Category Archives: Uncategorized

Time to confront climate-change risk

THE ISSUE: We routinely spend money and endure inconvenience to protect ourselves from catastrophic risk. Developed nations should not demand absolute certainty on global warming before taking steps to protect against it.

You’re having chest pains.

Statistically, you know it’s probably nothing. A touch of heartburn from last night’s burrito, possibly. Maybe you try antacids. Maybe you try to wait it out. But at some point, you go to the doctor.

The point at which you go to the doctor is before the point at which you are certain you are having, or are about to have, a heart attack. Indeed, the level of certainty that will prompt a doctor’s visit is far lower than with symptoms suggestive of less-serious ailments.

This is because you are weighing risks.

Going to the doctor is expensive and inconvenient, and if the burrito is the culprit you’ll regret the decision. You go anyway, even in the absence of certainty, because the stakes are high. Failing to act has a slight chance of resulting in catastrophe. The expense, while significant, pales compared to a heart attack.

This is roughly the situation that confronts all humans when it comes to global warming.

The physics behind global warming are hard to argue.

Most energy from the sun passes through the atmosphere without being absorbed. It does not convert to thermal radiation until it hits the Earth’s surface. While carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases do not block most of the sun’s energy as it enters the atmosphere, it does reflect the thermal radiation, or heat, that radiates from the sun-warmed Earth.

There is no question that human activity since the Industrial Revolution has resulted in ever-increasing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Other things being equal, therefore, scientists would expect temperatures to be rising.

Other things are not equal, however, which means there is room for error. The climate is enormously complex, and includes factors that offset the expected planetary warming. The temperature data that would demonstrate global warming is notoriously difficult to compile, since historical records are less accurate than current ones.

That said, we are beyond the stage of fleeting heartburn. Ocean levels are rising and glaciers are melting. The data is complex, but almost all climate scientists believe human activity is raising global temperatures.

If they are correct, the consequences would be catastrophic. Relatively small changes in the ocean level would displace millions of people. Deserts would increase in size, and food would become scarce. Weather patterns would change, resulting in more violent storms.

We do not typically demand absolute certainty before hedging our bets. We buy security systems despite recognizing the odds of a break-in are low. Investors may be convinced a stock is going to increase in value, but they spend money to protect against the risk of a drop in value. We buy fire insurance even though we don’t expect a fire.

We go to the doctor for chest pain, even though we suspect it’s nothing serious.

The only way to protect against the risk of global warming is through governmental action.

That may mean aggressive carbon taxes or regulatory action.

Both are expensive.

As evidence mounts that global warming is a real threat, however, it is increasingly reckless to demand absolute certainty before taking action.

We’re dealing not with fleeting chest pain, but with persistent chest pain and left arm pain.

There is enough evidence of a coming disaster that we need to take steps to limit the risk.

(Published May 19, 2015)


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Joseph only candidate qualified to be auditor

2014 election endorsement

Joseph only candidate qualified to be auditor

Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2014 12:00 am

The Issue

  • The state auditor position has narrow duties and little power. The one thing it requires is experience in auditing. Of the two candidates, only Miranda Joseph has such experience.
Miranda Joseph is a trained auditor. Her opponent in the race for the state auditor position is not. For that reason, we endorse Joseph for the position.

The reasons the state auditor is an elected position may have been clear when the state Constitution was ratified in 1901, but are no longer. While regular audits of state property make sense, they could more efficiently be handled by qualified appointees or by external auditing firms.

It falls to voters, therefore, to choose a qualified auditor when one runs for the position.

Joseph, a Democrat from Birmingham, is certified in internal auditing and in risk management. The 29-year-old received a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She has worked as an internal auditor for a Birmingham bank and as an external auditor for several financial institutions.

Alabama’s state auditor has no power to do anything but perform constitutionally required audits. The auditor is responsible for the accounting of state personal property costing $500 or more. If state property is missing due to theft, the auditor has no authority to recover it. That job is left to the state Attorney General.

Unlike the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts, the state auditor does not have significant oversight responsibilities for the accounts of entities receiving or disbursing public funds.

In short, the job of state auditor needs expertise in only one area: auditing. Only one candidate has that expertise.

