lil old outspoken me

It’s funny, sometimes, how the way we see ourselves and the way other people see us can be so radically different. This is something I’ve often pondered, since I was a teen–the old song line, You never know just how you look/ through other people’s eyes comes to mind–but it was recently brought home again when I attended a recurring social event and someone (who’s only met me twice, and in the context of talking about books!) referred to me as a person with “strong opinions.”

It’s not the first time I’ve been described as such–though mostly since my mid-to-late 20s–and it always makes me laugh, because it’s really not how I think of myself at all. I guess when I think of people with “strong opinions,” I think of people who aren’t willing to listen to guidance, or cede an argument when presented with new information? Or, maybe, people who enjoy arguments and intentionally try to foment dissent at social gatherings as a form of, like, amusement, and that’s not my bag at all.

I consider myself more of a pacifist–a mediator and negotiator in personality, someone who prefers to avoid conflict if possible, but if it becomes unavoidable, I prefer to opt for communication resolving in peaceful resolution first and foremost. I have what’s often been called a naive belief in the innate goodness of humankind, and I truly believe the majority of people mean well, it’s just, we have different ideas of how to achieve it.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize the behaviors I exhibit which are often described, “bold,” or “outspoken,” or, “strong-minded” are just enthusiasm. I get really enthusiastic about things … books, Harry Potter, income inequality, motorcycling history, labor law, Star Trek, board games, writing, the publishing industry.

Like, super enthusiastic. And when I get enthusiastic about a topic, I research it backwards and forwards and up and down, like a super nerd. I read about it, I think about it, I talk about it. I daydream about it, come up with theories, and link it to other things I’m enthusiastic about.

Now, just like anyone else, I don’t randomly bring up this stuff at inappropriate times–I’m not sitting at, like, work functions rambling on about esoteric factoids regarding labor law history to a bunch of dull-eyed coworkers and/or clients. No.

But … I mean, yeah, I have been at, say, book club, and waxed intense about my feelings on a book. Or book series. Occasionally in a very detailed breakdown of the plot structure and the flaws therein (like writing a book where the overriding relationship question was resolved in the first THIRD of the book, thereby completely nullifying any plot tension for the remaining 2/3 of the book, OUTLANDER 2). 

Also, I’ll plead guilty to, say, standing around at some dull social function, participating in make-nice chit-chat, and I hear someone make a reference to a shared topic of interest, so of course I gravitate over, because hey. Interesting conversation thataway.

And sometimes I’ll share an interesting factoid–like, maybe telling a fellow motorcycle fan that the Indian Motorcycle company was a casualty of WWII, and explaining why; or mentioning in addendum to some anecdote about marketing or customer service that, The customer is always right is actually based on a 1920s marketing slogan rather than any sort of overriding consumer ethos, because my general assumptions are that history is cool, trivia is fun, and most people enjoy learning new things.

I think this is where the bold/ outspoken/ opinionated impressions come from. It’s interactions–like casual social gatherings, or seminars where we’re explicitly discussing reactions to readings, or classroom settings where discussion is encouraged–where I feel comfortable, because of the context of the situation, in voicing my opinion and why I believe as I do.

When I was a kid/ teenager, whenever I wanted to do something my parents were uncomfortable or ambivalent about, my dad’s thing was for me to argue my case. I guess it’s a lawyer thing. He would tell me if I could come up with a convincing list of pros and cons–because a good lawyer has to understand both sides of the situation in order to rebut the opposing argument–then he’d consider my request. That’s actually how I negotiated most of my teen concessions.

So I do feel pretty comfortable examining an issue thoroughly, from all sides, and coming to a conclusion regarding my stance. Thanks to great parents and some fantastic professors over the years, I’ve also learned how to organize my supporting arguments when participating in a discussion so I can support my stance, and I’m comfortable revising my stance in light of new information which may alter my perspective.

All that said, I really do not like debate or disagreement, especially outside the specific parameters of the classroom (where it’s moderated and all are working from the same base reading material). This is one of the factors in me deciding not to pursue a law degree (though hardly the only).

I know that might seem incredible to someone who’s only knowledge of me is this blog, but it’s important to recognize the words on this screen are on stream-of-conscious, largely unedited personal blog–this on-the-fly verbiage represents my internal world, and while the values of fairness and equality espoused herein aligns with my real-world values, beliefs, and general behavior, there’s a pretty key difference–I’m a lot more polite and in real life.

Call it esprit de l’escalier, or a lifetime of gender conditioning, or empathy from having been bullied myself. Whatever it is, the sometimes pointed language I use on this blog when venting about disagreements doesn’t come into play during personal disagreements. I believe there’s no need to get insulting or derogatory during a conflict–any resolution to the disagreement will hinge on the facts of the situation, not he said/ she said opinions on character.

So it’s funny, because when someone describes me as, “bold,” or “opinionated,” or “outspoken,” I hear “argumentative,” or “rude,” or “disruptive,” and I automatically flinch away from those descriptions–they feel weird and uncomfortable to me. I pride myself on my ability to be civil, pleasant, cordial, and generous in personal interactions. Sure, I’ve sometimes felt frustration at walking away from an encounter where someone was rude or derogatory to me and I didn’t yell back–I’ve thought to myself, coward, wimp, chickenshit.

But far more often, I’ve felt satisfaction at my ability to not only remain calm and collected in response to instigation, but when I’ve successfully de-escalated a potentially explosive situation. Sometimes I feel bad that I’m not more of a fighter. But mostly I’m glad I gravitate to peacemaker. But I suppose it’s all in interpretations–here I’ve been thinking bold/ opinionated/ outspoken equates to argumentative, when really, those could just as easily describe traits of enthusiasm and mediation. After all, enthusiastic people will come across as opinionated and outspoken, and a mediator personality has to be able to have strong boundaries in order to mediate–its impossible to mediate if you can’t negotiate, set, or enforce fair boundaries. So those are strength characteristics, too.

WPC Lecture Notes Series | Second Thursday Workshop | Redacted

I’ve had a stressful/ annoying few days. The facilitators of one of the Thursday workshops I attended in 2013 at the WPC-14 saw the tidied up lecture notes I originally posted a few years ago as part of a lecture notes series. I guess they saw the lecture notes regarding their workshop on 8/20/2015, three years after the original workshop had been posted. They contacted me asking me to remove the entry due to copyright violation. It kind of surprised me because I was pretty sure I hadn’t violated any copyright, and because I had properly credited them.

Apparently they believed I had recorded their lecture with a/v equipment. Again, surprise: Washington is a two-party consent state, and that’s against the law, so: No. Also, I think, against WPC regulations, so, again: No.

Also, a waste of my phone battery.

Plus, I studied Journalism, worked for the student newspaper, type an average of 80 wpm, and the WPC allowed laptops. I had no need for a recording device. I had me. I wish I could take it as a compliment to my writing and note-taking skills, but let’s face it: It’s been three years since the workshop in question. Unless they were recording us without permission for their research, their claim is ridiculous and un-provable. Memory is fallible. There’s a three year gap, and I know for a fact that I missed a lot of information in those workshops. It was frustrating.

But maybe it is illegal to post lecture notes? I’ve heard some rumblings in the field of copyright law about professors suing students for posting lecture notes online, so I looked it up. Right now, like a lot of copyright law, you’re generally safe as long as you’re not making any profit, which I am not. The ads seen on this WordPress site are because I am utilizing the free (for me) WordPress platform, which the WordPress company runs ads on to support the ability to provide a free blog platform. At least, that’s how I assume it works.

But still. I was cool with removing the entry. I did respect them as academics at the time they contacted me, and they seemed like nice enough people in the one (professional/ academic setting) I had met them in three years ago.

Plus, there are legitimate reasons for academics/ professors to be concerned about their lecture notes floating around online (students cheating/ plagiarism/ etc.). And when they originally contacted me all of 24 hours earlier, I did genuinely feel badly for overstepping my boundaries.

So I agreed to delete the text of the entry and edit it to reflect that, according to the wishes of the workshop facilitators — who would remain unnamed — I would be removing the detailed notes for Thursday’s workshop, along with an apology for overstepping my boundaries.

I chose to do that because it was efficient/ lazy/ low effort, and also it kept the lecture notes series complete and whole while honoring their wishes for anonymity.

I was in the midst of drafting a rather long entry detailing how I had come to the decision to post the lecture notes, the amusing shorthand mistakes I made that led me to doing deeper google research on the workshop in question, which had led to the lecture notes having the additional advantage of being supported by research (I abbreviated their research topic “SSS” in my notes, which was … confusing when I came back to them later), and an apology for overstepping my boundaries.

The apology basically acknowledged that they’d spent decades investing their lives into this research, and I’d just listened to an inspiring workshop and spent a few hours a week editing and cleaning up the lecture notes to anonymize the work shop participants. I was trying to honor them and amplify their voices, and had clearly overstepped my bounds in doing so, and I was sorry. The apology, like this entry, did not name names or reference the research or name-check the workshop in question. There were several other workshops that day — ah, the anonymity of being one in a crowd of many.

While I was drafting the entry, less than 5 hours after I responded to their most recent e-mail (and less than 24 hours after I responded their first one), I received yet another terse email from the facilitator of the workshop in question, telling me that deleting the original text of the entry and removing the tags, their names, and any reference to their work wasn’t good enough. She then threatened me with a lawsuit and told me that she was glad I could no longer afford to attend the WPC, and that I am a bad ally.

She also told me that it wasn’t about whether or not I was making money on this blog (i.e.: copyright infringement), it was about personal privacy: That this is about the personal rights of the individual and whether or not they were being recorded (which she wasn’t, as I had already assured her, multiple times — unless taking notes on a laptop now counts as recording someone), and whether they consented to their personal information being online.

