Race And Justice In North Carolina: Sinking Into The Past

Death row inmate Marcus Robinson listens in Fayetteville, North Carolina as Judge Greg Weeks found that racial bias played a role in his trial and sentencing. It was the first case to be decided under the North Carolina's Racial Justice Act (Photo Credit: Shawn Rocco/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images).

Death row inmate Marcus Robinson listens in Fayetteville, North Carolina as Judge Greg Weeks found that racial bias played a role in his trial and sentencing. It was the first case to be decided under the North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act (Photo Credit: Shawn Rocco/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images).

I grew up in Durham, North Carolina in the 1970s. Racism – the Jim Crow kind – was still there in pockets, but it seemed to be receding; or at least it was being replaced by the less overt, white-flight variety. I left home for college in the 1980s and watched from a distance as North Carolina continued to struggle to extricate itself from its legacy of racism.

The death penalty is one of the ugliest vestiges of that ugly legacy, but North Carolina has not executed anyone since 2006. There were no death sentences in 2012. A poll earlier this year showed that majorities of North Carolinians support replacing the death penalty with life without parole.

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Race And Criminal Justice: A New Hope?

Marcus_Robinson

Marcus Robinson will not be executed but instead spend the rest of his life in prison after a judge ruled that his death sentence was tainted by racial discrimination.

Our justice system has a racial bias problem, both in the way it treats suspects, and the way it treats victims.

The cases of Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin underscore this.  If the races were reversed would Troy Davis’ execution have been pursued so relentlessly, would he even have received a death sentence, would police have been so quick to ignore other potential suspects?

And, had the races been reversed, wouldn’t the reaction to Trayvon Martin’s killing have been … different?

But knowing there is racial bias and doing something about it are two different things.  In North Carolina, something is being done.

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Race Matters

Trayvon-MartinRace matters. It is hard to see the events that have unfolded in Sanford, Florida, and not conclude that in this country, race still matters.

Race has become fodder in partisan political arenas, content for contentious bloggers, and sometimes, as in the case of Trayvon Martin’s shooting, race becomes a matter of life and death.

George Zimmerman’s actions on the day Travyon Martin was shot are still under investigation, but the facts of the case as reported touch on issues that have long been of concern to the Amnesty movement: a young man who is suspect not for what he did, but for how he looks; the automatic assumption that violence against a black man is probably justified; and gun laws – or more appropriately, the failure to adopt rational gun laws – that allow citizens to take fewer precautions than even the police.

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Hate and Intolerance Find Support in Brazil's House of Representative

Hate and intolerance have a new stage: Brazil’s House of Representatives.  While the legislative body was created for reason and discourse, one of its elected officials has found ways to degrade the federal body by promoting racism and intolerance.  Rio de Janeiro’s congressman Jair Bolsonaro is flagrantly using the legislative chamber to make racist comments against blacks and LGBT citizens, and to disseminate militaristic ideals.

During an interview with a national humoristic program, Mr. Bolsonaro was asked how he would feel if he found his son dating a black woman. He took this as an opportunity to make racist comments and indicated that he would “never allow this kind of promiscuity” (youtube video in Portuguese).  While this interview was widely publicized and has led to a huge debate about racism in Brazil’s society, it is a shame that an elected official would even dare to speak this way of any civil group or minority.   As if that weren’t enough, Mr. Bolsonaro has also expressed his support for military regimes over democratic governments.

It is absurd that an elected official would dare to utter such words.  A person that believes that the military regime is better than democracy and who thinks that minorities aren’t humans with equal rights, ought not to be called a legislator.  Mr. Bolsonaro is on his sixth consecutive term as Federal Representative for the State of Rio de Janeiro. It has been 21 years since he was first elected… What’s even worse is that he is not alone in his attitude and racist ideals.

Another Representative, this time from the State of Sao Paulo, Mr. Marco Feliciano, wrote in his Twitter account that “the filth in homoaffective feelings are conduits to hate, crime and rejection” and that “Africans descend from ancestors cursed by Noah.”

