Weighing the History and Utility of the Death Penalty

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Legally sanctioned executions were taking place in the American colonies by the early 1600s. The first recorded execution in the colonies, for treason, took place in Virginia in 1608. Since those days, some 14,000 people have been legally executed in the United States. Most of these executions took place in the 20th century.  

In colonial days, application of capital punishment paralleled that in England, in which even minor offenses, such as theft, could be punishable by death. Into the 19th century in Great Britain, hundreds of offenses carried the possibility of punishment by death, and public hangings were community events that drew hundreds or thousands of spectators. 

Over the centuries both the United Kingdom and the United States became more “civilized,” taking executions of criminals out of the public square and behind prison walls, and clearing minor offenses from the list punishable by death. That left only first-degree murder, and for a time treason, on the books as a capital crime. 

Racial and social disparities 

There are currently about 2,500 prisoners on death row in the U.S. Of them, 41 percent are Black, 16 percent Latino, and 42 percent white. The racial disparities are obvious: Estimates from 2021 show the general population of the U.S. as just under 60 percent non-Hispanic white, about 13 percent Black, and about 19 percent Latino/Hispanic. 

Most of these death row inmates are poor or mentally disabled. Where states have the death penalty, those sentenced wait an average of 14 years, eight months between sentence and execution. 

Differing perspectives on opposition 

Some scholars point out disparities between opposition to the death penalty in the U.S. and in Europe. American death penalty abolitionists have tended to emphasize the unfairness of the policy: innocents unjustly executed; racial disparities in policing, sentencing, and execution; arbitrary procedures; and steeply rising costs to the state. European opponents more consistently point to the inhumaneness of capital punishment per se.  

But this wasn’t always the case. Scholars also point out that this moral division came about relatively recently: In the 1800s, death penalty abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic highlighted their opposition on both practical and purely ethical grounds, and in terms strikingly aligning with the concerns of human rights activists today. It wasn’t until the 1970s and ‘80s, as public discussion around the issue turned steadily more punitive, that American activists put practical points ahead of moral ones.  

Opposition to capital punishment began to gather force in the 19th century, in both Europe and the U.S. In the 1840s, Michigan abolished the death penalty, and Wisconsin achieved statehood without a death penalty on its books. The horrific mass deaths in the wars of the 20th century led to a groundswell of public opinion in opposition to capital punishment as just one more needless cruelty. 

But now, long after Canada and all the nations of the current European Union have done away with the death penalty, the U.S. remains the only developed nation to continue it. In 1983, the Council of Europe adopted Protocol Number 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which abolished the death penalty among member states. Canada had already abolished the death penalty in 1976, although not without strenuous opposition, even though it had not executed a prisoner since 1962.  

A nation divided 

Today, 24 U.S. states continue to permit the death penalty for first-degree murder. These include 10 of the 11 former states of the Confederacy. Three states—California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania—still maintain the death penalty as a legal option in their statues, but their governors have placed it under moratorium.  

In New York, state high court rulings in 1977 and 1984 effectively struck down the death penalty. But in 1995, Republican Governor George Pataki signed legislation reinstating it. Almost a decade later, the New York Court of Appeals found that legislation unconstitutional, and the last inmate on the state’s Death Row saw his sentence reduced to life in prison in 2007. Even during the years New York maintained a death penalty, no prisoner had been executed since 1963. 

Within five years, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, and Connecticut followed New York in abolishing capital punishment.  

Most recently, Colorado abolished its death penalty in 2020, and in 2021 Virginia became the first state of the Old Confederacy to do so.  

Costs, benefits, and ethics 

So, is it time for the country as a whole to just let the death penalty go? Proponents of this view cite, among other concerns, the cost of carrying out executions, which includes the cost of protracted appeals.  

In the estimation of the think tank Interrogating Justice, it costs about $37,500 annually to maintain a prisoner in the federal system. On the other hand, the cost of maintaining a death row inmate soars to $60,000 to $70,000 per year.  

The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that the overall cost of the first five federal executions carried out in the year 2020 approached $4.7 million, exclusive of incarceration and pretrial expenditures. And the cost of the average execution in a federal prison is about $1 million.  

But does the death penalty deter homicides? Studies show, both historically and today, that murder rates actually trend lower in non-death penalty states than in those that do allow capital punishment. In the 1980s, experts also determined that abolition had not caused Canadian crime rates to rise.  

Most chilling to the moral sense, since 1973 about 190 people wrongfully convicted and sent to death row have been exonerated.  

Should we allow for capital punishment, though, in the case of certain especially heinous crimes, where there is no possible doubt as to the killer’s identity? School shootings, child murder, serial killings, and other crimes that put a perpetrator outside the normal range of what we think of as the human community? 

That may depend on whether you think someone who commits these brutal acts is capable of redemption, or not. There remains justified outrage that the Parkland school shooter in Florida received a sentence of life in prison due to a non-unanimous jury. Maybe we shouldn’t completely take the death penalty out of consideration. But there are plenty of ways we can make the criminal justice system more fair, more equitable, and more sensible. 

And that’s where every one of us has to really examine both the evidence and our moral compass. 

If the Death Penalty Doesn’t Apply to Mass Shooters, Then Who?

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If the Parkland shooter didn’t receive the death penalty, who should? 

On October 13, 2022, after a three-month-long trial that agonized the families of the 17 people he murdered, the Parkland school shooter received a sentence of life in prison. The death penalty was also a possible outcome, but three of the jurors voted against it. Without unanimity on the jury on the question of capital punishment, the shooter automatically got life without parole.  

