In Review: February 11, 1998
Are blacks treated fairly by cops and judges?
Examining racial oppression at the hand of the law
Two recent cases: The notorious 19-year-old white au pair in Massachusetts killed a baby and went free. Much less publicized, an 11-year-old black baby sitter in Texas killed an infant and was sentenced to 20 years, with no chance for parole until she had served three years.
Whites may say, "Well, that's just the difference between Massachusetts and Texas." My guess is that blacks would see it as another example of the contrasting racial justice that occurs all over the country, endlessly and maddeningly.
Randall Kennedy '77--who now teaches law at Harvard after passing through Princeton, Oxford (as a Rhodes scholar), and Yale law school--has produced in Race, Crime, and the Law a solid, levelheaded, in-depth exploration of what Kennedy characterizes as "the history of racial oppression in the administration of criminal law."
But the book is, thank goodness, much more than a cataloging of wrongs. It is also a detailed acknowledgment of the changes in criminal law that have resulted in real racial progress, along with advice for making further changes.
One ironic sign of progress is that blacks are sometimes dealt such strong hands on the bench and on juries that they have to confront professional (and ethical) questions that once only faced whites. "Until recently," he writes, "playing the 'race card' almost always meant whites exploiting racial power." Now blacks have to ask themselves if justice is served when black attorneys (yes, Johnnie Cochran figures rather prominently) make a racial pitch to, and evoke racial loyalty from, black judges and juries.
Being myself a grizzled native of the Deep South with memories of those not-so-long-ago days when black defendants knew they had virtually no chance in courtrooms controlled by white yahoos, I can imagine how tempting reverse exploitation must be. But Kennedy will have none of it.
Indeed, some of his most spirited writing is to demolish--with social, moral, and legal blows--the position of Paul Butler, who argued in a Yale Law Journal essay that black jurors should refuse to convict black defendants even if they are plainly guilty of some nonviolent crimes, including drug offenses. Kennedy coolly wipes out, point by point, Butler's "erroneous claims, dubious calculations, and destructive sentiments."
I knew I was going to relish this book when, very early on, Kennedy begins to sound like Jeremy Bentham, weighing police and court actions to determine the greatest good for the greatest number. For instance, "Some critics attack as racist police crackdowns on violent gangs because such actions will disproportionately affect black members of gangs. But are black communities hurt by police crackdowns on violent gangs or helped by the destabilization of gangs that terrorize those who live in their midst?" Solomon would--but extremists on both sides probably would not--approve Kennedy's deft handling of such questions.
Kennedy's vision is of a society that, as he puts it, "looks beyond looks." Just because "a notably large proportion of the crimes that people fear most--aggravated assault, robbery, rape, murder--are committed by persons who happen to be black" does not mean that "blacks are racially predisposed toward criminality." It means that a very large proportion of these horrendous crimes are black-on-black and that the police should be giving a great deal more protection than they are presently giving to black neighborhoods.
Every cop in the nation should be made to read Kennedy's discussion of why blacks, perhaps especially middle-class blacks, are insulted and infuriated by the police use of "color as a proxy for dangerousness."
Kennedy comes to grips with the delicate problems of fair jury selection; the blatant thumb on the scales when blacks face the death penalty; and the question of what should be done to remove race from the imposition of heavier punishment for those who sell and use crack (favored by blacks) compared to the fate of powder cocaine users (mostly whites).
Readers who want to argue with Kennedy, or who want to double-check his reasoning, can refer to his 122 pages of notes and bibliography.
Robert Sherrill is corporations correspondent for The Nation and author of Why They Call It Politics.
An Empty Lap: One Couple's Journey to Parenthood
Jill Smolowe '77
Jill Smolowe '77 opens An Empty Lap with a charming scene of grocery-shopping with her adopted daughter, Becky. She quickly moves, however, to the stressful aspects of how she became a mother: the strain of dealing with infertility, the twists and turns in the path to adoption, coping with other people's reactions to a Chinese baby, and--most important--the near collapse of her marriage. For this book tells more than one story. The subtitle reads "One Couple's Journey to Parenthood"; it could as easily read "One Couple's Journey Through Marriage." Both journeys are over treacherous terrain indeed.
Smolowe and her husband, Joe Treen, met as writers at Newsweek. In spite of the bond brought by a shared profession and similar tastes, these two people are vastly different in fundamental ways: age, background, personality, expectations. Their differences fuel fiery disagreements (resolved only with the judicious use of counseling each time) at every major life decision, including marriage, real estate purchases, and parenthood. The conflict that gives this book additional texture, and makes it more than just a tale about infertility and adoption, is basic: Smolowe wants to be a mother; Treen does not want to be a father.
After seven years of marriage, Smolowe and Treen finally agree to start a family, although Treen's ambivalence remains. Then the unthought-of occurs: they can't conceive. Smolowe takes us from the early stages of disbelief through the tangle of doctors' appointments with their exacting timetables of tests and their inexact readings. When she finally acknowledges that biological problems on both sides mean she will never become pregnant, Smolowe begins a painful slide into depression.
