Why I’m Here

by Steve Dorner, member since 2016

I grew up in a lily-white suburb of Chicago. Of the over one thousand students in my high school, three were African-American. Until two years ago, I had exactly one black friend, and not a particularly close one. Now, however, I find myself volunteering full-time with the NAACP San Diego Branch. I don’t know if you will find my story interesting, but I feel the need to tell it.

I was one of the software engineers who made up the vanguard of the Internet age. I spent my career among computers and networks, and they are very natural to me.

If you have ever met an engineer, you will know that as a group we tend to be arrogant. We tend to be convinced of our own superiority and ability to solve problems–all problems. This is why people like Elon Musk feel qualified to weigh in on social issues, and why people like Mark Zuckerberg make grandiose claims for their creations.

These are, or were, my people. I fit right in. Had you met me 25 years ago, I would gladly have explained to you what is wrong with everyone and everything, and gifted you (ah, noblesse oblige!) with my plan for fixing it all.

What I have learned in the subsequent 25 years is a profound epistemological pessimism. I have learned my own nearly boundless ignorance, as well as the fundamental limits of my own reasoning power. I believe so very little of what I believed then, and my beliefs are far less belligerently believed.

In the area of race relations, I would have told you 25 years ago that we have made tremendous progress, and it was time to put aside racial distinctions altogether. Discrimination and prejudice still existed, certainly, but the less energy devoted to them, the more quickly they would die away. Activism in the area of race relations only served to entrench the positions of the few diehard racists out there, while also serving as a power base for those speaking out about it. In short, the only people who “won” from activism were those who sought to divide and profit from that division.

My fall from arrogance was a long and messy process, that involved deep turmoil and my first experience of hardship. (Hardship, I hasten to add, that seems very minor to me now, though it was shattering at the time.) The experience of suffering myself helped me to see the suffering of others as more than a concept, and my attitudes began to change.

By the time of the 2008 elections, I was convinced that racism was still a powerful force in our society, and as a result I did not feel that Barack Obama was likely to win the Presidency. When he did win, I, like so many people, felt a stirring of hope; perhaps, just perhaps, America HAD turned a corner, and the reality I had asserted so ignorantly as a young man was now on the verge of becoming truth after all. Just perhaps, America would become post-racial. Ta-Nehisi Coates would write:

It is not so much that I logically reasoned out that Obama’s election would author a post-racist age. But it now seemed possible that white supremacy, the scourge of American history, might well be banished in my lifetime.

And then.

It was incredibly disheartening to see the backlash against President Obama. It was incredibly disheartening to see racism used to fuel an absolute obstructionism. We were clearly not headed toward a post-racial society.

And then.

During Obama’s Presidency, the smartphone revolution occurred, and with it came the cell phone videos of African-Americans being murdered by the police.

I had always discounted the claims that bias was behind police shootings of African-Americans, as did most white people I knew. After all, the police were professionals, charged with upholding the rule of law, and I assumed that’s what they did. I did not look into it closely, and put the complaints of the African-American community down to very understandable pain and grief, rather than actual justified grievance.

Now, I was confronted with evidence. I did not have to go looking for it; indeed, I could not avoid it. It was sickening and disgusting. I was sickened and disgusted to see police officers abusing their positions, acting to brutally enforce their will, and then planting evidence to justify their crimes.

I was also sickened and disgusted with myself, for having dismissed the legitimate grievances of the African-American community as so much overheated emotion, and not based in fact. I began, slowly, to pay specific attention to racial issues. To read and to learn.

And then.

Our country chose a person for President who is utterly unqualified in every way, except one, to lead our Country. A man who is stupid. A man who is not self-aware. A man who lacks all compassion and empathy. A man whose ignorance is massive. A man who lacks any relevant experience whatsoever. A bully, a sexual predator, and a narcissist of massive proportions. A man, however, with one qualification. Ta-Nehisi Coates again:

He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.

His only qualification is that he is a white supremacist. That one qualification turned out to be enough.

I was staggered. The next day, I decided that I was done sitting on the sidelines. The next day, I decided that if racism was still so powerful as to sweep away all other considerations and put this dangerous (and, perhaps more germane than I would wish, embarrassing) person in the single most powerful position in the world, then I needed to get off the sidelines and into the fight.

Reeling as I was from both my utter failure to believe African-Americans about police violence, and the stark and ugly truths revealed about white people, I decided that my place in this fight was not in the front. My place was in service to people who have borne the brunt of oppression in this country since before it was a country: African-Americans. That very next day, I joined the NAACP, and over the next months, began to get involved in the work. I am very grateful to have been welcomed into the organization and to be doing what I hope is useful work. I am glad to be here, and here I intend to remain.