Republican Jim Zeigler, a lawyer from Mobile, has no experience in auditing or accounting. He served one term on the Alabama Public Service Commission beginning 1974. Starting in 1982, Zeigler lost close races for state Supreme Court, state treasurer, civil appeals court and state auditor in 2002. Those close races earned the perpetual candidate the nickname “Mr. 49 Percent.”

Zeigler, 66, seeks to make up for his lack of experience with an abundance of enthusiasm. While acknowledging the state auditor has no power to retrieve stolen property, he promises he will bring lawsuits as a private citizen. This is a bad idea.

If he were to bring such suits, he would have to finance litigation costs out of his own pocket. Any time spent on such lawsuits would detract from the sole duty of the auditor, which is performing audits.

The Attorney General’s office — when it receives the support it needs from the state auditor — is well-equipped to bring lawsuits for recovery of state property, can prosecute crimes and already receives funding for the task.

Joseph and Zeigler are running for a job with narrow duties and little power. We would applaud Zeigler if he sought to amend the constitution to eliminate the requirement that the auditor be elected, but we foresee nothing but problems if he tries to turn the job into something it’s not.

Of the two candidates available, Joseph is the only one qualified to serve.

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Amendments would aid armories, schools

2014 Election Endorsement

Amendments would aid armories, schools

Posted: Monday, October 27, 2014 12:00 am

We recommend a vote in favor of Amendments 2 and 4, and against Amendments 1 and 3 on the Nov. 4 ballot. We have no recommendation on Amendment 5.

Amendment 1 is an example of the political posturing that has become commonplace in the constitutional amendments placed on the ballot in recent years. It is the equivalent of placing a yard sign in the state constitution, which already is the longest in the nation.

Amendment 1 prohibits Alabama courts from applying foreign law if doing so would violate rights guaranteed to Alabama citizens. Alabama courts, however, do not apply foreign law. They never have. Even if a court did seek to apply foreign law, it already is prohibited from applying it — or any other law — in a way that infringes on the constitutional rights of Alabama citizens.

If the Islamic caliphate makes inroads on Alabama’s borders and Sharia law starts popping up in decisions by Alabama’s elected judges, citizens may want to revisit the issue. In the meantime, the amendment should be recognized for what it is: a political stunt.

Amendment 2 merits support. The amendment authorizes the state to borrow up to $50 million for the construction and maintenance of Alabama National Guard armories. Combined with federal funds, it could benefit Decatur directly by helping to finance the relocation of National Guard training facilities to the vacant Lurleen B. Wallace Development Center.

The downside of the amendment is that the state will have to repay any bonds from the Alabama Trust Fund, which is funded by revenues generated from oil and gas wells in the Gulf. The payments would come from an already anemic state General Fund and would reduce distributions to local governments.

Amendment 3 is a reminder that no matter how many lawsuits the state loses and how much it wastes in legal fees, legislators cannot grasp the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Federal law trumps state law, even when the state law is in the form of a constitutional amendment.

Amendment 3 reiterates the right to bear arms, a right already firmly entrenched in both the U.S. and Alabama constitutions. It then provides that any restriction on the right is subject to “strict scrutiny.” Even the most casual observer recognizes that the state Legislature has no inclination to restrict the right to bear arms; indeed, it routinely passes legislation purporting to broaden the right. The perceived threat comes not from Montgomery, but from Washington, D.C.

State constitutional amendments cannot defeat federal law. This would seem to merely make Amendment 3 irrelevant, but recent history in our state suggests otherwise. Rather than accept that the Supremacy Clause means what it says, our state Attorney General litigates everything to the bitter and inevitable end. He and the Legislature count on political points for their tenacity. The taxpayers get stuck with the bill.

Amendment 4 requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to pass laws that impose unfunded mandates of more than $50,000 on city or county boards of education. It does not apply to laws involving compensation, benefits or due process rights. The attack on public schools has been so relentless over the last four years that they need any protection they can get. We look forward to a time when the Legislature once again recognizes that well-funded and well-managed public schools are the solution to the state’s many ills, not the cause of them.