Fred Guttenberg, father of 14-year-old murder victim Jaime Guttenberg, wrote on his Twitter account after the verdict, “I have been asked if I have closure. I do not.” There is nothing, this grieving father wrote, that can ever bring closure to the fact that the only way he can visit his daughter is “at the cemetery.” Guttenberg has become an eloquent voice of moral clarity in the fight for justice for the victims of gun violence, and for sensible gun control laws to protect all of us. 

Depravity and a gun 

The crime for which the now-24-year-old perpetrator was convicted was especially cruel and vicious. Nineteen years old on Valentine’s Day in 2018, he entered the grounds of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, near the close of the school day. He was armed with a legally purchased AK-15 rifle variant, additional ammunition, and smoke grenades. He pulled a fire alarm so students and teachers would pour out into the hallways. In the space of only a few minutes, he brutally shot 14 students and three adult instructors to death. His bullets injured 17 other people. 

In October 2021, the shooter entered a guilty plea to 17 counts of murder, along with 17 counts of attempted murder. The penalty phase of the trial began in summer 2022.  

Had the shooter been tried before 2016, he might have gotten the death penalty. That was the year Florida law stopped allowing judges to pronounce a death sentence, provided a majority of the jury concurred. For the past six years, a jury divided on whether a convicted murderer deserves to die automatically results in a sentence of life in prison without parole.  

Changed law brings agony 

After the Parkland decision, many of the victims’ family members publicly stated their disapproval of the jury’s failure to produce a unanimous death sentence, saying they felt their continuing pain and horror went unheard, despite their eloquent victim impact statements.  

Some Florida prosecutors are taking this side as well, saying they’d like to see the law revert to its pre-2016 status. If that were to happen, though, it would put Florida among only a handful of states to allow non-unanimous death sentences.  

Geography has a lot to do with sentencing 

There were a total of 1,363 victims killed in the 240 mass shootings of all types that took place in the United States from 2009 to 2021. In almost all of these incidents, the perpetrator was an adult male acting on his own. Across these 240 incidents, only 145 shooters were taken into custody, with the remainder dying by suicide, killed by police, or recorded as outcome unknown.  

The type of justice these perpetrators received depends in large part on where they committed their crimes.  

The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism organization, published a study in 2021 that looked at exactly that issue. There are 23 states that have abolished the death penalty. But in the remaining 27, the researchers found that there are also wide disparities even from county to county.  

Tellingly, a person convicted of murder in a county where lynchings were common in the Jim Crow era is more likely to receive a death sentence today. The death penalty is also more likely where the victim was white. In addition, more populous counties are more likely to produce more death penalty verdicts just because of sheer numerical probability. And those with larger tax bases to support the cost of capital trials can more likely afford to mete out the death penalty.  

Common practice also enters into it. Although California has a death penalty on the books, Governor Gavin Newsom has called a moratorium on its enforcement. When a local prosecutor makes capital charges in California, the result of conviction is then typically life imprisonment. Even in Georgia, which we might assume to be quick to execute, has carried out the death sentence only once since 2015.  

In many cases, the most important deciding factors turn out to be the prosecutor and the precedent. Statistically speaking, every successful prosecutorial request for the death penalty makes it easier for prosecutors to file the next one. 

“What do we have the death penalty for?” 

The fact that capital punishment is applied so unevenly in this country makes it hard for many people to support the death penalty. But if it doesn’t apply in such a clear-cut case as that of the Parkland shooter, when does it apply? By all accounts, he remains unremorseful, and as a Florida Sun-Sentinel headline put it, filled with thoughts of “blood, murder, revenge.” 

After the verdict, Fred Guttenberg and other Parkland parents who spoke with the media expressed their justified disgust and anger.  

“What do we have the death penalty for?” asked one of the parents. Being spared a death sentence was “exactly what he wanted,” another wrote on social media, referring to the shooter.  

While they’ve shown more bravery and resilience than most of us will, we hope, ever have to muster, these families’ lives will never not be broken. At some point, we do have to ask ourselves as a country exactly what we have the death penalty for. 

Here Come the Midterms – Which Issues Are Most on Americans’ Minds?

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What are American voters worried about most as the 2022 congressional midterm elections approach? Here’s what the polls say.  

  1. The economy and inflation loom large 

As in most election years, the economy and the need to control inflation remain at the top of most voters’ wish lists. Gallup polls from September found this to be the case in answers to both open-ended and targeted questions asking respondents to discuss their top concerns. Approximately 80 percent of the American adults surveyed said they view the current economy as either “poor” or “only fair.” Some two-thirds think things in America are getting worse, economically speaking. 

Aside from an obvious low point in 2008, the Gallup Economic Confidence Index recently tanked to one of its lowest levels in the past three decades.  

Even so, about 70 percent of poll respondents think now is a good time to get a good job. That reading in itself is among the highest ever recorded for this particular question. 

So, with contradictions like these, even experts are having a hard time figuring out what Americans are hoping to see in terms of economic policy. 

The problem with inflation is that it’s felt far more acutely by working class people in this country. According to a Forbes article from July, the steep rise in the cost of food, housing, gas, and other basic needs is exacerbating the preexisting wealth gap, which was wide enough already. Working class Americans typically don’t own assets like stocks, real property, and other investments that can appreciate in value. Meanwhile, their salaries can’t keep up with the cost of living, and it becomes harder and harder to feed and house their families. 

Even those who are better off financially are feeling the pinch, with middle class households now looking at cutting back on travel and other discretionary spending.  

  1. Climate change versus immigration – it depends on who you ask 

But let’s not make the mistake of thinking the economy is the only issue on voters’ minds. Other recent surveys show about half of Americans noting climate change as among their most important concerns as they head to the midterms.  