FOOTNOTE: Since I wrote this article, the 2018 elections have come and gone.  There have been some gains against the forces of white supremacy, but that most anti-democratic of institutions, the US Senate, fell deeper into the abyss.  I fear for the vulnerable, and am more determined than ever to do my part.

Chow Down and College Up: ACT-SO Visits the HBCU Expo

There is an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) Expo happening at the Jacobs Center on January 19th, from 2-6pm.  Join the ACT-SO crew for (free) lunch, then head on over to the Expo and see what these historic educational institutions have to offer.

We are having lunch from Burros & Fries from 12-2pm in Room 389.  Don’t worry if you don’t have a ticket, we have plenty of food.

Will Bail Continue in California?

Introduction

Earlier this year, the California Legislature passed SB-10, a bill that will, beginning in October of 2019, eliminate cash bail in favor of a system purporting to detain people according to their risk of re-offense or fleeing from trial.

The abuses of the cash bail system are well known.  Bail amounts are set without regard to the actual risk an accused person presents, poor people often are unable to raise even the required 10%, that same 10%, as it is non-refundable, can often tip a poor family into a downward spiral, excessive pre-trial detention is used buy prosecutors as a cudgel to get guilty pleas, and so much more.  The overall effect of the cash bail system is also highly racially discriminatory, with proportionally far many more people of color detained before trial than white folks.  However, there is always a way to make a bad situation worse.

SB-10 began as an honest attempt to address these problems, and replace them with a more just system.  However, massive revisions were made to SB-10 a mere three days before passage.  These revisions caused many organizations, including the ACLU and the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice to withdraw their support for the bill, citing its potential to vastly increase pre-trial detention in California. (The Criminal Justice Committee has analyzed SB-10, and prepared a diagram of the process it envisions.)

Christopher White

In 2017, Christopher White was standing by his truck in Encinitas when his friend Jeremy Owens assaulted a local woman, grabbing her by the neck and beginning to pull her to the truck.  By his own account, he yelled at Owens to stop.  Owens stopped, and as the girl fled, Mr White yelled “Go in the house!”  His friend got in the truck, and the two men drove away.

Over that weekend, Mr White tried to convince Owens to turn himself in, and discussed with other friends Owens’ need for counseling.

The San Diego County DA’s Office charged White with attempted rape and kidnapping.  He was denied bail, on the grounds that he was a danger to society.  He was also offered a plea deal which included three years of unsupervised probation.

In Re White

A member of our Branch’s Criminal Justice Committee recently attended a meeting at the League of Women Voters, and got a chance to discuss White’s case (called “In Re White”; text of brief here) with his defense attorney, Laura Schaefer.

Schaefer explained that California is actually in a bit of a confusion around bail.  Cash bail (non-excessive cash bail) has been a right of California citizens under Section 12 of the California Constitution since before the turn of the last Century.  However, in the ecstasy of punitive spirit so common after the Civil Rights movement (and so often used to subvert the gains of that movement), multiple ballot initiatives weakened the right to release under Section 12.  Parts of the first measure were found in conflict with Section 12, but others were allowed to stand, and then the whole thing was relied on in another amendment, and SB-10’s vast apparatus of pre-trial detention is the latest bill to build upon this foundation.

Schaefer’s argument consists of two major points:

  1. Denying White’s bail was prosecutorial overreach and nonsensical on its face, as the DA’s Office simultaneously argued that White was too dangerous to be release before trial, but offered him a deal recognizing that he was not dangerous enough to even warrant supervision if he plead guilty.
  2. The initiatives that weakened Section 12 did so implicitly only, and the only correct way to amend section 12 is to do so explicitly.  Therefore, Section 12 still should apply in full.

If Schaefer were to win her case, those portions of SB-10 that build upon the ballot initiatives (namely, the pre-trial detention provisions, NOT the release-without-bail provisions) would be void, and cash bail would continue in California past October 2019.

There is a companion case to In Re White, called Humphrey, that specifically addresses excessive bail as unconstitutional under Section 12.  It could also invalidate much of SB-10.

Arguments are ongoing before the California Supreme Court.

Interested in Criminal Justice?

Get involved with our Criminal Justice Committee; email [email protected] for more information.

NAACP Volunteers Help Install Free Solar System

Like so many things, the benefits of inexpensive solar power are not as available to persons of color as they are to white folks.  The NAACP’s Solar Equity Initiative aims to change that, by providing solar power of various forms to persons of color.

In line with the Solar Equity Initiative, GRID Alternatives installs solar systems for free for people with low and moderate incomes.  One of their partners is Sunrun, a national solar energy company.  These companies, together with community and NAACP volunteers, spent the day installing solar panels on the home of a retired couple in San Diego.

Why We Vote

So much is at stake with this election.  Hear why the NAACP San Diego Branch’s Executive Committee is voting this year.