She referenced (as she had multiple times) a vague WPC policy about privacy. I’m not entirely sure which one she means. I’ve combed the WPC site up and down and haven’t found a specifically worded privacy policy, although I’ve found many other policies, such as the Accountability and Taking Action and Mission and Values, as well as the Community Agreement, all of which are what inspired me to share my lecture notes, in the spirit of collaborative learning and sharing the information we learned at the conference with a wider audience. She did not provide the specific conference policy she was referring to in any of the 6 emails she sent over the 24 hour period.

It may be the Community Agreement one, which is why I edited my notes to remove the identifying information of any of the conference attendees when I posted the workshop notes. I assumed that the workshop facilitators would be proud to stand by their presentations. Unfortunately, because I did not post my lecture notes from the WPC until 6 months (in some cases up to a year after) after the conference itself, I had long since thrown away the handouts from the workshops, and could not find the contact information for most of the facilitators online — including the facilitators in question.

And, as I stated, as soon as the facilitators contacted me, I removed the entry from public view with the intent to edit it to completely remove the original text and replace it with a notation that the (anonymous) facilitators of the (unnamed) workshop had requested removal of the text, and issue an apology for overstepping my boundaries.

Honestly, I really did think that editing the original entry to entirely delete the text they objected to and replacing it with new text that in no way named them or their research would honor their wishes while retaining the integrity of placement in the lecture notes series and keeping everything orderly.

I admit I did not take into consideration that the facilitators in question are … advanced in years and perhaps not as familiar with how internet programs such as blog platforms work.

Even so, I was shocked and stunned by their reaction to what I thought was a very reasonable response. I responded in as timely a manner as I could while engaged with family activities they were interrupting. I locked down public access to the post and responded politely to their e-mails.

Yet they clearly expected me to drop everything without hesitation and respond unquestioningly and uncritically to their demands, bowing and scraping to their authority.

When I did not move fast enough to comply with their exact demands (deleting the entry rather than privatizing and editing it), they became litigious and insulting. Gleefully reveling in the fact that my economic class prevents me from partaking in the same academic opportunities they enjoy? Telling me that a real ally of the WPC would just comply with their demands without hesitation? Who does that?

I don’t want to die on this hill. Deleting the entry is not a battle I care about fighting. I have some … anxiety and mental health issues around organizing things. So I take some extra medication and schedule an extra therapy visit. Whatever. It really doesn’t matter to me in the long run, and it clearly does matter to them.

The edited entry that would have taken its place is also trashed, bc it was a lot more apologetic and even toned, and I’m feeling impatient and pissy right now with how quickly they stepped to pulling class and academic rank. I don’t need this level of stress in my life, and I don’t really want to waste the time and energy on this bs.

These classist elitist tone-policing academics who revel in the poverty of others have already e-mailed me 6 times in a 24 hour period, and have already conceded in that short time frame that this isn’t even about a copyright violation but about their discomfort with their research and name being mentioned on a non-academic public blog and threatened a lawsuit, all because I didn’t “snap to” and “fall in line” with their exact orders quickly enough.

At this point, the only logical conclusion I can draw is that they do not feel comfortable standing publicly by their research, in which case I am doubly happy to honor the wishes I was already acceding to.

Admittedly, my opinion on the quality of their research and their ability to separate academic rigor and emotional bias has taken a rather substantial hit over the past day, and I no longer feel comfortable endorsing them at all. Also my opinion on them as individuals. But they would probably say the same of me, so we’re all even.

So … Thursday’s second workshop lecture notes of the WPC conference that I attended three years ago have been removed at the request of the facilitators. The original entry was completely deleted, not merely edited. So that’s where we’re at.

~*~

Edit: I edited this entry a few days later to correct a few grammatical issues, and wanted to add a few thoughts on the anonymous scholar thing.

When these guys first contacted me, I was excited — as always — to have the opportunity to talk to fellow academics and equals (as I viewed them). I may not have a doctorate, but since I don’t subscribe to that whole degree valuation thing anyway, that doesn’t particularly matter to me. To me, a doctorate indicates that someone has a certain specialization of interest in a field — it does not mean I should automatically bow and scrape to them in all matters, or defer to them as an authority or my social and moral superior.

They were, naturally, reserved and standoffish in their language in the emails, yet polite and professional. Because we are strangers, because they were being professional, because they were irritated with me yet having to ask a favor of me. Although they were polite, and although I am well aware of the effect of projected ‘tone’ in email, I felt I had a reasonable sense of what they thought of me.

I had, after all, had the opportunity to observe them lecture at a workshop for an hour. My original notes on the lecture were peppered with observations on their interactions, (the blonde one stayed in the background, spoke so softly that I didn’t catch her name, and seemed apologetic about her presence at the conference — not sure if because of her race or gender; the woman of color was an older woman used to getting her way and leading the discussion, something of a steamroller in personality, and brought up her religious beliefs frequently, often with an evangelical tone).

It’s true they can read this blog to get a sense of my personality. I suspect that one of them might have the personality to put aside her hurt at our disagreement and do so with an academic, fair eye — although I suspect she would deem it not worth her time. The other, if she read my blog, I suspect would do so only in the hopes of finding some damning piece of evidence that fulfills her expectations about my character, and would quickly grow bored of the exercise and let it go because she has more important things to do.

Anyway, after the whole thing went down and they transitioned so quickly to threatening litigation and taunting me about my inability to enjoy the same opportunities as them, I copy-pasted the e-mails into a word document to work through them and try to figure out what their deal is.

As a note, emails are not considered private, so thank the gods I have no concerns there if they get any freak-out privacy concerns.

As I went through the emails, I realized part of the problem is the age difference. I recall the woman of color, the one leading the correspondence, as being rather elderly. When she was insistent that I “delete it entirely” and got angry about the “right to personal privacy and consenting to her name on the internet” it was the type of angry ranting that 70 year old tea party people who don’t know how to use the internet do. I don’t recall her being that old — I thought she was in her 50s or 60s — but I suppose anywhere over the half-century mark is old enough.

It is possible she didn’t understand that even just removing the post from “published” status would give it the appearance of being deleted, from her point of view, even though it would technically be a “draft” in my blog. Also, in a blog, you can restore “deleted” posts from the trashcan. It seemed clear from the way that they phrased their acceptance of my word that they didn’t actually believe I did not tape record them — so if they actually understand how the internet worked, why would they believe I deleted the blog post?

They had clearly signaled they believed me to be a dishonest person, even though I was doing my best to deal fairly and honestly with them while spending time with family and on a motorcycle trip. With the frequency of her emails, she was also signaling something else to me: That I needed to fall in line and acquiesce without question or hesitation to her social and moral authority in this situation. They have the doctorates, they have the education, and therefore they feel they have the right to dictate what the unwashed masses can and cannot say.

This definitely one of the reasons I decided not to pursue a doctorate path, despite the offers of sponsorship from some of my professors during my final years at Evergreen. I mean, the other huge contributing factors were the stress on the family and the massive student loan debt accrued through higher education.

But the ridiculous degree valuation — this ivory tower academia sense of insularity, that knowledge is to be hoarded instead of shared. This is why I rejected becoming officially one of their peers in academia. I know I have the intelligence to go toe to toe with most doctorates (in the humanities — I don’t pretend to be able to hold court with scientists!); I don’t need a piece of paper to tell me that. If an academic needs a piece of paper to recognize that in someone … that’s a problem. That tells me way more about the supposed academic than it does about me.

I still do not understand where these particular team of professors were coming from — I did feel their research was worthwhile, and if I was an academic with similar research, I would have been happy to stand publicly by it and see it discussed by everyday people. But then again, I do believe that education should be readily accessible to everyone. I frown on ivory-tower academia and disapprove of the economic restrictions and financial debt that are crushing the dream of higher education.

I must accept the cold reality that we are diametrically morally opposed: I believe in collaborative learning, and they believe in restricting information. I believe in freedom of information, it would seem that they do not. I believe in treating all people, regarding of economic situation or education level, equally. Their treatment of me clearly signaled they felt my economic situation and education level made me their inferior.

Then I followed their email address to the website of the college they teach at and a whole new dimension to it opened up. The totally religious lady who was constantly evangelizing her religion at the WPC? She’s Catholic! Dude! They’re Catholics, teaching at a private Catholic university for religious interests! Of course they don’t want their research associated on the blog of a dirty filthy atheist, we’re gross.

Now I’m just amused at the whole thing. Religion is funny and makes people act in weird ways.

… At least, I hope that’s it. Religious discrimination sucks balls, but at least it’s better than wanting the lecture notes removed from the blog due to classism and ivory tower academic insularity.

Because their copyright claim on the lecture notes is debatable at best, especially once I complied with their demands (and then they were just being controlling about how exactly I structured the ensuing content on my blog) and absolutely no-one, anywhere in the USA, has the “right” to have one’s name removed from the internet. You can like it or dislike it, but that’s the way it is.

For Jennifer, a comment continued.

Regarding the housing/ income thing … I know exactly what you mean. I don’t know how much John has shared of our marriage story with you, but the (not-so-brief) version is that when we first got married in April 2001, we were both working minimum wage jobs. I was a hostess at Shari’s, and he worked at a plant nursery. In June 2001, I learned I was pregnant, and he was laid off that same week due to a workplace injury. We had to move back to Olympia, which meant I had to quit my job at Shari’s. Over the next year, he looked for work and I … well, I was pregnant. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how difficult it is to get hired when you’re pregnant.

