Monday, July 11, 2011

Reasonable doubt in the American Justice System

The whole country, it seems, has been in an uproar since a jury found Casey Anthony not guilty of the murder of her 2-year-old daughter three years ago. Newspaper websites, radio call-in shows, Facebook and Twitter have all been inundated with people expressing outrage in the jury's finding.  Every poll shows that people overwhelmingly believe Casey is guilty.  Most people believed a guilty verdict had been a foregone conclusion.

Good thing for Casey that her fate was not determined by the court of public opinion, but rather by 12 people who sat through hours of testimony and evidence and who were not convinced enough of her guilt.  With the Prosecutors having put the death penalty on the table, I think that's a good thing.  I also believe that this case is a good argument against the death penalty.

In the last 38 years, 139 people have been released from death row because they were found to be innocent of the crimes of which a jury found them guilty.  There is no way to know how many innocents have been executed.  As long as the death penalty is a method of punishment in this country innocent people will die, because the system is not infallible.  Guilty ones will also go free because juries will be hesitant to convict anyone to death - especially a pretty young, white woman like Casey Anthony - even in the face of convincing circumstantial evidence.

Like most people, I believe Casey Anthony is guilty. However, I was more convinced of her guilt by her defense's tactics, than by the prosecutors' arguments and evidence.  After careful thought, that would not have been enough for me to convict her to death either. I suspect I, and the jury, would have felt easier sending her to life in prison.

Now Ms. Anthony just has to hope Nancy Grace or Bill O'Reilly, or one of the many other crazies unhappy that she got off, don't run her over as she is released on July 17.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Nigger please!

The discussion about the use of the word "nigger" is not new.  Rappers, street-wise youth, comedians and intellectuals all regularly weigh in on the appropriateness and potential harm of referring to anyone that way - whether in endearment or hostility.    Personally, the word makes me bristle.  I suspect that has as much to do with the fact that the word is not a part of the Jamaican vernacular (or at least it wasn't when I was growing up) as it does with any historical or cultural meaning I have assigned to the word. I choose not to use the word and will strongly dissuade my sons from using it, but I firmly defend its use by an artist who feels it necessary to his expression.

I certainly defend its appearance in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. It's unfortunate that an overabundance of political correctness or a misguided attempt to protect young people has lead some school districts to pulling the book from the curriculum.  More horrifying, a publisher has printed the literary classic with the word 'slave' replacing all occurrences of 'nigger.'  Destroying a work of art is not beneficial to anyone - especially not to the students being taught.  To preserve it should surely be more important than preserving the sensibilities of a few hyper-sensitive administrators too limp-spined to risk criticism.

Mark Twain used the word 'nigger' because that was the language of his day.  He did not use the word to glorify its use.  That is obvious because the novel is an indictment of slavery and racism.  An author does not issue such an indictment without intending to rattle the cages of readers.  Discomfort, I am sure, is an expected byproduct of reading Huckleberry Finn.  And that discomfort is an opportunity for a discussion that can lead to understanding and healing.  Removing the word 'nigger' means teachers and students lose that opportunity.

The reluctance to be discomforted by discussions about race is precisely the reason why it continues to be an issue in our increasingly multiracial society.  It is generally accepted that problems are best resolved by confronting them, by discussing them.  For some reason though, race seems to be the exception to this rule.  Most people would rather scuttle discussions about race, in lieu of pretense that we are all the same and that there is not a painful history that proves otherwise.

Huckleberry Finn may be the only opportunity some young people will ever have to participate in a guided, sensible discussion about race, and the history of race relations in this country.  Removing the sting of the word 'nigger' from the book dilutes the author's message and does disservice to the impact it has had on readers for more than a century.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Strength in numbers

Politics has always had a heavy hand in the meanderings between workers' rights, labor rules, and the bottom-line concerns of management.  As a child, I learned about Sir Alexander Bustamante and his leadership in unifying Jamaica's dockworkers in order to get concessions for better work conditions, and subsequently starting the island's first trade union.  Even then, it seemed perfectly reasonable to me that workers would band together to negotiate with employers for fair salary, guarantees and working conditions. Certainly having been fired - because my supervisor did not think our personalities "meshed" - and having worked  as a government employee, I appreciate even more the benefits of unions protecting the rights of workers.