Although it’s important to note that responses to questions about many non-economic issues depend on the respondent’s political persuasion, the fact that climate change has risen as a concern shows a greater sense of urgency overall. A lot of this is due to the undeniable extreme weather events seen across the country this year: devastating hurricanes, floods, soaring temperatures, and extended droughts.  

However, a series of mid-2022 surveys conducted by the statistical news organization Five Thirty-Eight found climate change and immigration to be among the issues that showed the greatest split between self-identified Democrats and Republicans. Among the former, 36 percent consider climate change among the most serious problems facing the country, while only about 5 percent of Republicans agree.  

Concerns about the way the country handles immigration rose to the top in almost exactly the same percentages, but in reverse: About 38 percent of Republicans and 6 percent of Democrats expressed immigration-related concerns.  

In this vein, it’s also interesting to note that the same surveys found more than 60 percent of respondents overall said they supported three specific proposals to combat climate change in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act: expanding the use of alternative energy sources, providing tax credits to companies that lower their emissions of carbon dioxide, and strengthening regulations designed to curb carbon emissions.  

It’s also noteworthy that, among Republicans, levels of concern about climate change in these polls tended to depend on how much personal experience respondents had with it. About 45 percent of Republicans who said they had personally been affected by extreme climate events over the previous five years expressed concerns about climate change.  

  1. Abortion drives voter registration among women 

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade in June, abortion for many Americans has become one of the most important issues. For many young women, it’s the most important.  

There’s been a surge of new voter registrations among women, particularly in battleground states like Arizona and Georgia, since the decision. This was also the case in deep-red Kansas, after a referendum rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have declared no right to an abortion. Some 70 percent of the newly registered voters in the state are women. 

  1. Making an issue of crime  

In an apparent effort to shift public focus away from abortion, Republican candidates have gone all-in on ads claiming Democrats are soft on crime. Some polls and pundits have found a corresponding surge in the number of voters who agree crime is a significant issue for the midterms. Others say there’s less interest despite the barrage of attack ads. Again, these results likely are influenced by the respondents being polled.  

An early October POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found about 75 percent of responding voters saying violent crime is a big problem in the U.S. But other surveys gauged less of a concern.  

  1. Is this the push we need for gun control? 

There does seem to be some nuance here, with 60 percent of the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll respondents saying gun policies would play a big part in their voting this year. More than 50 percent said the rise in crime statistics is due to “too many guns” available. And 62 percent said that they especially want to see legislation passed to reform the nation’s gun control laws. 

Republicans should be concerned about these figures. Let’s hope they hold up, and that we get a 118th Congress with the will and the courage to produce sensible legislation that will support a strong economy, keep all our communities safe, ensure action on climate change, and guarantee everyone’s right to make personal decisions for themselves and their bodies.  

Has the NFL Become More Progressive in the Last Four Decades?

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As the 2022 season moves forward, it’s probably worth taking a look back to see whether the National Football League, its leadership structures, and the fan culture that surrounds it have become any more progressive than they were 40 years ago.  

High school football hero lauded for silence 

In the early 1980s, football—high school, college, and the NFL—was as hugely popular as it is today, but its culture was also tied to some of the worst aspects of our country’s history: exclusion, bigotry, and racism.  

In 1980 Herschel Walker (the candidate for the United States Senate in the state of Georgia) was a high school senior who had already scored national fame for his extraordinary prowess on the football field and for his personal story of honing his athletic talent through grueling determination. For example, he would train by running barefoot down dirt roads with truck tires tied around his middle. 

That this most celebrated of high school football players chose the University of Georgia over more prestigious schools in more progressive states seemed to affirm the very culturally conservative football culture of his home state. The teenaged Walker also earned praise from his many white mentors and associates for his refusal to speak out on the numerous instances of bias and bigotry in Georgia, as well as in his rural hometown of Whitesville, where white people beat Black protesters, hoisted Confederate battle flags, and fired shots into the homes of Black families. This same neutrality—or passivity—in the face of so much hate also earned the antipathy of other Black students in his community.  

Social justice or whitewashing? 

Now that we’re in a post-Kaepernick age (free agent Colin Kaepernick still hasn’t been signed since 2016) has anything changed?  

For one thing, the NFL now sports a social justice initiative, working nationwide to inspire and facilitate “positive change” and “equal opportunity.” Created in the wake of Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem at a 49ers game, the Inspire Change program emerged out of discussions among a player-team owner group (a group that did not include Kaepernick).  

Kaepernick, along with fellow NFL player Eric Reid, filed a grievance in October 2017 against the NFL, claiming owners colluded to freeze them out of the league after their public acts of protest against racism and police brutality. That November, the NFL directed almost $90 million to the Players Coalition, the nonprofit from which Inspire Change emerged in early 2018. Kaepernick and Reid’s case wasn’t decided until 2019, when they reportedly received less than $10 million. 

Goodell speaks 

In summer 2020, players produced a video in which they confronted the NFL leadership over its hesitancy to issue meaningful condemnations of racism, requested a public declaration in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and called for the admission of bad-faith behavior regarding the concerns brought forward by players. At last, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell did the right thing, noting that the NFL condemned racism and admitted its errors in not listening to players when they first tried to address societal racism and brutality. And, Goodell said, “Black lives matter.” 

In a later radio appearance, Goodell addressed Kaepernick directly: “I wish we had listened earlier, Kap.” Goodell went on to address the unfair way some members of the media and fans had mischaracterized Kaepernick’s protests as “unpatriotic” or “disloyal.” Kaepernick and other players who protested, Goodell said, were only trying to “exercise their right” to focus attention on problems that urgently required real solutions. 

