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  • Teaching the New Jim Crow

    As discussed in a previous post “But we have a Black President!” teaching and discussing social stratification and inequality can be a challenge. A recent best selling and award-winning book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander, addresses these challenges as they relate to the criminal justice system. Alexander explains that “the book’s main argument—that the stunning, unprecedented rise in U.S. incarceration during the past 30 years marked the birth of a new system of racial and social control reminiscent in many respects of Jim Crow segregation.” In her book, she documents how the legal system of the United States works to construct and maintain racial disadvantages.

    Teaching the New Jim Crow

    Michelle Alexander recently coordinated with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program in releasing a Teacher’s Guide for The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The guide gives multiple suggestions for lessons, as well as a wealth of resources for in-class exercises, discussions and readings. The first lesson prepares students to discuss the often uncomfortable topics of race and racism with the following objectives:

    • Students will reflect on their own comfort level when talking about race.
    • Students will distinguish between intent and impact and reflect on what it means in the context of class discussions about The New Jim Crow.
    • Students will describe how stereotypes inform our implicit biases and how implicit bias impacts our interactions.
    • Students will establish norms and learn strategies for having open and honest conversations about the content of The New Jim Crow.

    This introduction prepares students for 9 more lessons based on excerpts from the book, and related classroom exercises and discussions that bring students through a history of racialized social control from slavery and Jim Crow, to the current state of mass incarceration. The final lesson, “The Fire This Time,” focuses on students’ thinking about and taking action regarding the question “What is needed to end mass incarceration and permanently eliminate racial caste in the United States?”

    While the curriculum is designed for high school students, the lessons could be easily adapted for the undergraduate, or even graduate level.

  • Boundary Violations between Prison Staff and Inmates: The “Orange is the New Black” Effect

    Every semester, I teach an Ethics and Criminal Justice course for our Criminal Justice minor. Several semesters ago, I revised my final exam to include the following prompt:

    You are a corrections officer at minimum security prison camp. You discover that one of your co-workers has been having a romantic and sexual relationship with one of the prisoners for six months. You know this is against the rules, and that both the inmate and your co-worker will face serious consequences for engaging in an inappropriate relationship. If you blow the whistle on your co-worker, she will lose her job and could be criminally charged.

    Following the prompt, I asked students two questions. 1) Is it more important to be loyal to your fellow officer or to be a whistleblower? Why? And, 2) what do you think is the right thing to do in this situation? Why?

    Over the course of the past three semesters, 91 students have responded to this exam question. I recently revisited all of the exam responses. For the second question concerning what students believed was the right thing to do, the responses fell into four categories: do nothing (20%); talk to your co-worker and try to persuade her to stop the relationship (7%); talk to your co-worker and tell her if she does not stop the relationship and/or turn herself in; you will report her behavior to the administration (24%); and, finally, half of students (50%) believed that automatically turning your co-worker in was the right thing to do.

    Prior to revisiting these exam responses, I would have estimated that the number of students who believed reporting their co-worker’s behavior was the right thing to do was much lower than it actually was. I think this was due in part to my surprise that so many students did not think this was a major or serious violation by prison staff.

    For example, close to 30% of student respondents believed the right thing to do was to not report the behavior under any circumstance. Across responses, students failed to comprehend the inherent harm embedded in a sexual relationship between prison staff and an inmate. In fact, one response proceeded along the lines of (paraphrase) “I would check to make sure the inmate isn’t being harmed. If they were being harmed I would report, but as long as there is no danger to the inmate, I would do nothing.”

    There are a number of reasons why an inappropriate relationship between a staff member and an inmate are harmful, both to the inmate and to facility security, even if both participants are seemingly willing to engage in a sexual relationship. Aside from the unique harms of these relationships in the prison context, it is clearly a violation of professional decency, just as a sexual relationship between a professor and student, or a counselor and patient are patently unprofessional.