Amendment 5, coined the “Sportsperson’s Bill of Rights” and introduced at the recommendation of the National Rifle Association, is sufficiently vague that it is unlikely to have any effect. It states that, subject to reasonable regulations, Alabama citizens have a right to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife using traditional methods. It would make hunting and fishing the preferred method of managing wildlife in the state.

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Elect Mark Bray to replace Mo Brooks

2014 Election Endorsement

Elect Mark Bray to replace Mo Brooks

Posted: Sunday, October 26, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 6:47 pm, Sun Oct 26, 2014.

The Issue

The rhetoric of U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, has caused enough harm to Alabama and the Fifth District. Mark Bray, I-Huntsville, is a political newcomer, but he represents needed change.

North Alabama has endured the inflammatory rhetoric of U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks for too long. We endorse Mark Bray, I-Huntsville, for the Fifth District seat of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The contrast between incumbent Brooks and his predecessors is depressingly stark.

The template for past representatives provided huge benefits for north Alabama. Former Reps. Ronnie Flippo and Bud Cramer were behind-the-scenes players. They created alliances that benefited their districts while pushing legislation that their constituents favored.

What they did not do is make spectacles of themselves.

Like his predecessors, Brooks is an intelligent man. Unlike his predecessors, he devotes that intelligence to finding the spotlight. He is a darling of the national media, not because of his incisive commentary, but because of his inflammatory comments.

Not content to push for responsible immigration reform, Brooks attacked undocumented immigrants: “As your congressman on the House floor, I will do anything short of shooting them.”

During a congressional speech, Brooks accused House colleagues of being socialists, a remark he then withdrew from the House record.

Brooks, whose district has the highest frequency of tornadoes of any in the state and relies heavily on federal assistance when they hit, managed more headlines when voting against disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy struck New England. Taxpayers, he said, “should not have to fork out a nickel” to pay for property damage in areas historically vulnerable to storms.

In August, he entertained the national media by complaining about a “war on whites.” This from a representative of a state that still struggles to overcome the antics of another grandstanding politician who in 1963 sought the media spotlight on the steps of the University of Alabama. This from the representative of a state whose black citizens have a median household income of $29,210, compared to white citizens with a median household income $49,465.

Brooks’ voting record is at least as bad as his rhetoric. He advocated austerity in the face of recession, a formula that severely undermines the nation’s recovery. He joined forces with those who wanted to use the debt ceiling as an ideological tool, resulting in a government shutdown that hurt north Alabama and especially Redstone Arsenal more than almost any region of the nation.

Brooks has only one vote out of 435, so his voting record matters little. His “look at me!” style of leadership, however, has done great harm to his district and his state.

Alabama has made great strides in recent decades overcoming an international reputation for intolerance. Brooks’ actions help discourage national and international investment by dredging the past into the present,

Bray is a political unknown. He campaigns as a conservative, but he advocates practical solutions rather than ideological ones. As an engineer for NASA, he understands the importance of the federal government to north Alabama.

Maybe most important, Bray shows none of the self-aggrandizement that is at the core of Brooks’ political image. Bray sees common interests in the two parties, and as an independent he hopes to build bridges that will benefit the nation and his district.

Would Bray be successful in creating bipartisan political alliances that benefit his district, as were Flippo and Cramer? We don’t know. We do feel confident, however, that he will not engage in cheap political theater, and that he will not embarrass his district.

Coming Monday: Constitutional amendments 

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McMillan deserves agriculture commissioner seat

2014 Election Endorsement

McMillan deserves agriculture commissioner seat

Posted: Friday, October 24, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 6:46 pm, Sun Oct 26, 2014.

THE ISSUE: John McMillan, the incumbent Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries, performed well in his first term, despite budgetary challenges, harmful legislation and tornadoes. He deserves a second term.

The position of commissioner of state Agriculture and Industries is a low-profile job that rarely requires much attention from the politician who occupies the seat. The commissioner supervises an agency with responsibilities for food safety, animal and plant health, meat inspection, livestock markets and inspections of retail gasoline pumps.

Republican John McMillan won his first term in 2010, but the Legislature, Mother Nature and the economy conspired to complicate his job. McMillan was up to the task, and we endorse him for a second term.

