do with an economy that leaves tens of millions behind.

It has been disheartening to see some commentators still writing as if poverty were simply a matter of values, as if the poor just mysteriously make bad choices and all would be well if they adopted middle-class values. Maybe, just maybe, that was a sustainable argument four decades ago, but at this point it should be obvious that middle-class values only flourish in an economy that offers middle-class jobs.

The great sociologist William Julius Wilson argued long ago that widely-decried social changes among blacks, like the decline of traditional families, were actually caused by the disappearance of well-paying jobs in inner cities. His argument contained an implicit prediction: if other racial groups were to face a similar loss of job opportunity, their behavior would change in similar ways.

And so it has proved. Lagging wages — actually declining in real terms for half of working men — and work instability have been followed by sharp declines in marriage, rising births out of wedlock, and more.

As Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution writes: “Blacks have faced, and will continue to face, unique challenges. But when we look for the reasons why less skilled blacks are failing to marry and join the middle class, it is largely for the same reasons that marriage and a middle-class lifestyle is eluding a growing number of whites as well.”

So it is, as I said, disheartening still to see commentators suggesting that the poor are causing their own poverty, and could easily escape if only they acted like members of the upper middle class.

And it’s also disheartening to see commentators still purveying another debunked myth, that we’ve spent vast sums fighting poverty to no avail (because of values, you see.)

In reality, federal spending on means-tested programs other than Medicaid has fluctuated between 1 and 2 percent of G.D.P. for decades, going up in recessions and down in recoveries. That’s not a lot of money — it’s far less than other advanced countries spend — and not all of it goes to families below the poverty line.

Despite this, measures that correct well-known flaws in the statistics show that we have made some real progress against poverty. And we would make a lot more progress if we were even a fraction as generous toward the needy as we imagine ourselves to be.

The point is that there is no excuse for fatalism as we contemplate the evils of poverty in America. Shrugging your shoulders as you attribute it all to values is an act of malign neglect. The poor don’t need lectures on morality, they need more resources — which we can afford to provide — and better economic opportunities, which we can also afford to provide through everything from training and subsidies to higher minimum wages. Baltimore, and America, don’t have to be as unjust as they are.


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