Black folk must stop trying to avoid jury duty We need to join the system to counter its discriminatory effects

Along with more than 50 strangers, I filed into a San Diego courtroom a few years ago. I ambled to my seat in the jury box, plucked a white laminated piece of paper from the wooden chair, plopped down and skimmed it.

“Have you ever been arrested?”

“Do you know of anyone who has been a victim of a crime?”

Those two questions seized my attention. Does answering yes, I pondered, indicate less fitness for jury service? I next scanned the unfamiliar faces.

Ahead and slightly to my left, a clean-cut white man, the prosecutor, sat at a table canvassing the room’s new entrants. Across from him and farther away from me sat a slightly less polished white man, the defense counsel. He also spent much of his time studying us. In the chair to his left, a young dark-skinned black man with short locs alternated between staring vacantly downward and forward and conferring with his attorney. The judge called me by my new name, Prospective Juror No. 4. If chosen, I would help determine whether the state should imprison this brother for first-degree murder.

I figured I wouldn’t get to serve on that jury, though. California law, in first-degree murder cases, grants the prosecution and defense 20 “peremptory strikes,” the right to excuse a prospective juror without providing a reason. I thought the prosecutor would use one on me for two reasons.

First, I’m a lawyer. Many prosecutors recoil at the prospect of a lawyer juror. The state carried the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant murdered someone, a burden more easily shouldered with a jury of minds more malleable than that of a lawyer, particularly one who focused on race, white supremacy and discrimination.

Second, I’m a black man, about eight years older than the defendant. A troubling reality ricocheted around inside my mind — prosecutors strike black folk from juries at a higher rate, especially when a black defendant stands accused.

I surveyed the other potential jurors, devoting special attention to the few black faces. More Hispanic faces peppered the bunch, but not many. White faces? Only covering my eyes or staring at the ceiling would block them from my vision. Understanding the history of the all-white jury being employed to nearly guarantee convictions of people of color, I fretted about that possibility here. Right then, I decided if I detected a whiff of anything strange — I couldn’t define strange other than by paraphrasing Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s remark about obscenity: I know it when I smell it — I would speak forthrightly about implicit racial bias.

When the prosecutor questioned me to determine whether I would be a favorable juror, he clumsily identified the victim as a black man, cueing me to identify with him. Next, he described a San Diego Police Department policy of tracking local gangs by approaching youths in certain neighborhoods to ascertain which had gang affiliations. He inquired about my feelings on the matter, though no other juror.

A few questions in, I smelled it.

When he asked me a general question about bias — positive I was going home soon, regardless — I veered into a discussion about implicit racial bias. I described what it meant, tailoring the message for the situation. In a room full of white people, I noted that although all of them likely envisioned themselves as good, egalitarian people, the negative stereotypes American culture broadcasts about people of color, particularly black men, barrage them daily. These implicit messages taint how they interpret situations, a phenomenon that affects us all, including people of color. But if we acknowledge that these biases afflict our minds and strive to mitigate their power, we can reach fair decisions. The already quiet room plunged to a new degree of silence.

I knew I wouldn’t serve on the jury. I nevertheless hoped to leave a message that would remain with those who did: The defendant’s blackness provided no evidence of his guilt, but their brains probably assumed it did and they likely weren’t aware of that.

Once we reconvened after lunch, the prosecutor struck me from the jury. My recognition of the many horrors produced by the criminal justice system had compelled me to stand in the ring and fight back, in my own way. I soon learned that systemic injustice led others to adopt a different posture.

A few months back, I pitched my editor a story idea: to interview black prosecutors on the state of black jury service. Are juries as diverse as they should be? If not, why? Do they know if their colleagues strike prospective black jurors because of race? The path I traveled for this story forked into a new direction when a black Southern prosecutor, who wanted to remain unnamed so he could speak frankly and in detail, let loose on black folk who avoid jury service because they don’t want to work within a racist system.

“[Some black] people think that whatever they do, it’s not going to matter. They think the system isn’t designed for them. So when you’ve got a bunch of people thinking that the system is rigged or the system is fixed anyway, then it’s almost like, what difference does it make? It’s only set up to keep the black man down.”