The combination of a faltering economy and a state Legislature that lacks the backbone to implement tax reform meant McMillan, 73, faced unusual financial pressures. The Legislature’s 2011 passage of an ill-considered anti-immigration law — most of which has since collapsed under the weight of the U.S. Constitution — created unique problems for the state’s farmers. That problem, too, landed on McMillan’s plate, and he handled it with more candor than might be expected of an elected official.

McMillan’s first task was to trim his underfunded department. He cut the department’s workforce from 400 to 300 and outsourced two money-losing farmers markets to other operators. He also transferred management of a Montgomery coliseum to a community board.

By itself, the cut in employees would have undermined one of the primary responsibilities of the commissioner: inspecting gas pumps. Inspections were behind when McMillan entered office, and they quickly fell further behind with the cuts.

Rather than moan about his budget, McMillan came up with a plan. Beginning this month, gas stations will bring in private registered agents to conduct the annual inspections that state employees did before state budget cuts. Instead of inspecting all pumps, state employees will do spot checks to ensure accuracy.

In April 2011, McMillan’s job got tougher. Millions of chickens died in the tornadoes that ravaged Alabama, creating a risk of disease. McMillan coordinated the unpleasant task of quickly disposing of the animals.

As disastrous as the April 2011 tornadoes were for Alabama farmers, the fallout from the Legislature’s politically motivated immigration law may have been worse. Before federal courts could dissect the law, immigrants — both legal and undocumented — fled the state.

While we fault McMillan for not speaking against the legislation before it passed, he at least spoke with nonpartisan honesty about its devastating consequences. Vegetables were “rotting on the vine,” he said publicly, because legislators failed to understand how important immigrants were to the state’s farmers.

Farmers’ efforts to recruit non-immigrants for the back-breaking work of harvesting crops were a bust, and McMillan was not shy about describing their predicament.

Democrat Doug Smith, 79, is McMillan’s opponent. He has considerable governmental experience, including a stint as an aide to former Gov. Lurleen B. Wallace, when he was instrumental in establishing the Alabama Development Office to recruit industry. He went on to have a career in cable television, including serving as president of the Alabama Cable TV Association.

Smith said his focus would be less on agriculture than on recruiting industry. While he may have a knack for industrial recruitment, the state has plenty of officials who already perform the function.

McMillan, who previously served as a Baldwin County commissioner, state representative, state conservation commissioner and executive vice president of the Alabama Forestry Association, handled unusual challenges with finesse in his first term. He deserves a second term overseeing the Department of Agriculture and Industries. For his sake and the state’s, we hope his second term is fraught with fewer storms, both of the natural and legislative varieties.

Coming Sunday: U.S. House Fifth District

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City: Referendum is void

City: Referendum is void

Related Documents

Posted: Wednesday, October 8, 2014 9:45 pm | Updated: 10:02 pm, Wed Oct 8, 2014.

A 2010 referendum changing Decatur’s form of government is a “dead letter,” the city argued in a federal court motion last week, because the city failed to obtain preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The city’s motion seeks to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Gary Voketz on the ground the council-manager form of government — required under state law by the referendum vote — could not be implemented unless the Justice Department ruled it was legal under the Voting Rights Act.

Because the city withdrew its request for such a ruling before the 2012 election, the brief argues, the referendum is void.

“The people of Decatur have a right under the Alabama Constitution to change their form of government,” said Voketz’s attorney, Carl Cole. “The people of Decatur voted to do that, and the leaders of Decatur are fighting tooth and nail to deprive the people of that right.

“I never in a million years thought these guys would undermine state law and hide behind the federal government to do it.”

Voketz has until Oct. 24 to respond to the city’s motion.

In October 2011, the city submitted a plan for changing to a council-manager form of government to the Justice Department for preclearance.

“Preclearance” was a procedure in which the Justice Department ruled in advance that election changes were legal under the Voting Rights Act. In January 2012, before the Justice Department issued a ruling, the city withdrew the submission. At the time it withdrew the request, the City Council passed a resolution stating it had no information that “will justify preclearance of the submitted plan.”