So in some ways, we have come a long way from 1982, when such an admission from the NFL commissioner would have been unimaginable.  

“Conservative” vs. “liberal” – Fans are all over the field 

But where are the fans in all this? Many criticize what they see as too much “wokeness” in the NFL today. A Newsweek op-ed from September 2021 declared that, along with COVID restrictions, “social justice” advocacy had driven fans away from attending games. Having players take the field that season with chosen slogans on their helmets such as “End Racism” or “Stop Hate” was too much for the columnist, who further said that “the Left” had “weaponized” the death of George Floyd to promote hostility to traditional patriotic ideals.  

Politically, there are plenty of teams whose fan base largely identifies as liberal. One 2017 study reported that 31 percent of Houston Texans fans said they were “very liberal,” and 39 percent of both Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints fans said the same. Fans of the San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, and Los Angeles Chargers also skewed heavily “liberal.”  

On the other side of the ledger, you have the New England Patriots, 18 percent of whose fans identified themselves as “very conservative.” The Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, and Tennessee Titans also posted fair numbers of “very conservative” fans, but none of these measures reached the high percentages as shown for the “very liberal” fans of the other teams.  

Conservative outrage over Kaepernick notwithstanding, this maybe doesn’t indicate so much an overwhelming fan base of ultra-conservatives for the game as a whole as it does an overwhelmingly vocal base.  

Like anything else, it looks like we’re taking two baby steps forward and one backward as we try to inch toward a truly inclusive game, one in which all players are valued and equal. 

How to Improve Your Heat Wave Commute

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It’s hot in America these days, and it’s getting hotter. In early July 2022, some 50 million people were under alert or advisory due to excessive heat, and weather forecasters labeled a big swath of land from Georgia to Texas “hot and humid” on their maps. 

In cities like New Orleans and Houston, temperatures were edging over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity through the roof. That’s the kind of weather that becomes especially unsafe for senior adults, and for people living with heart disease and other chronic conditions that suppress their bodies’ ability to adapt to the heat.  

By the second week in July, the dangerous “heat dome” was sweeping out of the South and into the Southern Plains and the Southwest. By then, it was already getting to well over 110 degrees in Phoenix. Even places as far north as Ohio have seen temperatures in the triple digits. 

The transportation Catch-22

Commuting isn’t fun for most of us at any time, and now the heat has put many in an even more untenable situation. 

If you are fortunate enough to have a car to get you to work, you’re paying a lot more for gas than you were even six months ago. Although gas prices have started to fall, the national average on July 9 was $4.68, more than $1.50 over the same date in 2021. That’s not all: According to AAA, triple-digit temps can actually damage your vehicle, causing nearly all its parts to have to work harder in order to achieve the same performance.

Bike to work to save gas and the environment? In many places, it’s too hot. Make the commute without a car? Many cities’ public transit systems are not equipped with air conditioning. And that’s not all: In June, a Bay Area BART train derailed when the extreme heat warped the tracks, sending one passenger to the hospital. 

As you weigh the pros and cons of your own heat wave commute, Here are a few of the ways car-free commuters across the country are attempting to beat the heat: 

Elevating carpooling

Carpooling is one increasingly recommended way to beat the heat and save the planet during your commute. State and local governments like it because it keeps pollution down and highways less congested. 

Los Angeles County has advised residents to carpool, take public transit, or drive less, simply to help address the smog, which is worsened by the heat. Elsewhere, in Allen County, Ohio, officials similarly asked residents to carpool or bike to work to help lower ozone levels. In southeastern Michigan, there’s a program called Commuter Connect that aims to encourage carpooling by matching people commuting in the same direction. Many other cities have such services. 

In addition to the structured Michigan model, there’s also casual carpooling. Commuters traveling from the suburbs into the city gather at designated locations to hop into someone else’s vehicle, giving the driver the benefit of using the faster carpool lanes on the freeway.

Taking the sting out of public transit

Public transit offers a similar benefit for those who don’t mind crowds. To avoid getting stuck straphanging in a heat wave, though, you could try catching a bus or train before rush hour. See if there’s a good coffee shop or gym open near your office so you can relax or work out before you’re on the clock. 

Getting real about biking to work

If you’re set on biking to work in a heat wave, make sure to put your well-being first. Like your car, your body is going to have to work harder during any kind of physical exertion in the heat. Hot weather makes it more likely you’ll get dehydrated, fatigued, or even become ill. Dehydration reduces your blood volume, forcing your heart to overwork itself and making it more difficult to regulate body temperature. 

Make sure before setting out that you have enough water with you, and mentally prepare for where you’ll stop for a refill if necessary. The best advice is to drink a little bit of water at a time, and to do it often, when biking. Remember to drink even if you’re not thirsty. It’s common for someone on a long bike ride to consume two full bottles of water. A Camelbak or other hydration backpack is a great investment here. 

You might also want to try drinks containing electrolytes to replace those lost due to sweating, and to put ice cubes into your water bottle. 

The expert bike-to-work crowd recommends adding either panniers or a rear rack to your bike. That way, you won’t be weighed down by your backpack in the heat, keeping you less sweaty and much more comfortable.

Cyclists should also never be without sunscreen in a heat wave. Make sure you use one with a broad-spectrum SPF that’s high enough for your skin. A sunscreen with zinc oxide is best for blocking the most UVA and UVB rays.

The best advice for dressing for the heat is to wear clothing that’s loose enough not to cling, while snug enough not to interfere with bike safety. Light colors absorb less heat. Long sleeves may sound counter-intuitive, but keeping more of your body covered will actually keep your skin cooler.  