The prosecutor continued: “If you start acting like that about the system, thinking that you need a complete separate system for yourself, you become part of the problem. And it’s nothing better than being an obstructionist. … They tell themselves, ‘I don’t care what ends up happening. You know it’s set up against black folks, so why does anything matter what I say or what I do?’ ”

I spoke to William Snowden, a New Orleans public defender and founder of The Juror Project, an organization focusing on instructing minority community members that their presence in the jury box helps the criminal justice system operate more equitably. He likewise traces apathy toward jury service to feelings of helplessness.

Snowden notices “a mindset of negativity around jury duty and thinking that it’s something that they should get out of and not understanding the importance that they can have in actually being in the deliberation room. Additionally, there is a large community of people of color that have had negative experiences with the criminal justice system, and when they get invited in to kind of be part of it, their initial gut reaction is that this is a bad system. This is an unfair system. And I don’t want to be part of this injustice that kind of gets carried out on a regular basis.

“I think the problem is we have too many black folk,” the prosecutor bluntly stated, “especially in the South, that are saying things to not be on the jury.” He said he often observes black prospective jurors expressing views that indicate they want nothing to do with the system. He told me about a black woman saying she couldn’t judge anyone because of her Christianity, meaning she would never convict the defendant. When prompted to articulate Scripture supporting her views, she floundered.

Snowden unloaded similar tales. “ ‘I can’t vote guilty for someone who is charged with possession of crack cocaine because I don’t believe in this war on drugs and I don’t believe in incarcerating drug addicts.’ When you say something along those lines, the prosecutor will move for what’s called a legal-cause strike to get you kicked off the jury.”

When I heard this, I remembered a white woman from my jury duty experience. She seemingly wanted to get out of her civic responsibility by maligning the system as too racist for her to discharge the duties of a juror. Don’t many, regardless of race, seek to avoid jury duty, I wondered? Polling helps answer this: A Pew Research survey recently found that 58 percent of black people, 61 percent of Hispanic folk and 71 percent of white people, recognize jury service as a mark of good citizenship.

What both men discussed was helplessness leading to apathy, a mental state one should expect to detect principally in minority populations. Their viewing of this dilemma through a racial lens made perfect sense.

Snowden informs those he interacts with for The Juror Project that diversity elevates the system. “What the research shows,” he said, “is when [people of varying viewpoints] get in a room, they are going to have longer deliberations. They’re going to ask more questions and more objective decisions are going to be made. So when we increase the diversity across the board with race, with gender, socioeconomic status, we’re going to get a better outcome.” He delivers a simple message: “Your minority perspective in [the deliberation] room can have a large impact on that particular trial.”

These remarks recalled an episode from ABC’s black-ish. In the episode, titled One Angry Man, lead character Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) must serve on a jury. He initially plans on surreptitiously listening to an audiobook during the trial, sneaking an earbud into his left ear. But then the defendant — a young black man charged with burglary and grand larceny represented by an ill-prepared, fumbling public defender — captures his attention and his mood switches. His gaze shifts to his fellow jurors. Eleven white faces. One black one. His. He yanks out his earbud. This nightmare, upon reflection, presented him a great opportunity to achieve some good.

Andre deeply cares about racism and the status of black folk, wanting to parent kids aware of the broader racial struggle as they grow up with access to wealth and resources that few black kids enjoy, including himself, a poor black boy from Compton, California. Provided a chance to make an unjust system fairer, he almost allowed it to slip away. If the a ha moment had never struck him, Andre would have been complicit with the racism and discrimination he rails against in each episode.

We must stamp the complicit label on the sort of black folk Snowden and the prosecutor mentioned. That some feel mired in despondency must elicit sympathy and empathy. But feelings of helplessness only exacerbate the situation if it produces complacency and withdrawal rather than action. Instead of exercising agency, they relinquish their power to act at all. In fact, they gift the unjust system what it covets — their voices muzzled, their presence nonexistent and white folk with unfettered control over the scepter.

Those I interviewed described real people who represent an unknowable number who need to grasp this truism: Defeatism breeds complicity.

‘Playing While White’ examines privilege on and off the field New book says that sports, like America itself, is a place where race matters

Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field by Washington State University professor David J. Leonard shines a light on whiteness in sports culture and the ways in which white athletes are characterized compared with black athletes. Leonard wrote an adaptation from his book, released in July, for The Undefeated.

Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field explores the ways that white athletes are profiled as intelligent leaders, hard workers, underdogs and role models.

