Profound Connections

“Profound connections exist between all; interdependency so manifest that perceived separation is a delusion.” Senator Cory Booker writes to start one of the chapters in his book United. Throughout his book, Senator Booker examines the way society is organized, the relation between personal responsibility and to social responsability, and how truly dependent we are on everyone else. We do not exist in a vacuum and no matter how much one may try, we cannot live isolated lives away from other people. We depend on those around us, often much more than we realize.

 

The idea that we are connected drives Booker’s political ideas and shapes the way he approaches the people he represents, the neighborhoods he has lived in and represented, and who he has looked to as role models and mentors. Throughout his book however, he tries to show that recognizing and understanding the power of our connections is important not just for politicians, and not just for professors or people on television, but for everyone, every day. The collective understanding of how much we need each other and the ability to empathize with those around us who face challenges is diminishing as we become absorbed by social media which shows us what we want to see and allows us to share the highlights of our lives, creating misrepresentative online versions of ourselves. In an age of technology and hyper connectivity, we have become less aware of how truly connected we have always been, and how dependent on others our lives have always been.

 

Booker’s quote is important because it runs against our tribal nature. Human beings seem to be able to associate with only a few hundred people at most, a mental hangover from our tribal ancestry. We are constantly, whether we recognize it or not, looking for those who are like us, finding groups that think like us, act like us, and believe the things we believe. We create random borders and develop identities for those living within those borders. Without realizing it, we assign good qualities and traits to the group within our border and negative qualities and traits to the group beyond our border.

 

If instead we bring awareness and reflection to this “us versus them” mental process, we can begin to see how dependent we are not just on the people within our border, but on the people beyond our borders. We can begin to see that we all share one planet, and share more as humans than typically recognized. The connections that run through humanity don’t stop at the gate of a neighborhood, at a freeway exit, at a national boarder, or even on the shores of a continent. We are deeply connected by the entire planet and by years of evolution. Tribalism in our ancestry has geared us to ignore these connections, but just below the surface our connections exist, and the more we search the more we see that we are all united.
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Continuing Punishment

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker addresses the problem of recidivism in the United States criminal justice system, and asks if society should be doing more to reduce the rates of people continuing crime after serving time and facing subsequent arrests. Many people return to prison after completing sentences for non-violent crimes and the ideas about why and the solutions put forward to reduce relapse into negative behavior are varied. Booker argues that our system is currently not set up in a way to help re-integrate prisoners and that the system creates larger burdens for minority and poor individuals.

 

Booker writes, “People have themselves to blame for their decisions; that is undeniable. But don’t we have a legal obligation to structure a system that is balanced, not savagely slanted against minorities and the poor?” He focuses on the personal responsibility for our decisions and actions, but shows that our decisions and actions do not take place inside a vacuum. Society is a contributing factor, and how we structure our system can in many ways shape how people respond and whether negative actions and behaviors seem to be worth the cost or seem to be the only option one has. Booker continues, “Don’t we have a moral responsibility to offer redemption to someone who has paid his debt instead of unyielding retribution against him and his family?”

 

We are in a challenging place where many of our jobs are becoming service and technology jobs focused on our mind and not on our physical strength. As we move in this direction, our jobs require that we handle more sensitive information and have more interactions with the people that a business depends on. In these jobs, integrity is important, and employers increasingly avoid hiring people that have been arrested. Previous convictions serves as a measuring stick for integrity. As jobs move away from physical labor, we end up with fewer opportunities for those who have past convictions.

 

Many government programs also require background checks for individuals and felony or misdemeanor charges can make someone ineligible for things like housing assistance. As a result, individuals who may struggle to find a job also end up being ineligible for government assistance and are stuck in a situation where their only option appears to be more criminal activity.