When elected official make comments such as the ones quoted in this article, racist and oppressive groups feel empowered and justified when attacking vulnerable groups.  Just last week, Sao Paulo’s police identified 200 members of skinhead gangs that attacked and in many cases killed members of the black and homosexual communities in the city.  According to a Brazilian gay group, 260 LGBT individuals were killed in Brazil in 2010, which represented 31% increase from 2009 and a 113% increase from 2005.

It is disturbing to know that those who are in charge of approving laws to protect society are the same people responsible for spreading hate and intolerance. We will only be able to reduce the number of hate crimes in Brazil when the country’s citizens demand that the rights of everyone, including the country’s minorities, are respected and protected.  It is imperative that the legislative system focuses on the creation of  laws designed to fight racism and hate crimes. Brazilians deserve better, much better.

 

Clinton Arrives in South Africa

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in South Africa today for meetings with President Zuma and Foreign Minister Mashabane. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to answer the phone when Hills called to ask which issues she should be sure to broach in those discussions. Don’t laugh; it could totally happen in some alternate universe. But if she had asked my advice, this is what I would have said:

Secretary Clinton must encourage South Africa to meet the promises enshrined in its Constitution and acceptance of international human rights treaties by taking a stronger stand as a leader in promoting human rights in Africa. Recent violent protests over inadequate housing and social services in several South African provinces highlight the deep tension that remains regarding the promises made by the government following apartheid and the ability of the government to honor those commitments.

As host of the 2010 World Cup, South Africa is in a unique position to demonstrate its commitment to human rights on a global stage. As a way to exemplify this commitment, I would love to see Hills push South Africa to ratify the International Convenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but that would probably be a little awkward since the US hasn’t ratified it either.

South Africa also must do more to protect its women and girls. A recent survey revealing one in four men admits to committing a rape showcases the epidemic nature of the crisis. Further, Amnesty International has reported that women in rural areas are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, domestic and sexual violence, lack of access to health care and inadequate police protection. Secretary Clinton should raise these issues with the South African government and promote the need to protect women from all forms of violence and discrimination.

South Africa also must do more to protect those who cross its borders. Immigrants were the focus during xenophobic attacks that occurred last year on a large scale in South Africa and continue on a lesser scale today, as people already displaced from their homelands are forced into camps with minimal protections. With the special visa for Zimbabwean’s delayed in Parliament and reports of serious violence occurring near the Musina border crossing, South Africa must make greater efforts to ensure the safety and humane treatment of all persons residing there.

Finally, South Africa’s role as regional powerhouse means not only honoring its commitments to its own citizens, but also taking the lead as a regional authority in urging its neighbors to honor democratic processes and human rights within their borders. As lead negotiator and guarantor, along with the other Southern African Development Community (SADC) member States, of the Zimbabwe power sharing agreement, South Africa has a responsibility to ensure that all processes in the agreement are honored, including a new constitution, an end to impunity and respect for political parties and human rights defenders to operate without harassment by state security forces.

Uighur Blogger Still Held

Since July 8, Ilham Tohti, editor of the Web site Uighur Online and a professor at Central Nationalities University in Beijing, has been held incommunicado by Chinese authorities. He was interrogated after posting articles on the site and his personal blog about a clash between members of China’s majority ethnic Han group and Uighurs in Guangdong Province on June 26.

The Uighurs are a Muslim minority group in China most of whom live in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwestern China. For two decades now Chinese authoirities have been pursuing a campaign in the area against “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism,” in the process have diluting the Uighur population and severely restricting the civil and cultural rights of Uighurs. Ilham Tohti’s case is in no way isolated. Although authorities in XUAR set up a media center for foreign journalists in Urumqi during the recent violence, reporters have been prevented – by police, other security forces or even just people on the street – from reporting freely in the XUAR. One New York Times reporter described tour guides in Kashgar who refused to lead him around the city and translators who feared repercussions if they were to translate certain conversations. Clearly Chinese authorities fear what the people of Kashgar might say to journalists, but what’s even worse is that they’re causing residents in the XUAR to fear expressing their opinions.

All this repression suggests the unliklihood of an independent inquiry into the events last month in Xinjiang as well as open, fair trials for those who have been detained. Take action now for Ilham Tohti!