    Before discussing the problems with sexual relationships between staff and inmates, I think it is important to speculate why students (and perhaps many other members of the community) do not recognize the potential dangers these relationships pose. I would attribute much of these attitudes to media depictions of prison life, specifically, Orange is the New Black. In this extremely popular Netflix show, one of the central storylines involves a romantic and sexual relationship between a female inmate, Dayanara Diaz, and a corrections officer, John Bennett. Interestingly, the relationship between Diaz and Bennett is presented as one of the more genuine and romantic relationships among the plethora of sexual and romantic encounters depicted in the show. The fact that one is the keeper and the other is the kept is simply presented as a minor obstacle for these star-crossed lovers to overcome. Because the show is so popular among my students, and because it really fails to highlight the major problems of a relationship of this type, I would anecdotally attribute (at least part of) the distribution of exam responses to the influence of this show.

    Far from being harmless infatuation or romance, inappropriate sexual relationships, or, as Marquart and colleagues (2001) term them, boundary violations, have serious consequences, both for incarcerated individuals and for prison operations. It is important to recognize that I am exclusively discussing relationships where inmates are seemingly willing participants (note, I have not used the words consent or consensual in regards to these relationships). The harms surrounding forcible sexual assaults perpetrated by staff against inmates are much more clearly understood.

    First, the relationship between captor and captive is inherently coercive. The power differential between guards and inmates has serious implications regarding the legitimate capacity of prisoners to consensually engage in a sexual relationship. Correctional officers have ultimate control over inmates’ access to food, water, and every other basic resource, creating a situation in which inmates may not be able to easily refuse sexual advances by corrections officers.

    In addition, once sexual activity is initiated, prisoners may not have the freedom or ability to stop specific sexual acts, or to stop the sexual encounter should they wish to do so. For example, in 2009, an Oklahoma prisoner told a corrections officer about her sexual fantasy of being with two men at the same time. The officer and one of his co-workers then entered her cell, and they began to have sex. When the female prisoner was finished, she stood up to end the encounter, but one of the guards forced her head back down and told her to “shut up, and bend over, bitch” (Hogan, 2015).

    Inmates may also feel coerced into sexual relationships with staff in exchange for resources that are or may be limited by corrections officers. Conversely, prison guards can take advantage of inmates who want access to resources or favorable treatment by staff (Marcum and Castle, 2014). Thus, what appears to be voluntary sexual encounters may actually be coercive and threatening. This can lead to feelings of powerlessness and helplessness among inmates, even in contexts broader than the relationship, such as institutional disciplinary decisions or other disputes between staff and inmates (Blackburn, et al., 2011).

    On the other hand, voluntary sexual relationships between staff and inmates also pose potential security risks to facilities as well. As most prison systems forbid sex between staff and inmates, once an officer and inmate are involved in a relationship, the inmate can blackmail the officer for things they may want. Instances of corrections officers bringing in cell phones, drugs, weapons, and other contraband items because of sexual relationships have all been documented (Dial & Worley, 2008). One of the more recent and prominent examples involved a prison staff member in New York who developed a romantic relationship with an inmate. Staff member Joyce Mitchell smuggled in a drill bit and a hack saw that allowed inmates Matt Smith and David Sweat to escape. Smith and Sweat were on the run for 22 days in June of 2015. Sweat was eventually recaptured, but Smith was shot and killed by border patrol agents.

    Most, if not all correctional departments, have strict regulations against sexual relationships between staff and inmates, and the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) establishes these relationships as criminal acts on the part of prison workers. Most cases of inappropriate relationships simply end in the termination of prison staff (Dial & Worley, 2011); however, criminal convictions and prison sentences are not unheard of, especially in high profile cases. Joyce Mitchell, for example, may serve up to seven years in prison for her role in the escape described above.

    Because of the concerns related to inmate well-being and facility security, prison administrators should recognize the harms involved and seriously respond to all instances and allegations of inappropriate sexual relationships. It may be prudent to consider expanding criminal prosecutions of staff members who engage in sexual relationships with inmates.