So then we had Kidling, and by then John was working at Target. Soon after, he got a job at his current employer. Starting wages meant we received TANF and EBT benefits, in addition to housing aid and WIC. We were still barely scraping by. I looked for work, but with a high school diploma and no long-term work experience (my parents didn’t want me working during high school; I was supposed to be preparing for college. That did not work out in my favor.), the only jobs I could get paid minimum or barely above minimum wage. And childcare, as it turns out, is expensive. If I had gone back to work, my entire paycheck + a portion of John’s would have had to pay for childcare, and we would no longer qualify for any of the aid we were getting.

So we stayed on welfare for about 18 months after Kidling was born. It paid our medical co-pays, put food in our cupboards, helped keep our rent down, and meant that we could afford to put gas in the car and diapers on Kidling’s bum until John was promoted to full time and his wages started going up.

Over the next few years, I was the sahp, doing everything I’d been taught growing up in the LDS church to save money — canning and home-cooking and cleaning and childcare and cloth diapering and sewing/ mending clothing. John worked, sometimes two jobs. In 2005, we bought a house.

When we bought it, the mortgage + taxes + homeowners insurance cost less than our monthly rent. We were really excited. We were doing everything right. We were on our way up. We were finally getting out of the early years of poverty and enjoying financial security.

Then the housing meltdown. Then the motorcycle injury — a car hit John one day when he was riding to work. Then the flood. Turns out, flood insurance does not cover a rental to live in during the time your home is under repair … and it also turns out, we had no family nearby to move in with for months at a time.

I had a brother who was willing to house us overnight, when the house was actually flooding. A friend who let us crash for a month in his basement while John and our motorcycling buddies started the teardown of the flood-damaged floors and walls. But then we had to move into the gutted house and live in it, with space heaters running to keep us warm. And I was working part time and going to college, and John was injured and on disability wages, and we still made too much money to qualify for any sort of welfare aid. I went to the food bank in those months.

As bad as that was, we got past it. Within 6 months, John was back at work, and 6 months later, the house was almost completely repaired. And then it turned out that those grinding months of poverty; of trying to pay for repairs on the house and the mortgage and the $600+ heating bills from using space heaters in an uninsulated house instead of the (flooded) heat pump — those months had a horrible consequence.

Our credit was tanked, the situation didn’t count as a “hardship”, and our mortgage rate skyrocketed. The next thing we knew, we were paying almost double the original mortgage. We started siphoning from John’s retirement just to stay in the house. We applied for hardship reductions, spoke to the housing authorities, visited financial aid counselors, etc. etc. I kept looking for work, but in Centralia work is hard to find — especially work that would pay enough to justify childcare. And for me to work in Olympia, the pay needed to justify childcare and the commute costs.

In the end, I finally convinced John to surrender the house in bankruptcy. It was better to give up that house than mortgage our future.

So I really, really get from a visceral and very emotional place how if feels to buy a house in a good market turned bad. I hope your housing situation has a much better conclusion than ours did.

We lost almost everything to move up to Olympia. We sold our cars, most of our stuff, and surrendered our home. We intentionally and knowingly tanked our credit for the next 7 years. We did all this so we could live comfortably within our means. Now we pay less than $1000 for housing, we don’t have any car payments, and we have no commute costs. When we moved here in 2012, we were living paycheck to paycheck and were often in the red. Since then, we’ve been lucky enough to build some small savings, send me to college, and even help out some loved ones in need.

When I write passionately about poverty and pain and humiliation, I write from the perspective of someone who did everything “right” according to the social mores perpetuated in our society. My husband works full time. We didn’t have more children than we could afford. We owned a home. I was going to college and working part time. We did everything “right,” and we still struggled with poverty. And there were times when we didn’t have anything to eat, because everything had gone to bills and commuting costs, and my deepest wish was that the welfare and food stamp programs had enough money in them to encompass needy families like mine, who were a good $20,000 above the poverty line, but still scraping by.

I remember when we were having our budget assessed by the financial counselor, we admitted (shamefully) that we smoked and had an $8 monthly expense of Netflix. Many other well-intentioned people had told us that if we “really” wanted to improve our financial situation, we would cancel expenses like Netflix or smoking or ever buying alcohol. Money, many people told us knowingly, was for bills and food, and that was all.

So I was ridiculously, brought-to-tears grateful by the response of the financial counselor. He looked at us compassionately and said, “Everyone deserves some way to relax. $8 a month isn’t going to even put a dent in your debt … but it will help you take your mind off it for an afternoon. Do what you gotta do.”

It’s funny. After we moved up here and stabilized financially, that’s when we quit smoking. Before, we smoked because we couldn’t afford date nights or family activities, and smoking was an excuse to step outside and get a 15 min break from the kid and some adult-only conversation. But after we moved up here and filed bankruptcy and stabilized our finances, we didn’t need that. Now we go to movies and fairs and festivals and on long drives and short day trips together. We have regular date nights and family time.

So all of this together sort of coalesces to explain why I feel like limiting the choices of the many because of the behavior of the few is damaging … not only to those who meet the Federal guidelines for poverty, but for all those families who need government aid and never even come close to qualifying because we’ve so gutted and de-funded the system.

the glad game

I’ve been thinking a lot about Pollyanna lately. That’s another film that I watched as a kid, which had a much greater influence on my personality than I think anyone realized at the time. I mean, when I was a kid, I laughed at the cheesy storyline and the happy-go-lucky Pollyanna. I was like the rest of the town, cynical and rolling my eyes at Pollyanna’s determined cheerfulness.

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But things change, and as I’ve matured I’ve come to see the value of maintaining a positive outlook in life. I’m no believer in the “power” of positive thinking to heal people, prevent illness, gain wealth, and so forth. Still, I do think that having a positive attitude (especially when you live in the rainy PNW and are prone to depression) is a good coping tool.

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Keshia Knight Pulliam as Polly in the 1984 TV musical adaptation of Pollyanna, which I love because it’s a musical.

I have a lot of things to be glad about, but (as noted in my last entry) I’ve been feeling kind of glum lately. So I figured I’d play the glad game real quick, and name a couple things I am really glad for today.

I am glad I have more time at home and less stress.

Shortly after we moved to this area 3 years ago, I took on a lot of stress all at once. I had some health issues I was not dealing with in the hopes they’d go away, my family was assaulted by a crazed neighbor and I had to file a restraining report and take care of my husband’s resultant medical issues, and I started attending college as a full-time student. At about the same time, I found full-time employment in a law office. Thought I was excited for the opportunity at the time, it quickly became apparent that it was a very toxic work environment with no clear chain of command.

In short, it was stressful and upsetting. I started taking hormonal birth control to try and manage the pain from my health issues, and because of the hormones, stress, and packed schedule I ended up packing on about 60 lbs over the next two years. I went from 165 to about 210. I’m told I carry it well and don’t look that heavy, but that part doesn’t matter so much to me. The point isn’t whether or not I look fat, the point is whether or not I feel fat.

Like, can I engage in all the activities I enjoy without getting out of breath and sweaty and worn out? Can I kick the soccer ball around with my kid, walk a mile to the grocery store, hike down to the waterfront? Can I row a boat, pull up a crab trap, and clamber over rocks? If I get worn out after only 5 or 10 minutes, then I’m getting too out of shape, too heavy. I feel fat.

I can’t do anything!

Well, this summer I graduated from college. Our medical and legal issues are resolved. I am no longer employed at the toxic work environment. In other words, although I am working on my book and looking for work, my days are still pretty open. So I decided that this was the year I would commit to eating healthier and exercising, which I’ve been documenting on my social media under the hashtag #exercisealifestyle.

I changed my diet, shifting my focus from storebought foods that were rich in carbohydrates, starches, preservatives, and sugars to homemade meals. For snacks, I started eating pickled asparagus and black olives, hoping to encourage the growth of healthier gut bacteria. I don’t believe in ever “banning” a food, because I think that just makes a person crave it more. It seems to be working — since I shifted to foods that encourage different gut bacteria, I’ve noticed a huge reduction how many sweets I actually want (which is way less than you’d think).

Once school started, I decided to incorporate some exercise. So every morning, I put the leash on Azura and head out for a quick 15-20 minute walk around the neighborhood. After a few weeks of this, my 7th grader felt bad that I was walking his dog (which should be his chore) and suggested that instead of waiting until after he left to the bus stop, I walk with him to the bus stop, so he can walk his own dog for a bit. He also joins me on Saturday and Sunday mornings for the weekend walks, which is awesome. I get some quality time with my boy and I walk the dogs and I get exercise! It’s a win-win-win!

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When John got his bonus, he purchased a new bicycle for the boy and (at my request) a bicycle for me. So now when I go shopping, I ride my bicycle and put the groceries in my little basket. Often, Kidling accompanies me on these trips — more quality mom-son time, and a chance to build health habits.

With all these lifestyle changes, I’ve lost 10 lbs since school started in September! I’m pretty excited, and I’m also enjoying the structure and routine these activities add to my day.

I am glad I have a supportive and appreciative husband who is understanding and patient.

I’m pretty privileged in being able to take the time to work on my book and be a little pickier about my job search, though. I don’t have to take another toxic job where I get paid below living wages and get pulled between two employers with conflicting expectations. I have the leisure to spend time applying to positions I really want to work at, positions I know I would do well in and where I would be fairly compensated. I have the leisure to work on my book and do some freelance work, and I have that leisure because of my husband and his employer — mostly my husband, though.

His employer is great, don’t get me wrong. They pay a living wage and provide excellent and affordable benefits. The position is stable, with almost union-style layers of protection for worker’s rights. My husband is a hard worker and has growth potential at the company. As in any position, there are hiccups and work drama that occasionally cause him stress, but overall he’s very lucky to have a well-paying and supportive employer in this economy, and especially in retail. We know that.