If your climate isn’t humid, you can get away with light synthetic blends. If you’re in a muggy climate, you might even want to consider wool. Yes, wool. It’s great at wicking away moisture, and it breathes like cotton while being quicker to dry. In general, natural fabrics like cotton and linen allow for better air circulation.

If your company offers a shower room, bring travel-size body wash and a fast-drying towel. If it doesn’t, your best bet is to keep some dry shampoo and a pack of wet wipes in your desk drawer.

The long-range view

No matter the weather, commuting to work can be the worst part of anyone’s day. One study showed that, if a person’s commute were lengthened by 20 minutes, it would produce a level of dissatisfaction equivalent to a $19,000 pay cut. 

So, now might also be a good time to take stock of your priorities. Maybe you can move close enough to walk to work. Or maybe there’s another job or a different role in your current one that would keep you closer to home. Depending on your role, you can also ask about working from home one or more days a week. Most studies on the topic have found that remote workers are, on the whole, more productive than those in the office.    

Justice Jackson Likely an Influential Dissenter on the Supreme Court

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On June 30, 2022, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson took the constitutional and judicial oaths of office that made her the first-ever Black female associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS); whereas Chief Justice Roberts administered the former, Stephen Breyer, Jackson’s mentor and the retiring associate justice whose seat she now holds, administered the latter.

Despite what many onlookers regarded as bias during the confirmation process, Jackson received U.S. Senate confirmation in a 53-47 vote. Given that, what should we expect for the future – of the Court and the country?

No Order in the Court

CNN headlines for June 30 indicated that Jackson was joining a court “in turmoil” because of recent decisions that strike at the heart of not only the country’s rights and liberties, but also our expectations about what our lives should be like. As Associate Justice Breyer’s successor, Jackson does not fundamentally change the Court’s composition; she joins Kagan and Sotomayor as a counterweight to the conservative orientation of the remaining six justices.

The most notably controversial decision immediately prior to Jackson’s accession was Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned the precedents guaranteeing the right to abortion established by Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). The 6-3 majority included Roberts’ concurring opinion upholding Mississippi’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks, although Roberts refused to strike down Roe and Casey. Pundits decried Roberts’ middle-ground approach, with many media outlets saying he had “lost control” of the Court’s conservative bloc.

A Counterweight to the Conservative Majority

Clarence Thomas’ concurrence in Dobbs further inflamed concerns by saying that, just as a right to abortion was not expressly mentioned in the Constitution, the right to access birth control, the right of gay people to marry, and other rights previously held to fall under implied rights to privacy and personal autonomy were up for reconsideration. The three liberal justices immediately called out this “cavalier” view of rights supported by half a century of precedent.

And in a series of rulings that chilled gun control advocates, the Court voided lower court decisions that had upheld regulations on guns and large-capacity magazines in several states.

Despite her historic ascension to her new position, this lineup doesn’t necessarily leave Jackson with plentiful opportunities to impact the Court. Just as was the case with the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, however, it will likely be in her dissents that she distinguishes herself and offers an alternative vision for the country.

Upcoming Notable Rights Cases

The first big cases awaiting Jackson during the Court’s 2022-23 term include those dealing with the rights of LGBTQ+ people and the right of all Americans to vote in free and fair elections.

The Court will hear a case deciding whether the redrawing of congressional maps in Alabama is a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and, therefore, discriminatory toward voters of color.

Another case involves discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. In violation of an anti-discrimination statute in Colorado, a web designer claims a right of religious liberty in refusing to accept LGBTQ+ clients.

Still another case involves a petition against the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which was enacted to protect the interests of Native American children, families, and culture. The Court will decide on the constitutionality of provisions requiring standards for when Native children can be removed from their parents’ custody and relative to a preference for foster placements with relatives or other Native families.

Affirmative action in postsecondary education admissions policies is also on the docket. The Court is scheduled to hear a pair of cases based on activities at the University of North Carolina and Harvard University. As a member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers, Jackson has already committed to recusing herself from that specific case.

A New Great Dissenter

Legal scholars have noted that Jackson will likely have a chance to become a true influencer on the Court, helping to shape public opinion and the basis of future legal precedent, through her dissents. She brings distinct perspectives and experiences, including from her time in private practice, as an assistant federal public defender, as a vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, as a member of the U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, and most recently as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals.

For an illustration of dissent’s potentially significant influence, consider Plessy v. Ferguson (1895), in which Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented from the majority vote to uphold racial segregation. More than half a century later, his eloquent dissent informed the decision to outlaw segregation in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

One only has to remember great dissenters of the past to realize the scope of what Justice Jackson, even in the minority, has the potential to accomplish.

Honoring Buffalo Shooting Victims Calls for More than Thoughts and Prayers

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Seventy-two-year-old Katherine “Kat” Massey was a community leader and a community builder in Buffalo, New York. Retired from her job with an insurance firm, she devoted much of her time to supporting local public schools and the safety and beautification of public spaces. She cared about the issues that mattered, including gun control. Her community involvement included two decades of letters to the editor that she wrote to local newspapers. 

In May 2021, the Buffalo News published yet another letter from Massey, in which she argued for more meaningful legislation to stem gun violence and specifically called for a repeal of laws shielding gun makers and sellers from lawsuits based on crimes committed using their products.  

Almost exactly one year later, on May 14, 2022, Kat Massey was one of 10 people shot and killed at her local Tops market by a white supremacist teen gunman. Three other people were injured in the attack before police took the gunman into custody.  