“This withdrawal of the manager-council submission … had the same prohibitory effect as would have had a formal (Justice Department) objection to preclearance,” the city argued in its brief. “As a matter of federal law, the council-manager form of government and method of election were unenforceable.”

The referendum triggered the state Council-Manager Act. Under that law, the city would have to hire a city manager and drop from five to three council districts. One of two at-large council members would serve as the mayor, but the appointed city manager would serve as the chief executive.

According to the city, the drop to three districts would require eliminating a district with a black majority, which the city argued would violate the Voting Rights Act.

The October 2012 city elections — for a mayor and five council members — proceeded as if the referendum had not taken place.

The City Council had another chance to seek Justice Department approval when Mayor Don Kyle, honoring a campaign pledge, requested a council vote to seek preclearance of the change in government from the Justice Department. In a March 2013 meeting, Council President Gary Hammon and Councilman Chuck Ard voted to re-submit the three-district plan to the Justice Department. The resolution failed when councilmen Billy Jackson, Charles Kirby and Roger Anders opposed it.

Last month, the city and Voketz reached a settlement in which Voketz agreed to dismiss the portion of his lawsuit that alleged the mayor and each City Council member are serving illegally, a claim that had blocked the city from borrowing money or issuing bonds since Voketz filed the lawsuit in February. In return for the dismissal, the city agreed to pay Voketz’s attorney fees if he wins the case.

After the settlement, Voketz filed an amended complaint that claims the city is required to hold elections that conform to the Council-Manager Act. Even if the law violates the Voting Rights Act, the complaint said, the court has authority to amend the act to include five districts and thus preserve a black minority in one district.

There is no inconsistency in the city arguing its own failure to obtain preclearance nullified the referendum, according to the city’s attorney, because the city was correct in its judgment that the Justice Department would not have precleared the change to a council-manager form of government.

“It was clearly in violation of the Voting Rights Act,” said George Royer, of Huntsville. “It was withdrawn from preclearance because it was clear there was no way it would not violate the Voting Rights Act, and there was no way it could be precleared. This is not an inconsistent position. If the referendum is unenforceable because it wasn’t precleared, then that’s the end of the case.”

In the city’s brief, Royer argued it was not just the drop from five to three districts that required preclearance. The change from a mayor to a city manager as the chief executive also required Justice Department approval.

It is too late for the city to obtain Justice Department approval. A June 2013 U.S. Supreme Court involving Shelby County ended the preclearance procedure. Moreover, the city argued in its brief, the Council-Manager Act imposed a deadline for implementing the change in government that the city did not meet.

“Because the change to a council-manager form of government did not receive preclearance before its statutory implementation date in 2012, the 2010 referendum now is a dead letter,” the city argued in its brief. “Neither the change to a city manager nor the change in electing council members is enforceable today, as a matter of federal law.”

Royer said the city would be placed in an untenable position if Voketz won the lawsuit and the federal court forced a change to a council-manager form of government, even if the new government had five districts and maintained a black majority in one.

“It would leave the city in the position of having someone else come along who opposes a council-manager form of government and saying, ‘No, you can’t do that, because the council-manager form of government was never precleared,’ ” Royer said. “The city would still be open to subsequent litigation by people who are opposed to the notion of a city manager.

“This motion seeks to resolve that issue once and for all at the outset, so two years down the road you don’t have to confront this issue.”

A decision by the Birmingham federal court would not protect the city, according to the city’s brief, because the court has no authority to preclear election changes under the Voting Rights Act. Only the Justice Department and the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia had that authority, and it ended with the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision.

“They now say that because the Council-Manager Act wasn’t implemented in October 2012, it can never be implemented,” Cole said. “They ignore the fact that the reason it wasn’t implemented, and the reason we never had an answer from the Justice Department, was because those same people with a vested interest withdrew it, saying there was no way it could be precleared by the Justice Department.”

Eric Fleischauer can be reached at 256-340-2435 or Follow on Twitter @DD_Fleischauer.