    In addition, media depictions of staff-inmate sex as romantic and charming should be countered at every opportunity, in an academic setting or otherwise. The exam questions described above are contained on the final exam, and thus, I do not have the opportunity to discuss and unpack student responses in class. However, revisiting these exams underscores the responsibility that I, and other criminal justice educators, have to highlight the harms inherent in staff-inmate sexual relationships about which there may be little awareness.

    Benjamin Meade, PhD
    Justice Studies Department
    James Madison University

    References:
    Blackburn, A.G., Fowler, S.K., Mullings, J.L., & Marquart, J.W. (2011). When boundaries are broken: Inmate perceptions of correctional staff boundary violations. Deviant Behavior, 32(4), 351-378. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01639621003748837.

    Dial, K., & Worley, R.M. (2008). Crossing the line: A quantitative analysis of inmate boundary violators in a Southern prison system. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 33, 69-84. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12103-007-9015-x.

    Hogan, M.J. (2015). If Orange is the New Black, is coercion the new consent? An analysis of the Tenth Circuit’s decision to allow guards to use an inmate’s alleged consent as a defense to a sexual abuse allegation. Washburn Law Journal, 54(2), 425-450. http://contentdm.washburnlaw.edu/cdm/ref/collection/wlj/id/6543.

  • The Koch Epidemic

    The criminal justice system is at a critical juncture. With the untimely passing of arguably one of the most influential conservative Supreme Court justices in United States history, and the potential for the next President to nominate possibly four justices to the court, the system is poised for a major shift. Couple this with the growing debate over the death penalty, mass incarceration, police brutality, and corporate criminality, among many others, and the implications become even more far-reaching.

    From the bowels of social media, where racism and misogyny are not only tolerated but encouraged, to the meetings of corporate billionaires, where criminal justice legislation is bought and paid for, the debate over “justice” rages on. Whether we perpetuate the highly fruitless “discussions” on Facebook and Twitter, or we ignore the often transparent attempts of wealthy campaign contributors to shift political influence, we are all responsible for what could be a decade, or more, of major criminal justice reform. That is why we should all take solace in the fact that the newest effort to further ally the interests of the corporate, and often criminal, elite with criminal justice legislation is being confronted.

    In January, Charles Koch, of the famed billionaire Koch brothers, met with conservative donors to garner support for his continued foray into the realm of criminal justice reform. This comes on the heels of several meetings throughout 2015 between representatives of Koch Industries and White House officials. The goal in all of these meetings was to discuss the bi-partisan backed criminal justice reform efforts that are currently maneuvering their ways through both the House and the Senate.

    To the casual observer this may seem an appropriate step to take in fixing what many consider to be a broken system. However, what several media outlets and political watchdog groups are pointing out, is that the efforts of Koch Industries seem less of a mission to curb mass incarceration and over criminalization, and more of a thinly veiled plot to ensure that future prosecutions of the corporate sector never come to fruition.

    Both the Senate and the House will vote in 2016 on criminal justice reform legislation. While the bills in both houses are being backed by Koch Industries affiliates it is the addition of a provision within the House of Representatives version of these efforts that is highly disconcerting. In November 2015, the Criminal Code Improvement Act (H.R. 4002) “cleared the [House Judiciary] committee by a voice vote without any amendments addressing complaints” (Huffington Post). Included within H.R. 4002 is the long-sought after, and Koch Industries supported, alteration to the mens rea standard for corporate criminality.

    What this bill would effectively do is give corporate executives in particular, the ability to simply plead ignorance of the law-violating behavior, as well as ignorance of the law in general. As if it were not difficult enough for prosecutors to bring criminal charges against individual actors within a corporate structure H.R. 4002, if passed, would force prosecutors to prove that individuals within a corporation “knew, or had reason to believe, [their] conduct was unlawful” (H.R. 4002).

