Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Posts Tagged ‘equal personhood

Who Will Push Back? Without Strong Democratic Teachers’ Unions, We’re All Screwed

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Kindergartner students in the deep blue state of Massachusetts are being shamed by publicly posting their test scores. Here’s Sarah Jaffe reporting on “data walls”:

Last year, K-12 teachers in the Holyoke, Massachusetts school district were told to try a new tactic to improve test scores: posting “data walls” in their classrooms. The walls list students by name and rank them by their scores on standardized tests. This, they say administrators told them, would motivate children to try harder on those tests.

Teachers did so, many unwillingly. Agustin Morales, an English teacher at Maurice A. Donahue Elementary School in Holyoke felt pressure to comply, but finds the data walls cruel. One of his top students did poorly on a standardized test in November and found her name at the bottom of the data wall. Afterward, in a writing assignment for class, she “wrote about how sad she was, how depressed she was because she’d scored negatively on it, she felt stupid.”

“So why do I hate data walls?” he continued. “Because of how she felt that day. She felt worthless. She felt like she wasn’t as good as other people.”

Morales isn’t alone in opposing the data walls. They’re widely seen as just the latest front in a war being fought by educators, parents and students nationwide against what teacher educator Barbara Madeloni calls “predatory education reform.”

Earlier, Jaffe wrote about the difficulties of kindergartners given standardized tests  in New York , which “pit children against one another instead of teaching them to share, which can turn even a kindergarten classroom into a den of hyper-individualistic bootstrappers.”  And indeed, like the data wall and the shaming it facilities, “This is a feature, not a bug, of the testing regime.”

These sort of stories should not be dismissed as outliers.  They are part of the same drive to relentlessly rate the relative merits of students, teachers, and schools, to place them in competition with one another, to address education problems by mass firings of teachers or mass closure of schools, to devalue the contributions of experienced teachers as well as traditional (or more accurately, real) public schools.

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Written by David Kaib

March 11, 2014 at 10:32 pm

Five Economic Reforms Americans are Open To

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Last week, Jesse Myerson caused a major stir with a Rolling Stone piece, Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For. It’s a great piece, and we should all be fighting for them.

It’s a new year, but one thing hasn’t changed: The economy still blows. Five years after Wall Street crashed, America’s banker-gamblers have only gotten richer, while huge swaths of the country are still drowning in personal debt, tens of millions of Americans remain unemployed – and the new jobs being created are largely low-wage, sub-contracted, part-time grunt work.

Millennials have been especially hard-hit by the downturn, which is probably why so many people in this generation (like myself) regard capitalism with a level of suspicion that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. But that egalitarian impulse isn’t often accompanied by concrete proposals about how to get out of this catastrophe. Here are a few things we might want to start fighting for, pronto, if we want to grow old in a just, fair society, rather than the economic hellhole our parents have handed us.

The piece did two things. First, it drove conservatives absolutely insane, and second, it led to a serious discussion of these policies that previously were largely at the margins of the agenda.

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Written by David Kaib

January 14, 2014 at 10:42 pm

Blacks are Everyday People: Baltimore and the Drug War

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[Updated below]

In a post perhaps better entitled “Official makes offensive, ludicrous claim,” but actually entitled Batts: Crime dropped for “everyday citizens” in 2013, Justin Fenton ‏points us to this statement by Baltimore top cop.

With murders, non-fatal shootings and street robberies up in 2013, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts emphasized in television interviews Monday that crime affecting “everyday citizens” was moving in the right direction.

“It’s not throughout the city as a whole,” Batts told WBAL-TV of the violence. “It’s very localized and unfortunately, it’s with African American men who are involved in the drug trade and 80 to 85 percent of the victims are involved in the drug trade going back and forth.”

As Fenton points out, “Batts also said that ’80 to 85 percent’ of victims of violence were African-American men involved in the drug trade. But overall, only 84 percent of city homicide victims are black men” and “police determined a drug motive in just 3 of 224.” Three.