When he first starting working with his current employer, he was also working at a big-box retail store we’ll call Trendy Red Dot. It’s similar to Wal-Mart, but redder and trendier. Trendy Red Dot pays minimum wage (like Wal-Mart), discourages unionization (like Wal-Mart) and has faced issues with discrimination due to factors such as gender, race, and sexual orientation (like Wal-Mart). Also like Wal-Mart, Trendy Red Dot tends to have high turnover.

The thing about jobs at Trendy Red Dot and Walmart vs. an employer that pays a living wage, invests in their employees, offers affordable benefits, and provides job security is that all of these jobs can suck sometimes. Even the best employers can get bogged down in the petty drama of inefficient management and personal vendettas, and every job has the occasional issues with personality conflicts or some employees doing less and refusing to pick up the slack. That’s how jobs are.

The biggest difference between these places is that when the workplace at Trendy Red Dot starts sucking balls, you know perfectly well that you can walk out the door and find another crap minimum wage job with awful benefits somewhere else, and maybe those people will be cool. And even if the employee decides to stick it out at their shitty job with their shitty bosses, the fact of the matter is that at-will employment is pretty much the law of the land in most of America. If someone in management takes a petty dislike to an employee or gets offended at some minor interaction, regardless of how well the employee performs their duties, they can (and often will) find themselves suddenly jobless.

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But when the work environment at a Good Employer starts going downhill, the employee has incentive to work with their employer to resolve the issue — retail jobs that pay a living wage and offer benefits are not a dime a dozen. Plus, when job security is written into the job contract, it gives the employee more peace of mind — they know they’re protected from arbitrarily being fired or laid off if management takes a dislike to them. You can’t find this sort of job security and pay easily, and my husband and I are both glad that he was lucky enough to land a job with his current employer.

So with all that in mind, it really is my husband who’s the gold star here. He could insist I go work at Trendy Red Dot and contribute with positive income to the household finances. Even though his income can support our family of three and our menagerie, he could still insist that it is only fair for me to work for money. He could be the type of person who views the money he earns as solely his, instead of income for the family. He could be the type of person who views the work I do as not actually work, because there’s no paycheck to validate the efforts.

What I do — saving money and so forth — I sometimes refer to as negative or neutral income. I use my time as a stay-at-home to reduce costs by handling the budget, shopping, meals, and clothing repairs (yes, I can sew. A little.). Instead of being angry that our finances are about $20k/year less because I am choosing to look for a job with more stability and long-term growth, my husband is supportive of my dreams and goals and grateful for the benefits of having a stay at home parent.

I’m available on his days off so we can enjoy family activities, and I handle the chores, meals, budgeting, childcare, legal, medical, and all household paperwork. If our son calls from school, I can be there in a hot minute to bring him lunch money or homework or pick him up. If my husband forgot his nametag, he just needs to text and I run out to his workplace. It makes life easier for everyone to have a central command, so to speak.

The downside, of course, is that most households can’t survive on a single income. Additionally, the reason I am the stay at home parent instead of my husband is because of social reinforcement. I would very much like to work. I am educated, I have a BA, and I am driven. This summer, I arranged several informational interviews, and received extremely positive feedback. I was praised on my work history, education, and career goals. My work history is spotty, due to the time spent in college and as a stay at home parent. Career counselors tell me the work history spottiness is less of a problem in this depressed economy, but I still have trouble finding work.

When we looked at the incomes from our two jobs a year ago, I was working for a law office at $10/hour with no benefits. I was expected to do all the receptionist work, take on legal secretary duties, train new front desk employees, handle the rent payments for their property management firm, handle marketing and holiday planning, manage the office budget and inventory, shop for my bosses groceries and deliver them to her home, pick up laundry, deposit the checks at the bank, and handle all mailing duties. If my bosses did not provide enough money for an errand, I was expected to pay out of pocket and be reimbursed in my paycheck. I was not allowed to work overtime and was discouraged from taking sick days, even when I had surgery. I have a college degree.

My husband, meanwhile, has a high school diploma and is getting paid double my hourly income. He has benefits, yearly cost-of-living increases, and bi-annual bonuses. He has a chain of command — if his supervisor starts trying to make him pick up her groceries, he can talk to their manager. His job has clearly outlined duties, and if he is called to perform tasks that he isn’t trained on, the manager is the one who will get in trouble.

When we looked at our relative work-life balances and average incomes, my husband’s situation is clearly superior, although we have invested in a degree and white-collar skill set for me. On top of that, I am the one who has consistently lacked the job security provided by a just-cause clause in my employee contract. After my most recent employment experience, it just made sense to have me stay at home and focus on searching for a position that was more lucrative, secure, and offered better work-life balance. The stress a low-income job brought to our family was not worth the financial benefits, such as they were.

And I am so glad that we are in a position that we could make that decision. I am so glad my husband is supportive, understanding, and loving about the reality of social structures that shape our lives, instead of demanding that I just get a job, any job. I am so glad that I have this opportunity to focus on my marriage, my family, and my book. And I know that I am so privileged and lucky to have this opportunity, which makes me even more grateful for it.

reassessing my future (again)

So, as anyone who has spoken with me in the past 3 months is aware, I decided to give law school a try. One of the professors (a lawyer and former judge) in my Law and Outlaw class was very insistent that I am an ideal candidate for law school. She really strongly encouraged me. I was a little on the fence, because I’ve heard some rumors about the state of the legal field … but then again, maybe they were exaggerated. And this professor seemed really certain that I would be in the highest percentage of my law class, a contributor to the Law Review, and that I would get a judicial clerkship. It was flattering.

I spoke with a recent law school grad who cast cold water on my budding inclination by telling me the cold hard facts of the matter. Jobs, she said, were thin on the ground. Debts were high. She had a scholarship all through law school, and through her LLM education. She was top of her class, and a contributor to the Law Review. She was everything my professor promised would ensure success, and she was struggling to find work. It sounded grim.

More accurately, I hate being homeless.

But then I had the opportunity to set up a few informational interviews, and after speaking with numerous government employees the State Attorney General’s Office, I decided I’d go for that degree after all.

I figured I’d just get a job with the government, earn some experience as a prosecutor, and have my debt forgiven through the Federal debt forgiveness program tied to public service. Every lawyer and secretary I spoke to assured me it was the quickest route to success, and they should know! They were wrapping up 30+ year careers!

So I purchased some books, began studying for the LSATs, and happily began informing people of my now-arranged future.

Law school!

Then I read this article by Paul Campos in The Atlantic, titled, “The Law School Scam.” It echoed everything my recent law-school grad friend had been telling me. Kinda freaked me out.

I visited his blog, Inside The Law School Scam, and that sinking sensation in my gut got worse.

I bought his book “Don’t Go To Law School (Unless): A Law Professor’s Inside Guide to Maximizing Opportunity and Minimizing Risk,” ($4 through the Kindle app, $6 paperback — unfortunately, not available through Nook) today, and read the whole thing in an hour.

Wow. Wow. Wow.

Holy shit.

As it turns out, the availability of legal positions has actually been shrinking over the past 30 years (yes, including for lawyers). A lot of stuff lawyers used to do is now done by paralegals or technology, or (even worse for the profession) DIY legal work by those who used to rely on lawyers — for example, when that guy hit John and broke his jaw, and I filed the restraining order request and both parties had to present their sides before the judge? People used to hire lawyers for that kind of thing.

Meanwhile, law school tuition and class size has been increasing, while standards have … dropped somewhat. A little. The ABA holds law school to some basic standards, but the rise of for-profit colleges and their willingness to allow low-LSAT scorers into their ranks has resulted in a correlating decline of LSAT score valuation at nonprofit schools. So, basically, law schools are churning out more grads than there are jobs, and those grads are carrying massive and non-dischargeable debt.

Oh! The debt! Campos explains that really well, too. Those so-called “scholarships” are apparently just higher-tuition students subsidizing the costs of lower tuition students. It’s this whole thing where if the tuition is actually $100,000/year, but half the students are offered a scholarship that allows them to attend for $50,000/year, then the reported “average tuition” would be $75,000/year … but really it varies wildly, and the scholarships are often tied to performance. Plus, the average reported debt the law schools usually quote to potential students doesn’t include the 3-4 years of accrued interest acquired by non-subsidized loans while in school. 

So all that is super duper discouraging on its own, and then you get into the fact that apparently government work — promising both stability, experience, and loan forgiveness — turns out to be incredibly in demand! Starting wages of $60,000 is nothing to shake a finger at when it includes loan forgiveness!

So, to recap: My plan is basically the plan of most potential lawyers, meaning the competition is intense, and most lawyers are unemployed.

New plan, new plan.

Apparently law schools are trying to combat this by trying to claim that a law degree is totally versatile … like, you can be a journalist or a writer or any number of things that don’t require a fucking law degree. Because the only, I repeat only thing you need a law degree for is to practice the law. It’s like getting a medical degree to become an aromatherapist, by all the gods.

At one point in the book, Campos points to a bit of data that compares the graduation/ employment rates of doctors vs. lawyers over the past 30 years, and a depressingly high percentage of bar-accredited lawyers are unemployed — something like 60%, if I recall correctly — but pretty much everyone who studied to become a doctor is currently practicing as a doctor.

Again: DEPRESSING.

Speaking of depression! Campos then cites data that law students and lawyers are more likely than any other profession to develop severe and debilitating depression. I was like, “Pshhh, my daddy was a lawyer, and he’s the happiest man I know.”

Then I read this bit (bolded parts mine).

“Why are law students and lawyers so prone to develop depression? The literature suggests numerous causes, most of which have something to do with the effects of an intensely hierarchical, competitive, emotionally cold, and high-stress environment.”

Holy shit, that sounds like the law office I worked in through 2012.

  • Intensely hierarchical? Check — they even paid the BA-toting paralegal more than the HS diploma-toting but longer-employed paralegal.
  • Emotionally cold? Oh, ye gods, check. Ms. Boss was worse than Elsa’s emotional breakdown in Frozen.
  • High-stress environment? Let’s just say that after 8 months dealing with Ms. Boss, I was literally contemplating hanging myself in her office.

Wait, the quote continues? Okay, then. (Fyi, this is just like a word-for-word description of Ms. Boss’s personality, and it kind of makes me nauseated to remember how suicidally depressed I got working for her).

” … in which people are socialized to obsess on external status markers and to minimize or ignore things such as learning for its own sake, doing intrinsically valuable work, and maintaining healthy personal relationships.”

Swear to gods, not exaggerating — my coworkers and I used to discuss (in whispers!) the idea that Ms. Boss might either have aspergers or be a sociopath. She sneered at anyone she considered beneath her (ie: Anyone who was not a lawyer.).

I don’t ever, ever want to be like Ms. Boss. I would seriously rather die. She was, literally, the worst human being I have ever had the misfortune to know — and that’s including some seriously fucked up racist misogynistic assholes I’ve known. Ms. Boss tops them because she was elitist and evil despite having studied social justice and labor law while she was in law school.

She wasn’t awful out of ignorance, like so many of the racist, classist, sexist idiots I’ve run into over the course of my life. She was awful knowing full well the repercussions of her behavior, and believing that her “superior” education entitled her to treat people like shit.

So, I finished the book, and all information considered … I think I’ll just keep looking for entry-level government work, and take the time to focus on writing while I have it. ‘Cause that shit? Is cray.

Feminism and Immigration Law: A Silent Majority, Behind Closed Doors

The Intersectionality of Feminism and Justice at Work | Part III

The History and Law of
Labor, Discrimination, and Immigration
Through a Feminist Lens

This is part III of my final paper for my 2012-2013 Justice at Work course, split into 3 parts for my blog. (Parts I & II).

Although the Equal Pay Act and Title VII changed the face of the workforce for many American women, there were two large segments of the workforce that did not benefit from these changes in U.S. law. Cesar Chavez helped bring attention to the plight of the immigrant farm workers, but the experiences of immigrant women and domestic workers has largely remained behind closed doors, silenced. Their voices are relegated to the forgotten edges of policy debates, and when domestic labor is addressed at all, the value of the work is discounted. How hard is it, after all, to clean a room? — or so the thinking goes. Domestic workers have faced a long and challenging battle trying to gain recognition and protection under U.S. Law.

indentured servant advertisement34The first domestic workers in America came as indentured servants to the Virginia colonies. In Between Women, Rollins says that, “from it’s (sic) beginnings, domestic servitude in this country has embodied a . . . contradiction between principles and behavior that did not exist in seventeenth- or eighteenth- century Europe, a contradiction between the value of egalitarianism and the actual class and caste stratification.” (Rollins 48)

DomesticSlavewithPlanterFamily330After the Revolutionary War, the experience of domestic servitude split along the Mason-Dixie. In the North, domestic servants were free persons engaging in voluntary paid labor. Often, they were of the same race and community as their employers. (Rollins 50). In the south, “domestic workers,” or house slaves were the most numerous of the slaves. The 1848 Charleston, South Carolina census shows that out of a population of 7,355 adult slaves, 5,272 were labeled as some form of domestic servant. (Dawson 30-48).

irish domestic helpIn the mid-nineteenth century, the rising fortunes and opportunities for middle-class white women led to an increase in demand for domestic servants. Despite the increase in labor demands, domestic work was still seen as a low-status occupation, and white women eschewed it if at all possible. During this time, domestic workers were primarily comprised of immigrants from Ireland, Scandinavia, and China. Following Emancipation, Black women joined the ranks of underpaid and under-appreciated domestic workers. (Raaphorst 33)

Domestic workers have long been drawn from the subclasses resulting from discriminatory laws. As such, these workers have been historically silenced and cut off from any avenue to protest employment abuses; a reality that persists even today. Early attempts to organize domestic workers were largely unfruitful. In 1881, Southern domestic workers attempted to organize, demanding better pay. They held strikes in Galveston, Texas and Jackson, Mississippi. A few years later in Chicago, a 1901 effort to organize domestic workers sputtered out due to lack of community support. (Caldwell)

In 1880, the number of immigrants entering domestic service began to drop. This trend continued into the 20th century, and as both native- and foreign-born white working women opted to move into manufacturing or the garment industry rather than join the ranks of domestic servants. The space left by their departure was filled by Black women migrating Northward to get away from the tenancy system, Jim Crow laws, the boll weevil infestation, and a series of heavy rainfalls and flooding in 1916. By 1920, 46 percent of employed Black women were domestic workers. (Allen, Harris, and Schuylder)

In 1934, the Domestic Workers Union was established, headed by Dora Lee Jones, a Black domestic worker. By then, well over 50 percent of employed Black women were domestic workers. The DWU was affiliated with the New York City Building Service Union, Local 149, but membership was low. In the end, the DWU fizzled out, as had previous attempts to organize domestic workers. Union Maids Not Wanted explains why it was so difficult for domestic workers to effectively organize:

“Ignored by labor unions, discriminated against, neglected, and at best patronized by their government, domestic workers once again attempted to form independent unions . . . like all other previous individual attempts at a collective action, [it] was at best locally effective and short-lived.” (Raaphorst 289)

In 1935, the National Labor Relations Board Act of 1935 was passed, protecting the right of workers to organize, participate in collective bargaining, and engage in strike actions. It was an unprecedented legal action on behalf of worker’s rights, yet it excluded large swathes of the working population. Among those excluded from the protections of the NLRA were domestic workers and farm laborers. When the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was passed and established a minimum wage, reduced workweek, and increased compensation for overtime for American workers, it also excluded domestic and agricultural workers.

black servantYet despite both the government and union organizers discounting the value of domestic workers, demand from employers continued to rise. By 1940, a full 60 percent of Black working women were employed as domestic workers. It was only after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, the percentage of Black domestic workers began to drop.

In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there were more employment options becoming available to Black women. Yet these same laws, intended to address discrimination based on race or gender, once again did not extend to protect the rights of domestic workers. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act applies only to employers with 15 or more employees, which virtually excluded every domestic worker in the United States.

In 1974, the Fair Labor Standards Act was amended to provide some minimal protections to domestic workers, such as requiring minimum wage and overtime pay, but the amendments specified that babysitters and companions to the elderly were still excluded. By 1979, only 32 percent of employed Black women were in the domestic service industry. Meanwhile, the percentages of Black women employed as clerks or “other service worker” were rising. (Rollins 56).

tumblr_m6lr1xB6n01rt1tqoo1_500As Black women left the domestic workforce, Latina women filled the void they left in a reprisal of the role played by Black women 60 years previous. Once again, the face of domestic labor in America was changing.

One of the unique challenges in domestic work is the intimate nature of it. Difficulties arise in any employment situation, but a domestic worker must learn to navigate a work environment headed by a boss who often does not realize they are heading a workplace. The normal work and social boundaries constraining the employer are subconsciously dropped in the familiarity of their home. Rights that are expected in “official” workplaces, such as regular breaks, working equipment, days off, or regular wages are treated as unreasonable, selfish, or thoughtless demands. In response, domestic workers tend to fall back on non-professional behavior and psychological manipulations, such as threatening to quit in order to get a raise. The success of this tactic is by no means guaranteed, while the risks are extremely high. (Romero 158)

Perhaps it is the influence of 20th century ideas, such as an “illegal person,” or the perceived necessity of a patrolled border, or the existence of a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) department, but it is acceptable both socially and legally for an employer to use the threat of deportation to ensure obedience in the workplace. Undocumented Latina women, or documented Latina women who are supporting undocumented friends or family, learn all too quickly how willing an employer is to utilize that threat. When David Bacon, author of Illegal People, interviewed Luz Dominguez about her retaliatory firing, he described how she perceived her employer’s shift in attitude:

“When Dominguez describes what happened at the hotel, she is still so angry that her voice trembles. “She [Smith] told us we’d have to show her our Social Security Cards so they could check the numbers,” she recalled bitterly. “Before, they’d tell us sometimes they’d received a notice about our numbers not matching, but they never required us to take any action, or told us we couldn’t continue working.” (Bacon, ebook)

These women, who live and work in communities affected most by immigration policy, have not merely been left out of the conversation; they have actively been restricted it from participating. Policymakers have framed the immigration debate as one that must be resolved by American citizens and their duly elected representatives — even though undocumented immigrants contribute to the community through both taxes and labor. In restricting the conversation to “citizens only,” politicians are attempting to silence the voices and stories of thousands of undocumented U.S. workers. In response to this culture of suppression, the Latino community has organized and participated in May Day Demonstrations, protest marches, and even union organizing, despite the threat of deportation.

logoAt last, the perseverance seems to be paying off. In 2007, the National Domestic Workers Alliance was founded, and started a grassroots campaign to pass a domestic worker’s bill of rights in New York State. Six years later, the organization is the nation’s leading advocate for the rights and needs of domestic workers throughout the United States, and boasts 39 affiliates serving more than 10,000 people.

In 2010, the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, championed by the NDWA was signed into law. It is the first bill of its kind in the country, and provides the domestic workers of New York state with the right to overtime pay, one guaranteed day off per week, three paid days off each year, protection under New York State Human Rights Law, as well as the creation of a special cause of action for domestic workers who suffer sexual or racial harassment. (“Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights”).

In 2012, California voters approved a similar Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, but it was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. In May 2013, Hawaii approved a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights which makes it illegal to discriminate against domestic workers on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation and brings domestic workers under the state’s wage and hour laws. As of the writing of this paper (2013), it still needs to be signed into law by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

The time is ripe for major legislative change. In 1866, Congress passed a Civil Rights Act which extended citizenship to emancipated slaves. This was followed by four more Civil Rights Acts, which approached and addressed the question of racism in a scattershot and piecemeal manner. Within a decade, the pushback of business lobbyists had undermined the promise of Reconstruction, and the infamous institution of Jim Crow spread across the south in place of slavery. It would be nearly one hundred years before the question of racial equality in America was legislatively addressed once more.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not so much unique in the intent, but in the scope, which is what needs to happen now. The United States needs major legislation that does not tweak or amend existing workers rights laws, but upends it and throws it angrily out the window.

The rights of the U.S. working class rests upon three pillars: The right to organize, wage parity, and anti-discrimination laws. Regarding organization and wage parity, the two pieces of legislation proposed to address how pro-business interests have systemically chipped away at worker rights, The Employee Free Choice Act and The Paycheck Fairness Act, have repeatedly been stalled or rejected. (HR 438, “Employee Free Choice Act Bill Summary”). These bills need only popular and Congressional support, and the addition of language that explicitly extends their protection to undocumented workers. It is time to make a serious positive change in the rights of the working class residing in the United States of America, both documented and undocumented. It is time to truly proclaim solidarity forever.

 

Feminism and Discrimination Law From Sex-Plus to Family Responsibilities Discrimination

The Intersectionality of Feminism and Justice at Work | Part II

The History and Law of
Labor, Discrimination, and Immigration
Through a Feminist Lens

This is part II of my final paper for my 2012-2013 Justice at Work course, split into 3 parts for my blog. (Part I).

The Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp. case of 1971 was the first sex-discrimination case under Title VII to reach the Supreme Court. In the same time frame, the legal theory of sex-plus discrimination arose as employers tried to defend their discriminatory activities as legal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the courts struggled to define how to determine what qualified as discrimination.

need-not-applyIn brief, the Martin Marietta Corporation had a policy preventing the hiring of mothers with pre-school aged children. Martin Marietta assumed such women would be more likely to take time off to care for sick children, which Martin Marietta felt meant they were unreliable employees. Ida Phillips applied for a job at the company and was denied because of her maternal status.

Phillips filed suit in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, claiming Martin Marietta’s hiring policy was discriminatory and in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In a move that is much more surprising to today’s eyes, the District Court agreed with the Martin Marietta Corporation and granted summary judgment in their favor.

The District Court — and later, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals — held that Martin had not discriminated against Phillips because they had been open and honest about not accepting job applications from women with pre-school aged children; because Martin employed men with pre-school aged children, thereby proving they were not discriminating against parents; and because approximately 75 to 80 percent of the applicants hired for the position in question were female, thereby proving that Martin was not discriminating against Phillips on the basis of her gender.

Phillips appealed, and in May 1969, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court opinion and denied a rehearing. At this point, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (E.E.O.C.) filed an amicus brief on behalf of Phillips, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari. Chief Judge John Brown of the Supreme Court found in favor of Phillips and overturned the previous decision. The final ruling of the Supreme Court was that employers may not refuse to hire women with pre-school aged children, unless the same standards are applied to men.

Although Judge Brown overturned the decision, the view of the court seemed, at best, slightly baffled by the question. Their decision was both remarkably short in wording and extremely brief in the time the court took to determine it. Furthermore, in addition to overturning the lower court’s findings, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court for trial. This action suggested to some observers the possibility that sex-plus discrimination could be defended under the Bona fide Occupational Qualifications Exemption of Title VII, which reads:

“[I]t shall not be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to hire and employ employees, for an employment agency to classify, or refer for employment any individual, for a labor organization to classify its membership or to classify or refer for employment any individual, or for an employer, labor organization, or joint labor-management committee controlling apprenticeship or other training or retraining programs to admit or employ any individual in any such program, on the basis of his religion, sex, or national origin in those certain instances where religion, sex, or national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise…” The Civil Rights Act (1964)

Unique Clothes Sketch Models2Generally speaking, a Bona fide occupational qualification exemption will only apply in those situations where it is reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the particular business. For instance, a private Catholic school can reasonably require that the dean or teaching staff be Catholic, but they cannot require the cleaning staff or groundskeepers to be Catholic. (Guite, 2001). Additionally, an advertiser of female clothing can lawfully advertise for and hire only female models, while a business that sells sexual gratification to a specific demographic can lawfully hire employees who appeal to said demographic. For example, a strip club targeted at gay males can lawfully advertise for and hire only male strippers.

Austrian_Airlines_male_flight_attendantAlthough such an exemption may seem easy enough to claim, in practice it is difficult to defend, as Northwest Airlines discovered in 1967. In this case, it was determined that customer preference for female flight attendants did not fulfill the requirements of the Bona fide Occupational Exemption clause of Title VII, since gender has no effect on the actual performance of flight attendant duties. (Evenson v. Northwest Airlines Inc.)

In the case of Phillips v. Marietta, the company could not excuse their requirement that female employees could not have young children as a Bona fide Occupational Exemption, because such a qualifier was not applied to the male employees. Since the company clearly had no issue with female employees per se, given their high rate of employment, the question the court and observers were left to wrestle with was the definition of the discrimination Phillips experienced.

It was not sexual discrimination, as she was not subjected to sexual harassment or remarks. It was not necessarily gender discrimination, as 75 to 80 percent of the employees Marietta did hire were women. It was not that Phillips was a parent, as Marietta could prove they employed numerous men who had young children and families.

Instead, it was a curious combination of both her gender and her status as a parent — as a childless female or a male with a pre-school aged child, Phillips’ employment application would have been considered. It was only the combination of her sex plus parenthood that led to her being discriminated against.

This is the essence of the sex-plus legal theory of discrimination: When gender alone does not precipitate the discrimination, but the gender plus another factor. As Reva B. Seigel phrases it in A Short History of Sexual Harassment, the, “courts characterized the challenged practices as “sex plus” policies, policies that discriminated on the basis of “sex” “plus” some other putatively neutral criterion (hair length, type of dress, mannerisms, orientation, or “willingness to furnish sexual consideration.”

Siegel goes on to clarify that the purpose of the sex-plus legal theory was to, “protect the traditional ways of doing business from disruption by the antidiscrimination statute.” This seems to have backfired somewhat, and the statutes and legal theories that have arisen to combat sex-plus discrimination have continued to evolve and overcome new barriers.

prego-21In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the battle against sex-plus discrimination was still being framed. Cases such as Geduldig v. Aiello and General Electric Co. v. Gilbert, dealt with employers who chose to deny their female employees health coverage during pregnancy, arguing that pregnancy was more expensive than the sorts of health issues normally covered by disability healthcare. In both cases, the court upheld such exclusionary disability plans, claiming they did not violate Title VII. As a result of this sex-plus discrimination, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was added in 1978 to Title VII. This Act specifically addresses employment discrimination against pregnant women, women who might be perceived as being likely to become pregnant, or recently pregnant women.

Working-DadOver time, the sex-plus legal theory of discrimination segued to Family Responsibilities Discrimination (FRD). Through the 1970’s and 1980’s several sociological shifts were occurring: Males were taking on a larger and more equitable share of family responsibilities; the healthcare needs of the baby boomer generation became a demand for working adults; and the expected hours an employee should work steadily increased.

Taken separately, these trends may seem unrelated, but taken together they spell an increased demand on the time of employees from both employers and family. If an employee opts to prioritize their family responsibilities, they may face repercussions ranging from lack of promotion opportunities to reduced hours (and wages) to being outright fired for a lack of commitment to their job. As the Employee Relations Law Journal puts it:

“Many legal scholars believe Phillips was the beginning of FRD litigation. After Phillips, the number of cases increased modestly throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The 1990s, however, brought a much more rapid rate of increase, rising particularly steeply between 1998 and 2004. There were 481 cases in the decade 1996-2005, compared to 97 cases in the previous decade, an increase of nearly 400 percent. This rate stands in contrast to more general employment and discrimination case rates, which decreased 23 percent between 2000 and 2005.” (VonBergen, 2008)

Consider the case of Knussman v. State of Maryland in 1996. Knussman was a Maryland State Trooper when his pregnant wife was put on bed rest. Shortly before their child’s birth, Knussman learned of a new Maryland statute that allowed paid sick leave for state employees to care for a newborn. Knussman inquired about taking the leave as a primary caregiver, which would allow him 30 days of paid leave rather than the 10 days allotted to a “secondary caregiver.” Knussman was told that because he could not breastfeed, he did not qualify as a primary caregiver, and he was denied the 30-day leave.

project-breastfeeding-dad-537x402Knussman took his allotted leave, but when the end of his 10 day paid leave approached, he again inquired after the extended leave. This time he was told that God had created women to have babies, and unless he could have a baby, there was no way he could be a primary caregiver. He was further informed that unless his wife was either dead or in a coma, he would never be a primary caregiver, and subsequently ordered to return to work. In response, Knussman filed suit, and the case went to trial, where the jury found in favor of Knussman to the tune of $375,000.

gr-discrimination-cases-300What is particularly interesting about lawsuits involving family responsibilities discrimination is their apparent appeal to jurors. Traditional employment discrimination cases involving gender, race, disability and religion have a success rate of about 20 percent. In contrast, FRD cases win more than 50 percent of the time, and the average award is about $100,000 (Pinkham, 2008).