    This would destroy the government’s ability to bring charges against even the most egregious corporate offenders. Charges of negligence and reckless would essentially be eliminated, and the idea of a corporate scapegoat would not only be encouraged but quite literally codified into the federal legal code.

    Let us be clear on one thing, this is not the first, and will certainly not be the last attempt by corporate interests to influence the legality of business practices, and specifically the culpability of those in charge. What makes this case all the more disturbing however, is the sleight of hand chicanery that has been allowed to make it this far under the umbrella of legitimate justice reform. While Koch Industries representatives and Charles Koch himself continue to say that this part of the criminal justice reform efforts is not particularly important to them, it is the Koch supported organizations such as the American Legislative Education Council and the Texas Public Policy Foundation that have been pressing for this exact change in the intent standard for quite some time.

    As we become further and further removed from legitimate criminal justice policy discussion, it is only a loud and boisterous call from the American people that can prevent corporate cronyism from over taking what little hold we have left on an ailing system. While it is true that the criminal justice system is in desperate need of an overhaul, let us not be fooled in to thinking that the needs of our nation’s victims and prisoners are represented by the heads of major corporations. The “too big to fail” mentality cannot be allowed to spill over into the “too big to be prosecuted” standard.

    Timothy J. Holler, PhD
    Department of Criminal Justice
    University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg

  • Analyzing an Anomaly: Steven Avery and American Miscarriages of Justice

    The directors of Making a Murderer, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, were recently featured on the Daily Show (January 18, 2016) to discuss the motivations for their explosive 10-part documentary series which began streaming on Netflix on December 18, 2015. Providing some evidence of its swift permeation into America’s psyche, the hashtag #MakingAMurderer climbed to the 70th percentile in Twitter popularity rankings just three weeks after its initial debut (Nyman 2016). Yet despite the public’s obsession with evaluating the guilt or innocence of Steven Avery, Demos and Ricciardi insist that their main impetus in showcasing the Halbach investigation and eventual Avery/Dassey trials is to exploit this case as an “incredible window through which to look at our justice system” (Moira Demos; O’Neill 2016). Their goal is thus much broader than igniting a campaign over guilt or innocence in a single case.

    In this, they have failed.

    It may seem odd that we levy this provocative claim at documentarians who have nearly singlehandedly awoken intense (and warranted) scrutiny over the Avery and Dassey convictions. The series has encouraged both passionate debate and grassroots action in the form of a public petition for a political pardon, already amassing nearly half a million signatures. Making a Murderer could have, and should have served as a springboard for serious deliberation about the effectiveness of our criminal justice system to protect against and prevent miscarriages of justice. Instead, it mobilized a nation to care about one family’s arduous journey through the criminal justice system, encouraged amateur sleuthing to unearth the “real” perpetrators of the murder of Teresa Halbach, and even led to a recent bomb threat against the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department (on February 3, 2016; Verhoeven 2016). What is missing from the larger discussion, in spite of the extensive attention directed at prosecutorial and police misconduct and the role of faulty forensic evidence in the documentary (McDonnell-Parry 2016), is a critical assessment of the profound faith we have in America’s criminal justice system and the ways in which the Avery case exemplifies regular, foreseeable, and systemic flaws in its routine operations.

    Avery Exceptionalism

    Avery’s case is exceptional, not only among the millions of cases that are filtered through the criminal justice system, but also among types of system errors. In general, errors of justice can take a variety of forms: the innocent are convicted, the guilty go free, or due process rights are violated (Forst 2004). These various types of error are likely to be compounded within cases; for example, when an innocent is convicted, the guilty party, by definition, escapes punishment. Some of the most liberal estimates suggest that the proportion of wrongfully convicted persons serving time for serious offenses might be as high as 5 percent of the prison population (Gould and Leo 2010). Only a small percentage of those cases result in an eventual exoneration and, among those ever experiencing an exoneration, Steven Avery is quite extraordinary in sitting trial for a serious offense post-release.