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Written by David Kaib

January 6, 2014 at 7:55 am

Who knew the reason libertarianism was so noxious was plagiarism?

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For reasons that are somewhat baffling, the coverage of Senator Rand Paul’s plagiarism in speeches and writings got wall-to-wall coverage for some time, although it has now died down. I’m not a fan of Paul, and I don’t think this sort of rampant taking of other people’s words and passing them off as his own is acceptable. Yet I find the whole episode strange. Now that it’s over, I wanted to step back to ruminate on the reaction to this and what it means for the left.

Two claims, largely implicit, have become quite common in Democratic-leaning circles, which are in tension.  First, is the idea that libertarians pose an existential threat to the country. Often, libertarian here is used interchangeably for ‘Tea Party,” and while that doesn’t always make sense, it might when it comes to Paul. And while some would make this same claim about the GOP as a whole, libertarians are singled out for particular scorn. Paul, then, is treated as far more threatening that the senior senator from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell. 

Now, I’m not sure how I would rate the two senators from Kentucky.  I’m sure one could make a case here. But it strikes me that the case is generally presumed, and the differences in terms of whose worse are generally presumed to be really large. This is even more troublesome give that, as minority leader, McConnell likely has a great deal more power in the Senate, regardless of what the comparison might tell us in the abstract. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

November 20, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Domestic Violence and Evictions: a Literal Denial of Equal Protection

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A bit late to this, but How Domestic Violence Survivors Get Evicted From Their Homes After Calling the Police, from Annamarya Scaccia, is just as horrifying as you would imagine from the title.

As outlined in the federal lawsuit filed April 24 on behalf of Briggs by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA), and Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP, Briggs had already been given three strikes under Norristown’s discretionary Rental License Ordinance. The ordinance gives the Montgomery County municipality the right to countermand a landlord’s rental license and provoke a tenant’s eviction if police respond to three “disorderly behavior” calls in four months, including domestic disturbances in which a mandatory arrest in not required.

The strikes Briggs received were the result of police calls made in April and May of last year—two of which were due to acts of domestic violence committed against her. In May, the borough began proceedings to revoke her landlord Darren Sudman’s rental license, but granted the property—and by extension Briggs—a 30-day probationary period after a late May hearing. Any violation during that period would have resulted in rescindment and eviction, claims the lawsuit.

That’s right – the County basically punishes the landlord for failing to punish a woman who’s experiencing domestic violence by evicting her. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

June 21, 2013 at 9:19 am

Judges as Agents of Cruelty: Policy Learning and Official Actors

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[C]ourts play a key role in sustaining and even creating the cruel conditions currently found in American prisons and jails. In this sense, judges, too, become agents of cruelty. Just as prison officials learn cruelty through repeated exposure to prisoners in a context that denies their shared humanity, judges develop a cruel disposition towards prisoners through the repeated demand that they validate as not cruel conditions that are clearly at odds with the state’s carceral burden. Existing constitutional standards require courts to find for the state even when prisoners face obvious risks of serious physical or psychological harm. To do so, judges must learn to suppress any instinctual sympathy they may have for follow human beings who have experiences gratuitous suffering. Indeed, if they are to enforce prevailing standards, judges must learn to cease altogether to recognize prisoners’ shared humanity–a lesson, it bears remarking, that once learned only makes it easier for courts to satisfy the imperative of judicial deference to prison officials.

Sharon Dolovich, “Cruelty, Prison Conditions, and the Eighth Amendment” (pdf)

Written by David Kaib

December 7, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Thirteenth Amendment and the Normalization of Coercion

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The other day I linked to Balkin and Levinson’s excellent new piece, The Dangerous Thirteenth Amendment.  The basic idea is that, because the 13th Amendment lacks a state action component*, and because coercive relations are exceedingly common outside the context of chattel slavery, a broader understanding had the potential to seriously disturb that status quo (especially racial and gender hierarchies).