It appears that jurors find it easier to relate to and sympathize with plaintiffs — regardless of the race or gender of the plaintiff — who were just trying to successfully navigate the common and shared experience of work/ family conflict. Female employees continue to battle gender discrimination expressed in a spectrum of behaviors, but discrimination against an employee for their familial responsibilities regardless of their gender is an area that nearly everyone seems to be able to relate to in some form.

discrimination1Looking to the future, it will be interesting to see how the sex-plus theory proposed during the first wake of gender discrimination lawsuits after the passage of Title VII continue to evolve as more Americans struggle to juggle the responsibilities of work and family.

The Intersectionality of Feminism and Justice at Work | Part I

The History and Law of
Labor, Discrimination, and Immigration
Through a Feminist Lens

This is my final paper for my 2012-2013 Justice at Work course, split into 3 parts for my blog. 

Introduction

We have discussed the concept of our “lens” quite a bit this year, and how our personal lenses impact our understanding of the world around us. As we have moved through the readings, films, and discussions over the year, I have sometimes felt confronted or defensive because of the information presented. This is where the lens I utilize has enhanced my learning experience, as I rely on my personal experiences as well as my understanding of feminism in order to both process and relate to the information in question.

Clearly, feminism is not my sole lens, nor even the only lens I have relied on to process information. My LDS upbringing provided me with the lens of distrust for mainstream historical accounts, as such accounts neglected the Mormon influence on American history. When I left my childhood faith and began identifying as atheist, I began to view the world through the lens of understanding that just because I want something to be true does not actually make it a true thing. New information can be shocking and difficult to hear, but just because an idea confronts my understanding of the world does not negate its value. Being misdiagnosed with Bipolar depression as a teenager and my involvement in the mental health community equipped me with the lens to better understand the experience of discrimination and microaggressions.

These lenses, and many others I have either not identified or am not aware of, interact to influence my reactions to and understanding of the material presented throughout the year. I choose to concentrate on the intersection of feminism with Justice at Work because it is the lens I most actively and consciously relied on in order to connect with the material, language, theories, and issues that have been presented over the year.

Further, the lens of feminism allowed me to connect with the material on a more personal level, by focusing in on aspects of the material we were only able to briefly touch on in class. In fall quarter, I looked at the relationship of feminism and labor law, and how the promise of the Equal Pay Act has been implemented. In winter quarter, I examined the role of sex-plus discrimination and how it led to the burgeoning legal field of family responsibilities discrimination. For spring quarter, I will look at the history of immigration and worker rights as they apply to domestic work.

Fall 2012: Feminism and Labor Law
Equal Pay for Equal Work

Congress passed an unprecedented and landmark piece of legislation 50 years ago. Nothing like it existed in prior United States legislation. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) made it illegal to pay men and women different wages for performing similar jobs under similar working conditions.

equal-work-deserves-equal-pay

One year later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, color, or sex. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act specifically addresses discrimination in employment. Title VII makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate because of race, religion, color, or sex in the terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. Congress incorporated the EPA’s affirmative defenses into Title VII, which states that an employee who claims they have experienced pay discrimination due to their sex must show evidence that different wages were actually paid to opposite sex employees; that the employees in question were performing similar duties under similar working conditions at the time; and that the positions in question required equivalent levels of skill, effort, and responsibility.

women's pay 1960 to 2009Taken together, the Equal Pay Act and Title VII should protect the covered categories of employee from discrimination in wages, promotions, transfers, or job assignments on the basis of sex. Instead, these anti-discrimination measures have faced such strong resistance from employers and business interests that parity in wages has not yet been achieved, more than 50 years after the passage of the EPA.

The EPA was preceded by the National War Labor Board (NWLB), which was re-instituted during World War II and ran from 1942 to 1946. During World War II, women were entering the work force in greater numbers while the men were away fighting.

Norman-Rockwell-Rosie-the-RiveterAlthough women made up a greater part of the workforce, they were still being paid less than their male counterparts. The NWLB supported the unprecedented policy of equal pay for equal work because of the many negative impacts unequal wages had not only on the worker, but also on their financial situation and the community at large. In 1942, the NWLB urged employers to make, “adjustments which equalize wage or salary rates paid to females with the rates paid to males for comparable quality and quantity of work on the same or similar operations.” (Jaffee)

Unfortunately, since the NWLB was an advisory committee, backed by neither legislation nor the enforcement of law, they had little long-term success in implementing their recommendations. In fact, few employers heeded the NWLB’s call during the war, and after the war ended, the majority of women were summarily dismissed in order to create employment opportunities for the returning veterans. The briefly shining light of equality in working conditions, personified by the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter, was also dimmed.

equalpay-finalUp until the 1960’s, want ads for men and women were categorized according to gender. Higher-paying jobs ran almost exclusively under the male category listings, while the lower paying and administrative “pink collar” jobs ran under the female category listings. In some cases, identical jobs would be advertised to both men and women, but with differing pay scales. From 1950-1960, full-time female workers earned an average of 59-64 cents for every dollar men earned in the same job. (The Wage Gap)

The EPA, though intended as a step toward income parity between men and women, was not comprehensive. It exempted women in administrative, professional, salesperson, or executive capacities from coverage, as well as domestic workers.

Nine years later, the Education Amendment of 1972 expanded the promise and protection of equal pay to women in white-collar professions by amending the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to exclude the EPA from the professional workers exemption of the FLSA. This action extended the coverage of the EPA to white collar working women, but continued to exclude domestic and agricultural labor.

Since the EPA was passed, many employers have cited apparent loopholes in the law in order to defend disparate wages. One such loophole was closed in the Schultz v. Wheaton Glass Co. case of 1970, when the court ruled that jobs need to be “substantially equal,” but not “identical” to fall under the protection of the EPA. This essentially means that if an employer hires two employees to do the same job, one male and one female, but gives the male a different job title than the female, they cannot pay based on the job title. They must pay based on the work itself.

In 1974, Corning Glass Works tried to defend paying their male employees more by arguing that men would not work for the low rates women would accept. This idea of a “going market rate” was deemed in violation of the EPA by the court’s decision in Corning Glass Works v. Brennan, and another loophole was closed.

Although the courts have frequently upheld the EPA, they have also ruled in direct contradiction to the intent and scope of the Act. A recent example is the 2007 case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.. The plaintiff, Lilly Ledbetter, was employed by Goodyear. After 19 years with the company, she was nearing retirement when she learned she was being paid significantly less than her male co-workers who held the same position. Ledbetter filed suit for pay discrimination under the EPA and Title VII.

The District Court found in favor of Goodyear on the EPA claim, stating that the EPA allows for pay differences based on merit. Ledbetter also said she had been evaluated unfairly due to her sex, and these unfair evaluations had contributed to the discriminatory pay. The District Court allowed this complaint under Title VII to proceed to trial.

Goodyear responded by stating their evaluations were non-discriminatory and focused only on worker competence, but the jury found in favor of Ledbetter after evaluating the evidence and testimonies. The District Court awarded her back pay and damages for the lost wages.

Goodyear appealed, arguing that because the 180-day statute of limitations had passed, Ledbetter’s case was void. The Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with Goodyear, and reversed the District Court decision. Ledbetter then sought a writ of certiorari, which the Supreme Court granted. After hearing her appeal and Goodyear’s defense, the Supreme Court found in favor of Goodyear.

In his opinion, Justice Alito said Ledbetter could have and should have complained of the unequal pay within 180 days of receiving her first paycheck. He reasoned that because she had not complained and had continued to accept the lower-wage paychecks from Goodyear for the next 19 years, her complaint was invalid.

In an unusual move, Justice Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench. She felt the Court’s interpretation was “cramped,” and incompatible with the remedial purpose of the EPA. Ginsburg argued that pay discrimination tends to occur piecemeal over large periods of time, and the 180-day statute of limitations for discrimination complaints should not be applied as the Court was interpreting it. She also argued that pay discrimination differs from other forms of employment discrimination, as information about coworkers’ wages is usually unavailable for comparison. It is therefore extremely difficult to recognize pay discrepancies within the allotted 180-day time frame. Justice Ginsburg was supported by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer in her dissent.

In 2007, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was proposed to address the loophole exploited by Goodyear and signed into law in 2009. This Act revised existing law to say that if a present act of discrimination pertains, prior acts outside of the 180-statute of limitations for pay discrimination can be incorporated into the claim — essentially, the 180-day statute of limitations restarts with each paycheck.

Employers will always exploit loopholes, and the EPA still boasts a rather substantial loophole: An employer can defend their discriminatory pay practices if they can prove the disparity exists for a “legitimate factor” other than gender, such as experience, training, or education. Despite the apparently neutral language, this leaves a rather wide gap in the EPA through which an unscrupulous employer can squeeze a significant amount of savings at the cost of their female employees.

This is, without a doubt, a major contributor to why women in America are paid less on average than men. In 1960, women were paid 60 cents for every dollar men earned. After the passage of EPA and Title VII, the gender wage gap began decreasing by about half a cent per year, but persists even today. The National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF) recently released their 2013 reports on the gender wage gap. Full-time American working women are paid a national average of 77 cents for every dollar paid to men; a 23 percent income gap. This only skims the surface of the vast income disparities between men and women in America as the NPWF explained:

“The wage gap varies by state and metropolitan area. In Wyoming, for example, women are paid 67 cents for every dollar paid to men, while in Vermont, women are paid 87 cents for every dollar. The wage gap persists in the country’s largest cities. It is greatest in the Seattle area, where women are paid just 73 cents for every dollar paid to men.” (“Fact Sheet” April)

Another factor affecting the gender wage gap is, unsurprisingly, race. On average, Black women in America are paid 64 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Latino men. American Latinas are paid just 55 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Latino men. The Simple Truth, a publication released by The American Association of University Women (AAUW), further elaborates on the impact of race and gender on economic inequality:

“. . . within racial/ethnic groups, African American and Hispanic or Latina women experienced a smaller gender pay gap compared with men in the same group than did white and Asian American women. . . . Because white men are the largest demographic in the labor force, they are often used [as a benchmark]. . . .”(Corbett)

Corbett goes on to elaborate that in comparison with white men, Latina women experience the largest pay gap at 59 percent of white male wages, while the salaries of Asian women show the smallest gender pay gap at 88 percent. Corbett also explains that intra-racial gender pay gaps is entirely due to the fact that Black and Latino men are paid substantially less than white men.