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Stark numbers, in black and white

Stark numbers, in black and white
By Eric Fleischauer Staff Writer | Posted: Saturday, April 12, 2014 9:30 pm
A recent court filing by the city of Decatur underlines the dramatic disparities between blacks and whites in everything from income and education to home ownership and health.
The study, commissioned by the city as part of its defense to a lawsuit challenging its failure to implement a 2010 referendum requiring a council-manager form of government, suggests a huge racial divide in the quality of life of Decatur citizens.
“We have to confront these numbers,” said Bruce Jones, who as director of Decatur Youth Services works extensively with minority youths, their families and teachers. “We can talk all we want about policies, but finally the disparities shown by these numbers tell us whether we are doing enough.
“The answer is clear. We’re not.”
The data, compiled for the city by demographic and redistricting expert William Cooper, was based primarily on detailed breakdowns compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010 and 2012. The data shows disparities in nearly every facet of life.
One in five black households — 18.5 percent — in Decatur have annual incomes of less than $10,000, well below the poverty level. One in 16 white households, or 6.4 percent, have incomes this low. The median income for black family households in Decatur is $21,938, compared to $52,725 for white families.
One in three blacks in Decatur are below the poverty level, compared to one in 10 whites. Half of black children — 49.7 percent — live in poverty, compared to 16 percent of white children.
Blacks who are seeking jobs are three times more likely than whites to be unemployed, but even if they get a job, the disparities continue. The $15,952 median earnings level of blacks working full time is barely half the $29,589 annual median earnings of whites in Decatur.
The overlap between skin color and poverty creates hard-to-resolve societal problems, said Kevin Lang, an economics professor at Boston University. Lang, author of the book “Poverty and Discrimination,” is a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality.
“You’re living in a world in which race is a fairly obvious trait, and it’s correlated with economic disadvantage and the many problems that are associated with that,” Lang said after reviewing the city-commissioned study. “People are going to make inferences based on what they can see. That’s going to make it tougher.
“Birth is not destiny, but it sure helps to choose the right parents.”
Poverty is about more than income, said Thomas Buchanan, lead program coordinator at Decatur Youth Services with a master’s degree in social work. It is also about a culture of poverty that — while necessary for survival — creates nearly insurmountable barriers to entering the middle class.
“The dominant culture (which is almost exclusively white in Decatur) has a monopoly on defining reality,” Buchanan said. “That translates all the way down to things like language and standards of beauty and dress codes. You have to conform to the dominant culture in order to be perceived as successful. People attempt to do that, but without the resources to conform in an effective way. It limits their ability to participate in any significant way in the dominant culture.”
Because that dominant culture controls the hiring process that is the key to ascendancy to the middle class, conformity to its norms is essential.
Buchanan likens the interaction between upper classes and those in poverty to a barrel of crabs.
“If you put crabs in a barrel with one scrap of food, you determine everything about their existence,” Buchanan said. “What you talk about is the fact that the crabs are fighting. But the issue really is not the crabs fighting. The issue is who put the crabs in the barrel.”
As income and wealth statistics make clear, blacks in Decatur have far fewer resources than their white counterparts. Wealth statistics are not available for Decatur, but nationally the average net worth of black households in 2009 was $5,677, compared to white households with a net worth of $113,149. Home ownership is the main form of net worth for most people, and Decatur statistics are available for that. Nearly two-thirds of black households rent their residences, compared to a rental rate of about one-fourth for white households.
If income and net worth are the scrap of food, the barrel is the confinement that is an inherent consequence of poverty.
“The impoverished culture doesn’t have the ability to be as mobile as someone from the upper class or middle class, either in terms of geography or income,” Buchanan said. “Try to move to Huntsville with $20 in your pocket. You just can’t do it.”
So in a perverse experiment where the dominant culture both creates the barrel and determines how much food goes into the barrel, it also judges the behavior of the crabs in their artificial environment.
“The dominant culture creates the situation and defines the reality of what’s happening,” Buchanan said. “Then the dominant culture comes in and says they’re so primitive or so uneducated or uncivilized that they can’t even take care of themselves.”
That judgment has consequences, because it is the dominant culture — through hiring, through the funding of education, through control over access to health care, even through the rules of the economic system — that determines the extent of the resources available and the extent of the confinement.
