Progressives, Racial Equality, and the State Supreme Court Primary

by Robert Kraig, Executive Director

When we announced Citizen Action of Wisconsin’s endorsement of Judge Joe Donald for State Supreme Court last week, I knew the decision would be controversial with many progressive activists and leaders. We had an extensive endorsement process, and Citizen Action’s large and diverse board of directors made the decision. If you scan our board list you will see a number of strong leaders who can’t be steamrolled by anyone. Nevertheless, I knew some of our supporters around the state would be surprised.

Since we announced our endorsement, I have had a number of excellent conversations with progressives who support JoAnne Kloppenburg. Kloppenburg lost a tight race at the height of the historic protests against Scott Walker’s war against working people, winning the heartfelt allegiance of many progressives across Wisconsin. Most of these conversations have been highly constructive because progressives, unlike conservatives, understand that people who share fundamental values can honestly disagree. In most of these conversations, we agreed to disagree and to work together in the general election. I fully understand why many progressives strongly support Judge Kloppenburg, and respect their position.

However there has been a vocal minority of activists and leaders who have taken the position that no good progressive can support Donald over Kloppenberg. Some have even accused Citizen Action of betraying our mission and values by endorsing Joe Donald. I am writing this blog to challenge that position.

For me (and I am speaking personally, not for our board, which has many diverse views) there is an extremely compelling reason to support Joe Donald. He is by far the best candidate to address one of the greatest moral problems of our age and the greatest injustice in the criminal justice system: the mass and disproportionate incarceration of African Americans for nonviolent offenses.

This is not simply one of many issues and challenges that should concern all fair minded people, it is a fundamental moral outrage at the level of slavery and Jim Crow. For any progressive who doubts this, I highly recommend Michelle Alexander’s brilliant book The New Jim Crow, which reveals a system of oppression which has created a new cast system based on race and class, stealing much of the promise of the Civil Rights era.

The massive increase in incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses, triggered by the so-called war on drugs and other alleged “tough on crime” policies have created a system where millions of African American men have been imprisoned for crimes that would not lead to the incarceration of similarly situated middle class whites, and are after release frozen out of the economic system like second class citizens. The use of the penal system to hold African Americans in a lower economic and social status is not new, as is stunningly shown in Douglas Blackmon’s book Slavery by Another Name. The loophole in the 14th Amendment used to oppress African Americans in the Jim Crow era was the provision that those convicted of crimes are excluded from constitutional rights (never mind the absence of due process or fair trials).

The shocking affront to all that we believe about basic freedom in America that has built steam since the 1980s (and participated in by both Democrats and Republicans) has been worse in Wisconsin, where the African American male and Native American male incarceration rates are the highest in the nation. The rate for African American men is more than 11x the rate for white men. According to an excellent UWM Study, over half of African American men in Milwaukee County in their 30s and 40s have spent time in state prison. The cost of this mass incarceration has not only been overwhelming for each individual (and their family) subjected to prison and then branded with a criminal record, it has cost Wisconsin state government $3.8 billion since 1990 to incarcerate the flood of African American men sentenced to prison. As a point of comparison, Wisconsin spends on corrections more than double what Minnesota spends each year.

This is not just one issue on a laundry list where we should check the box, it is one that requires exceptional public focus. The only way this modern form of racial oppression is going to be overthrown is if all progressives work to make it a moral issue that transforms the Wisconsin political landscape. One of the things that is needed is to make it a leading issue in judicial elections, especially elections to the Supreme Court. These are the only statewide elections where candidates actually talk to the public about our criminal justice system.

While there are certainly many important issues in the Supreme Court race, the mass incarceration of African American and Native American men should matter a great deal to all friends of justice and equality. It should therefore matter that Judge Joe Donald has by far the best record on this issue.

Judge Donald was one of the judicial leaders who created the drug treatment court in Milwaukee County, and was its first presiding judge. The court works to treat drug offenders, and address its fundamental causes, such as substance addiction and poverty, to dramatically reduce the number of non-violent offenders who are imprisoned. An article in Milwaukee Magazine tells the whole story of Judge’s Donald’s leadership in the creation and operation of this critical reform.

