The online diary of a mad law professor.
“I learned a great deal,“ said Mitt Romney when asked about women’s pay equity during Tuesday’s debate. He was referring to his term as governor of Massachusetts, when, while assembling his senior staff, he became golly-gee-gobsmacked by the fact that “all the applicants seemed to be men.” Romney was governor of Massachusetts from 2003 till 2007, not the Dark Ages, so this lack of women in his world seems to have come to him later in life than most. Nor is it a question he seems yet to have asked about the upper management ranks of Bain Capital Private Equity (twenty-four women out of 164), Bain Capital Ventures (three out of thirty-six), or the Republican Party leadership for that matter.
But better late than never, right? Clueless, brand-spanking-new Governor Mitt then proceeded to interrogate his staff: “How come all the people for these jobs are all men…” How come, indeed. However in the world? Pray decipher this mysterious riddle. The answer envelope, please: “Well, these are the people who have the qualifications.”
Well, gosh,” said Mitt, who apparently lives in a world where “gosh” is acceptable parlance among hepcats, ”can’t we find some women that are also qualified?” Well, gosh, yes, Mr. Romney! And the next thing you know, he and his team were making “a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said can you help us find folks? And theybrought us whole binders full of women.
I can’t do better than the fifty shades of parody that already suffuse the Internet, so let me skip over the obvious. Indeed, the deliciously salacious and show-stopping nature of that particular metaphor has tended to obscure the no less startling significance of what Mitt said next:
One of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort, but number two because I recognize that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes they need to be more flexible.
Mitt Romney, in other words, would seem to be endorsing affirmative action. His own description of what he did in Massachusetts is exactly the practice just argued last week before the United States Supreme Court, in the case of Fisher v. Texas. Hear it again, paraphrased with race instead of gender: How distressing! All the applicants appear to be white! Good gracious, can’t we find some blacks and Latinos that could be qualified to be part of the team? Let’s make a concerted effort to seek out some black-people groups and see if they can help us find folks we can recruit into the ranks of Bain Bond-age! (As an interesting aside, Bain Capital Private Equity has zero black faces on its upper management team; Bain Capital Ventures, one.)
That said, it’s possible that Romney doesn’t understand what affirmative action really is. To the Republican Party, as well as to many misinformed Americans of other political stripes, affirmative action signifies “unqualified,” as well as “reverse” discrimination, specifically against white men. Through this smeared lens, integration seems a zero sum game, rather than a process of inclusion for all. But the actuality of affirmative action means widening a given pool of people considered, by searches and by advertising, and then applying an “all things being equal” or so-called “mild preference” for under-represented groups like women, minorities or the economically disadvantaged. Again, it is precisely what Romney describes himself as having done.
But the Supreme Court seems set to strike even that little down. In the 2007 combined cases of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” If this overly simplistic logic of “colorblindness” is extrapolated to women’s rights (as in, “I don’t see gender”), then Romney was sexist for so much as noticing that the pool was all-male. In the Fisher case, where the University of Texas is defending its practice of taking race into mild account to diversify the admission of twenty percent of its class, the Court seems poised to take that logic to precisely such an extreme ideological and anti-remedial end.
Of course, one of the peculiar features of the current debate around affirmative action is that accusations of “preference” only seem to come into obvious play when the job-seeker is black. Confusing the issue further has been a very self-conscious tactic on the part of right-wing organizations to make women their lead plaintiffs in attacks on affirmative action; indeed all the major cases in recent years have featured white females suing schools for discrimination based on race—as in (Cheryl) Hopwood v. Texas, (Barbara) Grutter v. Bollinger, (Jennifer) Gratz v. Bollinger. This intentional placement race and gender on opposite sides of the table disguises the degree to which precisely the same arguments can be—and have been historically—used to defeat women’s quest for inclusion in schools and employment. Indeed, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has written about the then-dean of Harvard Law School’s complaint back in the 1950s that admitting any women at all was bad for the profession, resulting only in the displacement more productive male students.