 

These individuals may have more opportunities than turning to continued criminal activity, but in a world where everything seems to be telling them that they are no longer a worthy human being, it can be understandable that  someone slips back to crime. The way we treat people who have been arrested often does not align with our beliefs that everyone deserves a second chance. The system as it is set up now does offer some supports for those who have been arrested and need help re-joining society, but our actions seem to show that we would rather isolate those who have been to jail rather than help them re-join society, change their behaviors and actions, and have a second chance. At some point we must look at where we have drawn the line between personal responsibility for negative actions and behaviors, social responsibility for crime and recidivism, and acceptable and appropriate punishment. I believe that at some level we don’t actually care about those who are arrested, and instead choose to draw a line in the moral sand because punishing those who are less moral than we are allows us to feel good about ourselves. In this view, the punishment of others is not about those who have done wrong at all, it is simply about making ourselves feel superior.

Our Environment, Incarceration, and Societal Responsibility

In my last post, I wrote about Cory Booker’s reactions to meeting inmates at a prison when he was in law school. Having a chance to speak with inmates and ask them about their lives, the environments they grew up and lived in, and how they approached life in jail was very impactful for Booker. He began to look at people in prison as real people, and began to look at them beyond just the negative things they had done. In short, he began to see a more full picture of who the people he met were. Reflecting on the experience Booker wrote, “I could walk out of that place instead of remaining not just because of my own choices but also because of the abundantly privileged environments in which I had lived.” It was where Booker grew up, the support his family provided, and the schools Booker was able to attend that shaped his life and the choices he could make. Throughout his life he has certainly had to make smart decisions and has certainly had to work hard, but because he grew up in a more affluent part of New Jersey and because his family was able to provide for him (both financially and in terms of being role models) Booker saw a true avenue and opportunity to make the right decisions.

 

Many of those who end up in jail do not start out with the same advantages as Booker. It is not to say that we can excuse the crimes and mistakes they have made, but if we truly want to correct behavior, and if we truly want to put an end to crime throughout society, we must think about what we provide for others and what the environment is like where these individuals grow up, work, and live.

 

As Booker left the prison he thought about the people society has left behind and the decisions society has made to lock problems away in prisons. “I walked out of the prison free, and yet I was shackled to what I now knew,” Booker writes, “I was implicated. I couldn’t take my full measure of pride in our greatness as a society if  I was not willing to take responsibility for our failures.” In America we place a lot of responsibility on the individual and we celebrate individual achievement and success to a high degree. We are also quick to point out the moral shortcomings and negative traits in others that lead to failure. Our society is quick to celebrate individual accomplishments and we are able to view ourselves in the success stories of others, taking pride in one person’s accomplishments as a reflection of the potential within our society. When one fails however, we are not quick to latch on to their negative outcome and identify ways that their failure could be attributed to society.

 

Great  wealth is a result of a superior capitalistic society and freedom, when local sports teams win it is a result of community support and fandom, and when a new business opens up it is because our community is so vibrant and wonderful that we attract the interests of those who want to give us more. Failure on the other hand, is a result of an individual being unable to accurately read the economy. Crime stems from personal moral failures. And poverty exists because other people are lazy and don’t want to take jobs. This split in how we all share success but view failure as individual shortcomings is an inaccurate and shortsighted view of society.

 

Booker’s time visiting the prison helped him to see that how society is organized impacts the opportunities that people face. How society supports or abandons people makes it easy for some to make good decisions and generate wealth, and it places others in positions where crime and poverty are hard to avoid. It is hard to take pride in society when we leave behind so many people and focus all our attention instead on a relative few that achieve great success.

Those in Jail

Senator Cory Booker shares a story about visiting a prison in his book United, and he describes the people he met behind bars. In his passage he describes the men in a way that elevates their humanity, which is a shift from the descriptions most people have of men in prison, which reduces their humanity. Booker writes,

 

“What struck me was how similar this talk was to the ones I’d had in the law school cafeteria with my classmates. The men were sharp and sophisticated. What struck me was how normal they seemed to me; they seemed like guys I knew. By no means did I lose sight of the fact that some of them had committed horrible crimes, but it was also clear that these human beings were much more than the crimes they had committed. To paraphrase Bryan Stevenson, they were much more than the worst things they had done.”

