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Lessons from Camden

Jue, 04/12/2014 - 19:35

“I CAN’T breathe!” chanted hundreds of people throughout New York and around the country yesterday. The peaceful protests were in response to a grand jury decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, a Staten Island police officer, for killing Eric Garner after placing him in a chokehold in July. The chant is a reference to Garner’s final words before he died. The chokehold—recorded on the mobile phones of bystanders—is a manoeuvre that is banned by New York police. For many protesters, Garner’s death and Mr Pantaleo’s freedom simply reinforce the view that America’s criminal justice system is racially biased.

The timing of the verdict, less than two weeks after a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer for killing an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, only burnishes this belief. Eric Holder, the attorney-general, has promised that the Department of Justice will investigate the Garner case....Continue reading

Pregnant pauses

Jue, 04/12/2014 - 01:43

WOMEN make up nearly half of America’s workforce and remain the only people capable of having babies. These dual roles can pose thorny legal questions. On December 3rd, in Young v United Parcel Service (UPS), the Supreme Court struggled to understand what duty employers owe to expectant mothers under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), a 1978 law. 

The case arose after Peggy Young, a driver for UPS, became pregnant in 2006. Ms Young’s midwife wrote a note stating that she should “not lift more than 20 lbs” for the first half of her pregnancy, and not more than 10 lbs thereafter. But when Ms Young requested “light duty”, a temporary release from lifting 70-pound packages, she was rebuffed. The company said pregnant workers were not included in the three categories eligible for alternate assignments. UPS “empathise[d] with her situation and would have loved to help her”, but put Ms Young on unpaid leave, during which she lost her pension and health benefits. 

Ms Young sued her employer for violating the PDA. UPS routinely reassigned workers who were injured on the job, disabled under the Americans With...Continue reading

Another verdict, more protests

Jue, 04/12/2014 - 01:09

LESS than two weeks after a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer for killing an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, another grand jury—this one in New York City—ruled on a similar case, and delivered a similar verdict. In Staten Island in July Daniel Pantaleo, a New York police officer in a plain-clothes unit, placed Eric Garner in a chokehold after Garner resisted arrest. Garner’s dying words were “I can’t breathe.” His alleged crime was selling “loosies”, or untaxed cigarettes, on a street corner. The incident was recorded by bystanders on their mobile phones, and it raised questions about racial profiling and aggressive policing in the city. Today a grand jury decided not to indict Mr Pantaleo. Some see this decision as merely another example of police invincibility regardless of circumstance.

“Today’s outcome is one that many in our city did not want,” observed Bill de Blasio, New York’s mayor, in a statement today. Garner’s father has asked that there be no violence in response. Peaceful protests against the decision were organised within hours, including a multi-racial “die-in” at...Continue reading

Little to 'like'

Mié, 03/12/2014 - 05:58

FIGHTS over free speech in America don’t always produce the loveliest poster children. Gone are the days when intellectuals had to turn to the first amendment as a shield against prosecution for distributing anti-war pamphlets or publishing socialist tracts. In recent decades, fights over the boundaries of protected speech have been waged mainly by racists, anti-Semitespornographersdogfight videographers, cross-burners and their kin.

The most recent crusader for free speech makes some of these characters look rather tame. Anthony Elonis, whose case the Supreme Court took up on Monday, is challenging his 2011 conviction and prison sentence for a series of Facebook posts a jury determined were “true threats” against his estranged wife, which are not...Continue reading

Thanks for nothing

Mié, 26/11/2014 - 21:32

BAKING everyday might sound fun, particularly at this time of year. But for one recent graduate of the University of Georgia, working in a cake shop for six months quickly turned from sweet to sickly. At her birthday party recently she warned sweet-toothed friends that she just couldn't face another black forest gateau.

This was not the career she had in mind when she pursued a degree in linguistics, but getting a good job in the South is tough if you’re young. A new report from MDC, a non-profit based in Durham, says that more than 30% of those under 25 in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and North Carolina are “underemployed”: they are either looking for a job, settling for part-time work or giving up on the search entirely. This is quite a bit higher than the overall underemployment rate in those states, which is less than 15%. This makes it hard to secure a return on the cost of tuition, particularly as the price of a degree continues to rise. Tuition costs at public universities in Louisiana, Georgia and Florida, for example,...Continue reading

Harvard under fire

Mar, 25/11/2014 - 23:00

IN 1978 the Supreme Court, in the Bakke case, struck down racial quotas in higher education. Summing up, Justice Lewis Powell called the undergraduate admissions policy at Harvard University an “illuminating example” of a better approach. The elite Ivy League institution did not reserve a specific number of places for poor minority candidates. Instead, it sought to promote campus diversity by considering race as one of several “plus” factors in a student’s file. Thirty-six years later, Harvard’s method of reviewing candidates is being challenged in a federal district court in Boston. The plaintiffs claim its admissions policy is a quota system in disguise that discriminates against Asian-Americans.

This is the latest legal challenge to affirmative action—and the first to target a private university—hatched by Edward Blum, an activist bent on dismantling Bakke. Mr Blum’s organisation, the Project on Fair Representation, recruits students who believe they have been unfairly rejected from universities that use racial preferences. In 2008 he helped launch the case of Abigail Fisher, a white woman with a 3.59 grade-point average (out of 4) who was rejected by the University of Texas at Austin. Ms Fisher lost her case. She appealed to the Supreme Court, which ordered the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider her...Continue reading

In black and white

Mar, 25/11/2014 - 20:45

HOW surprised should we be that a grand jury in Missouri failed to indict a police officer for killing an unarmed black man? In one sense, very surprised: it is very rare for grand juries to fail to indict a suspect when the state is doing its best to make a case. The standard of proof for an indictment is not that the state has made its case beyond a reasonable doubt, but that there is probable cause to prosecute. According to the Missouri courts, "probable cause" exists where "knowledge of the particular facts and circumstances is sufficient to warrant a prudent person's belief that a suspect has committed an offense". The 1996 case establishing that standard, State v Tokar, upheld a suspect's arrest for a murder committed during a burglary because the defendant and his girlfriend drove a yellow station wagon (which matched eyewitness descriptions of the perpetrators), and he had prior convictions for similar burglaries.

Given this standard, and the fact...Continue reading

Defiance and despair

Mar, 25/11/2014 - 17:54

“IT IS not as bad as they say,” insisted Kelly. At the Marley’s Bar & Grill, a place she runs with her husband Martin on South Florissant Road in Ferguson, Missouri, Kelly was quick to claim that media reports had overstated the problems of unrest in her hometown. Moments later Robert McCulloch, St Louis County’s prosecuting attorney, announced that a grand jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, who fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson last August. A crowd of people could be seen gathering in anticipation at the police station a few blocks away. Most of the bars and shops on South Florissant Road were boarded up in anticipation of protests and looting; Kelly and Martin defiantly stayed open. But as the evening wore on, and as peaceful protests descended into violent outbursts, it became all too plain that Kelly’s optimism was misplaced. The strife in Ferguson was indeed very bad. 

The jury’s verdict was not a surprise. Missouri’s governor, Jay Nixon, had declared a state of emergency earlier this week, and several armoured vehicles could be seen driving...Continue reading

No indictment

Mar, 25/11/2014 - 06:57

THANKS to a number of leaks, it was no surprise when Robert McCulloch announced that a grand jury did not indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, last August in Ferguson, Missouri. The decision by a jury of nine whites and three blacks was no less upsetting for many Americans. Hundreds of people waited outside the court house to hear the lengthy decision in person. Some responded with tears, others with protests. An evening that began in somber anticipation has turned violent. 

At least one police car has been torched, and several buildings, including a Walgreens, have been either looted or set on fire. Some protesters threw bottles, and there were reports of gun shots. Police in riot gear and gas masks have responded with gas or smoke to control the crowds. Airspace in the St Louis area appears to be restricted.

Mr Brown’s parents were “profoundly disappointed” with the decision, but have asked that protests be peaceful. “Answering violence with violence is not the appropriate reaction,” they said in a released statement. President Barack Obama echoed this request, even as he noted that anger is an “understandable reaction”. He asked that police respond responsibly: “they need to work with the community, not against the community,” he said, adding that officers should...Continue reading

Side-lined, then sacked

Mar, 25/11/2014 - 00:32

WHEN in a hole, fire someone. That's the Washington way. Bigwigs and advisers alike must be wondering who will be next after Monday’s very public sacking of Chuck Hagel, the defence secretary (though to be precise, the White House says he resigned after conversations with the president, during which the pair agreed that there should be "new leadership" at the Pentagon). President Barack Obama’s national security team has entered a time of high anxiety, not to mention peril. 

