Heather Mac Donald

Heather Mac Donald

Tonight, Thursday, Nov. 12, conservative commenter Heather Mac Donald will visit ASU to deliver a talk titled “Is the American Great Crime Decline Sustainable?

The free public lecture will be delivered at 6:30 pm on the ASU Tempe campus, ISTB4, Marston Theater.

According to event organizers, Mac Donald’s work has largely focused on crime rates and race. She “pushes back against common arguments of racism in policing and the criminal justice system as a whole to argue for preventative policing that she believes contributed to the 20-year decline of crime in America.”

Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. Her work covers a range of topics, including homeland security, immigration, policing and racial profiling, homelessness and homeless advocacy, and educational policy.

You can see more of what the speaker advocates here, via C-SPAN:

Heather Mac Donald book cover policing racismIntroducing Mac Donald will be Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.

Following Mac Donald’s talk, the former director of the Office for Victims of Crime, John W. Gillis, will give a brief talk about his career and experiences. He is a founding member of Justice for Homicide Victims and the Coalition of Victims Equal Rights.

More information and a Q&A with Montgomery and Gillis are here.

The event is free. RSVP here.

Parking is available (for a fee) in the Rural Road Parking Structure.

Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman" may be informative reading in a presidential election year.

Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” may be informative reading in a presidential election year.

I haven’t read the “new” book by Harper Lee titled “Go Set a Watchman.” Should I? Have you? Will you?

If the author’s name doesn’t ring bells, her more prominent book’s title may, for “To Kill a Mockingbird” has moved generations of readers and led to a fabulously successful movie version. (Though it took me quite a while to get around to reading it, as I described here.) The film was impactful enough that the State Bar of Arizona screened it for a fund-raising evening a few years ago.

Maybe the power of “Mockingbird” is most clearly viewed through the upset people have over the possibility of a newly released book that includes the character Atticus Finch. Simply put, they love that character, and anything that sullies or even complicates their view of the lawyer who does good, best as he can, is not something they want to engage with.

I’ll admit, I’ve at least somewhat shared that view. Besides the fact that sequels usually pale in comparison to the original, I also felt that there are few enough portrayals of compassionate lawyers. Can’t we keep Atticus just as he is? Please?

Two things changed my mind. One was a great magazine story (let’s hear it for the power of magazines). And the other was a political town hall.

For the ABA Journal, Deborah Cassens Weiss examines some previous scholarship about “Mockingbird” in light of the release of “Watchman.”

As Weiss ends her article:

“Though Watchman isn’t Harper Lee’s best work, [Harvard Law Professor Randall] Kennedy says, it ‘does reveal more starkly the complexity of Atticus Finch, her most admired character. Go Set a Watchman demands that its readers abandon the immature sentimentality ingrained by middle school lessons about the nobility of the white savior and the mesmerizing performance of Gregory Peck in the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.’”

Ouch. Is sentimentality blocking readers from a fuller and truer understanding of American history? Chagrined, we must admit that such a thing has happened time and again. So am I and others doing that when we seal our “favorite” Atticus in amber?

One clue that the scholars are on the right track is visible when you read the comments following the ABA Journal story. As the saying goes, Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

The second element that leads me to get over my bromance with Atticus Finch occurred this past Saturday, at a town hall featuring two presidential candidates.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Phoenix, Ariz., July 16 2015.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Phoenix, Ariz., July 16 2015.

I attended portions of the Netroots Nation annual conference mainly to cover the three or so “legalish” panel discussions they scheduled, featuring topics like redistricting and Supreme Court jurisprudence. But in the process, I managed to get into the Phoenix Convention Center room where journalist Jose Antonio Vargas would interview U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, each vying for the Democratic nomination.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, Phoenix, Ariz., July 18, 2015

Sen. Bernie Sanders, Phoenix, Ariz., July 18, 2015

Gov. Martin O'Malley, Phoenix, Ariz., July 18, 2015

Gov. Martin O’Malley, Phoenix, Ariz., July 18, 2015

What I and 3,000 of my new friends expected was a moderated discussion. What we got was a highly effective staged protest by “Black Lives Matter” activists. About five minutes into the dialogue with O’Malley, activists rose from their seats or came from the back of the room, demanding to be heard.

