All posts by sara mayeux

Fascism and Jim Crow

HPhoto of James Bernard Ruckerere is James Bernard “Bunny” Rucker (1912-1992), born in Roanoke, Virginia, raised in Columbus, Ohio, veteran of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Spanish Civil War (as a volunteer with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade), and World War II (three bronze stars and a purple heart), one-time Communist Party member, later an organizer with the Progressive Party, a graduate of Columbia University thanks to the GI Bill, and then, for 20 years, the chief librarian of the East Orange Public Library in East Orange, New Jersey. Rucker made an appearance in the final pages of my college thesis, which was about African-Americans and antifascism in the 1930s. During a snowy week in January of my senior year, as the Iraq War raged on, I remember taking the train to Manhattan and making my way to the Village so that I could read Rucker’s World War II letters to his wife in NYU’s Tamiment Library, along with other materials from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade — the 2,800 or so American volunteers who traveled to Spain to fight Franco.

I suddenly remembered Rucker today because, during the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, amidst tweets displaying photographs of men at the event waving Confederate and Nazi flags, I kept seeing tweets in response about how “the United States defeated Nazis in 1945 and would do it again” and so forth. Rucker played a part in that victory but his letters offered poignant reflections on the fact that the United States that defeated Nazi Germany remained itself in the thrall of its own brand of white supremacy.

I conducted my thesis research back in 2004-05 when it was not quite as easy as it is now to google people and find obscure news articles about them. All I knew about Rucker then was what I had read in his files at the archive. Perhaps other researchers know more or could find out more about him now. Certainly I cannot really vouch, at this belated date, for whatever research methods 22-year-old me was using, so maybe I missed part of the story. Nevertheless, in case his words are of any interest today, I thought I would reproduce the following paragraphs from my senior thesis in which he appeared:  Continue reading Fascism and Jim Crow

Law and History Seminar

This spring I am teaching a new seminar on “Law and History.” In case of interest, here is the course description and a tentative list of readings. The seminar is aimed at future lawyers, not future legal historians. So, the goal is not to be comprehensive or to provide the kind of methodological instruction that a history department legal history course might attempt. Rather, the goal is to give students a sampling of different approaches and topics in legal history (with an emphasis on recent scholarship rather than attempting a full survey of “canonical” works), some insight into how historians think (or think they think) as compared to how lawyers think, and an introduction to the issues that arise when historians seek to inform or influence the law. (This post is not the complete syllabus but just a list of some of the readings I plan to include.) Continue reading Law and History Seminar

Quick thoughts on the Missouri public defender gambit

Since I am finishing up a dissertation on the history of public defenders, several friends and colleagues have alerted me to this viral story about the Missouri public defender who took the unusual step of assigning a case to his state’s governor, pursuant to a provision of state law authorizing the public defender agency to deputize private attorneys. According to the news reports, the governor in question, Jay Nixon, has repeatedly vetoed or reduced budget appropriations for the state public defender agency in recent years.

The gambit appears to have succeeded at what I assume was its goal–calling attention to the agency’s budget shortfall and thereby forcing the governor’s hand–although it remains to be seen whether any additional funding will follow as a result.

Here are a few quick thoughts placing this story into historical context:  Continue reading Quick thoughts on the Missouri public defender gambit

Federal funding for state and local public defenders- some historical context

The Nation recently published this article calling on Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to support increased federal funding to shore up state and local public defenders. This idea is not new. Indigent defense advocates have made similar proposals for decades, and the American Bar Association has been advocating for a federally funded Center for Defense Services since the 1970s (most recently with this 2013 resolution). With criminal justice reform on the political radar screen and the nation’s public defender offices entering their sixth decade of nearly permanent crisis, perhaps the time is right to revive discussion of federal funding for local public defenders. In this post I provide some historical context about past discussions of this issue.  Continue reading Federal funding for state and local public defenders- some historical context

Some thoughts on criminal justice in the news- federal mens rea reform, Bernie Sanders on prisons

After the jump, a few quick thoughts on two recent items of discussion in the criminal justice news/commentary/punditry realm–1) federal mens rea reform, and 2) Bernie Sanders’s promise to reduce the U.S. prison population. Continue reading Some thoughts on criminal justice in the news- federal mens rea reform, Bernie Sanders on prisons