Mr Hagel was picked for his Obama-like caution less than two years ago. His stated mission was to help wind down the Afghan war and shrink America’s war machine to fit a new, post-Bush era in which military force would be a tool of last, rather than first resort. Mr Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, came by his own war-wariness honourably, seeing action in Vietnam as a sergeant. This made him the first enlisted man to serve as Pentagon chief.

He had forged a bond with Mr Obama when the pair...Continue reading

Death of a situationist

Lun, 24/11/2014 - 20:52

THE footage is grainy, poorly lit and almost indecipherable. Shot at the Vista Hotel in Washington, DC, on January 18th 1990, it shows a man and a woman, both standing in profile. The woman is active and talkative, the man stays in one place, leaning back, eventually taking something clear from his mouth and exhaling a plume of smoke. Suddenly, several other men rush in, the letters “FBI” visible on the backs of their jackets. They order the man to put his hands against the wall, and tell him he is being arrested for violating the District of Columbia’s narcotics laws: the plume of smoke came from the crack he was smoking. “That was a set-up," the man says, resignedly. "God damn, I shouldn’t have come up here.”

The woman was named Rasheeda Moore; she was an unemployed model. The man was Marion Barry, then nearing the end of his third term as mayor of Washington, DC, and long dogged by rumours of drug use. Mr Barry—who was first elected mayor in 1978, and who Continue reading


Sáb, 22/11/2014 - 20:38

SOMETIMES living abroad leads one to lose perspective on the fine details of the American political debate. Sometimes it allows one to escape from the ridiculous echo chamber of the American political debate. I am not sure which of these phenomena I am currently experiencing, but it is definitely one or the other, because I find the widespread concern that Barack Obama's announcement of new immigration policies represents a dangerous move towards executive tyranny to be incomprehensible. The policies are just that: policies. Congress, should it so choose, can pass a law overriding them in favour of whatever alternative immigration policies it wants. Congress can also pass a law removing the president's authority to establish these sorts of immigration rules at all. The president, in his speech, openly invited Congress to overrule his policies by passing a law, as he...Continue reading

The border is not the problem

Vie, 21/11/2014 - 06:03

BARACK OBAMA gives a good speech: that much is clear. For your British correspondent, inured to the lazy xenophobic rhetoric of his country’s politicians, it is hard not to be uplifted by the president’s appeal to Americans to accept immigrants as equals. Giving the example of a brilliant young girl from Nevada, he asked Americans: “Are we a nation that kicks out a striving, hopeful immigrant… or are we a nation that finds a way to welcome her in?” A British politician would never ask such a question, for fear that the answer would be “nope, kick her out.”

But, for all of the inspiring rhetoric Mr Obama produces, his speech underlined the way all politicians seem to approach immigration in broadly the same way, regardless of where they are from. For example, take the obsession with borders. The very first thing that Mr Obama said that he has done is tighten border security: “Today, we have more agents and technology deployed to secure our southern border than at any time in our history.” This supports the common idea–reinforced by Republican complaints—that most illegal immigrants smuggle themselves over the border....Continue reading

Those huddled masses

Jue, 20/11/2014 - 20:37

LET'S put aside the political, legal and constitutional implications of the executive action on immigration that the president will announce tonight for a moment and look at the problem that Barack Obama is trying to address. Here are all the numbers you need to have a well-informed argument about illegal immigration and deportation in America.

The Pew Research Center puts the number of illegal immigrants in America at 11.3m. If they were all in a single state it would be America's eighth largest by population, just behind Ohio. As the chart below shows, this is not a new phenomenon. Though Mr Obama's political opponents accuse him of being lax on immigration, the big increases took place before he took office.


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Selective empathy

Mié, 19/11/2014 - 06:57

WITH the latest legal challenge to Obamacare coming to their courtroom in early 2015, and with arguments over same-sex marriage likely to follow, the nine justices will soon decide whether to roll back rights and benefits that millions of Americans already enjoy. Cancelling tax subsidies for some 5m low-income Americans or stripping gays and lesbians of a right to wed in dozens of states would fuel the ultimate summertime rewrite of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”

Such rulings would be stunning, but not out of place for the most conservative Supreme Court we have witnessed in decades. But they may point to a deeper problem in the Court, says Dahlia Lithwick in the New Republic. The justices, she argues, are no longer...Continue reading

Lighting the fuse

Mar, 18/11/2014 - 18:15

WHEN I was a correspondent for The Economist in Brazil, people still occasionally used the phrase "deu no New York Times" (it was in the New York Times) to mean that something was undoubtedly true. The fallout from the Times’s story about Barack Obama’s mooted executive action on immigration reminded me of this, even though it seems a presidential directive is not quite imminent. There is talk now of delaying it until after a budget is passed in December. Yet the story's appearance in the Grey Lady substantiates suspicions that the president is seriously considering a turn borrowed from the Guy Fawkes manual for dealing with parliamentarians.