Those who knew her remember Massey as someone without hate, “a gentle soul,” in the words of her nephew at her funeral. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown noted Massey’s pride in her Black identity, as well as her deep knowledge of Black American history

Hatred lit the match 

Almost all the Buffalo victims were Black, and they were purposely targeted for that reason. 

Online writings attributed to the 18-year-old white suspect refer to the baseless conspiracy theory called the “great replacement.” Influenced by vitriolic and increasingly influential racists and spread around the world via websites and social media, this ideation alleges that white populations are being systematically “replaced” by Black people and other people of color.  

The gunman’s subsequent statements bear out this motivation and his deliberate targeting of Black Americans working or doing their grocery shopping in a majority Black American neighborhood. Authorities are investigating the shooting as a hate crime. 

Like the 18-year-old gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, the Buffalo shooter obtained his semiautomatic weapon legally.  

A hero’s life, a hero’s death 

Aaron Salter Jr., a 55-year-old former Buffalo police officer, was the security guard working at the grocery store the day of the shooting. He died trying to stop the gunman, leading his community to call him a hero.  

Salter initiated defensive fire at the beginning of the attack, but couldn’t make headway against the gunman’s armored vest and combat-grade helmet. At his funeral, Salter received the full honors that would go to any active-duty law enforcement officer. President Joe Biden lauded him for giving up his life to save others. But Aaron Salter never should have had to die that day. 

Losing generations of kindness and love 

Nor should Kat Massey, or 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield, who stopped by the store after visiting her husband in a nursing home; or 77-year-old Pearl “Pearly” Young, a Sunday school teacher and food pantry coordinator; or 65-year-old Celestine Chaney, whose family especially remembers her sweet nature.  

Thirty-two-year-old Roberta Drury, shopping for groceries for family members including a brother recovering from leukemia, shouldn’t have died. Sixty-seven-year-old driver and church deacon Heyward Patterson, shot while loading groceries, shouldn’t have died. Fifty-three-year-old Andre Mackneil, a fun and caring uncle and his brother’s last surviving sibling, should still be with us. So should 52-year-old former security guard and school bus aide Magnus Morrison. 

A tribute and a promise 

Geraldine “Gerri” Talley, 62, also had many more years she could have given to those who loved her. Like the others lost to a single young man’s irrational hatred, Talley was remembered at a loving memorial service attended by friends and family. She was also lauded by leaders in government and the civil rights movement nationwide.  

Gerri Talley was shopping at Tops that day with her fiancé. He survived. Talley had only just found out she was to be a grandmother. The reverend who presided over her service said that the love of the community must continue to endure, just as Talley’s loved ones have vowed that her legacy of kindness and good works will endure. 

Talley’s son, exhausted by the constant demands from the media to speak about his mother in the days after her death, still found time to address the reason for it when he delivered a eulogy for her. “There is no point . . .  for [someone] to have an AR-15 kept underneath [their] bed,” he said. This type of extreme assault weapon, he added, offers no extra advantage if the motivation is simply to protect one’s family.  

Well-known civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who often represents families harmed by racist policies and incidents, said he advocates filing lawsuits against the makers and sellers of guns and against anyone else whose actions abetted the taking of these 10 precious lives. This, Crump told media, “is the way we get justice.” 

It’s obvious that the memory and moral legacy of Gerri Talley, Kat Massey, Aaron Salter Jr., and all the other victims will endure in Buffalo. What’s less obvious in these highly polarized times is whether that legacy will finally move politicians and the public to support comprehensive, meaningful gun control laws that will prevent more innocent lives from being cut all too short.  

Beyond Thoughts and Prayers – What Can We Do to Stop Gun Violence?

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Things may finally be changing in the United States as we search for strategies that will stem the terrifying tide of mass shootings in the country. 

The percentage of Republican-identified adults in the U.S. supporting stricter gun laws has increased by 15 percent in the space of a single year. From 35 percent in 2021, that number has now reached 50 percent. In addition, 43 percent of self-declared Republicans believe inadequate gun regulations are to blame for mass shootings. Only 27 percent of Republicans cited “loose gun laws” as the reason in 2021. 

The USA Today/Ipsos poll was published on June 7, 2022, two weeks after a teenage gunman took the lives of 19 students and two teachers in a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. One survey respondent said that, although he remains “pro-gun,” in the wake of Uvalde and other recent mass shootings he is now more open to the idea of some regulation. Specifically, background checks and waiting periods for gun sales.  

Despite the gain in Republican support for sensible gun control measures, a yawning gap remains between the two parties on the issue. The percentage of political independents who blame lax regulations for mass shootings increased to 64 percent in 2022, over 55 percent the previous year. Among Democrats, 86 percent put the major blame on loose regulation.  

Spare Us Your “Thoughts and Prayers” 

We’ve heard the refrain of “thoughts and prayers”—from politicians, members of the gun lobby, and others hoping to avoid a difficult, nuanced discussion—too many times after mass shootings. It’s been repeated so often that it’s evolved from a soothing platitude to an insult to the memories of those who have been killed as a result of gun violence, and to those left behind. Comedians commenting on our fractured society have even created film clips and memes satirically calling out the inanity of those three simple words.  

We’ve heard the anguished cries of parents of the children shot to death at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. Some of us have read doctors’ reports of the horrific damage done by the shooter’s AR-style rifle. Gun violence, in the opinion of numerous physicians, has reached the level of a public health crisis. 

So, are we finally—after Sandy Hook, Parkland, Buffalo, and all the other mass shootings that have traumatized us as a nation—ready to do more than offer thoughts and prayers? Here are the options: 

Suggestions from Experts 

Experts, including the Center for American Progress, have offered a set of measures we can take to reduce the number of people killed by gun violence. These include mandating backgrounds checks before gun sales in any venue; banning the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; raising the legal age for gun purchases to 21; and instituting “red flag” and “extreme risk” orders in which a court can temporarily remove guns from people credibly judged as being in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.  