Exploring a spectrum of athletes from Tom Brady to Johnny Manziel, several teams, including Wisconsin basketball and the St. Louis Cardinals, as well as extreme sports, NASCAR and lacrosse, I look at the ways whiteness is imagined within America’s sporting cultures.

America’s sporting fields are not postracial promised lands; they are not places where race doesn’t matter because the only thing that counts is whether you can score touchdowns or make buckets. Sports is not the “colorblind mecca” that we are routinely promised each and every weekend.

Sports, like America itself, is a place where race matters. While writing about the NBA, USC professor Todd Boyd makes this clear, writing that sports “remains one of the few places in American society where there is a consistent racial discourse.”

It is a place where anti-black racism is ubiquitous, from the press box to the coach’s office, from the stands to the White House. It is also a place where the privileges of whiteness are commonplace.

After my book was published, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich highlighted the nature of white privilege, or what it means to be #PlayingWhileWhite inside and outside the sporting arena.

“It’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash,” Popovich said during a recent news conference. “You’ve got that kind of a lead, yes, because you were born white. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically rare. And they’ve been built up and cemented for hundreds of years.”

The power of whiteness can be seen in the celebration of Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Tim Tebow and countless white athletes as leaders and role models on and off the field. Praised as disciplined, hardworking and humble, while their black peers are consistently depicted as either “ungrateful millionaires” or “natural athletes,” the power of race can be seen in the descriptors afforded different athletes.

To be a white athlete is to be a scrappy and gritty player, whose motor never stops, whose “drive never relents” and whose determination is unmatched. To be a white athlete is to “play the right way,” to be unselfish, to be without ego and to always put winning and team first and foremost. These sorts of racially stratified descriptors are common in the sports media, from coaches and general managers, and from fans alike. As are the consistent attribution of hard work and intelligence to white athletes whose IQs, work ethic and intangibles are the source of constant celebration. To be a white athlete is to be cerebral, a student of the game, a throwback to a different era.

The power of whiteness is equally evident in the trash talk of John Stockton, Larry Bird, Brady and Manziel. Amid widespread nostalgia for greater sportsmanship and respect for the game, whereupon hip-hop and black athletes are blamed for the intrusion of toxic values, the trash-talking of white athletes is either ignored or celebrated as evidence of their passion for the game and competitiveness.

Brady is what #PlayingWhileWhite looks like inside and outside of sports. Despite coming from immense privilege and opportunity, earning a scholarship to the University of Michigan and being drafted into the NFL, Brady has been recast as an underdog, who through hard work, intelligence, dedication and unselfishness has become the league’s greatest quarterback. He’s a winner and a leader. Yet he also is a victim of being underestimated, and of those who “falsely” accused him of cheating. The story of Brady is the story of whiteness, of advantages and systematically produced opportunities.

White privilege is also the celebration of Bill Belichick’s hoodie as African-American youths are seen as criminals and “thugs” for their similar clothing choices. It is “Gronk being Gronk,” while any number of black athletes are denounced as selfish and out of control.

White privilege is the NASCAR CEO endorsing Donald Trump, while its fans historically waved the Confederate flag, all while it threatens consequences to anyone who protests during the national anthem.

White privilege is fights in hockey, among NASCAR pit crews and in baseball being recast as tradition, as fun and as part of the game, while the shoving matches in the NBA prompt national panics.

White privilege is silence about drug use in extreme sports and in those white-dominated collegiate sports amid headlines about NFL and NBA marijuana arrests and a war on drugs waged in black and Latino communities.

To #PlayWhileWhite is to be seen as smart, scrappy, determined and a leader. #PlayingWhileWhite is to win, to be celebrated in victory, redeemed in defeat, lifted up when down and sympathized with by others as a real or imagined victim. It is to be innocent and a repository of excuses for failure. It is being empowered to be silent; it is being seen as a person and not just as an athlete, as a commodity, as someone who dunks or makes spectacular catches. And that privilege is bigger than any contract, any commercial and any award, one that extends beyond the playing field.

Daily Dose: 10/4/17 Kennedy Center creates its first hip-hop season

All right, gang, there’s another Around The Horn appearance Wednesday for moi, my second of the week, which won’t even be my last one.

Things are changing at the Kennedy Center. The nationally renowned performing arts center has long been the purview of so-called fine arts, your ballets, operas and stage plays of the world. But now that jazz and hip-hop have been part of the scene for some time, they are officially being brought into the fold. New hip-hop director Simone Eccleston has been working with A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, KenCen’s first artistic director of hip-hop, and now we’ve got a full season of the culture. It’s so great to see us in these spaces.