“If you take those same crabs from the barrel and dump them on the beach, they won’t mess with each other,” Buchanan said. “If you confine people to an area and limit the resources they have to survive, what do they do? It’s not peculiar to black people. You look through history, and how much violence, how many wars, have resulted from limited resources?”
Jones said the numbers are revealing, but fail to communicate the human toll that comes with desperation, a sense of futility and anger.
“Too often I see them internalize that anger,” Jones said. “They self-destruct. They have all these frustrations and see no way to change anything. That’s when you see the alcohol and drugs, and too often the crime.”
Many programs at Decatur Youth Services, including boxing and judo classes, are designed to serve as productive outlets for that frustration.
“These programs provide a safe place for kids to hang out with positive adults who are encouraging them daily,” Jones said. “They also give the kids discipline, an outlet for anger and a sense of self-worth, all the things kids need to grow up healthy, whole and productive.”
It is the nature of poverty, said Sam King, head of King James Communications Alternative School, to be cyclical. The first thing he does when taking in a new student in his GED and vocational program is to conduct a home interview. More often than not, the roots of his student’s problems are found in their environment.
“A challenge I have had is raising their self-esteem,” said King, administrator at Redeeming Love Outreach Ministries. “They have been surrounded by negativity all their lives. Mostly what they know is how to hustle, the wrong way, and they see it as a way of life.”
He recalls visiting one of his students in jail several years ago.
“There were three generations in the same cell,” King said. “My student was in there, his daddy was in there and his granddaddy. And I said to myself, ‘What chance does this kid have in life?’ He ended up doing prison time, because that’s all he knew.”
Reviewing the study showing the stark disparities between whites and blacks in Decatur, he shakes his head at the enormity of the challenge.
“We may have to deal with one category at a time,” King said. “We change it one kid at a time. We as a community need to reach out and help these individuals that are struggling. We won’t always be successful, but as a community we have the resources to change these numbers.”
King shares frustration at a system created by a dominant culture that does not always see the benefit of giving every child a chance at success.
“History has proven that those in financial power will lean toward whatever measures that will keep them in power,” King said. “Those in power can hide behind laws. Those laws may be no more than red tape to deter success, to prevent a change in these disparities.”
But King, like Jones and Buchanan, focuses less on changing the system than helping people cope with it.
“I try to make sure they face the facts. The fact is, you were raised in an impoverished situation. The fact is, you have not completed your education. They have to be held accountable for their actions,” King said. “The system — the educational system, the court system, the police system — has not always been fair to black children.
“One individual can’t fix the system, so what we try to do is work the kid through these systems so they can be successful in life.”
King’s one-on-one approach is essential, said Lang, but slow. Noticeable change requires a system that supports programs of intervention.
“To the extent you want to see a dramatic change in the correlation between race and adult outcomes, when you’re starting with a very strong correlation between economic disadvantage and race, I don’t see how you do that without some programs,” Lang said.
King said Decatur, more than most communities, has the will and the resources to initiate and expand on programs that make a difference.
“Right here in Decatur we need to make plans that work for us,” King said. “We should come together to do it. There are things that we can do. And there’s money in Decatur. Are we willing to invest in our own people? That kind of spirit will help us to crush all kinds of ethnic lines.”
King’s efforts are not always successful. Last week, he said, he spent an evening visiting a former student at the hospital. The student rejected the message of hope and accountability, King said, and he was recovering from two bullet wounds.
Yet King still finds hope in the next generation, and it is a hope rooted partly in biology.
“We have a higher rate of mixed students, where one parent is white and the other is black, than we’ve ever had in our educational system,” King said. “You can’t hate the white man when your children are half white, and vice versa. It is coming to the point where our children are not buying into the hatred that the older generation bought into. God is using another generation to fix things that we procrastinated on and couldn’t fix, to show us that we can come together.”
Eric Fleischauer can be reached at 256-340-2435 or Follow him on Twitter”>@DD_Fleischauer.

Decatur’s Demographics
Population: 55,996 residents
Blacks: 22 percent
Whites: 63 percent
Hispanic: 12 percent
Other: 3 percent
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2012 estimate

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