American Criminal Procedure in Historical Perspective

This year I am teaching a legal history seminar looking at American criminal process. In case of interest, here are some of the main readings, with links to open access copies if I could find them and otherwise links to bibliographical or purchase information (let me know if you have more accessible links for any of these). This isn’t the exact syllabus, much less a comprehensive bibliography of the subject, but I thought it might be a useful starting point for others who might want to incorporate some of these topics into more general history courses.  Continue reading American Criminal Procedure in Historical Perspective

Detail fixation

The first episode of the hit podcast Serial began with a bit in which host Sarah Koenig asked a few teenagers to try to remember what they had done on a random day six weeks before. None of them could do so with any degree of certainty, except for one kid who happened to know it had been the day of a state test. The immediate point of the exercise was to suggest how difficult it would have been for the teenagers caught up in the 1999 murder case at the heart of Serial to have answered police officers’ questions six weeks after the events in question. But, by extension, I also took the exercise to function as a warning signal about how much more unlikely it would be that anyone could remember what exactly they were doing on a particular day when they were teenagers 15 years ago.

I thought that opening was a promising sign that the podcast would take a sophisticated approach to memory. As highlighted in a recent NYT op-ed, many of our “common sense” beliefs about memory don’t square with what scientists know about how and what people remember. For one thing, people tend to think their recollections are true if they’re really confident they’re true. Maybe, but it’s complicated. When tested in a lab, for “true” memories, “greater confidence was associated with greater accuracy.” But “for false memories, higher confidence was associated with lower accuracy.” The problem, of course, is that, outside of a lab, there’s often no way to know which category your memory falls into, in which case your confidence isn’t a reliable guide. People also tend to insist that their recollections of highly emotional or traumatic events — where were you when Kennedy was shot, or the towers fell, etc. — are fixed in lacquer. Not necessarily: “Studies find that even our ‘flashbulb memories’ of emotionally charged events can be distorted and inaccurate, but we cling to them with the greatest of confidence.”  Continue reading Detail fixation

Historiann Challenge

History prof and blogger Historiann issued a challenge for historians to self-interview about books they’ve recently read, in response to a recent New York Times Book Review interview with Civil War historian James McPherson. I suspect my reaction to the McPherson interview itself was a little different than Historiann’s, but since I am mysteriously still waiting for Vanity Fair to select me for the Proust Questionnaire, I could not resist the invitation to interview myself.

What books are currently on your night stand?

Well, the “night stand” is metaphorical but some of the books I’m currently reading include Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent novel, The LowlandPankaj Mishra’s collective intellectual biography of Asian thinkers responding to Western imperialism, From the Ruins of Empire; and for more academic purposes, the late Michael Katz’s revised edition of his very important book The Undeserving Poor. Of course, I am also always reading a bunch of stuff here and there for research.  Continue reading Historiann Challenge

Some thoughts on Goffman’s On the Run

After initially receiving mostly adulatory press (which it continues to receive, including a Malcolm Gladwell essay in the current New Yorker), the sociologist Alice Goffman’s urban ethnography On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City has started also to receive more negative attention. At the New York Times, Alex Kotlowitz raised some tentative ethical concerns in an otherwise positive notice; at Slate, Dwayne Betts sharply critiqued the book’s simplifications, in his view, of urban communities, while also wondering about the evidentiary support for some of its empirical claims; and most recently, at The New Inquiry, Christina Sharpe has called into question the morality of the entire project, positioning it within the history of “a sociological tradition that subjects black life to scholarly scrutiny” and, more specifically, within West Philadelphia’s “long and contentious history” with the University of Pennsylvania. (Goffman began researching the project as a Penn undergrad.)

I read the book earlier this summer and thought it might be useful to round up some of the marginal notes I made into a blog post (some of which I think I also discussed or referenced on Twitter while I was reading, although certainly not comprehensively). I should say that I found the early press around the book off-putting, insofar as the media lavishly praised Goffman for having the audacity to spend a few years in a neighborhood that plenty of people just, well, live in, and insofar as this coverage trafficked in the shock appeal of a young white woman living among black men, which is to say, trafficked in any number of longstanding white supremacist tropes, whether intentionally or otherwise. Still, those were issues with the coverage, not the book itself, and given the attention it’s received, and given that my academic focus encompasses criminal justice and policing, I figured it was something I should read, whatever I ended up making of it.  Continue reading Some thoughts on Goffman’s On the Run