Monday, February 25, 2013

Trust that transcends race, class and culture

Trust is not built on personal likes or dislikes. It is not a sentiment or an emotion. It is built through shared commitment, shared risk, and willingness to work through difficulties. It is possible for people to hold divergent opinions and still trust one another. 

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when we celebrated the life of a dedicated member of the Initiatives of Change team in Richmond, VA, who died aged 90. Diademia Scarlet Blair – known as “Demie” – was a native Richmonder who grew up in the era of segregation and who was part of early efforts to bring blacks and whites together after African Americans won political power in the 1977 city council election. Together with her English husband, Terry, Demie hosted numerous occasions for diverse groups in her gracious home.

She  was a devoted friend to Muriel Smith, the great African American contralto who created the role of Carmen Jones on Broadway and who lived her final years in Richmond.

In 1993, when Hope in the Cities led a national conference, “Healing the Heart of America,” Terry and Demie organized the opening banquet for more than 700 people complete with personal hand-addressed invitations and individual place cards. 

Demie was a perfectionist. She had high standards. I recall a conversation with the hotel catering manager when she inquired whether the grapes to garnish the fish entrée would be peeled!

Demie maintained her conservative political views throughout her life. She was not slow to voice her opinions and she and I sometimes disagreed. But we learned to appreciate each other and became good friends as the years went by. 

It was notable that four well-known black community leaders attended Demie’s funeral. More than one had clashed with her as they had worked together in the Initiatives of Change team. Yet they shared with Demie a commitment to "model the change" they wanted to see in society, a commitment that was stronger than any personal hurt or resentment. When the time came to lay her to rest, they wanted to be there to honor her. One of them said she respected Demie as someone who had the courage to “always speak her mind." It spoke volumes about a quality of trust that transcends differences of race, politics, culture and class.

Demie was always unflinchingly honest about her own need for change. Honesty is the first step in building trust. As I wrote in my book, Trustbuilding, “Trust depends on the authenticity of our lives, our openness, and our willingness to start with change in ourselves.”

Monday, February 4, 2013

Trust in the justice system

Fairness in the justice system is basic for maintaining trust in any country. But there are two systems of justice in America: one for the very rich and powerful and one for the poor and powerless. 

It often seems that the larger the crime and the more powerful the offender, the less likely it is that the criminal will see prison time. On the flip side, our prisons are crowded with poor young men, mostly minorities, most of whom have committed comparatively minor offenses. 

Not a single senior executive in any of the banks involved in precipitating the financial crash has been prosecuted. Even in cases where banks have engaged in blatantly criminal activity, such as HSBC which was fined $1.9 billion for money laundering for Latin American drug lords, no one in a leadership position is behind bars. The biotech giant Amgen has pleaded guilty to illegally selling a misbranded drug, and was fined $762 million, the largest such settlement in U.S. history. Yet, this same corporation, which has 74 lobbyists in Washington, used its influence to gain a massive benefit at taxpayer expense by inserting a provision into the recent “fiscal cliff” legislation as described in a recent New York Times story. 

It’s shocking that people (yes, according to our Supreme Court, corporations are people) who have committed illegal acts on this scale can dictate legislation in Washington. Even more unfair is the fact that executives walk free after admitting crimes that would have landed a young black male in prison for decades.    

A few days after this story broke, I saw The House I Live In a stunning documentary on the disastrous “war on drugs” and its devastating impact on minority communities. Since 1971 we have spent $1trillion on this misguided campaign and there have been 45 million arrests. As a result, 500,000 people – mostly black males – are currently in prison for non-violent drug offenses. Until 2010, this draconian approach imposed a five-year mandatory sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine (sold on the street largely by blacks). The Fair Sentencing Act eliminated this mandatory sentence and reduced the disparity between the amount of crack cocaine and powder cocaine (used largely by whites) required to trigger some federal penalties from 100:1 weight ratio to an 18:1 weight ratio.

In an earlier blog I referenced Michelle Alexander’s book,The New Jim Crow,  in which she traces the criminalization of a whole class of people, driven in part for political reasons. Poor whites, she says, felt “socially demoted” during the civil rights era and through affirmative action. Politicians saw their resentment as a potent political force to be exploited. It was no longer acceptable to appeal to race explicitly, but the criminal justice system, especially drug laws, could be designed in ways that effectively discriminate against minorities. As a result of the drug war, hundreds of thousands of minority males are disenfranchised and excluded from the job market. 

Now prisons have become big business. Communities vie for the jobs and economic benefit they bring. Meanwhile, we have a large section of the population that is increasingly excluded from participating in society. The House I Live In raises the disturbing possibility that our prisons will become places where America warehouses this group for profit. Great work on this important film by writer and director Sieugene Jarecki and executive producer Danny Glover.