On recovering from her depression, Smolowe embarks on her campaign to adopt, a campaign marked by the paper trails of agencies and the disappointment of leads disappearing. She finally gets on track with an agency in Seattle that facilitates adoptions from China. Yet even as Smolowe closes in on her goal of becoming a mother, it appears that she may no longer be a wife. Treen's ambivalence escalates to aversion, and at one point both face the possibility that they will separate after the adoption process is complete. However, Treen's position begins to shift when he sees pictures of their Chinese daughter. From the moment he holds Becky in a hotel room in China, he is hooked on fatherhood.
Smolowe's style is to tell her story with the easy intimacy she might use with a best friend. Some readers may find this to be more intimacy than they want. In addition, certain awkward constructions and errors of syntax are not only distracting but also surprising in a book by a seasoned writer. Nevertheless, Smolowe writes with genuine emotional engagement. And those who have gone on similar journeys, through infertility, adoption, or just rocky marriages, will feel a common bond and will appreciate her honesty.
-M. Kathryn Taylor '74
Kathryn Taylor, a writer and teacher, lives in Media, Pennsylvania.
Douglas Rushkoff '83
When Timothy Leary was diagnosed with inoperable cancer last year, he planned an elaborate death ritual for himself on the Internet, wherein computer users could watch him commit suicide in real time. Although he died quietly in his sleep before he could organize the event, his preoccupation with cyberspace was duly noted by his fans. In the '60s, the young looked to this Harvard psychologist as a guru who could initiate social change.
According to Douglas Rushkoff '83, Leary's "Think for yourself, question authority" mantra of the '60s was reinvented in the '90s by a counterculture of rave-intellectual hackers who use technology and "smart drugs" to subvert the Establishment. In Rushkoff's previous nonfiction works (Media Virus!, The GenX Reader, Cyberia) he demonstrated himself to be a preeminent authority on popular culture and the future of technology. In Ecstasy Club, his first novel, Rushkoff presents a snapshot of the subculture that is striving for nirvana with the aid of rave music, philosophical social theories, and mind-altering substances. Calling themselves The Ecstasy Club, a group of 20-somethings moves into an abandoned piano factory, where they host all-night parties with DJs, guest gurus, and virtual-reality experiments in an attempt to create a plugged-in utopia. But the club's "visionary" leader, Duncan, soon engenders a cult environment, and the plot takes an insidious turn. The group "realizes" they are the target of conspiracies by local police, the U.S. government, a computer magazine called Plugged, a national religious cult called Cosmotology, and aliens. Rushkoff tops off this farrago of paranoia with an unlikely subplot featuring computer viruses that infect human brains.
This subplot is indicative of Rushkoff's inability to decide which concepts to present as his own sound theories, and which to present as those of half-baked paranoid fictional characters. The reader therefore has the frustrating job of sifting through the paranoia to find the truth. And when the druggie characters wax anarchic-philosophical, the pseudo-profound ideas chafe. It is never quite clear which passages are satirical and which are in earnest.
Yet this, presumably, is part of Rushkoff's mission. With his media-theory expertise, he is approaching the ways in which irony, spin, and paranoia work to complicate our everyday '90s lives. And throughout the narrative, Rushkoff's fascinating knowledge of cyberculture bubbles up in facile descriptions of complex computer concepts and crackling portraits of "screen-agers" who have grown up on MTV and video games. If you don't know what The Real World is, stay away. Otherwise, Ecstasy Club might just provide the stimulation you've been looking for.
-Mark Rambler '96
Mark Rambler works at Newsweek.
Contested Terrain: A New History of Nature and People in the Adirondacks, by Philip G. Terrie '70 (Adirondack Museum and Syracuse, $26.95)--In this attempt to provide a comprehensive history of the Adirondack region in upstate New York, Terrie balances the views of locals, vacationers, businessmen, and outsiders in examining the cultural and economic factors that have influenced the region. Terrie is a professor of English and American culture studies at Bowling Green State University.
The Book of Numbers, by John H. Conway and Richard K. Guy (Springer Verlag, $29)--examines, with the help of illustrations and diagrams, number patterns found in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. Advice for the nonmathematically inclined: read slowly. Chapter 3 explains fanning difference tables, a concept discovered by Robert Jackson '37. Conway is a professor of mathematics at Princeton, and Guy is a professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Calgary.
Children With Disabilities, (Paul H. Brookes, $49.95 cloth)--Peggy Eicher '77, a staff physician at Children's Seashore House in Philadelphia, wrote the chapter on feeding in this reference book on disabilities in children.
Mirage: Why Neither Democrats nor Republicans Can Balance the Budget, End the Deficit, and Satisfy the Public, by George Hager '72 and Eric Pianin (Random House, $25)--looks at the country's budget deficit and the two parties' counterproductive political maneuvering. The book was published shortly before a budget agreement was reached in Washington, rendering its premise obsolete, although its research intact. Hager is a senior writer for The Congressional Quarterly.
Great World Trials: The 100 Most Significant Trials of All Time, (Visible Ink, $17.95)--Bernard Ryan '46 is a contributing editor to this book, which looks at notorious trials outside the United States.