Thus, the extent to which gender- and color- “blindness” is deployed as a strategy for selectively protecting norms of inequality becomes clearer when one applies that standard across a broader spectrum than race. It also clarifies the degree to which Romney’s anecdotes during the debate are at factual odds with his policies and executive actions. Suppose, for example, we just ask if all those women Romney supposedly hired in Massachusetts weren’t displacing “more qualified” men. Perhaps that would explain why, despite Romney’s debate claims, the number of women appointed to public leadership positions actually declined during his governorship. Suppose, too, that we just re-label all that “flexibility” Romney said women (but not men?) needed, and call it “special treatment” and “special accommodations” and “special favors.” After all, doesn’t whining about having to go home and make dinner for the kids sound awfully like the kind of “entitlement” that his favorite 47 percent of Americans call for when suffering from a bad case of the “victim”-hood crankies? Perhaps that explains why, six months into his governorship, Romney eliminated Massachusetts’ Office of Affirmative Action.
It’s hard to decipher whether Romney is lying about his commitment to integration, or whether, despite his fine education at Harvard Law School, he doesn’t know what affirmative action really is. After all, as a cultural matter, virtually no one thinks to ask what kind of affirmative action put Representative Paul Broun onto the House Committee on Science and Technology when he decries embryology, evolution and climate science as “lies” delivered from the pits of Hell. No one thinks to ask if Representative Todd (“legitimate rape”) Akin didn’t displace a smarter, more-deserving black female applicant to Worcester Polytechnic Institute—which school actually granted that numbskull a degree in management engineering.
Regardless of whether Romney is dissembling or just ignorant, there is a more comprehensive ideological logic at work in the answer he gave on Tuesday.
His solution for helping “young women and women of all ages” is: “We’re going have to have employers in the new economy, in the economy that I’m gonna bring to play, that are gonna be so anxious to get good workers they’re gonna be anxious to hire women.” It will be, he promised, an economy “so strong that employers [will bring] them into their workforce and [adapt] to a flexible work schedule that gives women the opportunities that they would otherwise not be able to afford.” This dreamy poppycock is an answer absolutely consistent with his and Paul Ryan’s libertarian extremism. Economic forces alone will make employers want to hire women; there’ll be so many extra jobs they’ll have to hire some women. Trust that invisible hand, it’ll lift your boats.
So let’s just assume for a hot hypothetical second that the economy were so strong that every woman in the nation was employed. The precise issue Romney was asked was about pay equity: about all those women doing twice the work of their male peers, backwards and in high heels, but getting paid less for it and being passed over for promotion while the men they train leap over them and up the corporate ladder. While it was terribly kind of Romney to let his chief of staff go home to do family things, he never answered the question of what executive action he would take to ensure equality of opportunity as a legal matter and of right. Again, that’s because, as a far-right libertarian, he doesn’t believe there’s a role for government to do anything other than defend the borders and leave businesses to their own devices.
But left to market forces alone, we have… well, we have what we have: seventy-seven cents to a man’s dollar. Consignment to jobs that ensure all the women go home in time to make dinner, while the big boys stay on to do the heavy lifting. Just ask Lilly Ledbetter.
For more on Romney’s confusing stance on women’s rights, check out Bryce Covert on “What Does Mitt Romney Really Want for Women?”
On November 8, Mississippi is set to vote on Measure 26, a ballot initiative that would redefine the state’s Bill of Rights to extend the protections of personhood to include “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” It is striking that the measure, which is largely motivated by religious concerns about the sanctity of human existence, crops up in a state that has one of the lowest indices for overall quality of life—whenever it might begin—in the entire country: the infant mortality rate over the last decade is about 10 per 1,000 live births, with black babies dying at twice the rate of white babies. Mississippi leads the country in obesity and ranks forty-sixth in the number of state residents who have health insurance. It suffers from high death rates from cancer and heart disease. Twenty-three percent of the population lives below the poverty level, giving Mississippi the unenviable distinction of ranking dead last in the nation.
With the odds of survival so relatively skewed, it is no wonder that there might be some anxiety over preserving the very idea of life. Then, too, the legal category of “personhood” seems particularly capacious since Citizens United; if such a label protects corporations, banks and homeowners’ associations—and don’t they seem to be thriving!—what blessings might it extend to a zygote, that abstracted conception of future stock, human capital, mortal enterprise?
As I write, the seven billionth person is said to be entering this earthly dimension. That statistic has been reported with Malthusian apprehension, as well it might. The resources of the world are not infinitely replenishable; much of the planet’s ecology risks systemic collapse as a result of habitat degradation, global warming, invasive species and thoughtless exploitation; and the superpowers continue to go to war with one another over dismally non-sustainable energy sources like oil, gas and coal. Add in the uncertain-to-teetering economies just about everywhere, and it isn’t hard to fathom the dangerous contradictions of those who feel both deep resentment about the mad global competition to make ends meet, and simultaneously, a frantic “need” to propagate more of “our kind” because “we” are too few—regardless of actual numbers or common well-being. It’s as though we are walking a tightrope stretched between fetishism of the fetus and an abyss of human disposability.
When, during a recent Republican debate, the audience cheered the fact that Rick Perry had overseen more executions than any governor in modern history, there was at least a momentary shudder among the punditocracy. What did it mean that a numbered batch of bodies was cause for such applause? Perhaps this is the new metric for presidential success: executions and summary assassinations, as though the scales of justice were measured in people-poundage, with some being heavier or lighter, depending on strangely monetized equivalences. There have been too many events of late that have been framed by our political and media spokespeople as measured by some curious human exchange rate. Does the targeted killing of unindicted US citizens like Anwar Al-Awlaki and his 16-year old son “equal” resolution for the violence he may have preached? Does the grisly display of Muammar Qaddafi’s body flung in a refrigerated meat locker “account” for the lost lives in Lockerbie? And whether you deem the late Troy Davis guilty or innocent, his execution was a stark example of how much habeas corpus has been whittled away in recent years, his death an indirect product of curtailed access to judicial appeal and substantive justice—limitations that are justified with reference to "time spent,” and “tax dollars.”
Indeed, Davis’s legal representation was severely compromised by crippling cuts in state and federal funding for the Georgia Resource Center, which represented him and other indigent prisoners in post-conviction hearings. His appeal was also hobbled by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which prohibits prisoners from raising, post-conviction, evidence that they might have presented at trial, no matter how probative or substantive.
Embryos notwithstanding, we seem less and less invested in protections for the sanctity of life in the here and now. Can’t let things go on forever, after all. Costs a bundle.
Recently, the state of Texas decided to do away with the last meal for death row inmates, that terminal rite of agency, of choice, of taking leave of the sensory. From now on, the condemned will have to eat whatever hash is being dished up in the commissary. Of course, the tradition of granting requests in one’s last meal is premised on a superstition of sorts, a fiction of making peace, of showing mercy, of stilling spirit. In Louisiana’s Angola Prison, for example, the warden shares that meal with the doomed, a kind of final communion. In other places and times, a last drink or a coin to the executioner might serve as the bridge between life and impending death, a marking of the day as Unlike Any Other. The killing of a human being, whether considered legally justified or not, is momentous, mysterious, a repercussive tragedy no matter how reprehensible the record of that life. There will always be those who wreak havoc in society, and who then sneer from the grave or the brink of it; there is, no doubt, a very human urge to give them a little shove into the great beyond. But the entire purpose of just governance is to model respect and to provide restraint in the face of such urges.
When, instead, our government is viewed solely as something to protect “us” against “them” to the exclusion of it being a constitutive force as well, the social world turns into a zero-sum game, in which others’ success at survival means less for you. That mindset engenders a mean little flare of relief every time there’s news of one less ne’er-do-well post-born mouth to feed. That not-so-subtle channeling of emotion toward the facile rendering of death distracts us from the policy choices that might make life more tolerable—preventive healthcare, basic housing, public education—even in our unnatural numbers. It allows us to ignore the inconsistency between gracing the mute quiescence of a fertilized egg with personhood while failing to endow the more lively political quests of the American Dream.
I met Professor Derrick Albert Bell when I was 19 years old. I was an undergraduate, but a student of his had invited me to sit in on one of his classes in constitutional law at Harvard. At that point in my life, I was thinking of going on for a PhD in… linguistics? Urban studies? Sociology? Maybe art history. I was lost in the something-or-other stage of my life and couldn’t for the life of me make up my squishy, floaty mind.
Professor Bell’s lecture fixed all that. He had that class divided into interest and advocacy groups, taking various sides in the Supreme Court cases they were studying. The teams were arguing with each other like mad, and the passion and purpose flying around that room were like tangible objects. You had to duck to avoid getting laser-beamed by the sharp, whizzing commotion of high-octane ideas.
When I actually got to law school, I discovered that not every class was like Professor Bell’s. This was around the same time that The Paper Chase came out, which highlighted the harsh questioning of the Socratic Method that then reigned supreme in most of legal academia. I cowered with my classmates in fear of what often felt like mockery or derision. In addition, there were not a lot of women in law school in those days—we were only 8 percent of the class—and sexism was only beginning to be addressed as just possibly inimical to the educational process. I had expected to love law school. Instead, I hated it within the first ten minutes.