    Avery’s experience is also unique with respect to compensation. In more than half of all states, some form of compensation legislation exists as a method of reparation and reintegration for those whose lives were derailed by wrongful conviction (Owens and Griffiths 2011/2012). However, the generosity of these statutes varies considerably and is usually dependent upon the wrongly convicted either maintaining their innocence or not having “contributed” to their conviction (e.g., via false confession). It is only in the very unusual case, where exonerees can definitely prove willful or negligent misconduct by law enforcement, that civil litigation is an option. Steven Avery’s $36 million federal lawsuit against Manitowoc County was pending when he came under suspicion for Halbach’s murder; he ultimately settled his suit for $400,000 in order to pay his mounting legal bills. Thus, an implicit narrative (built upon a highly unusual circumstance) in the documentary is that Avery’s civil suit might have incentivized a law enforcement frame-up.

    Avery’s story is unique in yet a third way. In 2009, the National Research Council (2009) criticized forensic science for its unreliability and faulty scientific basis; and more recently, the Justice Department acknowledged that FBI forensic examiners routinely gave flawed testimony in criminal trials over more than two decades (Hsu 2015). Criticisms levied at forensic science rest on deficient or unknown error rates against which matches can be assessed, the inherent subjectivity involved in individualizing a bite mark, for example, to a specific person, and the lack of scientific foundation on which virtually all forensics rest (Saks and Koehler 2005). A much less common assertion is that police and crime lab technicians actively tamper with forensic evidence to support the state’s case. In Making a Murderer, the audience is present for the suspenseful moment in which Avery’s defense team retrieves blood evidence from his original trial, only to discover that the evidence seal is broken and the rubber stopper has an apparent needle mark. The degree to which these irregularities imply tampering is a subject of some contention (McBride 2016) but, if true, Avery’s case involves one of the least common problems associated with the use of forensic evidence in criminal trials.

    In essence, Steven Avery’s story is among the most dramatic and rare accounts that Demos and Ricciardi could have selected to illustrate flaws in criminal justice functioning. For some of these reasons, it has ignited a firestorm of controversy. But despite its unusual features, the experiences of Steven Avery could be easily fitted into a more structural, and common, theory of wrongful convictions – one that should be used to educate the public about the problem and scope of criminal justice error.

    The Plague of Systemic Errors

    A common view is that wrongful convictions are a function of duplicitous rational actions on the part of criminal justice agents in response to intense pressures to solve heinous crimes, or on the part of police and prosecutors to attain a promotion or retain a high conviction rate (Lofquist 2001). Yet without accounting for the actions of a variety of decision makers and the larger contexts in which they operate, one risks, as is evident in the public discourse surrounding Avery, focusing on the very unique and specific causes of miscarriages of justice. These include, but are not limited to police and prosecutorial misconduct, eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, all-white juries, use of informants, ineffective defense, junk science, misuse of DNA evidence, and discrimination (Vollen and Eggers 2005; Westervelt and Humphrey 2001).

    According to Lofquist’s (2001) theoretical frame, plausible narratives of the criminal event typically become constructed around particular individuals, constraining how investigations are conducted, how evidence is explained, and how the crime is ultimately understood. Building upon the activities and understandings of one another, criminal justice actors engage in “escalating commitments” to a specific account involving a particular perpetrator (Lofquist 2001: 176; Rabe and Ermann 1995). As such, well-intentioned criminal justice actors attempting to genuinely solve a case and legitimately prosecute a defendant who they fundamentally believe to be guilty erroneously come to focus on the wrong suspect. The adversarial nature of the system further encourages both criminal justice actors and the public to trust that innocents will be filtered out as the case progresses. This assumption strengthens the belief that an actual innocent is guilty when the case moves forward (Vollen and Eggers 2005). Huff and colleagues (1996: 144) refer to this as a “ratification of errors” early in the process that come to be reinforced at later stages; in essence, the mistakes become “stickier.”