Discussing why the North turned against Reconstruction and the cause of equal rights for black (men), Balkin and Levinson noted:

Northern white elites increasingly feared what they perceived as the threat of “socialism”—demands by freed blacks and their white sympathizers for redistributive programs. Elites feared that newly empowered majorities would be led astray by “[w]eak-minded sentimentalists or corrupt demagogues” who would stir up discontent among the masses.  Benedict tellingly quotes a now-forgotten reformer, Abram S. Hewitt, who wrote that “[t]he problem . . . . is to make men who are equal . . . in political rights and . . . entitled to the [formal right of] ownership of property content with that inequality in its distribution which must inevitably result from the application of the law of justice.” (citations omitted)

One might think that it was generations of forced labor, rather than efforts to correct that, were ‘redistribution’.  (This quote is also an important reminder that ‘socialism’ typically means ‘failing to reinforce inequality and hierarchy.’)

There’s a lot to this argument.  But Balkin and Levinson frame the discussion around a choice between 1) understanding the term ‘slavery’ as simply applying to chattel slavery, which they argue was largely how it was meant at the time of the framing of the 13th Amendment or 2) understanding the term more broadly as “the project of ending domination in social life, and securing self-rule and self-sufficiency,” which is closer to how it was understood earlier in history and by later movements that sought to draw on it (like the labor and Civil Rights movements).  But the text itself counsel against this, barring “slavery [or] involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”  Focusing on that, as well as understanding, as the court long has (as the authors discuss as well), that this extends to “badges and incidents of slavery,” suggests a far wider scope for the 13th Amendment without reaching back into history for alternate meanings. It’s also worth pointing out that the amendment contemplates primarily legislative enforcement, again, like the 14th and 15th Amendments, something that’s been largely ignored but flows logically from both history and text.

That said, when one adds together things like the Preamble, the Bill of Rights, and the 13th and 14th Amendments, I think you get to a fairly radical place, one which does at least question domination in social life.  These provisions all embody the notion of  equal personhood.  There are parallels to be made between chattel slavery and other institutions, and it’s worth engaging these questions.  Breathing life into the 13th would advance this project, which is one more reason why this piece is so important. It reminds us to take seriously the deep resonance between various forms of oppression and various movements of liberation.  Challenging the normalization of coercion, tying together its different forms, is the best sort of politicization, something that is sorely needed.

*I actually think too much has been made of this when it comes to the 14th Amendment.  The Equal Protection Clause requires states to provide the protections of law equally. (It’s easier to notice what it’s saying when you disentangle the words used).  What are the protections of law for? Protecting us from others, especially private actors.  I believe this was the way the clause was understood when it was adopted but that it was rewritten as about government discrimination for the same reasons – a broader understanding was and remains ‘dangerous.’

Written by David Kaib

August 2, 2012 at 12:28 am

Arbitrary Authority, Punishment and the Production of Violence

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Discussing the recent incident at McCarren Pool, I think Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a common mistake when it comes to the relationship between violence and authority.

There was some shock and dismay last week when I wrote that I was rather unsurprised by the violence that broke out at McCarren Pool, but was in fact more surprised that the NYPD hadn’t put in place a more forceful police presence on opening day. I argued yesterday that violence tends to follow whenever you have masses of people in tight cities and no authority with teeth. [snip] Nevertheless, I was slightly taken aback by the fact that many of us seem wholly unfamiliar with this sort of violence–directed at an authority figure, and undertaken by a group of teenagers.

I don’t know what was going through those kids minds. But I know that I used to be one of them.  When I was 14 years old my English teacher yelled at me in front of the class. I responded by threatening him. I was subsequently arrested for assault, suspended and almost thrown out school. (You can read the long version here.) Like most of the boys I went to school with, I was obsessed with rather hollow notions of “respect” and saving face. I was not–by any measure–a tough guy. But this made things worse. At any rate, I deserved everything I got. You can’t go around threatening teachers. Or people.