Birmingham, Alabama, has a new mayor. And not just any old candidate. They’ve got Randall Woodfin, who, at 36 years old, is the youngest person to hold the position in more than a hundred years. Why does this matter? For one, he beat a guy who’s been in local Alabama politics for 40 years in William Bell. Secondly, he was also backed by Bernie Sanders. Meaning, if some wave of momentum in the South can suddenly overtake ballot boxes, we could finally see some things moving forward in that part of the country.

It feels like everything Larry Wilmore touches turns to gold. Even though his late-night show with Comedy Central was canceled, we all recognized its necessity, and it was certainly not a conceptual failure overall. Of course, he’s one of the lead writers of ABC’s black-ish, which is a hit by any measure of television or social capital. Now, teaming up with the great Viola Davis, they’ll be creating a comedy series called Black Don’t Crack, which will center on three sorority sisters who are reconnecting after years apart. YES.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the most exciting players in the NBA. He’s also a big-time family person, considering their journey to where they are now. Unfortunately, he recently lost someone very important to him: his father. His dad was a soccer player and helped G and his brother become the ballers they are today. Their relationship was one that the Milwaukee Bucks fostered, and they also helped try to get his family over from Greece. The timetable for Giannis’ return is now up in the air. Hope this season isn’t a wash for him.

Free Food

Coffee Break: These days, we keep music in only a couple of different ways. Most people keep them on hard drives, some people keep them on their phones, and others don’t even bother with that and just stay in the cloud. Now, we’re encoding music onto DNA. Miles Davis is one of the first to have that done for his work.

Snack Time: Fixing things isn’t easy. And that’s just assuming you’re allowed to. But with so many products under various warranties and agreements, people want their right to repair back.

Dessert: If you don’t like food podcasts, I don’t know what to tell you. Here’s a good episode.

Figgers Communication is sending satellite phones to help families affected by the hurricanes Freddie Figgers says he wants to help families communicate with each other

From the moment Freddie Figgers found out about the devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, he knew he had to step in and do something. So the 28-year-old founder and owner of Figgers Communication sent Puerto Rico 500 satellite phones with unlimited calls, texts and data.

“The hurricane destroyed the entire island’s telecommunications network,” Figgers said. “We’re trying to do all we can to help these families communicate with each other, especially their loved ones.”

Figgers Communication is one of the nation’s largest African-American-owned cellphone companies and networks and is one of the few telecoms in the country that manufactures its own phone. Figgers designs his own phones and developed his network himself. Four years ago, his custom-designed phone, the F1, already had automatic anti-texting functionality and superfast charging.

According to Figgers, the SIM cards in the phones sent to Puerto Rico are fully activated for 90 days free of charge.

“We all need to do our part to make sure that Puerto Rico gets back on its feet. These SIM cards and phones will be distributed out in San Juan to individual families and at San Juan Airport.”

Figgers’ own journey started in the tech field when he was just a child with an extreme curiosity about computers. At the tender age of 9, he disassembled an old IBM personal computer that his father bought at a local Goodwill store. By the sixth time, it was fully functional again. He held computer technical jobs for the city of Quincy, Florida, during his teenage years, and by the time he was 15 he’d started his own business, Figgers Computers, repairing computers and installing wireless area networks. By age 17, he’d created a cloud-based hosting network that stored data for more than 70 clients: law firms, car dealerships and dozens of other companies. By age 18, he’d created his own computer operating system. Now he wants to use what he’s accomplished to help others when he can.

Figgers also designed a Voice over Internet Protocol network that transmits voice to and from the U.S. from more than 80 countries’ landline and mobile connections.

According to its website, Figgers Communication is a privately held telecommunications company owned and operated by Figgers, a software engineer, computer programmer and entrepreneur. The company provides cellular, mobile broadband, home phone and international calling services.

The company’s mission “is to expand the horizons to which to keep you connected to communicate. Enjoy seamless downloading and entertainment through wireless internet, which is much faster and cheaper than DSL. Providing nationwide coverage, we are proud of the fantastic services we provide. We embrace digital communication because we all are a part of the efficient and smart generation that does everything online.”

Next month, Figgers is releasing the F2 phone, which will be waterproof and shatterproof. But for now, his focus is making sure families in need have the communication they need.