    Although some aspects of the Avery story are anomalous, his experience coincides in many ways with other victims of wrongful conviction. Avery was a marginalized suspect (e.g., poor, lacking in intelligence) who police could easily direct public fear and hatred toward in response to pressures to solve a horrendous crime (the murder of Teresa Halbach) (Martin 2001; McDonnell-Parry 2016). In the initial stages of the investigation, when it emerged that Avery’s property was Halbach’s last destination on the day she went missing, law enforcement may easily have fallen victim to tunnel vision. This energizes them to pursue leads pointing to the suspect’s guilt, rather than to pursue alternative lines of investigation (Martin 2001). For example, the coercion of a confession from Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, offered support for the story being constructed of Avery’s involvement in the crime, even though specific details were fed to Dassey by police. In general, a victim of wrongful conviction usually represents “a viable suspect around whom an adequate case could be constructed and into which evidence could be fitted by straining, but not breaking, credulity, law, science, and standards of practice,” (Lofquist 2001: 189), and “decision makers acting [within this context are often] free of conspiratorial intent or wrongdoing” (Lofquist 2001: 192). In other words, law enforcement need not be – and often is not – conscious of wrongdoing or maliciously engaged in misconduct to err. Therefore, even in the event that evidence of intentional misconduct fails to be unearthed, Steven Avery’s case might still exemplify Lofquist’s (2001) theoretical framework for understanding the production of wrongful convictions.

    Salvaging Justice

    Perhaps the documentary Making a Murderer, in addition to highlighting the prospective errors in Avery’s case, may eventually serve as a springboard for critically examining the structurally-embedded actions of criminal justice actors and the standard operating practices of the system as a whole. This important examination should enable the public, those who find themselves erroneously under suspicion, and, most importantly, those contributing to miscarriages of justice to recognize that the system does not always operate the way that it should. Until then, the unrelenting focus on Steven Avery’s unique experience, and his continued pursuit of justice, will dominate conversations around system errors. We cannot predict what the future will hold for Avery but, if he is eventually successful in securing a release from prison due to actual innocence or procedural error, the greatest miscarriage of justice of all will be the public’s collective sigh of relief that even when the system errs, justice is certain to prevail.

  • A System of Schemes: Bourdieus Social Space and Symbolic Power

    Phillip Bourdieu was born in the south of France to a farmer, yet by the end of his life had become a very influential thinker. Throughout his career his scholarship took a critical approach to the academy and the public mechanisms that facilitated or, more importantly excluded most people from, mobility. Appelrouth and Edles state, “Bourdieu makes clear that education and cultural tastes are central to creating differences between social classes and to the reproduction of those class differences” (2011: 446).

    Through the theoretical mechanism of “habitus,” the organic intellectual Bourdieu would forge a path synthesizing a great deal of social theory. Armed with access to the academic ancestry of Ecole Normale Superieure, which includes such thinkers as Foucault, Sartre and Althusser, much synthesis resulted from an arguable hotbed of dialectically informed theoretical breadth (A&E, 2011: 445). Bourdieu flourished from roots to rhetoric—then regarded as a social theorist—from the farm to the academy.

    Habitus forms a proverbial Rosetta stone in Bourdieu’s sociological world. The perceived world of each individual hinges on the tacit and explicit observations we each make. This construction of the perceived is then blended in the process of shared meaning and parameters agreed upon through time. Social demarcations are rooted in enculturation. Symbolic relationships of social order harvested throughout the transmission of history. Habitus is, as Bourdieu defines, “the mental structures through which they apprehend the social world, are essentially the product of the internalization of the structures of that world” (1989: 18). The constraints and goals, Bourdieu might argue, are developed through these imagined, yet codified social structures. These demarcations make up the scholars masks of social realities, and add a cognitive (micro) element to the construction or “social genesis” of eventual collective enterprise (1989:18). Perhaps habitus serves as a type of irrigation between levels of analysis, or more specifically offers a synthetic approximation between self and structure.