You may have read about the event in the national news, for example, here and here.

Black Lives Matter activist Tia Oso confronts Gov. Martin O'Malley, July 18, 2015

Black Lives Matter activist Tia Oso confronts Gov. Martin O’Malley, July 18, 2015

What surprised was not that there was a protest—after all, this has been a year marked by flash-points in the intersection of policing and race. What surprised were the insufficient responses of the candidates. And that was followed by the irritation of many in the audience that the protestors spoke up at all, or for so long, or so stridently. And I heard from many audience members who professed to be pleased with their candidates’ responses, “given the circumstances.”

(For an insightful analysis of the Saturday event, read attorney Bob Lord, who managed to speak with a protest organizer.)

But in the era of Ferguson—and of Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray and Michael Brown—it takes a special kind of denial to insist that the view of your candidate not be disturbed, distorted or made more complex by Saturday’s events. Both candidates may have had smart and compassionate things to say about race, the justice system, and people’s lives. But neither said those things. That is worth noting. They had the past tumultuous year-plus to think over their response to these tragedies. They did not take that opportunity. That is worth noting.

One thing that tells me is that the candidates and their staffs should immediately read the report issued just last week on the topic from the ABA and the NAACP. I covered it here.

So for those reasons and more, I’ll get a copy of “Go Set a Watchman.” Sure, the later years of Atticus may show a man who is not a shining beacon of enlightened views. But, sometime between now and a presidential election, we all should grow a little more open to complexity—in our novels, in our history, and in our public policy.

Let me know if you’re reading the book, and what you think. Write to me at arizona.attorney@azbar.org.

In the meantime, here are some of my tweets from the town hall. You can follow me and read more of my coverage at @azatty.

the n word

It may be in the darkest corners of our history—and ourselves—that we locate the self-awareness to make positive change.

That thought occurred to me when yesterday I came across a lecture at noon today that takes on the uncomfortable but vital topic of one of the most vile insults that can be uttered. Kudos to the ASU Law School for inviting a speaker to address “The N Word.”

The speaker is Neal Lester, an ASU Foundation Professor of English and the Director of Project Humanities—a surprising choice for a law school speaker, but an inspired one. Lester’s research and his experience as a literary scholar combine to bring to today’s lecture what I’m sure will be a nuanced and incisive commentary.

Here’s how the Law School describes the event:

 “The N-word is unique in American English usage. No other word is so charged with negative meaning and racial insult that its very use is deemed a hostile act, and it is routinely referred to by a well-understood euphemism—’the N-word’—rather than spoken or written explicitly. … This program will be moderated by Professor Myles Lynk of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. College of Law Professor James Weinstein will offer comments after Dr. Lester’s presentation.”

Whether or not you can attend today, you may enjoy a Q&A with Lester on the site Teaching Tolerance, where the scholar is described:

“Neal A. Lester, dean of humanities and former chair of the English department at Arizona State University, recognized that the complexity of the n-word’s evolution demanded greater critical attention. In 2008, he taught the first ever college-level class designed to explore the word ‘nigger’ (which will be referred to as the n-word). Lester said the subject fascinated him precisely because he didn’t understand its layered complexities.”

ASU Foundation Professor Neal Lester

ASU Foundation Professor Neal Lester

Coincidentally, it was another ASU Law School event that suggested to me that hard issues may often be best met at an angle rather than head-on. (Not an original idea. In The Rings of Saturn, the great German author W. G. Sebald pondered how to present his resistant countrymen some hard messages about its 20th-century genocidal history. He opted for a compelling and subtle stroll—plus commentary—through English towns. Your careful read is rewarded.)

Last fall, I attended a striking ASU debate between scholars over the nature of hate speech (it also included Professor James Weinstein). They pondered a question we Americans tend to think is a settled issue: Is it best to meet hate speech with regulation, or simply with more speech?

