A Tale of Two Movements

There are two social movements gathering steam that I have not written much about before. One of these movements is an extension of other freedom movements and deserves our full support. The other often verges on ridiculous. The good movement is the movement for transgender rights. The semi-ridiculous movement is the movement for ex-felons. Transgender individuals have been subjected to discrimination based on their gender identity, a benign characteristic that many of them were born with. There is no reason why being transgender makes someone unqualified for a job, including military service. It is unjust to refuse to sell somebody a house because of their gender identity. Students should not be bullied for being transgender. It is my hope that Congress will pass the Equality Act in the near future and that it includes gender identity in its anti-discrimination provisions. While there is still much work to be done, and public support appears to be lower than support for gay rights, the movement has already made significant progress. For example, the U.S. military’s ban on transgender soldiers seems about to be eliminated. Lots of social conservatives are howling, because many of them don’t really believe in a meritocracy, regardless of what they say. Isn’t it ironic that they can, in the same breath, criticize Democrats for reducing the size of the military and for allowing more people to join? There has been some argument that the Gay Rights Movement should drop transgender people from their coalition due to the fact that transgender rights seems to have less societal support, putting civil rights bills that include gender identity at greater risk of not passing. This would be a great mistake. Gay and transgender people have fought together for equal rights for too long for one group to abandon the other for expediency.

The movement for ex-felons has also made some “progress,” though some of us may not want to use the term in this context. Birmingham has recently become the first city in Alabama to remove the box on city employment forms that applicants were previously required to check if they had been convicted of a crime. This means, for example, that if someone applying for a job as a school custodian was once convicted of assault for punching a kid in the face, nobody is going to know. It is certainly a good thing if ex-felons who are legitimately trying to turn their lives around can get jobs. But by “banning the box,” the city of Birmingham is eliminating the opportunity to evaluate applicants’ past felonies on a case-by-case basis. This is compassion at the expense of other people. Another goal of the ex-felons’ movement is to repeal all state laws that make it difficult for ex-felons to regain their voting rights once they have been released and paroled. It is not so much that I find this proposal to be a very bad one. It is more that I strongly disagree with the idea that this felon disenfranchisement is some great injustice or represents a civil rights issue. I want to tackle three of the most common statements that supporters of the movement make:

  1. Many Ex-Felons Were Convicted of Non-Violent Drug Offenses-Like most of the arguments covered here, there is an element of truth in this claim. Many people have been arrested and convicted for possession of drugs or selling drugs to other consenting adults. This is unjust, since it involves punishing people for personal choices that, although they are bad choices, the government does not have a right to prohibit. The solution, however, is to end the War on Drugs and pardon these individuals so that they no longer have felonies on their record, rather than change rules about ex-felons that not only apply to non-violent drug offenders but also to violent criminals.
  2. This is a Racial Issue-This claim has two parts. The first is that the criminal justice system has historically been biased, leading to cases of discriminatory conviction and sentencing. No sensible person can argue with that. Again, however, the solution is to review individual cases and reverse unjust convictions and sentences. By the line of reasoning that undergirds this argument, we should pardon everyone convicted of murder because some innocent people were convicted of murder by racist judges and juries. The second, related part of the claim is that felons are disproportionately black, meaning that felon re-enfranchisement would benefit black people and increase their political power. While I do not believe that most of the people making this claim are racist, it does have a very offensive implication: the idea that all ex-felons are black. That idea, of course, is ludicrous. Many ex-felons are white, and some of them were convicted for committing hate crimes against black people. If we repeal restrictions on the voting rights of ex-felons, we do not just re-enfrachise a low income black person who grew up in a crime-ridden ghetto with a broken family. We also re-enfranchise the rich, white man who thought beating up a black person would be a good way to amuse himself. While the case of Mark Wahlberg did not appear to directly involve voting, it illustrates this point. Wahlberg committed multiple crimes during the 1980s, including an attack on two Asian American people while trying to steel beer and throwing rocks and yelling racial slurs at a black, fourth grade girl. About a year ago, he applied for a pardon. One of his stated reasons was that he was having trouble getting a concessioner’s license. I wish that this case had gotten more attention, because it showcases one of the biggest problems with the ex-felon movement. It is not my intention to say that Wahlberg has not changed. He probably has. But I fail to see how a permanent reminder of his crimes on his record is unjust, as much of a hardship as it may be for a movie star with a two hundred million dollar net worth to have his restaurant impeded. Perhaps he should consider himself lucky that, unlike one of the men he assaulted, he can still see out of both eyes. A modified version of an old adage applies: “I cried because I had no concessioner’s license. Then I saw a man who had only one functioning eye. And I was the one who did it to him.” Furthermore, many black people convicted of violent crimes committed these crimes against other black people. In effect, trying to deal with the issue of African American ex-felons by rolling back restrictions on ex-felons is dealing with a symptom rather than a cause. Instead of giving ex-felons of all colors a pass for their crimes, we should be looking at the root cause–the history of slavery and racial discrimination in this country–of why predominantly African American communities tend to have higher crime rates. Beyond the issue of race, we should also be looking at the root causes of crime in other communities, such as child abuse.
  3. Restrictions on Voting Rights For Ex-Felons Are Like Poll Taxes, Literacy Tests, Voter ID laws, etc.–This is an apples to oranges comparison. Failing to pass a literacy test, not being able to afford a poll tax, or not having an ID are not crimes. Robbery, assault, rape, murder, etc. are crimes. Ergo, comparing the two is deeply problematic. While some correlation exists between states that enacted restrictive policies to keep black people from voting in the Jim Crow era and states that disenfranchise felons, there is significant variation. For example, Iowa was one of the first two states outside of New England that gave black men the right to vote. It is also one of eleven states where convicted felons can lose their right to vote permanently. Meanwhile, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, the Carolinas, Texas, and Oklahoma all allow convicted felons to vote after their incarceration, parole, and probation have been completed. Minnesota, the other of the first two non-New England states to extend voting rights to black men, has stricter laws about felon re-enfranchisement than Indiana, a former Ku Klux Klan stronghold. In conclusion, not all movements are created equal. The transgender rights movement deserves our vigorous support. The ex-felon movement deserves our vigorous criticism.
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