 

It is easy to look at people who have made mistakes and those who had done wrong and to judge them by their shortcomings alone. We seem to do a great job of seeing the flaws in others and criticizing other people’s actions, especially if they are hypocritical, in an effort to elevate ourselves and feel better about the things we have done. Recognizing that other people, especially those who have made large mistakes, are still human and share many aspects of humanity with us requires that we step back, look at ourselves and our own mistakes, and try to understand where individuals made mistakes and how they can move forward from them. It is hard to see people as more than the bad things they have done, and those mistakes can hang over them forever, constantly preventing them from moving on with their lives.

 

Stepping back and looking at others in a way that highlights their humanity over their mistakes is a practice that Marcus Aurelius described. When looking at himself relative to other people he writes, “consider that thou also doest many things wrong, and that though art a man like others; and even if thou dost abstain from certain faults, still thou hast the disposition to commit them, either through cowardice, or concern about reputation or some such mean motive, thou dost abstain from such faults.” This awareness can help us understand that the individuals in prison still matter and that the gap that separates us from them is smaller than we would like to think.

 

Not seeing the humanity in those we arrest leads those individuals to become ostracized from the community, making it harder for them to reconnect with society after they have served their sentence. By treating them as sub-human, rather than recognizing that we have many of the same urges to commit crimes, and by focusing on their worst actions we limit their possibilities. We deny government aid and federal housing assistance to those with criminal backgrounds and employers avoid hiring those who were arrested. Focusing so much fear and avoidance on these individuals makes it difficult for them to feel like citizens, and drives the punishment of their crime well beyond their time in prison. There should be punishment for serious mistakes, but when that punishment extends into perpetuity, we risk pushing people toward more crime in a negative feedback loop that seems to run against the stated purposes of our criminal justice system.

Incarceration

Chapter 10 of Senator Cory Booker’s book United focuses on prison in the United States, and Booker begins by quoting Nelson Mandela, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

 

A few years back I remember someone reading a Facebook post to me about Joe Arpaio, at the time the Maricopa County Sheriff. The post talked about how he was tough on those who had committed crime, deciding that if they were in prison for doing bad things, they would be limited in their rights and freedoms as opposed to coddled and pampered in a jail cell. The post applauded his decision to switch prison clothing to a pink color, his decision to move prisoners outside into tents, his decision to eliminate all television during recreation time and to only keep books on hand for leisure. It was easy to agree with the post, and tempting to share or like it and encourage Nevada prison authorities to move in the same direction.

 

A couple of years later, however, I had a Spanish theater class at the University of Nevada, Reno, and one of the plays focused on social justice, illegal immigrants, and out nation’s response those who come here by crossing our southern boarder. I was exposed to the stories and realities of those crossing the boarder, and I was also exposed to the dark side of Sheriff Arpaio. One play was filled with criticism of Arpaio’s approach to enforcing immigration laws and quoted many of the unsettling and discriminatory things that Arpaio had said. When I looked back at his priorities as sheriff and thought back to the Facebook post praising his decisions regarding jails, I saw things through a new perspective, and could not help but feel that Sheriff  Arpaio was acting in a way that was meant to dehumanize and belittle those in jail. Looking back, Arpaio was encouraging arrests based on racial motives, then demonstrating his power to control the lives of those members of racial minorities who were incarcerated in his prison system. I think it is fair to argue that his practices as Sherif were as much about power and control as they were about protecting society and creating safe communities.

 

Booker begins his discussion of incarceration in United by looking at the people we arrest in the United States and asking whether these people are sub-human, if they are somehow less than those of us who are not arrested, if the best approach to eliminating behaviors that harms society is to quarantine those who commit crimes from the rest of us, and if we can ignore societal problems by simply removing those who cause trouble. Mandela’s quote shows that the answer to these questions is no. The people in jail are still citizens. They are not sub-human, the problems and behaviors that led to the crimes committed cannot be solved simply with incarceration.

