December 2, 2014

SUSSER | Thanks and Justice

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As the first semester of the 2014-2015 academic year comes to a close and we return from our gluttonous Thanksgiving binges, it is important to take a minute to appreciate what we have access to as Cornell students and, more broadly, as educated young people with the intellectual capacity to tackle the many challenges that may come our way. Rest assured, this column will not be a glittery pep talk by any means. Rather, before I dive into more topical matters, the spirit of Thanksgiving justifies a paragraph-long gushy and warm celebration of the place that has been my home — for better or for worse — the past two and a half years.

It would be a disservice to withhold positive remarks for this institution in the days before finals, when droves of students will frantically rush into Olin Library for ceaseless studying (don’t forget, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy). Thanksgiving, however, does provide a brief respite from the semester-long grind and an opportunity to both indulge in paralyzing Netflix marathons, and underhandedly compare college experiences with high school friends. While Cornell has not provided lethargic days at the beach or vodka-fueled gameday tailgates, it does create a nuanced and unique culture where one is on a daily basis surrounded by highly motivated and, frankly, interesting people. Interesting is a kind of broad, all-encompassing word that leaves one unsatisfied. There is a lack of specificity to the word that makes it easy to use, yet spaciousness to it that makes it boring. So when I say that the students at Cornell are interesting, what I mean is that we each have something to say. Whether we want to talk about environmental issues, neurological research or why binge drinking is bad, we aren’t silent about matters. Being vocal is a deterrent to ignorance and complacency and moreover, makes for a unique campus environment.

Being a native New Yorker — which I make abundantly clear in each column — it is always easy for me to find a topic to talk (complain) about. This week, something that I wish to be vocal about is the murder of Michael Brown and the nationwide protests that have occurred following the acquittal of officer Darren Wilson.

Most media outlets that have followed the protests and riots have repeatedly referred to Brown as the “unarmed black man.” The growing rhetoric of the “unarmed black man” paints the portrait of not just Brown, but of many black individuals across the nation. It doesn’t take an English major to see the “unarmed” helplessness of Brown as a metaphor for the vulnerable position of black people within the context of the criminal justice system. Black people are incarcerated at a ratesix times higher than that of white people. Is there something that predisposes black individuals to end up in jail other than the color of their skin? Is it the environments they grow up in, where the prevalence of incarceration creates a vicious cycle of desensitization to police authority? Plainly, higher poverty rates — themedian income of blacks is just over half the median income of whites — could be another explanation for the greater likelihood of incarceration. While the riots and looting have unfortunately given fodder for claims of illegitimate cause, the deeply rooted relationship between blacks and the police must be settled.

Draconian policing is not new to this country. While it is unfortunate that many ethical and hardworking police officers may now be vilified because of their profession, it may be time to rethink how policing is done in America. Brown was not the first, and probably not the last black man to be wrongfully murdered by a white cop. A 2013 drama, Fruitville Station, told the story of another black man, Oscar Grant, who was murdered on New Year’s Eve by a cop who had mistakenly pulled his pistol instead of taser while Grant was resisting arrest. Although Grant was a flawed man, he is humanized in this movie, and his wrongful murder and harsh treatment by the police was eye opening.

Some might argue, though, that the prejudice actions of police officers may be reflective of a societal norm. In a 2003 study at Washington University, psychologists found that students who were “playing cop” were more likely to shoot at a black man carrying an innocuous object — such as a flashlight — than at a white man. These biases, then, may not be unique to the police.

Surely, in light of Ferguson, the idea of the cop has evolved from the heroic true American — think Die Hard — to the antagonistic racist. I can’t help but attribute this evolution to the growing incarceration rates in the United States. Die Hard — a movie that portrays John McClane as a cop who feels a civic obligation to protect even while off duty — was made in 1988 just prior to the outgrowth of the many “three strike laws.” The three strike laws, also known as habitual offender laws, were developed in the mid 1990s in many states as a means to deter recidivism through increased sentencing. With longer sentencing and now widely perceived latent racism behind police actions, it will be quite difficult for the movie industry to paint the modern criminal justice system in a positive manner. For example, there are punitively harsh penalties for repeated drug offenses — more than half of all those in jail for drug related crimes are black. With these forms of sentencing in place, there will be a continued adversarial relationship between our country’s legal institutions and vulnerable, “unarmed” communities. It is time to be constructive rather than destructive.

Beyond Hollywood, now is a chance for this country to evaluate how it should address biased law enforcement. There will always be criminality in societies. It is the public’s obligation, however, in any democracy, to determine what is just.

Philip Susser is a junior in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at [email protected]. An Ithaca State of Mind appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester.