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May 6, 2019

What 'Hillbilly Elegy' reveals about race in 21st-century America

[Cross-posted from Kentucky.com, and excerpted from Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy, West Virginia Press, 2019]

My initial response to the publication of Hillbilly Elegy and the media hubbub that ensued was something akin to pride. I was pleased that so many readers were engaged by a tale of my people, a community so alien to the milieu in which I now live and work. Like Vance, I’m from hillbilly stock, albeit the Ozarks rather than Appalachia. Reading the early chapters, I laughed out loud—and sometimes cried—at the antics of Vance’s grandparents, not least because they reminded me of my childhood and extended, working-class family back in Arkansas.

I appreciated Vance’s attention not only to place and culture, but to class and some of the cognitive and emotional complications of class migration. I’m a first-generation college graduate, too, and elite academic settings and posh law firms have taken some getting used to. Vance’s journey to an intellectual understanding of his family instability and his experience grappling with the resulting demons were familiar territory for me. In short, I empathize with Vance on many fronts.

Yet as I read deeper into Hillbilly Elegy, my early enthusiasm for it was seriously dampened by Vance’s use of what was ostensibly a memoir to support ill-informed policy prescriptions. Once I got to the part where Vance harshly judges the food stamp recipients he observed while bagging groceries as a high school student, I was annoyed by his highly selective dalliances into the social sciences and public policy. A few more chapters in, Vance was advocating against the regulation of payday lenders, and I began to realize that Hillbilly Elegy was a net loss for my people.

The chattering classes’ “shock and awe” response to Hillbilly Elegy—(white) people actually live like that?!?—demonstrates apparent widespread ignorance of white socioeconomic disadvantage and the dysfunction it frequently spawns, a feedback loop that, in recent years, has taken on the character of a death spiral. One reason for such ignorance is that the public face of poverty in America today is almost exclusively Black or Brown. Only in the aftermath of the 2016 election has the media renewed attention to white socioeconomic disadvantage. Also, the widespread praise of Hillbilly Elegy suggests that elites across the political spectrum are willing to make scapegoats of poor whites. Progressive folks (among whom I count myself) would vigorously protest Vance’s tough-love stance if he were writing about poor people of color, calling them lazy and criticizing them for “bad choices.” Most progressives seem unfazed, however, that Vance’s assessments and policy proposals throw low-income whites under the proverbial bus.

One very poignant vignette in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy comes in the book’s conclusion. Vance holds up 15-year-old Brian, whom Vance is mentoring, as an illustration for what our country—and “hillbillies”—are getting and doing wrong. Vance writes of taking Brian to a fast-food restaurant and noticing “little quirks that few others would,” such as the fact that Brian didn’t want to share his milkshake and that the young man “finished his food quickly and then looked nervously from person to person. I could tell that he wanted to ask a question, so I wrapped my arm around his shoulder and asked if he needed anything. ‘Y-Yeah,’ he started, refusing to make eye contact. And then, almost in a whisper: ‘I wonder if I could get a few more french fries?’ He was hungry. In 2014, in the richest country on earth, he wanted a little extra to eat but felt uncomfortable asking. Lord help us.”

Vance’s outrage is palpable, and justifiably so. I share that outrage. I have often wondered what people who fail to support food programs (e.g., SNAP/food stamps, free and reduced-price school lunches) think they are accomplishing by keeping kids hungry. I tend to conclude that this stance is explained by a desire to visit the sins of the parents (perceived or real) on their children. Never mind that hungry kids don’t perform well in school, are more likely to have disciplinary problems, and—as a result—further aggravate parental stress. Never mind that when kids go hungry, their potential is thwarted, and their future—as well as that of our nation—is put at risk. Childhood hunger is a pipeline to adult dysfunction.

Yet Vance is apparently among those who see no role for food programs that could alleviate Brian’s hunger. His solution to hungry kids like Brian is for their parents to get and stay married and go to church. His solution is for Brian’s parents not to be white trash. But marriage and church don’t feed the kids, regardless of the kids’ skin color. Why, then, are liberals not outraged at Vance’s policy prescription for a hungry white teenager in Appalachian Kentucky? Progressives would be apoplectic if Vance were saying this about a hungry Black teenager in Detroit?

This acceptance of Vance’s message by elite whites across the political spectrum is bad news for people of color as well as for poor whites because it is one more way in which affluent whites prevent cross-racial coalition building among the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Indeed, it reminds me of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed about white elites during Reconstruction, about the genesis of the Jim Crow era: that elite whites used Jim Crow to segregate the races, to thwart coalition building, to prevent poor whites from seeing what they had in common with Blacks.

Elite whites are still driving wedges between poor whites and Blacks, though I would like to think progressive elites are doing so unwittingly. But vilifying poor whites while expressing concern for the interests of poor Blacks only drives deeper that wedge between two constituencies who desperately need to be in coalition with each other. The acceptance of Hillbilly Elegy’s politics—a politics inflected with race as much as with class—is yet more evidence of that unfortunate phenomenon.

Read more here: https://www.kentucky.com/opinion/op-ed/article229945864.html#storylink=cpy
September 6, 2018

Happy 11th Birthday, Legal Ruralism

 

I nearly forgot--again this year--to commemorate the birthday of my Legal Ruralism Blog (subtitle:  a little legal realism about the rural).  Last year's milestone birthday slipped right by me.  The day of the inaugural post was actually September 3, 2007, so I'm a few days late.  Never mind:  HAPPY 11th BIRTHDAY, LEGAL RURALISM!   The last time I wrote a post about the blog's birthday was on the one year anniversary (roughly), and it featured a photo of Sarah Palin, who had become the face of rural America as John McCain's running mate.  Remember all that Main Street v. Wall Street rhetoric from Election 2008?  And all that rural bashing that Palin's presence on the national stage elicited?  Actually, sounds rather similar to where we are a decade on, thanks to different political actors.  

 

In the last year, I've noticed that Legal Ruralism was cited in a Vera Institute Report on rural jails and that it was cited in a couple of law review articles (e.g., Savannah Law Review and Georgia State Law Review) by scholars other than me.  Admittedly, I have cited the blog fairly frequently in my own academic writing because often I put on the blog a "half-baked" idea about a possible rural trend, and those posts later prove useful when I wind up writing an academic article about what has, in fact, proved to be a trend.   

 

Maybe Legal Ruralism is beginning to prove the adage, "if you build it, they will come."  Certainly, it has helped several national journalists find me over the past few years, as the media became more interested in rural America in the wake of Trump's election. 

 

Here's the first post, from September, 2007, the first semester I taught my Law and Rural Livelihoods course, which launched simultaneously with the blog:

Three articles in the Sunday New York Times pick up on rural themes and phenomena that we discussed in our first class: lack of anonymity, lack of economic opportunity, and urban use (and abuse) of the rural. 

The first story, about a small-town newspaper in western Nebraska, describes a situation similar to the one I described regarding my own home town: complete listings of calls to law enforcement authorities, reported verbatim in the local newspaper. The Nebraska editor is quoted as saying that these reports rival the obituaries in popularity among readers. A look at the reported items indicate that residents of this Nebraska town not only report petty thefts and minor happenings unrelated to law (e.g., squirrel down the chimney), which might go unreported in  urban places, but that they also officiously report their neighbors’ activities. One caller told police that a 9-year-old boy was being endangered by mowing his lawn when the child’s mother was “perfectly capable of doing it herself.” In light of limited law enforcement resources in rural areas, what are we to make of such uses of those resources? Do stories such as this effectively refute the familiar images of rural folk as self-sufficient, close-knit and looking out for one another in helpful ways? 

The other two articles reflect the lack of opportunity associated with rural areas and discuss two different communities’ debates about how to respond to it. One reports on the 5,000-member Yurok tribe in northern California. Situated along the once salmon-rich Klamath River, the tribe is deciding how to spend $92.6 million in logging proceeds – a figure six times the tribe’s annual budget. Some favor a lump sum distribution to members, while others support investment in programs to address high unemployment, flagging fishing, and the drug and alcohol problems with which the tribe has struggled. Meanwhile, development is afoot: a new gas station and 99 slot machines. 

The third article similarly considers the economic struggles of rural folk. Once a thriving paper mill town in northern New Hampshire, Berlin (population 10,000) is trying both to revive its economy -- and to diversify it, “not to put all our eggs in one basket” as the mayor reports. Construction of a federal prison will begin this fall, and the town is developing a 7,500 acre A.T.V. park which it hopes will generate $700,000 in revenue each year.  

While developments in both Klamath, California and Berlin, New Hampshire, are generating hope among residents, the extent to which those residents have considered the downsides to such developments are unclear.

Interestingly, the Klamath River and the Hoopa Tribe who depend on it were in the New York Times again this week.  Christopher Chavis regularly posts about New Hampshire and elsewhere in New England, as he did here a few days ago.  And as for rural self-sufficiency, that was a major theme of this post from a few days ago.  So, I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.  That's certainly true of the "urban use of rural" label, one of the "tags" I put on that very first post eleven years ago.  At this point, more than a decade on, I've used that label more than 100 times, a sad commentary on the ongoing relationship between rural and urban in the United States.  

 

A dear colleague from another institution recently pointed out that someone forgot to tell me that blogging is so yesterday's medium.  Maybe so, but students like doing it in my three seminar courses (I also have a Feminist Legal Theory Blog and a Working Class Whites and the Law Blog) because it's a great way to exchange ideas, to have an extended conversation, to sharpen written communication skills.  I think I'll stick with it for a while--at least another 11 years.  

September 4, 2018

McClatchy feature on policing in rural California echoes my theorizing of law's relation to rurality

Most Wanted Poster

Trinity County, California, Courthouse, July 2018

Photos by Lisa R. Pruitt 

The headline is "Calling 911 in rural California?  Danger might be close, but the law can be hours away," and four Sacramento Bee journalists contributed to this major feature, which has been in the works since December, 2017.

 

I was gratified to see the story--which documents the reality (and consequences) of lack of effective law enforcement and high per capita violent crime rates in California's nonmetro counties.  To be clear, the news is bad, but I was gratified in that the story confirms work I have been doing for more than a decade now (some of it documented in this blog since September, 2007, 11 years ago this month).  That work has been theorizing the difference that rurality makes to law's operation and people's attitudes about law.  In other words, what is the legal relevance of rurality and, thus, why should legal scholars attend to rural difference?  why should "rural" be a category of analysis in the implicitly urbanormative field of law?

Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office, Yreka, California, July 2018

photos by Lisa R. Pruitt (c) 2018

 

Just a few years ago, I published a chapter on this issue in a volume of legal geography essays.  Mine was titled, "The Rural Lawscape: Space Tames Law Tames Space."  My argument was that rural spatiality is in tension with law.  That is, the distance between homes and the distances that legal actors must traverse in order to exert law's authority--to make law meaningful--practically disables law.  Technology can help (that is, time can trump space), but it's costly and cannot always be a substitute for the presence of human law enforcement.  Further, rural residents' sense that they must be self sufficient is reinforced by this lived reality.  As academics express it, society, spatiality and law and all mutually constituting or co-constitutive.  If people know that legal actors such as law enforcement are effectively not present, then they know they must take care of themselves.  In a sense, the lack of efficacy of law promotes a sort of frontier justice or informal order.   

 

Now, the empirical work of these Bee journalists confirms my theorizing with hard data about the number of sheriffs deputies per 100 square miles in California counties--including those all across the state, not just in the northern third on which Sac Bee usually focuses.  These journalists also look at  violent crime rates, confirming that  many of the highest crime counties are "rural" according to the metric used by the reporters:  Alpine (with a population of just 1,175, the state's least populous county, in the eastern Sierra) and Lassen (in the northern Sierra) lead the pack.  Third is metropolitan San Joaquin County, home to Stockton.  

Plumas (again, northern Sierra) is next, followed by the state's most urban county, San Francisco, then nonmetro InyoShastaLake and Modoc.  Of course with populations as low as those of many of these nonmetro counties, the violent crime count doesn't have to be very high to rise to the top of the per capita heap.  Indeed, it would be interesting to see data on deputy sheriff per 1000 residents vs deputy sheriff per 100 square miles.  How different would the map and rankings look then?  And which is the more salient metric, given the significance that material distance plays in rural lives? 

 

The Bee story begins with information about a 2011 double murder in the Trinity County community of Kettenpom, nearer to Mendocino County than to Weaverville, the Trinity County seat.  In that case, Trinity County law enforcement asked the neighbors of a couple who called 911 to check in on that couple because sheriffs deputies coming from Weaverville were several hours away.  The incident ended badly, with the responding neighbors severely wounded and the assailant, who had killed the couple who initially called 911 by the time the responding neighbors arrived, also dead after a car chase.  The responding neighbors, Norma and Jim Gund, are suing the Trinity County Sheriff (in a case now going to the Supreme Court of California), and in the related story by journalist Ryan Sabalow observe, "Over here, we have to take care of ourselves."  Any trust they had in the sheriff's office has disappeared, the story reports.  (The separate story about this law suit is well worth a read, especially for legal eagles who will be interested in the arguments of the respective parties, including the assertion that the Gunds were effectively "posse comitatus," which happens to be the name of a far-right survivalist group).

Another quote from this McClatchy feature similarly speaks powerfully to informal order.  The man quoted is one whom Modoc County Sheriff's deputies knew was growing marijuana illegally.  Yet when they stopped him in a remote locale, they made an effort to calm his anger rather than confront him with the marijuana infraction.  The story reports that the deputies planned to return later with reinforcements rather than risk the consequences of his ire when they stopped him in a vulnerable location.  The man who was stopped, identified as Roberts, told the reporter who was on a "ride along" with the deputies:

We have freedom with responsibility out here.  We can do a lot of stuff. These guys [sheriffs deputies] referee.  

Read more here: https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/article215453050.html#storylink=cpy

Wow, law enforcement as referees for what residents want to do?  This is sounding like the wild west, indeed.  (As it happens, I am in the midst of reading about the wild west in Wallace Stegner's Pulitzer Prize winning Angle of Repose, which features vignettes where vigilante justice takes over, much to the dismay of eastern transplants to places like Leadville, Colorado in the 19th century).  

Bieber, California (Lassen County), July, 2018 

Lack of tax revenue undermines rural counties' 

ability to finance public services

 

These somewhat harrowing vignettes from Trinity and Modoc County aside, what I consider to be the story's lede contrasts rural with urban:

As urban areas such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Fresno grapple with discussions about use of force and the over-policing of minority communities, the state’s rural counties face a growing and no-less-serious law enforcement crisis: a severe shortage of staff that puts the public — and deputies — in danger. 

A McClatchy investigation found that large stretches of rural California — where county sheriffs are the predominant law enforcement agencies and towns often run only a few blocks — do not have enough sworn deputies to provide adequate public safety for the communities they serve.

Elsewhere the story provides this illustration, again contrasting rural and urban:

Del Norte Courthouse, Crescent City, July 2018  

While the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department employs nearly 160 deputies for every 100 square miles it covers, the tiny sheriff’s departments in Madera, Mariposa and Mendocino counties employ about four deputies for the same amount of turf. In Del Norte and Alpine, the counties make do with two deputies per 100 square miles.

Those figures include non-patrol personnel and those who work in county jails. 

Also, consider the role that the phenomena of distance and personnel shortage played in this tragic story out of Tehama County last fall.  Perhaps these Rancho Tehama events gave the Bee journalists the idea for this story.

Tehama County Sheriff's Office, Red Bluff, California, July 2018

The McClatchy story features a color-coded map that shows the number of law enforcement officers per 100 square miles (again, what would it look like if deputies per 1000 residents?).  It reminds me of maps I have helped to produce here showing lawyers per capita in California counties.  Guess what? As with law enforcement officials, nonmetro counties have shortages of lawyers.