In other words, we still have a long way to go before achieving the promise of the Equal Pay Act of 1964. Despite the initial incremental gender wage gap improvements post-EPA, it has become increasingly apparent that wage parity will not happen any time soon without legislation to address existing loopholes in the EPA. In 2009 and 2012, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would uphold the EPA but add the requirement that it is the burden of the employer to maintain documentation supporting pay discrepancies, was proposed in Congress. Each time it was voted down. In January 2013, it was introduced once more to the Congressional Committee, and is currently under review. (H.R. 438)

Voting is a Right, Not a Privilege

For our week 3 assignment in Crime & Punishment, we listened to the Talking Justice episode, Liberty Lost: Felon Disenfranchisement on NPR. We were also supposed to read three articles regarding the pros and cons of suffrage for felons:
 
Credit: Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

Credit: Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

 

For whatever reason I couldn’t open, “The Case Against Felon Voting,” by Clegg, Conway, and Lee, so instead I read, “The Bullet and the Ballot? The Case for Felon Disenfranchisement Statutes,” by the same authors. I assume because it is the same topic, written by the same authors, arguing the same position, that they use many of the same arguments.

Okay. So after listening to the Talking Justice debate and reading both the pros and cons, I come down (perhaps not unsurprisingly) on the side of providing voting rights to felons. I am reminded of a quote I came across in my readings on undocumented immigrants, which paraphrased essentially said that in preventing undocumented immigrants from participating in the debate on immigration — a debate that directly affects them — we are preventing democracy.

I feel the same about this situation. The primary arguments of those who are proponents of felon disenfranchisement appear to come down to these beliefs:

  • It is constitutional to deny voting rights to felons
  • They did the crime, so they deserve to lose their ability to participate in a democratic society.

It was also constitutional to deny voting rights to people of color, women, and those who didn’t own land. Things change. Just because something was constitutional in 1787 does not mean it should remain constitutional some 230 years later. The United States Constitution is a living document, which has been and must continue to be reinterpreted in light of the changing demands of humanitarian understandings of what constitutes a democratic society.

In 1787, the working poor, women, people of color, and felons were considered so subhuman that they could not participate in a basic democratic process.  Today, the three of those four populations are nominally considered acceptable to participate in the democratic process — but disenfranchisement laws aimed at felon (and immigrant) communities continue to enforce a policy that protects the voting rights of the wealthy and white, while overwhelming silencing the voices of those who are considered by too many to be nonproductive members of society — the working poor, undocumented immigrants, and felons.

Voting is a right. In the Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers say that all men (which today is understood in the colloquial sense of all human beings) are endowed with certain unalienable (or incontrovertible) rights. We are all familiar with the bit where named as among these rights are listed the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Most people seem to forget the next bit, where the framers explicitly say, “that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

I know the Declaration of Independence is not a legal document. It is essentially an angry break-up letter to England — but it is an historic document which outlines the core values of the founding of the United States of America. It is a document we continue to refer to as a nation when we assert our national character as a democratic country. And “the governed” in our country, like it or not, include thousands of disenfranchised voters who are excluded from providing consent to the “just” powers of the government that determines their rights and freedoms.

How can we say that the government and the laws which affect felons (and, for that matter, undocumented immigrants) are just and fair, when those very populations have not been given a voice in the creation and passage of those laws, even though their lives are shaped and silenced by them?

In the Talking Justice debate, an audience member said he thought such disenfranchisement laws are essentially classist, and a better solution would be to allow the sentencing judge discretion regarding adding or removing this right at the time of sentencing. He asked Ron Godbey’s thoughts on that solution.

Godbey completely ignored the suggestion of classism, and although he acknowledged that it might be preferable for a judge to have discretion in sentencing when it comes to voting disenfranchisement, he noted that judges do always inform the accused of the rights they will lose. Godbey did not seem aware that there’s a pretty key difference between a judge having the discretion to remove such rights, and having to inform someone their rights will be revoked. There is a difference. In the former circumstance, the judge is relied upon as a legal expert and the arbitrator of the law to determine the best course of action regarding the specific situation at hand. In the latter situation, the judge is compelled by law to enact a mandatory removal of a civil right on which the crime in question may have absolutely no relationship to.

Importantly, as I noted earlier, Godbey did not even address the classim portion of the comment — yet he repeatedly references his opinion that felons, by dint of committing a crime, recuse themselves from the democratic process. On page 4 of The Ballot and the Bullet, a similar argument is made, as the authors say,

“Finally, Section IV discusses the policy rationales for such laws: society deems felons to be less trustworthy than non-felon citizens, and those who cannot follow the law should not participate in the passing of laws that govern law-abiding citizens …” (emphasis mine)

Yet many people who cannot follow the law are allowed to participate in the passage of laws which govern law-abiding citizens. We see this every day. Corporations add clauses to their contracts that essentially protects them from consumer utilizing consumer protection laws by forcing arbitration instead of allowing individual or class-action lawsuits if the corporation endangers/ defrauds the consumer or otherwise breaks the law. Wealthy bankers, lobbyists, and Wall Street employees utilize loopholes in oversight requirements or tax code so they can follow the letter of the law while breaking the spirit of it. Others simply outright break the law, trusting in their wealth and privilege to protect them — and most do not end up like Bernie Madoff for their crimes, but instead continue to collect fat bonuses and influence the political process to their benefit.

Speaking of Bernie Madoff, Alexander noted in chapter 6 of The New Jim Crow that part of this new system of racialized control relies on the notion of black exceptionalism. Alexander argues long as people like President Obama and Oprah Winfrey exist, our society can continue to ignore the discomfiting evidence of racialized oppression inherent in the current criminal system. The success of President Obama and Oprah Winfrey supports the myth of meritocracy. Black exceptionalism, argues Alexander, undermines widespread recognition that social structures create racially biased and widespread disparate impact that perpetuates a systemic inhibition of the agency of people of color in poor communities to overcome the circumstances of their birth and education.

I would take that argument and repurpose it slightly to apply to systems of class control. So long as the occasional widely-publicized Bernie Madoff or Martha Stewart ends up in the news for financial crimes, the working class of America continues to toil on, assured that the wealthy are held responsible for their crimes just as the working class are.

In reality, the disparate responses to the criminal element of the American wealthy and the American poor is appalling, and I think that if felon disenfranchisement was applied as evenly to the wealthy movers and shakers of society who commit crimes as it is applied to criminal element drawn from the poor and working class, we would see a much different argument playing out.

In short, felony disenfranchisement is yet another system of racial and class control. Those who are unable to vote are overwhelmingly and disproportionately from poor communities and communities of color. Those who reserve the right to vote are overwhelmingly from white and affluent communities. A small, wealthy, white minority is dictating the rights and legislation which negatively impact the rights and movements of a much larger, poorer, and diverse majority.

Huh, I guess that is just like the original constitution.

The Impact of Unintentional Discrimination

In my Crime & Punishment online course, we’re listening to some episodes of this NPR show called Justice Talking this week. The first episode is called Race and the Justice System, and it’s really good. If you have the time, you should listen to it.

The thing that bothered me about the show (and I said this on the class forum) was the way that everyone who insisted racism isn’t that bad in the criminal justice system was talking about racism as though it has to be intentional to have an impact.

James Fox and Sandra Russell in particular seemed to really construe racism in the criminal justice system solely as an intentional action consciously chosen by individual actors. That is, they didn’t seem to think that a non-racist person could be, in the performance of their job requirements, forced to enact racist policies encoded within the system. They didn’t seem to think that unconscious bias about racial characteristics could influence prosecutors, arresting officers, judges, etc. Fox and Russell seemed to be laboring under the (fairly common) assumption that the only “valid” actions of racism are the premeditated and intentional ones.

People can have perfectly good intentions and still perpetuate racist, sexist, and discriminatory behavior. It’s scary and it’s upsetting, because it means that someone who is not a racist or a sexist can say or do something that’s incredibly racist or sexist without meaning to. I can. You can.  That’s the scary part. It takes the term “bigot” away from some obviously ignorant neo-nazi with a noose in one hand and a Confederate flag in the other, and hands it back to allies and well-intentioned people.

Normally when the question of the intent/ result comes up, we as a culture are taught to give a little leeway. To be forgiving, have a sense of humor, let it slide. It’s not that big a deal. And maybe on a micro scale of individual experience, it actually is not that big a deal for some people. Ignoring a thoughtless microaggression and sidestepping a potentially emotionally draining interaction is something people do every day to keep the peace with family, friends, classmates, and coworkers.

But when microaggressions and “soft” discrimination continues to slide, it turns into these subconscious attitudes that permeate our interactions and assumptions about people. And you can think someone is a human being worthy of respect, like the hypothetical police officer Russell described who will drive 90 mph to save the life of a black youth who’s been shot, but still hold these unconscious stereotypes about their personalities, preferences, and background.

The way that Russell and Fox dismiss systemic racism because they do not believe any discriminatory outcomes to be intentional is really disturbing to me, because it seems to completely sidestep the reality that many choices are shaped by social location and the unconscious biases that permeate our society.