The industries that built this country - steel, mining, car manufacturing - would hardly be possible without having relied on the workers who valued their jobs - largely because of the security unionization provided.  The state sponsored union-busting in Wisconsin and other states rocks the very foundation of commerce and industry that drives the economies of every developed country.

Recently governors like New Jersey's Chris Christie and Wisconsin's Scott Walker seem intent on vilifying unions as a lead-in to balancing their states' budgets on the backs of working class people - those most protected by unions. It seems inane to me to lambaste unions because they have worked for the purpose they were intended; and to malign the benefits workers have managed to negotiate fairly - rather than meeting at the table in good faith.

For sure, it is not lost on me that some unions have become bullies that try to hold municipalities, school districts, and industries hostage. Teachers' unions argue for tenure and want to make it impossible for principals to fire poor performing teachers.  Municipal employees want to contribute as little as possible to their health insurance and retirement costs, even as private sector workers buckle under medical care costs and few have employer supported retirement funds. It is true that issues like these leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth and make it easier for union opponents to make their arguments. But bad taste or not, unions have an important role to play in the marketplace.  Union leaders have a responsibility to restore the integrity of the bargaining process, and political leaders have a responsibility to maintain the rights and interests of the working class.  There is no better way to do that, than to preserve the rights and existence of unions.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The educational gap and parental responsibility

A study of New Jersey's public schools published this week shows that an achievement gap persists between white and Asian students, and black and Hispanic students.  As expected, the gap is reflected in socio-economic differences as well, with students in disadvantaged communities lagging significantly in every marker of academic achievement.  Public schools in New Jersey's toniest neighborhoods help put the state at or near the top of national rankings at almost every level and in almost every category; yet it is also home to some of the poorest performing schools in the country.  Nationally, in some reports, black students lag four grades behind their white counterparts.  While administrators, teachers, and holders of the money purses are being lambasted for failing our children, parents are being let off the hook too easily.  There is no denying that children in poor communities are often stuck with overworked teachers, school buildings in disrepair, underfunded budgets, and surroundings overwhelmed with various social ills.  There are, however, many factors well within parents' control.

There is a pervasive attitude of 'victim-hood' and expectancy among many poor black folks that prevents them from acting in their own best interest.  Yes, many schools are bad. Yes, many inner schools have less technological resources than schools in wealthier communities.  Yes, wealthier parents have more educational choices for their children.  But to accept these circumstances as insurmountable, is to accept that every poor child is doomed at birth.  To overlook parental responsibility in the equation is to miss opportunities to be advocates for our children's academic success.  More than anything, to relegate full responsibility for our children's achievement to teachers, administrators and politicians is  not parenting.

Study and after study show that many of the situational characteristics of high performing students have to do with the actions and attitudes of parents: parent involvement, reading at home, and homework assistance.

Parent involvement has been shown to be one of the most important factors in determining the academic achievement of students, sometimes even more than school performance or the socio-economic  state of the community.  With that kind of indicator classrooms in poor performing schools should be packed wall-to-wall with parents every day.  Instead school districts nationwide are having to bribe and cajole parents to take an active role in educating their children.  Lawmakers in Detroit are considering jail time for parents who don't make it to at least one parent-teacher conference in a school year.

There is a clear correlation between being able to read and being able to achieve academically.  Reading is at the base upon which academic learning is built, and the earlier children develop the ability and appreciation for reading, the better it bodes for their long term performance. As shown in a 20-year study conducted by the University of Nevada and published in 2010, merely having books in a child's home increases his chances for academic achievement in the same proportion as having university-educated parents. Researcher Mariah Evans found that children of lesser-educated parents benefited most from having books in their homes.

There is a lot of debate about how much homework children should get, and how involved parents should be with the getting it done; but homework reinforces subject matter and lets parents know what there children are doing in school.  Making sure homework gets done has always been part of Parenting 101. Now we know it can help improve a child's academic prospect.

For these small investments of time and resources, parents can make a significant investment in their child's education - no matter their school, or socioeconomic circumstances.  Politicians, school administrators, and teachers are failing children. Parents don't have to fail them too.