Obama, the Federal Death Penalty, and Race

The death penalty is a difficult issue for just about any politician.  Most prefer to avoid it as much as possible.  But the time may soon come when President Obama will have to take a stand on this question.  In a recent article on Politico.com, Josh Gerstein outlines the challenges that President Obama may face in the near future regarding the federal death penalty, as several cases inch a little closer to crossing his desk. Obama has previously stated that he supports the death penalty in cases that involve “heinous” crimes, but has not made it clear exactly where he draws the lines between which crimes are heinous and which are not. Attorney General Eric Holder has likewise given few clues about his specific stance on this issue. He has stated that he personally opposes capital punishment, but he has also authorized federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty in four cases since he has taken office. 

Compared to some states, the federal death penalty has been used relatively sparingly, and executions at the federal level have been halted for several years due to challenges to the constitutionality of lethal injection. In April, 2008 the Court ruled that lethal injection is constitutional, clearing the way for some pending executions to go forward. There are several cases making their way through the federal appeals process now, including the cases of 6 African Americans from the Washington area all of whom are nearing the end of their appeals. 

That all six of the inmates involved in these cases are African-American is sadly symbolic of the racial disparities inherent in the federal death penalty.  Currently there are 57 prisoners on federal death row, 35 of which are people of color, and 28 of which are African-American. According to a recent survey of the Federal Death Penalty  System, during the years 1995-2000 U.S. Attorneys recommended that the death penalty be sought in 44.3% of cases involving a black defendant, but only 26.2% of cases involving a white defendant. Also, in a 2007 report titled The Persistant Problem of Racial Disparities in the Federal Death Penalty the ACLU found that the death penalty is reduced to life sentences during plea bargaining almost twice as often for white defendants as for black defendants.

These statistics not only reflect serious racial bias on their own, but they are also disproportionate to the rest of the nation: in 2003 the United States Government, and the U.S. military, had higher percentages of non-white prisoners on their death rows (77% and 86% respectively) than any single state except Colorado.   At the beginning of this year, those figures still stood at 60% and 78%, way out of proportion with the population as a whole.

Roma persecution – Antiziganism – intensifies in Europe

Perhaps the most oppressed people in history, Roma – commonly referred to as Gypsies – have been persecuted since they arrived in Europe in 1300 C.E.

The New York Times reports that institutionalized and societal prejudice against Roma is enflaming violence in Europe:

[...]

Prejudice against Roma — widely known as Gypsies and long among Europe’s most oppressed minority groups — has swelled into a wave of violence. Over the past year, at least seven Roma have been killed in Hungary, and Roma leaders have counted some 30 Molotov cocktail attacks against Roma homes, often accompanied by sprays of gunfire.

[...]

In addition to Mr. Koka’s death, there were the slayings of a Roma man and woman, who were shot after their house was set ablaze last November in Nagycsecs, a town about an hour’s drive from Tiszalok in northeastern Hungary. And in February, a Roma man and his 4-year-old son were gunned down as they tried to escape from their home, which was set on fire in Tatarszentgyorgy, a small town south of Budapest.

[...]

Experts on Roma issues describe an ever more aggressive atmosphere toward Roma in Hungary and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, led by extreme right-wing parties, whose leaders are playing on old stereotypes of Roma as petty criminals and drains on social welfare systems at a time of rising economic and political turmoil. As unemployment rises, officials and Roma experts fear the attacks will only intensify.

[...]

Persecution against Roma, as detailed in just one Amnesty International press release from yesterday, is nothing new. Neither is the unwillingness of authorities to stop the oppression. In the Czech republic, for instance:

[...]

Roma… continue to suffer discrimination at the hands of both public officials and private individuals, including in the areas of housing, education, health care and employment.

Not only do they face forced evictions, segregation in education and racially motivated violence, but they have been denied justice when seeking redress for the abuses against them.

[...]