 

There may be a reason to remove television from prison, there may be a reason to change their wardrobe to pink, and there may be a reason to set up outdoor tents for housing, but it may be a mistake to assume that those in prison can grow and find the necessary improvement in their thoughts and lives to become productive and respectable people outside of prison simply by being tough and punishing them. I have not studied how we should treat those in prison, but I believe that treating prisoners as humans and showing them respect in a way that preserves some human dignity is key. Having a system that creates penalties and limits freedoms for those who commit crimes is reasonable, but that system should not de-humanize criminals and reduce them to something that does not deserve mutual respect.

Ignoring Other People’s Problems

Another section of James Comey’s speech shared in Cory Booker’s United stood out to me. Former FBI Director Comey spoke about racial tensions and the state of race relations in our country. He acknowledged the difficulty that many people have in accepting that there are racial challenges in our society today, and he was critical of the way people pushed the problem away from themselves. Most white people in our country today seem to discredit race problems, and often they don’t see a race problem as their own problem, and chose instead to ignore the problem all together.

Comey writes, “As a society, we can choose to live our everyday lives, raising our families and going to work, hoping that someone, somewhere, will do something to ease the tension—to smooth over the conflict. We can roll up our car windows, turn up the radio and drive around these problems, or we can choose to have an open and honest discussion about what our relationship is today—what it should be, what it could be, and what it needs to be—if we took more time to better understand one another.”

What Comey explains is that we prefer to drive past racial conflicts and problems, doing our best to ensure we never notice the inequality that has grown within our society. We ignore the problem and pretend that it does not effect us. Ultimately, this pushes us to a place where we live in our own bubble, reflecting our thoughts, beliefs, and views onto the world around us. We begin to assume that everyone has the same experience that we do, that everyone thinks the way we do, and that everyone has the same problems and goals. When this happens, we fail to see the challenges that other people face, and we fail to see the dangers of our nations current racial problems.

In a wold where we ignore the problems of others and focus only inwardly on what we want and what problems we have, we fail to see how our lives and actions impact our larger society. Comey’s quote hits directly at this problem. In our society we live complacently in our homes watching television shows that portray the life we want to live and show us what we want to see. We lose touch with the experiences of others and we may know there are problems in the world, but we don’t see how it is our responsibility to tackle those problems. We do not seriously understand the problems, and we don’t understand the people who face such challenges. Rather than try to better understand our world, we speed past people, problems, and inequity as we commute through life, and then we blame individuals for ending up in their situation, without ever offering a hand or any assistance.

A Nation at Face Value

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker shares a quote from former FBI director James Comey, “Perhaps the reason we struggle as a nation is because we’ve come to see only what we represent, at face value, instead of who we are. We simply must see the people we serve.”

This quote came at the end of a longer segment of a speech from Director Comey that Booker included in United. In the Segment, Comey discussed the difficulties of policing and enforcing laws with equity when we as humans must deal with implicit biases. Comey specifically looked at racial dynamics within policing and implicit biases and in the quote above is meant to encourage our nation’s law enforcement to become more self-aware in its role.

Comey suggests that our nation’s values of equality and liberty exist in many ways as just a facade. Rather than truly showing that equality and liberty are important in justice, we simply say they are and act as if that is enough. We have come up with a great slogan and we say that we aspire to live in a nation that is directed by equality and liberty, but the way we treat each other and react to those who are different from us shows that these words simply exist on a banner to make us feel good about ourselves. Our belief that all men are created equal does not materialize in our actions and policies.

If we stop and reflect on what a society would look like if justice was truly equitable, we would recognize that many aspects of our actual society and criminal justice system would not fit into our ideal vision. However, instead of truly reflecting and looking deeply into who we are and how we perceive other racial groups, we look around and assume that since there is relatively little explicit racism in our country (no one demonstrating in white sheets) that racism no longer exists as a barrier to minority populations.

Comey’s speech looked at this tendency to view our country as post racial and looked at our implicit biases that negatively shape our reactions and interactions with black people and hispanics. He was honest about the problem admitting that law enforcement must understand when instincts are influenced by tribal nature which pushes them to look at outsiders in a negative light. His speech put the responsibility for implicit racism on the law enforcement officers and on society, rather than placing responsibility for implicit racism on the individual who is facing discrimination.