Derrick Bell is the only reason I didn’t leave. As he had in that first glimpse of his teaching, he made ideas come alive. He made the dry pages of treatises vivid; he never let us forget the human stories behind every tract, every suit, every appeal. He imbued legal education with a sense of purpose and responsibility: we weren’t there for ourselves alone, but to live up to a calling and to become of service. He helped me reframe the sense of isolation and intimidation I felt as causes, as precisely the reasons there was an obligation to stay the course.
Until Professor Bell, people like me—females, African-Americans, students who weren’t wealthy, who weren’t legacies—were left to our own devices to try to penetrate the Old Boys network. We had to discover that secret societies even existed before we could try to break down the doors; and we had to comprehend how many deals were made in eating clubs before we could understand why invitation to those high tables was not merely about the potatoes au gratin.
There was every manner of institutional insularity in those days, calculated to shut out most of the world. In contrast, Professor Bell’s door was always open. His mind was always open. Always soft-spoken, always polite, he made others’ doors open too—he supported disability, elderly and gay rights long before any of that was part of the national conversation. He worked to get more women on the faculty when few others thought their lack an issue. Over time, his efforts changed not only Harvard but the way all law schools treated students. He spoke truth to power in a way that removed that notion from mere cliché. And he created family in the unlikely setting of a law school.
I had the great fortune to work as a research assistant for him, updating the first two editions of his textbook Race, Racism and American Law. It was the best job I ever had, not only because of what I learned about the practice of law but because he connected me to a practice of being. He was what Malcolm Gladwell has called a “nodal” person: anything worth knowing could be found through him. With all due respect to Kevin Bacon, Derrick Bell was only two or three degrees removed from everyone on the planet.
A few years after I graduated from law school, Professor Bell urged me to think about teaching. It was not a career path I ever would have considered otherwise. This was at a time when there were virtually no women in law teaching—to say nothing of women of color. He said he just saw me as teaching; and so it was. It would be too easy to say he was visionary like that; but the truth is he made things happen. He believed in a broadly inclusive mandate for equality that was boundless and prescient. He pushed and he pulled and he checked in on his students. He made friends with them for life. He was so unqualifiedly selfless that many of us called him Father Derrick—not because he was ever paternalistic but because he was such a wise provider to those of us stumbling about in a professional world that was new, inscrutable and not altogether welcoming. He was a mentor before we had a word for it.
Like legions of others, I felt like a daughter among extensive and extended family. And as such, I, we, suffered constantly from sibling rivalry—we all wanted to be Derrick’s favorite child. We came and we went, we visited and lunched, we darted in and out of his life like hummingbirds eternally hungry for succor. But if he made us feel “as though” we were family, we were always aware of his real family, the vital core that was his pride and joy. His first wife, Jewel, and his second wife, Janet, were true intellectual companions, both as warm, funny and kind as he. And his sons—Derrick, Douglas and Carter—were his heart. I was fortunate—and old enough—to have watched those three remarkable sons grow up. I baby-sat for them, walked the family dogs with them, shared so many lovely moments. They were delightful, polite, thoughtful children; and all three have grown up to be great-souled, good-hearted and gentle human beings. What greater pride can there be.
Derrick Bell touched more people than most of us mere mortals could ever dream. He was a great man precisely because there were no conditions upon his energies. He had a huge capacity for love, for justice and for justice as a form of love. Like all the greatest teachers, his influence remains eternally generative.
Editor's Note: This article—warning of the media's rush to judge Dominique Strauss-Kahn—was originally posted on May 24.
When Dominique Strauss-Kahn first mulled over the idea of running for president of France, he professed concern that his vulnerabilities in the coming election would be the trifecta of “money, women, his being Jewish.” In the week since a housekeeper at New York’s Sofitel Hotel alleged that he assaulted and attempted to rape her, all three of those elements have converged to render any thought of a political future for Strauss-Kahn entirely beside the point.
On the surface, Strauss-Kahn’s troubles are all about “women.” He has long had a reputation for salacious advances. On one hand, therefore, it’s tempting to assume the present accusations fit him as “in character.” On the other hand, given his prominence and the seismic stakes for the European Union, his well-advertised randiness, in the opinion of many, renders him the world’s easiest fall guy.
On the surface, furthermore, the case can be framed as one individual charging another with sexual crimes, period. Strauss-Kahn has been arrested, pleaded not guilty, released on bail, put under house detention. Ostensibly, he will be presumed innocent until a trial allows all the facts to be presented in an orderly fashion, witnesses to testify, motives to be assessed, credibility to be evaluated, irrelevant and extraneous information to be barred from consideration.
Unfortunately, what has unfolded is not that simple. The international media frenzy has all but obliterated any space for a presumption of innocence; and it has relentlessly impugned both Strauss-Kahn and his accuser in broad, vulgar stereotypes—not only about sex, but about wealth, Guinean colonials, socialism, fame, French masculinity, American Puritanism, Muslim women, Jewish identity and Africans as bearers of HIV. It will be very hard to see justice done against a backdrop of so much roiling passion, rumor-mongering and pure projection. The deliverance of due process requires restraint, not just in the media but among the citizens of America and of the world. So I would like to offer some modest caveats as this case proceeds through the digestive tract of a world obsessed with celebrity dirt.
First, we do not know what happened. We can choose to believe what we want, but it serves no civic purpose to allow one’s personal hunches to stand in the way of being open to the specific evidence-based possibilities that will be presented in a court of law. For example, French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy’s publicly stated conviction that a proper first-class maid never cleans alone is spectacularly boneheaded. Even if it were true that housekeepers traveled only in “brigades,” it’s a generalization, a stereotype, irrelevant to whether DSK committed the crimes of which he is accused. At the same time, it is no less reflexively patronizing to conclude, as many women apparently have, that solely because the accuser is female or an immigrant or poor or Muslim or a widow that she could ever be anything other than truthful. And that is indeed all we know about her—that she is a poor Muslim widow from Guinea. Nor, of course, should we know much more about her identity, as a matter of due process. But, again, that process requires patience for victims’ stories to be played out in the appropriate place and time; it is not an invitation to plug the holes in our knowledge with bold imaginings.
Secondly, it is Dominique Strauss-Kahn who has been charged in this matter. It is not his wealth that is on trial, nor French effeteness or socialism or the International Monetary Fund. Rape and assault are committed by aggressors at every level of society—rich and poor—and on every continent. It is specious to opine, as did Ben Stein, that DSK couldn’t have done it because he’s a fat, old man and, besides, who ever heard of an economist being a rapist. It is just as specious to assume that he must have done it because all French men are supposedly sexist pigs. And it is nothing less than distressing to see racist speculation in the blogosphere that the accuser is “another Tawana Brawley”; or Ann Coulter’s twittered sneer that “DSK’s accuser is Muslim, he’s Jewish, so now DSK is claiming that he raped in self-defense.”
Thirdly, none of these observations preclude a clear, and clearly separate, analysis of misogyny in French or American political culture. Indeed, it’s well past time for French women to ratchet up the debate about their relative lack of representation in the highest echelons of power. The DSK affaire has elicited so much offensive commentary from prominent French personalities that an ironically nominated “marche des salopes” (or “slutwalk”) was organized in Paris to protest the prevalence of institutional gender bias. The casually medieval rationalizations for priapic behavior that have dropped from the mouths of the intelligensia are positively cringe-worthy: “le droit de jambage” (the right of the leg), “le droit de seigneur” (the right of the lord over his servant’s wife), “le troussage de domestique” (the right to fumble under the skirts of the help) and “un petit viol sympa” (a friendly little rape).
Fourthly, while it is better not to indulge in conspiracy theorizing, it is also good not to rule it out as impossible. Politics is a complicated, dirty business, as the impeachment hearings of President Clinton ought to have instructed us. (Who guessed back then that Newt Gingrich, while skewering Clinton’s morals, was cheating on his then-wife with his present wife?) For Americans, who by and large have never heard of DSK, the possibility of his arrest being a set-up is inconceivable. But in the immediate aftermath of his detention, a majority of French citizens believe he has been purposely brought down. Why? Dominique Strauss-Kahn was well on track not just to become France’s president but its first Jewish president. As head of the IMF, he led that institution in a distinctly progressive manner. He sharply critiqued corrupt American bankers and banking practices and, early on, predicted the collapse of the mortgage market. As a center-left Socialist party member, he was close to negotiating a European Union bailout for Greece. And his elimination from the election empowers the candidacy of Marine LePen, head of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic National Front party, whose popularity, alarmingly enough, currently polls higher than that of Nicolas Sarkozy.