 

Another interesting theme/revelation in the story is that no deputy actively patrols in some counties, e.g., Mendocino, for some parts of the night, though deputies are on call from their homes.  When I wrote something similar on Legal Ruralism about my home town in Arkansas a few years ago (see herehere and here), students in my Law and Rural Livelihoods class were shocked to imagine a place with no law enforcement on duty 24-7, yet it is happening here in California, too.

 

A third interesting theme:  population churn in rural areas, partly driven by low cost of living, has had an impact on how rural communities are policed:

Tex Dowdy, the sheriff-elect of Modoc County, said an influx of transient residents drawn to the low cost of living has made identifying suspects harder for Modoc’s deputies. 

The story quotes Dowdy: 

It isn’t the same place where we used to live.  You used to recognize the bad guy walking around the street because he was in the paper every week.

Alturas, California (Modoc County) July 2018

Note the lack of anonymity theme, about which I have written a great deal in the last decade, including here and here.  The sheriff basically confirmed what I have argued:  in rural counties, the "usual suspects" is as powerful a type of profiling as racial profiling, if not more so (and, of course, the two can overlap).

 

A fourth interesting theme--one also  articulated in my academic writing--is that some people seek our rurality for the privacy and effective seclusion from law that it provides.  (Think Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, in rural Montana).  These folks are unlikely to call on law enforcement even when they need it.  Regarding this proposition, the story quotes Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal in relation to this phenomenon:

Things go on in the hills all around us that go unreported.  We know that. Daily. It happens. It’s something that we’ve just gotten used to. There are shootings that occur in the middle of the night. ... We know that there’s kidnappings, we know there are people getting brutalized out in the hills, we know there are people getting robbed.

Honsal's quote reminded me of this feature by Reveal last fall, which I blogged about here, regarding wage theft and sexual abuse of "trimmigrants" in places like Humboldt and Trinity County.  Of course, immigration status can also make people reluctant to report a crime, a particular concern in places like the San Joaquin Valley.  The Chief Justice of California has, for that reason, criticized ICE for any presence in California courthouses.

 

A fifth theme relates to budgets, cuts to which have undermined a prior practice of deputizing people who lived in the remote reaches of a given county:

Until recent years, many rural departments had regional substations and hired “resident deputies” who lived in the remote areas they served. Those resident deputies knew their territories and most of the locals by name, making it harder for crime to go unnoticed, said multiple sheriffs. Resident deputies also allowed for quicker response times. 

Those in need “just come and knock on your door,” said Modoc’s Poindexter. “You just grab your gun belt and go out the door and try to fix it.”

July 2018, Bieber, California (far northern Lassen County), a sheriff station

at the local school, which is closer to Alturas, in Modoc County, than to Susanville,

the Lassen County seat.

Indeed, in my recent drive up California 299 from Burney (Shasta County) to Alturas (Modoc County), I saw a sign indicating such a remote outpost of the Lassen County Sheriff's office in Bieber, which is near the Modoc County line and also not far from Shasta County.   Yet it is technically in Lassen County, and how interesting that the Lassen Sheriff's substation should be at the school, of all places. (More photos from that journey are here and here with more to come in future posts on access to justice in rural California).  A few years ago, I also photographed a Siskiyou County Sheriff's substation in Dunsmuir.  Though it is at the southern edge of the county, it is hardly remote given its locale on I-5.

 

Siskiyou County Sheriff's

Substation, Dunsmuir July 2016

Another aspect of the economic situation is the inability of counties to tax public lands, both federal and state.  The story explains:  

The state compensates counties for protected lands, too, but that funding has been controversial and even less predictable. Since the 2015-2016 budget cycle, the state has given rural counties $644,000 for payments in total each year to be divided among them, said state Sen. Mike McGuire, whose coastal district spans seven counties from Marin to the Oregon border.

I have written previously here and here of the constraints that lack of tax revenue on federal lands place on local governments in rural areas, especially in the West, which has a much greater percentage of public lands than the rest of the country.  The impact of shrinking federal dollars on law enforcement in Southern Oregon has attracted media attention in recent years.  As for that state contribution, less than $700K/year spread among seven counties is pretty pitiful,  even in the context of a paltry rural budget. 

 

Sierra County Courthouse,

Downieville, California, July 2017

A sixth theme of the story is that the state practice of re-alignment (re: prisons and local jails) has not served nonmetro counties well.  The Bee story includes a few interesting quotes to illustrate the conundrum re-alignment has created for county law enforcement. 

 

A seventh theme is the lack of mental health support.

Rural counties have 0.9 psychiatrists for every 10,000 residents, about half the statewide average, according to California Medical Board data. Mariposa has been experimenting with “tele-doc” video technology to connect jail inmates with mental-health professionals in other counties.

Read more here: https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/article215453050.html#storylink=cpy

Of course, telemedicine is being used to provide mental health and other services in rural counties generally, and not only to incarcerated populations.

 

An eighth theme regards reliance on other law enforcement agencies, including not just California Highway Patrol, but also both federal and state game and fish officers.  The photos show a sign at the California Highway Patrol office in Weaverville (Trinity County), which sits next to the DMV office.  I assume that the sign encouraging reports of vehicle theft responds to the reality that rural residents report crimes at lower rates than their urban counterparts, even when the perpetrator is a stranger.  The other photo I took in Weverville this summer is of a USDA vehicle, reprsenting the sort of law enforcement proxy that game and fish commissioners sometimes represent in rural areas. 

USDA Forest Service vehicle, Weaverville, California, July 2018 

Back to the budget/economics note, I'll close with this stunning data point:  rookie deputies in Modoc County earn $13/hour!  I assume baristas in Los Angeles are paid better than that, especially if you take into account tips.

 

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.  

March 13, 2018

Elite hypocrisy about working class white and rural folks? The case of the West Virginia teachers strike

I've been keeping an eye on elite bashing of working class and rural whites for years now, and I published my first article about it as long ago as 2011.  But the election of 2016 brought the disdainful badmouthing by the chattering classes to a fever pitch, and I've occasionally blogged about the phenomenon, including here and here.  

 

One "series" I see on Twitter begins:  "And in today's episode of:  I Bet I Know Who You Voted For..." That is the common  preface to re-Tweets of headlines that could previously have appeared in the "Darwin Awards" or perhaps the petty crime pages of a local paper.  I'm pasting one below.  It re-Tweets a Fox News Tweet that reads "Substitute allegedly brought boxed wine to school, vomited in class."

 

Another re-Tweets this Fox News Tweet:  "Woman charged with choking teen for blocking view at Disney fireworks show."

 

On a related note, here's an item from Instagram just a few days ago, from the account called guerrillafeminism that reads "happy international women's day except the 53% of white women who voted for trump."

 

Pat Bagley, the cartoonist for the Salt Lake City Tribune (whose work I greatly admire, by the way--both cartoonist and paper), has referred to Trump's "idiot followers."  I could provide many more illustrations of this phenomenon.  

 

With that background, you can imagine my surprise--but also delight--when I saw this Tweet from Neera Tanden, President of the Center for American Progress, which bills itself as an

independent nonpartisan policy institute that is dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans, through bold, progressive ideas, as well as strong leadership and concerted action. Our aim is not just to change the conversation, but to change the country.

Despite the "nonpartisan" billing, I see Center for American Progress as clearly left leaning (a good thing in my book!).  Tanden's Tweet reads:

The teachers of West Virginia are heroes.  They deserve good pay and a real raise.  I stand with them. 

 

Now, I don't recall any past Tweets by Tanden blasting Trump supporters, though I do recall some highly critical of Trump.  That's fine by me.  It's a line I've drawn myself--at least in the last year or so (I was a bit less discriminating--a bit more knee jerk--as I reeled in the wake of election of 2016, and I sent off some angry, pejorative Tweets about Trump supporters as a monolithic group).  I now readily take aim at Trump but try to be more thoughtful and circumspect re: Trump supporters.  I'm looking to understand them, trying to listen empathically. (I've got a whole law review article forthcoming about female Trump supporters, delivered as the key note address at the Toledo Law Review symposium in October, 2017,  The Women Feminism Forgot:  Rural and Working Class White Women in the Era of Trump.  I hope to have the text posted soon on my ssrn.com page).

 

But the bottom line is that some things I saw on Twitter about the West Virginia teachers--many sympathetic comments of the sort Tanden shared--had me wondering if the lefties doing this Tweeting realized that many of the folks they were lauding and advocating for had no doubt voted for Trump.  That is, these newfound labor heroes with their wild-cat strike were one and the same with (many) reviled Trump voters.  Some 68% of West Virginians voted for Trump!  Could I possibly be seeing praise for these women--praise from the left?   These are the same women that many lefties on Twitter have said "get what they deserve" if they lose their healthcare (thanks to Trump's effort to dismantle Obamacare) or face further economic decline (thanks, for example, to the long-term consequences of Trump's tax reform law).

 

(Btw, I was at an Appalachian Justice symposium at West Virginia University College of Law in Morgantown from Thursday Feb. 22 'til Saturday Feb. 24th, and I got to see the teachers picketing--and hear the honking in support--first-hand, which was pretty cool.  One of my favorite signs, this published in the Washington Post, is here) 

 

Michelle Goldberg, a relatively new columnist at the New York Times who is writing a lot about gender issues, offered up this column under the headline, "The Teachers Revolt in West Virginia."  She called the strike "thrilling," noting that strikes by teachers are unlawful in West Virginia, which became a right-to-work state a few years ago, and where unions do not have collective bargaining rights. Yet, Goldberg writes,

teachers and some other school employees in all of the state’s 55 counties are refusing to return to work until lawmakers give them a 5 percent raise, and commit to addressing their rapidly rising health insurance premiums.

Goldberg further explains that the "obvious impetus" for action is West Virginia's awful pay of teachers, which ranks 48th in the nation (read more analysis here).  She also discusses the critical role that health care/health insurance plays in the labor dispute:

 In the past, solid health care benefits helped make up for low wages, but because West Virginia hasn’t been putting enough money into the state agency that insures public employees, premiums and co-payments have been increasing significantly.  

Ah, there's that health care problem again, by which I mean you should read this and this, among other sources cited and discussed in that forthcoming Toledo Law Review article. 

 

Having pored over many, many mainstream media reports of white working class Trump supporters in places like Appalachia (you guessed it, all discussed in that Toledo Law Review article!), I was struck that the women Goldberg identified and interviewed did not appear to be Trump supporters.  Quite to the contrary, these women are held out as having responded to Trump's election by becoming part of what is popularly known as "the resistance." I was delighted to learn about and hear from these women, but was Goldberg unable to find any Trump supporters among the striking teachers?  I would very much have liked to have heard their attitudes about the strike, also in relation to their support for Trump.  Did they reconcile the two?

 

Here are excerpts/quotes about the two women Goldberg did feature, Jenny Craig, a special education teacher from Triadelphia (population 811, northern panhandle) and Amanda Howard Garvin, an elementary art teacher in Morgantown (third largest city in the state, home of WVU):

Craig described the anti-Trump Women’s March, as well as the explosion of local political organizing that followed it, as a “catalyst” for at least some striking teachers.

Goldberg quotes Craig:  

You have women now taking leadership roles in unionizing, in standing up, in leading initiatives for fairness and equality and justice for everyone.

Goldberg also quotes Garvin:

As a profession, we’re largely made up of women. ... There are a bunch of men sitting in an office right now telling us that we don’t deserve anything better. 

Oh how I LOVE that quote, not least because it evinces a feminist consciousness.  In the wake of Trump’s election, Garvin added, women are standing up to say: 

No. We’re equal here.

I sure hope Garvin is right that the sentiment and movement are as widespread as she suggests--and as Goldberg implies.  If this is accurate, liberal elites--including feminists--will have to give Craig, Garvin and so many more like them their due.  (Indeed, teacher strikes may be in the works in the equally "red" states of Oklahoma and Kentucky, too).  That will challenge deeply entrenched stereotypes about folks from this region (read more here and here), which will in turn serve all of us quite well.  

 

By the way, the strike succeeded, with the teachers getting what they held out for.  You can find more exciting coverage of the West Virginia teachers strike herehere and here.  And don't miss this by WVU Law Professor and education law expert, Joshua Weishart.  

 

The question that all of this leaves me with is this:  What can the WV teachers strike teach us about how to build and sustain cross-class coalitions, including among whites?  How can these intra-racial coalitions interface with cross-race coalitions for even stronger pacts among progressives? And what role will gender play in that coalition building?  

 

Other hopeful news of change in relation to women and the national political landscape is herehere and here.  

 

May 19, 2017

Guest Blogging on Concurring Opinions about Whiteness, Class, Rurality

I've been guest blogging for the past few weeks over at Concurring Opinions and invite you over to that blog, on "the law, the universe, and everything" to see what I've been writing.  I've done a four-installment review/commentary on J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.  Spoiler Alert:  I'm not a big fan but, in the end, suggest that the book can help law profs better understand the low-income white students who (thankfully, yes, thankfully!) show up in our classrooms from time to time.  My posts are:

On Donald Trump, J.D. Vance, and the White Working Class

Hillbilly Elegy as Rorschach Test

The "Shock and Awe" Response to Hillbilly Elegy:  Pondering the Role of Race

On Ree Dolly, J.D. Vance and Empathy for Low-Income Whites (or, What Hillbilly Elegy is Good for)

I've also done a bit of writing about rurality, with these posts:

Rurality and Government Retreat

Local Journalism as Antidote to Echo Chambers and Fake News

Also related to rurality are these posts about spatiality and abortion access. 

Did You Hear the One About the Alaska Legislator Who Said ... 

Sanger's Tour de Force on Abortion (with a Blind Spot for Geography)

Carol Sanger of Columbia Law responded to my post about her new book, About Abortion:  Terminating Pregnancy in the 21st Century, here.  I love the fact she says I get the "last word" in our exchange over the significance of geography.

I expect to post another item or two before my term as a guest blogger expires in about a week. 

January 10, 2017

The strangest thing happened at the AALS last week

I have attended the Association of American Law Schools annual meeting for many of the 17+ years I have been a law professor, but I experienced something at last week's annual conference in San Francisco that I had never before seen or heard, something that came as a pleasant surprise.   Attendees were actually talking about rural people and places--including in a plenary session on the future of the legal profession.

For more than a decade now, I have worked to establish as a sub-discipline what I call "law and rural livelihoods" (I've taught a seminar by that name for eight years), and my Legal Ruralism blog is part of that effort.  One of my overarching arguments is that most legal scholarship implicitly embraces an urban norm--and that some legal scholarship is explicitly urbanormative.  Yet in all my years of attending gatherings of law professors, I have consistently been the only person in the room talking about rural people and places--I've literally been the only person using the word "rural."  I've often joked that I'm the "rural lady," perhaps analogous to SNL's "church lady," a character with a one-track mind who keeps showing up and making the same overarching point. Over the years, this approach has attracted a lot of eye-rolling, ongoing marginalization.  But it has remained the case that rural people and places have been omitted from so many scholarly conversations about law--and from so many scholarly works on topics that, to my mind, have an obvious rural or spatial angle, e.g., reproductive justice, poverty.

So, imagine my surprise when, following the plenary on "Preparing a Diverse Profession to Serve a Diverse World," with key note by Brad Smith, President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft Corporation (and, incidentally, my boss at Covington & Burling London in 1992 and later my client, from 1996-98, when I returned to Covington and he was in house at Microsoft),  Lauren Robel of Indiana University School of Law asked the first question, which was essentially "what about rural?"  She noted that she had recently been in southern Indiana, which is quite rural, and that shortages of broadband and lawyers are two challenges plaguing the region.  She also referenced the recent NPR story about the "epic" shortage of rural lawyers, a story that quoted me and mentioned the work I have done on the rural lawyer shortage.  After Robel broke the ice with a reference to rural Indiana, several others referenced "rural" in the ensuing conversation.  This was interesting in part because Smith had, early in his talk, referenced a small town in southwest Virginia where Microsoft has a server farm, but he had not used the word "rural."  As the conversation unfolded, however, the word became part of the discussion in a way that seemed, well, natural.

This was somewhat similar to what had happened the day before in a discussion session in which I participated:   Community Development Law and Economic Justice--Why Law Matters.  About a dozen scholars were invited in advance to participate in this discussion, including me.  Because I don't "do" community development law or work as such, I assumed I was invited to participate because of my work on rurality, including rural poverty, thus implicating issues of economic justice.  Once I got the ball rolling by talking about my rural-focused scholarship, several other participants mentioned "rural," including "rural and urban," as in referencing the prospect of intra-regional CED collaborations and such.  (Let me be clear that this usually doesn't happen; when I'm on a panel talkig about "rural," I typically remain silo-ed as such).  I commented that I thought much of the attention to "rural and urban" was racially coded (though it is not necessarily accurate to conflate rurality with whiteness, it is a common phenomenon), as a way to get at cross-racial collaborations, which I very much support (indeed, cross-racial cooperation among low-income folks is a big focus of my scholarship right now).  I also joked that I had not heard as many mentions of "rural" in my entire 17 years of attending law prof. conferences as I had in that 1.75 hour-long session!  Perhaps colleagues in this session--where I was invited to the conversation because I am a ruralist--were humoring me. 

So, is this attention to rurality among legal educators the wave of the future?  or just a temporary dalliance, a moment of intrigue and curiosity, as we absorb the results of the 2016 election and the role that rural America apparently played in Trump's win?  I'm hoping for the former because mainstream (even liberal! highly educated! elite!) attention to rural issues and rural people might help us avert another electoral disaster in two years, or four.  

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.

October 23, 2016

Documentary on Akayesu case makes debut at UN; reviewers call it "riveting," a "courtroom thriller"

The Uncondemned,” a film about the first prosecution of rape as a war crime, saw its theatrical release over the week-end in New York City, where it will play through October 27, at the Sunshine Cinema, SoHo.  The film, which will play in some 30 major markets through the end of the year, opened to critical acclaim in the New York TimesThe Village Voice, and the New York Daily News. Michele Mitchell and Nick Louvel co-directed the film.

Witnesses JJ, OO & NN, along with Godelieve Mudasarasi of SEVOTA, a Rwandan NGO supporting widows and children of the Rwandan genocide. 

A feature-length documentary, “The Uncondemned” recounts the prosecution by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) of Mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu for crimes against humanity and acts of genocide,  including acts of sexual assault, against residents of Taba commune, which he governed.  The film actually interweaves two stories.  One is that of the Taba rape survivors—until now known only as JJ, NN, and OO—and the social worker and founder of SEVOTA, Godeliève Mukasarasi, who encouraged and empowered them to participate in the prosecution.  The other story is that of the team of young lawyers who worked on the case, including trial counsel Pierre-Richard Prosper (now with Akin Gump) and Sara Darehshori (now with Human Rights Watch, working on issues of sexual assault in the United States).  Also appearing in the film are Patricia Sellers, gender advisor to ICTR and ICTFY at the time the Akayesu case was investigated and tried, Rosette Muzigo-Morrison, a UNinvestigator from Uganda, and Binaifer Nowrojee, who from her position with Human Rights Watch in East Africa wrote Shattered Lives, a report on Sexual Violence during the Rwandan genocide and campaigned for the prosecution of rape as a war crime.  My own work as gender consultant at ICTR—twenty years ago this fall—is also featured in the film.  

The October 21 theatrical release followed a special viewing at the United Nations on October 19.  The Rwandan witnesses, along with Mukasarasi, were special guests at the UN event, hosted by Zainab Hawa Bangura Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict.  A Yazidi rape survivor previously held captive by ISIS also appeared at the event, speaking on a panel about sexual assault during war that followed the screening.  The UN promoted the hashtag #EndRapeinWar at the screening.     

“The Uncondemned” was shown at several film festivals in the past year, taking the 2015 Brizzolaro Family Foundation Award for the Best Film on Conflict and Resolution at the Hamptons International Film Festival The documentary also played at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and the Napa Valley Film Festival.  Reviewers have called the film a “must see” and “riveting,” and characterized it as a “courtroom thriller.” 

Following the week-long run in NYC, “The Uncondemned” will open in Los Angeles on October 28, at the Laemmle Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd.   Beginning on November 4, the film will run for one week in Washington DC at the E Street Theatre, 555 11th Street, NW, and for one week in Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Avenue N.  You can find information on all screenings here.     

Cross-Posted to International Law Grrls. 

From left to right at UN Premiere on October 19:  Sara Darehshori, co-director of "The Uncondemned" Michele Mitchell, Pierre Prosper and Lisa R. Pruitt 

November 11, 2015

"The Uncondemned" at Napa Valley Film Festival, Nov. 12-15

"The Uncondemned," a feature documentary about the first conviction of rape as a war crime, is showing at the Napa Valley Film Festival, which starts tomorrow, Thursday Nov. 12.  

That first conviction came in 1998 in a decision by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in the case against Jean-Paul Akayesu, the mayor of Taba Commune.  I worked at ICTR as a gender consultant in 1996, analyzing the evidence of sexual assault in the Akayesu matter, and I am therefore one of the "baby lawyers" who worked on the case and who is featured in the film. (Photo below from 1996, as we flew between Kigali where the Office of the Prosecutor was located and Arusha, Tanzania, where the tribunal judges sat.) 

The film already won two awards at the Hamptons International Film Festival, including the Brizzolara Family Foundation Award for the best film about conflict and resolution. The Guardian.com filed this story about the film and that award.

I have seen the film once before, this summer in Rwanda when the Rwandan witnesses (one of whom is pictured in the flyer) saw it for the first time.  Read more in this previous blog entry.  I'm looking forward to seeing it again tomorrow night, this time with two UC Davis colleagues, Keith Watenpaugh (Religious Studies, History, Human Rights) and Michael Lazzara (Spanish, Cinema and Digital Media). Both are involved with UC Davis's Human Rights Initiative, a project of the Davis Humanities Institute.  Hope to see some of you in Napa this weekend, where the film will be shown at a different venue each day.  Here is the schedule.

October 28, 2015

Campus Community Book Project and Addressing "The Divide"

Is this the "Age of the Wealth Gap?"

Investigative reporter and Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi says yes. His New York Times bestselling book, "The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap," is the featured work in this year's UC Davis Campus Community Book Project.

It was my pleasure last week to take part in the first of three book events at the School of Law: a panel discussion titled "Addressing 'The Divide' - 'If You Cannot Afford One...': Access to Legal Counsel in the Age of Inequality." Speakers included Yolo County Deputy Public Defender Ronald Johnson '04, Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC) Executive Director Gary Smith, and LSNC Deputy Director Julie Aguilar-Rogado.  As lawyers and professors involved in serving, researching and/or teaching about low-income populations and access to justice issues, we all agreed that little about Taibbi's book surprised us, even though Taibbi wrote as if he were shocked by his findings.  


Ron Johnson '04, Gary Smith, Julie Aguilar-Rogado, and me

Among the topics we discussed were the civil justice gap between wealthy folks and those who qualify for legal assistance from legal aid organizations such as LSNC, which is funded in part by the Legal Services Corporation.  Smith and Aguilar-Rogado described how LSNC is not only providing direct services to low-income populations in the 23-county area they serve in Northern California, but how they are also pro-actively seeking enforcement of many laws that can assist the poor.  In a sense, LSNC is acting as a private attorney general in advocacy to compel counties to live up to statutory mandates that would benefit low-income populations.  I talked about the rural-urban justice gap, including the shortage of lawyers serving rural counties generally, and low-income rural residents in particular.  Our talented alum Ron Johnson spoke about his decade of experience as a public defender.  In particular, he talked about some of the particular struggles facing many who are caught up in the criminal justice system, problems including joblessness, poverty, and mental illness.  Johnson observed that we need to devote more attention to such root causes of crime and mentioned that his office has social workers -- and not only lawyers -- to assist the clients.  

Two more Campus and Community Book events will be held at King Hall. On November 2, the clinical faculty will discuss the human impact of criminal and immigration detention. Then, on February 1, Professors Elizabeth Joh and Thomas Joo will discuss structural inequality in American policing and prosecution. 

For a full list of the book events across campus, visit http://occr.ucdavis.edu/ccbp2015/events/index.html. The events will conclude with an appearance by author Matt Taibbi at the Mondavi Center on February 3, a talk I am very much looking forward to hearing.

June 18, 2015

Premiere of Film on the Historic Trial that Made Rape a War Crime

This week, I am in Rwanda for the premiere of the documentary film The Uncondemned.

The Uncondemned documents the legal and political path to the 1998 conviction of Jean-Paul Akayesu, the mayor of Taba Commune, Rwanda, in the first-ever conviction of rape as an act of genocide and as a crime against humanity.  The prosecution and conviction were at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). a forerunner to the International Criminal Court.  The Rwandan Genocide occurred over about 3 months, beginning in April 1994, after the plane carrying the president of Rwanda, a moderate Hutu, was shot down. 

I was a gender consultant to ICTR in 1996 where I did the initial legal analysis of the sexual assault case against Akayesu, arguing that the indictment (for killings as acts of genocide and as crimes against humanity) against him should be amended to include charges of rape and other sexual assaults that occurred at the Taba Bureau Communale, which was under his control.  I appear in the film, along with the two American lawyers who tried the case, Pierre-Richard Prosper and Sara Darehshori. Also featured are other officials of ICTR, journalists who covered the genocide, and human rights advocates. 

Most exciting is that the three women who were the key witnesses against Akayesu are in the film, along with the Taba commune social worker who encouraged them to testify and helped to facilitate their doing so.  Those four women attended the premiere.  Their statements were the ones I was analyzing back in 1996. 

The President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, hosted the screening of The Uncondemned in the capital city, Kigali. Also among those in attendance were the Minister of Justice, the Foreign Minister and a number of women parliamentarians. Official photos from the event are posted to the President's  Flickr album.  I am in a couple of the photos there, and my son William is one, too, near the bottom of the page.  

 


Photo: Professor Lisa Pruitt with two of the rape survivors, Serrafina and Victoire, who testified against Akayesu.

The Uncondemned is expected to be in distribution across the U.S. and worldwide in 2016.