We can support evidence-based programs with proven track records of reducing gun violence in communities and among our youth. We also need to establish a gun culture based on the objective collection and analysis of public and community health data. We should both hold the gun industry accountable and draw on the collective knowledge of responsible gun owners to create effective solutions that don’t infringe on constitutional rights.  

We can require that gun permits be issued only to individuals who are properly trained and mandate that gun owners adhere to safe gun storage practices. Measures like these are part of building a culture of responsibility and respect for the lives and wellbeing of others. 

By the Numbers: Regulating Guns Means Fewer Deaths 

Statistics show that after implementation of a 1994 federal law banning AR-15s and other specified types of semi-automatic weapons, the number of deaths due to mass shooting events fell significantly. Even when taking the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School—the deadliest such event during the time the ban was in force—into account, the decade from 1994 to the sunsetting of the law in 2004 show dramatically lower average rates in both the total number of mass shootings and the total death toll.  

After the ban expired in 2004, there was almost immediately a sharp uptick in deaths from mass shootings. A numbers analysis for the years 2004 to 2017 showed an average of 25 deaths annually attributed to mass shootings. During the 10 years the assault weapons ban was in force, that annual average figure stood at only 5.3. Even in the years immediately preceding the ban, it only reached 7.2. 

This means that in the 10 years between 1994 and 2004, an individual American lived with a 70 percent lower risk of dying in a mass shooting than they would today.  

Will This Time Be Different? 

In June 2022, weeks after Uvalde, the United States Senate announced that it had reached agreement on a framework for new legislation to address gun violence. A group of 10 Republican senators, many of whom are vocal public supporters of gun rights and of the National Rifle Association (NRA), were in the bipartisan group of 20 involved. 

Proposed legislation as part of the framework includes stronger background checks for gun-buyers under 21; greater protection for victims of domestic violence who fear armed abusers; incentives for state-created red flag rules; and more money directed toward school safety and mental health.  

In addition, associated proposals would establish penalties for “straw” firearms purchases, in which one person buys a gun on behalf of an unnamed third party who might otherwise be ineligible. (It’s worth noting that the two teenage Columbine gunmen obtained their weapons through a straw purchase made by a friend.)  

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who has become a vocal ally for survivors of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in his state, described the proposed legislation as “a breakthrough moment.” Let’s hope so.  

Spotlight on Gun Violence: This Is Steve Kerr’s Eye-Opening Perspective

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When Steve Kerr was 18, his father died by gun violence. 

The devastation he felt as a teen bereft of a parent probably fuels a good part of the Golden State Warriors head coach’s commitment to speaking out on behalf of victims of gun violence and their families. It also explains his desire to hold elected officials fully accountable for their inaction on this issue. 

“Do something.” These are the words the now-56-year-old Kerr addressed to Republican politicians holding up common-sense gun legislation in the United States Senate on May 24, 2022. It was the day of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which a teen gunman took the lives of 21 victims. 

Kerr’s Father Was in Lebanon

In 1984, when Kerr was stateside as a student at the University of Arizona, his father was serving as president of the American University of Beirut (AUB). Lebanon was in the middle of a protracted, bloody civil war. No civilians—not even Americans with a degree of power and prestige—could be sure of residents’ safety. 

After numerous threats from militant groups, it was especially unsafe for Americans. Two horrific bombings targeting Americans happened in 1983. One, at the United States Embassy in Beirut, killed 63 people. The other, at a barracks housing an international peace-keeping force, killed nearly 300. 

About Malcolm Kerr

Steve Kerr’s father, Malcolm Kerr, had built a distinguished career as an expert on the history and politics of the Middle East. His own parents had also served at American University. The university and the world around it were intimately familiar to him from his birth, in 1931 in Beirut.

After spending three years as an AUB professor of political science, Malcolm Kerr did postdoctoral work under the renowned scholar Albert Hourani at Oxford University. He then went back to the US to serve for 20 years as a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, taking whatever opportunities he could to spend sabbaticals in the Mideast.

While on a research grant to Cairo, he finished work on his most notable book, The Arab Cold War; Gamal Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958 – 1970. This work was notable for its author’s capacity to give agency to Arab leaders, rather than depicting them as simply driven by decisions made in the West.

In 1965, Malcolm Kerr, his wife Ann, and their children Susan and John, were living in Beirut. During this time, he was spending a year teaching once again at AUB. His wife gave birth to their third child, Stephen, on September 27. A fourth child, Andrew, followed after the family’s return to UCLA.

About Malcolm Kerr’s death

Malcolm Kerr’s “heart always belonged to Beirut,” Ann Kerr wrote after her husband’s death. Although the offer to take on the presidency of AUB amidst the tumult of civil war was obviously risky, it was the culmination of his life-long dream. He would be coming home. According to his family, he once said that the only thing he’d prefer to do over watching his son Steve play basketball was to “be president of AUB.”

It did seem to Ann and some other observers in 1984 that the furor of the civil war might be waning. For one thing, President Ronald Reagan’s personal representative to the Middle East, Philip Habib, had been gaining traction in reducing tensions in the region through shuttle diplomacy.

Malcolm Kerr took the opportunity. He assumed the presidency of AUB in 1982. He had been working in that position for 17 months when, on January 18, 1984, two gunmen shot and killed him right outside his office. The terrorist group Islamic Jihad claimed credit for his murder. Ironically, they had killed one of the Americans who knew and loved Arab civilization the most.