    The idea of social space follows the collective tendencies of group dynamics. These dynamics are what shape the constraints that guide interaction and form demarcations of, more often than not, invisible social forces. Bourdieu describes the genesis of structure:

    On the one hand, the objective structures that the sociologist constructs, in the objectivist moment, by setting aside the subjective representations of the agents form the basis from these representations and constitute the structural constraints that bear upon interactions; but, on the other hand, these representations must also be taken into consideration particularly if one wants to account for the daily struggles, individual and collective, which purport to transform or to preserve these structures. (1989: 15)

    He then goes on to elucidate, “the objectivist and the subjectivist, stand in a dialectical relationship” (1977; 1989:15). There is, however, a limit to this bottom up approach from the micro to the macro. Bourdieu states, “subjectivism inclines one to reduce structures to visible interactions, objectivism tends to deduce actions and interactions from the structure” (1989: 17). There seems to be a key cog in this complex mechanism of building social structures missing from where it all takes place—in physical spaces.

    Groups occupy space. The social world Bourdieu defines, “presents itself, objectively, as a symbolic system which is organized according to the logic of difference, of differential distance” (1989: 20). These differences are endowed with varying amounts of symbolic capital—power that transcends the subjective and facilitates the objective capacity to turn into material truth. Bourdieu defines symbolic capital as, “the power granted to those who have obtained sufficient recognition to be in a position to impose recognition” (1989: 23). While symbolic perception may be theoretical in nature, collective efficacy has the physical capacity to make inclusion and/or exclusion an objective reality.

    So a concept that suffuses class, history and space is useful in contextualizing a particular world-view. On the other hand creating a sense of context breeds a type of verstehen, or empathetic understanding, that facilitates thinking sociologically. So piecing together enculturation, history, and space, both geographical and class-position is useful in building a case or context for people, places, and things. Habitus as a concept can then be conceived more completely, “[as] both a system of schemes of perception and appreciation of practices” (Bourdieu, 1989, 19). This micro level mechanism then unlocks one aspect of collective performativity as a field of thought on which mechanisms of structure can be plotted and grown more organically.

  • Terrorism, Extremism and Xenophobia

    Since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 there have been a number of scholarly studies on terrorism. These studies differ greatly from the social construction of the terrorist threat created by the media and politicians. The highly sensationalized and highly selective reporting on terrorism has irresponsibly raised levels of fear and incited discriminatory rhetoric targeting the American Muslim community.

    Of course, research on terrorism is difficult. But scholarly research on the topic is very useful in providing real knowledge about terrorism and a basis for a realistic awareness by the public. This research is especially useful in discerning trends. A major problem with existing datasets on terrorism is that many right-wing terrorists involved in terrorist incidents are not prosecuted under existing terrorism statutes. As a result government databases are inherently biased and seriously underestimate the threat of domestic right-wing terrorism while exaggerating the threat of jihadist inspired terrorism (Schlatter, 2013).

    Nonetheless, even using biased and flawed law enforcement data sets there are some clear conclusions which can be reached. First, the most significant efforts to control jihadist terrorist incidents have emanated from the American Muslim community. Second, the threat of “homegrown” jihadist terrorists is significantly smaller than the threat of right-wing domestic terrorism. The FBI’s own research demonstrates that terror from the right is the most dangerous and prolific threat to the safety of American citizens (Schlatter, 2013).

    It is our intention to highlight, summarize and discuss every credible study of terrorism on American soil conducted since 9/11 and in doing so to confront the sensationalism of the media; the pandering to fear by politicians; and the xenophobic reactions to the American Muslim community.

    The Threat from Domestic Right-Wing Extremists

    The Congressional Research Service issued a report highly critical of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. It chastises federal agencies for using inconsistent definitions and terminologies in analyzing domestic terrorism. It also points out that there are great variations in how domestic terrorists are prosecuted. Nonetheless the report made it clear that domestic right-wing terrorists had been responsible for more than two dozen terrorist incidents since 9/11 (Bjelopera, 2012).