I am sure if you support Judge Kloppenburg you are thinking that she is on the right side of this issue. I don’t doubt that, but if you listen to all three candidates discuss the issue, any fair minded person would reach the conclusion that Judge Donald is the only candidate making a clear case that we need fundamental structural reform of the criminal justice system to reverse systematic violation of fundamental human rights. Watch this short video posted by WisconsinEye and observe the difference in tone and moral clarity on this issue between Donald and Kloppenburg. Also prepare to be appalled by Justice Bradley’s claim that race is not an issue at all in our legal system.

I think Judge Donald’s clear superiority on the most important moral issue facing the American system of justice (and arguably the entire American system of government) should give fair minded progressive pause before they claim that Citizen Action of Wisconsin is violating our mission by endorsing him for State Supreme Court.

This is a much bigger issue than one endorsement in one State Supreme Court race. This discussion reflects a larger social conversation we have been having since the Black Lives Matter movement began about what our moral duty really is to challenge and overturn long standing social institutions and practices which perpetuate racial inequality (think about the structure of our economy and our education system). Many young African Americans feel that white progressives talk a good game, but are not really willing to make the commitments and sacrifices necessary to fundamentally change the system. Are places like Seattle and Madison which are run by white progressive really better places for young African Americans? While it is certainly true that a core conservative strategy is the exploitation of coded and uncoded racial appeal to divide people and build power based on stereotypes and hate, is opposing that kind of overt racial demagoguery really enough? Or do progressives have a moral duty to actually win  meaningful fundamental reforms that breaks the structures which perpetuate a deeply unequal society?

This fundamental question has become an issue in the Democratic presidential primary. Hillary Clinton’s statement in Iowa recently that the rise of Jim Crow in the late 19th Century might have been averted if post-Civil War Reconstruction had been less harsh, is out of step with the current historical consensus that the fundamental goal of southern leaders was to restore white supremacy through any means necessary. Reconstruction was a noble failure, not the cause of the renewed oppression of African Americans.

Nor has Bernie Sanders been immune from controversy over his positions on racial equality. He has had at times a rocky interactions with Black Lives Matter activists. Recently Ta-Nesihi Coates, the author of the must read article in The Atlantic making the case for reparations, critiqued Bernie Sanders for his flat rejection of reparations as a remedy for historic racial oppression. Whether or not you agree, with Coats’ arguments for reparations, he raises the critical point that progressive champions like Sanders sometimes seem more willing to promote  positions such as Medicare for All, which are not possible in the current political context, but are more hesitant to embrace similarly bold positions on racial injustice.

None of this is to say that Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders are on the wrong side of the fight to finally achieve the full promise of American life for everyone. My point is that all progressives need to continue to struggle with how we challenge deeply entrenched racial inequality, and actually create (not just talk about) an America that lives up to its ideals. This needs to be at the center of our thoughts, not just one of a laundry list of issues and causes, as we redefine what it means to be a true progressive in the 21st Century.

We had an in depth discussion last year about the relationship between progressives and Black Lives Matter movement on the Battleground Wisconsin Podcast with Brandi Grayson, co-founder of Young, Gifted and Black and Nate Hamilton, co-founder of The Coalition for Justice.

On the moral outrage of Wisconsin’s systematic mass incarceration of young African American men, Judge Joe Donald has by far the best record, and the more clearly articulated position, in the Wisconsin State Supreme Court election. And for that reason, I am proud that Citizen Action of Wisconsin’s board of directors chose to endorse him.

Postscript: If you would like to get involved in the fight against mass incarceration, I strongly recommend working with one of Citizen Action of Wisconsin’s closest allies, the faith-based network WISDOM, which has affiliates all across the state. For more information on their campaign of moral suasion click here.



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  • commented 2016-02-13 16:57:32 -0600
    Sounds like the only reason you like Joe Donald is because he’s black and you think that there has been an unequal system which incarcerated black more than white and somehow Joe can fix this. Ridiculous! His qualifications pale when compared to Kloppenburg. Vote for a leader and expert in the law. Vote for Judge Kloppenburg!
  • commented 2016-02-10 12:32:10 -0600
    Robert Kraig, you’ve done an excellent job explaining why Judge Joe Donald is needed on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. I think all the state’s citizens should read your blog before voting in the Feb. 16 election.