The history of Roma persecution goes back hundreds of years ago. Throughout 16-18th century, Roma were hanged without trial in Europe. In 1921, nonetheless, Czechoslovakia shortly recognized Roma as “nationality.” In 1933, Hitler ordered sterilization of Roma. Later, up to half a million Roma were killed in the Holocaust. In just one act, 4,000 Roma were gassed and cremated in Auschwitz on August 2, 1944. Unlike the Jewish victims, Roma victims of the Holocaust are rarely researched or commemorated.

With some activism in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, Roma still face institutional and social discrimination in Europe. In Italy, the government fingerprints them. In 2008, bodies of two drowned Roma children were left at the beach while Italians and tourists vacationed a few feet away.

As late as 1998, the state of New Jersey in the US had anti-Roma laws. Popular American TV star Judge Judy has used the word “Gypsy” at least once as a synonym for a “thief” on her show after 2005. While Judge Judy’s remark can be explained perhaps by her lack of knowledge of Roma issues, the same cannot be said about influential people in countries with large Roma populations. In one such state, Romania, the president called a journalist “dirty Gypsy” in 2007.

While many Roma have historically assimilated (accepted, for example, Islam in the Middle East and Christianity in Europe), scores of them choose to keep their ancestral, migratory way of life despite hundreds of years of slavery, universal persecution and genocide. Others have established enclaves in different countries where they demand integration and respect. Roma supposedly left India as a result of foreign invasion to avoid persecution. Their common name “Gypsy” is a misconception that Roma originated in Egypt.

Many of the unassimilated Roma demand freedom of travel and not be regulated.
A unique case of stateless people, Roma do not demand independence or even political autonomy. The Roma persecution has brought about little outrage throughout the world. The problem, in this case, is definitely the lack of awareness.

In my home country Armenia, for instance, the word “Bosha” is an insult – while it used to be the ethnic name for the Roma who have either entirely assimilated or prefer to be called Lom. Their language, Lomavren, a unique mixture with medieval Armenian, has long vanished.

It is time that the world stand up against Antiziganism. Perhaps Amnesty International should adopt the cause of fighting Antiziganism as one of its main goals?

The Gift that keeps on Giving

The appointment of Daniel Fried, a career diplomat who has formerly been both Ambassador to Poland and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, as the new Special Envoy on the Guantanamo Bay detention facility suggests that the Obama administration is stepping up its efforts to persuade European states to accept detainees who have been cleared for release.

As things stand, there are approximately 40 detainees still held in Guantanamo who could leave tomorrow if a suitable home for them could be found. These individuals cannot return to their country of origin because they would face persecution, torture or worse at the hands of the local authorities. Several European states, most notably Switzerland and Portugal, have indicated willingness to accept a limited number of former detainees and a number of other European states such as Ireland, France and Hungary may yet be persuaded to the same.

Unfortunately, US efforts to gain European support for resettlement are being undermined by political grandstanding in Congress as representatives try to outdo themselves in synthetic outrage playing the not-in-my-back-yard card regarding the possibility of transferring GITMO detainees to US soil. This alarmist narrative makes it all the more harder to build bridges to potentially sympathetic European states.  Having created the problem, it now seems that some Congressional Republicans are also hell bent on torpedoing the solution.

What Obama's Presidency Doesn't Say About Race

The media on MLK Day showed us just how far we have to go.

On NBC, The Today Show headlined with contrasting photos of President Obama and….50 Cent. No kidding. Throughout the next hour, they proceeded to offend their thinking viewers by asking who, of the two, has more influence.

NBC insisted on pursuing this nonsense, flashing photos of Obama, walking through the Capitol, meeting with dignitaries, in his suit and tie and 50 Cent, wearing a thin white tank undershirt and rapping surrounded by a partying crowd. They continued their President vs. rapper theme as they welcomed journalist Gwen Ifill for an interview. Today Show host Meredith Vieira tossed her the opening question while moving her hands up and down, like a scale, “So Gwen, Obama or 50 Cent?”

Excuse me? No offense to 50 Cent, but can someone please explain the comparison? As far as I can see, they are both black. And breathing. Beyond that, I’m hard pressed to see the relevance in this comparison that Today wouldn’t let die.

Race no longer an issue? When was the last time a news program compared Bush to Eminem?

Posted in USA