I wrote about the event here, and I still wonder whether our “more speech” antidote is a cure or just a placebo.

Meantime, someone I respect greatly pointed me to an arresting quotation of the poet Maya Angelou, which I leave you with:

“The plague of racism is insidious, entering into our minds as smoothly and quietly and invisibly as floating airborne microbes enter into our bodies to find lifelong purchase in our bloodstreams.”

If anyone attends today’s lecture and wants to write a blog post (with a cellphone photo or two), contact me at arizona.attorney@azbar.org.

Two days ago, I wrote about a Mesa school district program that gets truant students in front of a justice of the peace. The goal is to get them on the straight and narrow. But the outcome is, necessarily, more misdemeanor convictions.

Last night, I read a disturbing Washington Post article that analyzed data from schools in that city and its suburbs. It found that African American students are disciplined far more often than other children.

Read the whole story here.

The story, by reporter Donna St. George, opens:

“Across the Washington area, black students are suspended and expelled two to five times as often as white students, creating disparities in discipline that experts say reflect a growing national problem. … Experts say disparities appear to have complex causes. A disproportionate number of black students live below the poverty line or with a single parent, factors that affect disciplinary patterns. But experts say those factors do not fully explain racial differences in discipline. Other contributing factors could include unintended bias, unequal access to highly effective teachers and differences in school leadership styles.”

Daniel J. Losen

As the story indicates, the challenge of equalizing discipline is a national one. So much so that a joint effort of the Departments of Justice and Education was announced last July to combat the school-to-prison pipeline.

According to the Department of Education press release:

“Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder today announced the launch of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, a collaborative project between the Departments of Justice and Education that will address the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ and the disciplinary policies and practices that can push students out of school and into the justice system. The initiative aims to support good discipline practices to foster safe and productive learning environments in every classroom.”

The Post story explains the problematic nature of many of the suspendable offenses, which are labeled “soft” infractions—disrespect, defiance, insubordination, disruption and foul language. Some offenses, the reporter notes, allow administrators “significant latitude in how they respond.”

Discipline rates in DC schools (click for larger version)

And things really have changed in schools since many of us were kids: “Suspensions have surged nationally since the 1970s, fueled in part by a zero-tolerance culture.”

“‘We associate getting kicked out of school with something really really bad, but there has been a sea change in recent years in what kids get suspended for and how often we use suspension,’ said researcher Daniel J. Losen, who recently authored a report on suspension and disparities for the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.”

Russell Skiba

The disparities are troubling, the reporter says, especially for parents who may already be suspicious of an unbalanced ledger in school administration:

“Lea Collins-Lee, an African American parent in Prince George’s [County], said her eldest son was first suspended a decade ago for placing an extra dessert on his cafeteria tray. Last month, her youngest son, now 18, was suspended for five days after a tussle that she said he did not start.

“‘I really do think it’s harder for black kids,’ she said. ‘If they get into a fight, it’s a gang fight. If white kids get into a fight, it’s a disagreement.’”

For those who suggest a suspension may be no big deal, a recent Texas study drew a stark line between school discipline and the likelihood of dropping out and ending up in the juvenile justice system. And as I noted Tuesday, a criminal record may be forever. (Here is another study examining disparities in the Virginia schools.)

In the Post article, a researcher answered in advance one of the questions many may have:

“‘It is not just a matter of kids coming from poverty,’ [Indiana University’s Russell] Skiba said. ‘Poor kids do get suspended more. But that does not explain why poor black kids get suspended more than poor white kids and why affluent black kids get suspended more than affluent white kids.’”

Angela Ciolfi

Donna St. George quotes another researcher, Angela Ciolfi of the Legal Aid Justice Center, which published the study of Virginia schools:

“I think people assume it has to be this way. [But], when schools pay attention to who gets in trouble and why, they find they are able to reduce misbehavior overall and also address the discipline gap.”

What do you think of this discipline gap? Do you see it in Arizona? And for those in the juvenile justice system, what do you think of the notion that wielding too much discipline in schools provides a gateway to the courthouse?