My italics.

But I don’t think TNC’s own story is about what happens when there’s “no authority with teeth.” It’s about how people respond to authority.

The “masses of people in tight cities” in the US are often underserved by existing institutions, socially isolated from the rest of society, denied opportunity, discriminated against, responded to with punishment in ways others are not, and subject to arbitrary searches and arrests. This generates anger, resentment and rage, which then tends to blow when it gets too strong or those individuals find themselves outside the “authority” of those with power.

Prison psychologist James Gilligan puts it this way:

I have been struck by the frequency with which I received the same answer when I asked prisoners, or mental patients, why they assaulted or even killed someone. Time after time, they would reply “because he disrespected me” or “he disrespected my visitor [or wife, mother, sister, girl-friend, daughter, etc.].” In fact, they used that phrase so often that they abbreviated it into the slang phrase, “He dis’ed me.”


On one occasion, the officers in a prison had become involved in a running battle with a prisoner in which he would assault them and they would punish him. The more they punished him the more violent he became, and the more violent he became the more they punished him. They placed him in solitary confinement, deprived him of even the last few privileges and possessions prison inmate has; there was no further punishment to which they could subject him without becoming subject to punishment themselves, and yet he continued to assault them whenever they opened his door. At that point they gave up and asked me to see if I could help them understand what was going on so they could extricate themselves from a situation that was only harming both parties to the conflict. (Incidentally, one can observe this same mutually self-defeating vicious cycle on a national and international scale and throughout history, both in this country and elsewhere, as in Chechnya, Israel-Palestine, and Iraq; and historically, as in the punitive peace settlement following the First World War that strengthened the revanchist political movements that culminated in the Second World War—to choose just a few among many possible examples).

When I saw this prisoner I asked him, “What do you want so badly that you are willing to give up everything else in order to get it?” It seemed to me that this was exactly what he was doing. In response, this man, who was usually so inarticulate that it was difficult to get a clear answer to any question, astonished me by standing up tall, looking me in the eye, and replying with perfect clarity and a kind of simple eloquence: “Pride. Dignity. Self-esteem.” And then, speaking more in his usual manner, he added “And I’ll kill every motherfucker in that cell block if I have to in order to get it.” He went on to describe how the officers were, he felt, attempting to strip away his last shred of dignity and self-esteem by disrespecting him, and said, “I still have my pride and I won’t let them take that away from me. If you ain’t got pride, you got nothin’.” He made it clear to me that he would die before he would humble himself to the officers by submitting to their demands.

Gilligan’s point is that when authority robs individuals of their dignity, either by putting them in a position where they cannot maintain it, where others will rob them of it, or where those operating under color of law will do the robbing, people have a tendency to lash out aggressively to try to reassert that dignity. (I should really say men, because there is a really important role for gender here, but that’s a subject for another post).

Studies of why people (this time I really mean people) obey the law show consistently that a central issue is whether it is seen as legitimate, specifically, whether procedures are felt as fair. Fair procedures might be extended to those who are considered fully human by those in power (although this group is shrinking) but as Margaret Somers argues, rights are not generally extended or protected to those who are seen as less than fully human.

Neoliberalism is sometimes mistakenly seen as simply about markets, but it also includes a significant emphasis on punishment.  Whether it means punishing through the criminal justice system, the social welfare system, or the national security system assaults people’s sense of dignity, producing the very behaviors it claims to be fighting.  Robert Pape’s work on suicide terrorism, showing it to be caused by occupations by countries associated with a different religion than that of the occupied is but one example.

The problem then, is not the lack of authority, but how authority is wielded.

(None of this is to say TNC doesn’t have a lot to offer on these dynamics.  See for example this earlier post he linked to.)

Written by David Kaib

July 11, 2012 at 12:10 pm


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