    That report was followed by a major study from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point which pointed to a significant increase in far-right domestic terrorism beginning in the 1990s. The West Point report finds that far-right domestic terrorism increased by 400% from 1990-2012. It pointed to a dramatically increased danger from racist/white supremacist groups and right-wing fundamentalist religious movements. The West Point study documented 4,420 violent incidents that occurred between 1990 and 2012 inside the United States (Perliger, 2012).

    A 2011 report for the Department of Homeland Security provided additional detail by analyzing the department’s Extremist Crime Database. The research showed that domestic far-right extremists had been involved in over 560 homicides from 1990 to 2010. It also found that far-right domestic terrorists were directly involved in 60 planned or attempted terrorist acts in the United States between 1995 and 2005. Finally the report identified 275 far-right hate groups active within U.S. borders (Chermak, Freilich and Suttmoeller, 2011).

    A 2009 analysis by the Department of Homeland Security called attention to significant increases in domestic right-wing extremism probably related to economic problems and the election of the first black president. The report assessed the dangers in this way:

    “… lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent rightwing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.”

    The report also called attention to recruitment campaigns by extremist right-wingers directed toward returning veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (Department of Homeland Security, 2009).

    The Social Construction of the Jihadist Threat

    If there is one clear finding from research on the alleged danger of jihadist terrorism emanating from the U.S. Muslim community it is that politicians and the media have drastically exaggerated that threat and engaged in a campaign that creates widespread unfounded fear. The truth is that since 9/11 only 139 Muslim Americans have either been convicted of terrorism charges involving violence or the threat of violence or have been arrested with charges still pending and not proven. Of those 139 individuals less than 33% involved successful terrorist actions and the vast majority of those incidents occurred outside U.S. borders. On the other hand the Muslim-American community has been actively working to denounce violence and reporting potential cases of radicalization to police officials. These efforts in the Muslim-American community are infrequently reported by the media. The simple conclusion is that the level of Muslim-American terrorism is very small and very limited (Schanzer, Kurzman and Moosa, 2010).

    A report out of the RAND Corporation provides even more context to the issue finding that there is no evidence that Muslims in the United States are becoming more radicalized. In fact between 9/11 and the end of 2009 there were only 46 cases of domestic jihadist radicalization, involving only 125 people, in the United States. The report concludes that “mistrust on American Muslims by other Americans seems misplaced.” The report’s ultimate finding is that the number of domestic jihadist recruits is “tiny” when considered against the large population of American Muslims (Jenkins, 2010).

    The other important point to be raised here is that the most reliable source for controls on potential jihadist recruits has been the American-Muslim community. There have been very few instances of American-Muslims becoming involved in terrorist plots. But, in those few cases 40% of the arrests resulted directly from information provided to law enforcement from the American-Muslim community. The involvement of American Muslims in monitoring radicalization is clear when we consider that plots involving domestic U.S. targets and the number of U.S. suspects have both declined by 50% (Kurzman, 2011).

    The overwhelming majority of Muslim immigrants to the United States reject jihadist ideology. Rather than fearing the Muslim community, programs which assist new immigrants and prevent discrimination are among the most useful anti-jihadist policies. In fact, terrorism expert Brian Jenkins suggests that exaggerated and alarming portrayals of the Muslim terrorist threat actually encourage terrorism (Jenkins, 2011).

    The threat of domestic terrorism and violent extremism is clearly rising in the United States, but the source of that threat is not found in the Muslim community. It is true that there has been an increase in violent extremist plots, but there is no evidence of rising ideological extremism among Muslim Americans. Since 9/11 67% of violent extremist plots within the United States have originated with non-Muslims (Beutel, 2011). Since 9/11 63% of the people killed in terrorist incidents in the United States have died at the hands of nonjihadist extremists and 80% of those involved right-wing extremists. Islamist terrorism has been markedly less deadly than other forms of terrorism (Bergen, 2012).