Reagan issued a statement mourning the loss of the distinguished scholar, condemning Islamic Jihad and vowing that the US would intensify its fight against terrorism. 

A Father’s Legacy

In the 2020 documentary The Last Dance, about Michael Jordan and the winning Chicago Bulls dynasty, Steve Kerr appears on screen to describe what it was like for him to play on that team, with which he earned three NBA championship rings in the 1990s. In his interview for the documentary, and in a 2016 interview with The New York Times, he took the rare step of talking publicly about his father’s death. 

Describing his father, Steve Kerr called him “an observer.” Malcolm Kerr gave his son the time and space to have his own experiences and to decide for himself how he would be in the world. That philosophy has informed Kerr’s approach to his position as Warriors head coach.

He said he tries to “give our guys a lot of space” and that he himself tries to only jump in to speak when he senses it’s the right time. It was also his father’s death, Kerr has said, that drove him to find his own form of therapy through sports, working out his traumas by giving his all on the court from his student-athlete days to the present.

Many of those who know his story believe it was his personal experience of sudden, senseless loss that helped Steve Kerr become the empathetic human being he is today. Clearly, he feels the losses of the families in Uvalde, Buffalo, New York, and Laguna Woods, California, as if they were his own. 

We’re all richer and better for the gifts Malcolm Kerr gave his son: The capacity to reflect with thoughtfulness, the courage to issue passionate calls for justice, and the commitment to always put people first. 

Remembering Black Football Players Who Integrated Their College Teams

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In 1923, Brice Taylor became one of the first-ever Black scholarship athletes at the University of Southern California. Taylor accepted a football scholarship, and began working with coach “Gloomy” Gus Henderson, first as a running back, then as an offensive guard. Taylor was also a member of the school’s track team that broke the world record in the 1-mile relay in 1925.

The University of Washington also admitted its first Black football player in 1923. Hamilton Greene played as a halfback, and became the first African American letterman at UW. It was during his first season that the UW Huskies went to the Rose Bowl, which, by the way, ended in a tie with Navy.

Taylor and Greene weren’t the first Black players on college teams.

Beginning in the last decades of the 19th century, some colleges did admit African Americans to their playing rosters. For example, Frederick Patterson in the late 1880s became the first Black member of the Ohio State University football team. He would go on to become a noted entrepreneur and the first African American car manufacturer, with his Patterson-Greenfield model.

And in fact, the 1916 Rose Bowl was technically “integrated,” given Brown University’s one Black player as the team faced off against ultimate winners Washington State College. 

Slow progress

The pall of segregation had settled in across college sports by the 1930s. And historians note that it’s hard to pinpoint one single dramatic event in the integration of college sports afterward. It was really a process that proceeded by a series of slow starts as coaches at various schools became less cautious in the face of the Civil Rights movement, not to mention the talent they found among African American players.

Up until the 1960s, no college in a Southern state would admit Black athletes of any kind. But by the mid-‘60s, more schools began allowing their color barriers to be broken. Ricky Lanier became the first Black scholarship football player at the University of North Carolina in 1967, a year after basketball player Charles Scott became the first UNC Black scholarship athlete ever.

Those Black UNC scholar-athletes in the 1960s also had to address issues of pervasive racism. Small victories included the time they got together to speak to basketball coach Dean Smith and football coach Bill Dooley about the way the playing of “Dixie” before games made them feel. UNC removed the Confederate-era song shortly thereafter.

For some schools, integration of the student-athlete body came later. The University of Virginia allowed its first Black football players onto the field in 1970.

But this was still an era in which integrated teams were routinely required or persuaded to keep their Black players off the field when competing against segregated ones. Any school that believed in equality was often faced with the tough moral choice of benching some of its best players or being unable to allow any of its team to compete.

Getting on the right side of history

In 1970, the University of Alabama faced off in a home game against the integrated team from USC. The California team, with its Black players, beat the Crimson Tide so soundly that coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant decided it was time to move along with the times. The next day, he approached the school’s board of trustees, requesting that he be able to recruit African American players.

Alabama’s first Black scholarship football players were John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson, who began playing for the team in 1971. Under Bryant’s leadership, Mitchell soon went on to become Alabama’s first Black assistant coach, before launching a National Football League coaching career.

Jackson later joined the San Francisco 49ers, and became National Football Conference Rookie of the Year in 1974. Traded to the Washington Redskins (now the Washington Commanders) in 1980, he was a member of the team when it beat the Miami Dolphins to win the Superbowl in 1983.

In April 2022, the University of Alabama honored both Mitchell and Jackson with the unveiling of a plaque on the outside of Bryant-Denny stadium in Tuscaloosa. Paul W. Bryant, Jr., Bear Bryant’s son, was in attendance.

Today’s African American college scholarship players are more numerous than those earlier trailblazers. Now, about 18 percent of all male college athletes nationwide are Black. But across NCAA Southeastern Conference Football teams, more than 60 percent of players are Black.

Making their needs heard

And although these young athletes still face numerous hurdles in front of them, the Black Lives Matter movement has helped fuel their growing effectiveness in making their needs heard.

They have initiated boycotts in hopes of gaining substantive progress on issues of health, safety, fair compensation, and racial justice.

This new generation’s advocacy has forced legacy institutions of higher learning to confront deeply ingrained racist practices. An August 11, 2020 Washington Post piece by African American studies professor and sports podcaster Amira Rose Davis referenced the fact that the “house of cards” built by racism in college sports is poised to come crashing down thanks to massive social change and the ramifications of the global pandemic. We have to hope that any new system takes a look at the past to form a better future.