The proposed move has been described as “poisoning the well”. Mitch McConnell, the next Majority Leader of the Senate, has likened it to “waving a red flag in front of a bull''. But you don’t need a dramatic analogy to grasp that a sweeping executive action on immigration would probably lead to a...Continue reading

I wanna take your hand

Lun, 17/11/2014 - 18:48

IF ALL you need is love, as the Beatles say, perhaps it makes sense that a shrinking share of Americans are even bothering with marriage. In 1960 85% of American adults had been wed at least once; last year just 70% could say the same. Young people are proving particularly reluctant to try: 28% of men aged between 25 and 34 in 2010—and 23% of women—will not yet have tied the knot by 2030, according to estimates from the Pew Research Centre, a think-tank.

There are several reasons for this change in marriage trends. More women are working outside the home, and for fairer pay, so a husband is no longer a meal ticket. And attitudes to cohabitation have shifted: almost a quarter of young adults now live with a partner. Given the exorbitant costs of both weddings and divorces in America, living "in sin" seems increasingly sensible, particularly for the many youngsters who are now drowning in college debt.

But while a larger proportion of Americans are shying away from saying “I do”, those that have done it before remain keen to do it again. Last year 40% of new marriages included at least one...Continue reading

Drafting laws, maps and vows

Jue, 13/11/2014 - 00:53

TWO years ago Obamacare survived a constitutional assault by the narrowest of margins, but its opponents have not given up. On November 7th the Supreme Court agreed to hear another challenge which, if upheld, could gut the president’s health-care law.

In King v Burwell the challengers are demanding that Obamacare be enforced as it was written. Since it was badly written—Congress passed a shoddy and confusing first draft, which Barack Obama signed—this could cause problems. The law specifies that subsidies will be available to people who buy their health insurance on an exchange “established by the State”. At the time, Democrats assumed that the states would all set up exchanges, but 27 refused to do so. Mr Obama got round this by setting up a federal exchange and offering subsidies through that, too. The plaintiffs say such subsidies are illegal.

The administration argues that Congress never intended to doom its own law with a four-word time bomb. Over 5.4m Americans have bought their policies via federal exchanges. If the justices strike down their subsidies, millions could lose coverage, or have to pay more for it out of their own pockets. The court will hear the case early next year and...Continue reading

Spare the rod

Mié, 12/11/2014 - 19:10

GEORGE STEWART’S teacher in Jamaica used to wait by the school door with a switch to punish tardy pupils. His parents whipped him, too. Now he lives in the Bronx and refuses to hit his own children. “I don’t think beating works,” he says. “It instils in them a cruelty that they pass down, generation to generation.”

Ample evidence backs his view, say Richard Reeves and Emily Cuddy of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank. Nearly 30 studies from various countries show that children who are regularly spanked become more aggressive themselves, as both children and adults. They are also more likely to be depressed or take drugs, even after correcting for other factors.

Smacking is effective in the short run: it stops children pulling their sisters’ hair. But in the long run it has all sorts of bad effects. A study in 20 American cities, published in the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2013, found that young children in homes with little or no spanking showed swifter cognitive development than their peers. Other studies find that children in physically punitive schools perform worse.

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Difficult transitions

Mié, 12/11/2014 - 02:05

FOR around 550 American servicemen, today marks the start of something new: a return to civilian life. That is the number of veterans who leave the military every day, on average. As America draws down from a decade of remote warfare, the armed forces are expected to shed nearly 250,000 soldiers a year over the next five years. Some of these men and women will return wounded in some way. Most will face the challenge of finding a new job and learning new skills.

The government is trying to help. The Defence Department, the Labour Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs have worked to upgrade the programme that prepares soldiers for the rigours of life at home. Everyone leaving the military is now required to go through "Transition GPS", a days-long course that teaches soon-to-be veterans how to prepare a resume and apply for jobs. The goal is to help them translate their battlefield skills into something that works in a cubicle.

Promisingly, companies are eager to hire former servicemen. Employers...Continue reading