Finally, we should curtail the unseemly expressions of glee many American commentators have found in DSK’s lowered status. Rather than just condemning the crimes for which he has been indicted, the media condemns him for his wife’s inheritance; for his Porsche; for being a limousine liberal or a caviar socialist; for "pretending" to "spread the wealth" while wearing "$35,000 suits"; for flying first class; for having large and multiple homes; for owning more than one cell phone; and for being effetely French (Bon Dieu, we seem to hate the French!). A columnist in the Daily News derided DSK’s very bearing because he “swung his arms as if he were striding down a corridor of power.” The New York Post went on to describe him as a “whiney fat cat,” the “jet-setting” “darling of the French left” who exudes “pompous arrogance.” According to the Post’s sources, “Cops ‘are not thrilled by the French idiot…’ ”
There's an element of sadism in this sort of reporting that is troubling—rather like the partying at Osama bin Laden's death. One doesn't have to defend Strauss-Kahn’s alleged actions to reflect upon what reveling in his humiliation—the exuberant fun some people are having—says about us. While imprisoned on Riker’s Island, for example, there was a good bit of gloating about DSK’s having been “forced to cool his heels in the lockup,” as the NY Post put it. “The dingy digs, where prisoners are allotted $1.80 per meal, were a far cry from the $3,000-a-night luxury suite….”
No doubt. But that gap in accommodations says nothing about individual guilt or innocence. It does, however, reveal a deep resentment about class. At the same time, that bit of datum both highlights and obscures the alarming conditions in our jails and prisons, to say nothing of the way that class is also a cipher for race. Riker’s Island, one of the largest penal colonies in New York—or the world—has a daily population somewhere between 13,000 and 14,000. Most of those are pre-trial detainees, and 92 percent are black or non-white Latinos. In other words, the inmates at Riker’s Island are not convicts for the most part: they are arrestees waiting for trial. But because they are poor and cannot afford bail, the average length of their stay is fifty-one days.
The public mockery of DSK’s having to endure, for a couple of nights, the wretched toilets, the meager food, the “dingy” surroundings misses a deeper point: that there are thousands of other presumptively innocent-until-proved guilty people languishing in Riker’s stinking conditions whom we are also mocking, rendering invisible or summarily deeming deserving thereof. The too-easy revulsion at their poverty or race is in perfect counterpoint to the infuriated huffing about DSK’s fortune and nationality.
This concern is most efficiently symbolized in the indignities of the so-called “perp walk.” To American audiences, it’s become an unthinking ritual of police practice—parade the deliciously dastardly defendants. See Lindsay Lohan without her makeup! Mel Gibson with his eyes crossed! Charlie Sheen with a manic film of sweat! The French press was deeply unsettled to see their former finance minister dragged through a forest of photographers, rumpled, handcuffed and red-eyed. Some French analysts saw it as a kind of democratizing gesture, a bracing reminder that elites need to be taught that they're just like everyone else. But I think the perp walk—a relatively recent product of voyeuristic reality TV shows like Cops—is undignified and humiliating for all defendants.
We should remember the great mistakes made in the name of perp walks: the Innocence Project has exonerated hundreds of defendants who “looked” guilty based on questionable metrics like “shiftiness.” When the prosecutor called DSK’s exit from the hotel the behavior of a man in a hurry, for example, NY Daily News columnist Michael Daly mused, “This is what you would expect your basic sex criminal to do.” For those of us old enough to remember the Central Park Jogger case, this is very close to the kind of generic categorization that allowed the jury to convict despite the thinnest of circumstantial evidence; and it was nearly two decades before those young men were finally exonerated by DNA evidence.
Hence, the perp walk is a social equalizer all right, but not in a good way. It’s a shaming ritual, rarely performed upon middle-class arrestees, and much more often upon the extremes of the class spectrum: either highly visible figures whose images may be sold at platinum prices to the likes of People magazine, or poor non-white denizens whose dark unhappy images evoke shock and horror in service to what author Michelle Alexander calls “the New Jim Crow.”
Given the fact that the United States—with more than 2 million bodies behind bars—leads the entire world in rates of incarceration, the perp walk is hardly the greatest icon of equal rights. It might be a wiser course if we think seriously about whether such habitual indignities might not endlessly and further instantiate a downwardly corkscrewed presumption of guilt that ultimately indicts us all.