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Mea Culpa

Mea Culpa: Lessons on Law and Regret from U.S. History

Steven W. Bender
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Mea Culpa
    Book Description:

    InMea Culpa, Steven W. Bender examines how the United States' collective shame about its past has shaped the evolution of law and behavior. We regret slavery and segregationist Jim Crow laws: we craft our legislation in response to that regret. By examining policies and practices that affected the lives of groups that have been historically marginalized and oppressed, Bender is able to draw persuasive connections between shame and its eventual legal manifestations. Analyzing the United States' historical response to its own atrocities, Bender identifies and develops a definitive moral compass that guides us away from the policies and practices that lead to societal regret.

    Mea Culpachallenges its readers. We think of ourselves as exceptional and enlightened, but are we really? In a different era, might we have been slave owners or proprietors of a racially segregated establishment? It's easy to judge immorality in the hindsight of history, but what current practices and policies will later generations regret?

    More than a historical survey, this volume offers a framework for resolving some of the most contentious social problems of our time. Drawing on his background as a legal scholar, Bender tackles immigration, the death penalty, the war on terror, reproductive rights, welfare, wage inequity, homelessness, mass incarceration, and same sex marriage. Ultimately, he argues, it is the dehumanization of human beings that allows for practices to occur that will later be marked as regrettable. And all of us have a stake in standing on the side of history that resists dehumanization.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-7673-0
    Subjects: History, Law

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    Although this book aims to benefit our time in history, its origins are selfish. As the author of several books extolling the virtues of immigrants and decrying the negative constructions of Latinos/as in the American imagination, I constantly receive criticism to the effect that I am swimming against the current and should realize the dangers that immigration and, specifically, Latino/a immigrants pose to our culture, safety, and economy. With each book I write, and each talk I give, the body of my accumulating work speaks to my identity as a compassionate scholar and, it seems at times and in some...

  5. 1 Regret: Frameworks for Prediction
    (pp. 12-25)

    I began this project with a strong sense that our mistreatment of immigrants was at the forefront of U.S. policies we would come to regret, but I lacked a framework to reinforce that instinct or to reveal other regrettable practices. The first few years of this research project, then, entailed a search for predictive clues—some moral compass to guide our policy choices. Below I discuss some of the frameworks I considered and rejected on the road to locating that trusty moral compass.

    Having been steeped in Catholicism during my formative education in Los Angeles–area Catholic schools, I considered...

  6. 2 What Dehumanization Predicts: The Landscapes of Future Regret
    (pp. 26-34)

    Armed with the moral compass of dehumanization, we can readily map the landscapes of future regret. As explored in subsequent chapters, as a society we tend to regard undocumented immigrants (the majority of them Mexican), farmworkers (the vast majority of them Mexican), welfare recipients and the homeless, homosexuals, Muslims and Muslim-appearing individuals, and death-row inmates as subhuman. Although we may not view death-row inmates, commonly seen as vile monsters, in the exact same way in which we view so-called welfare queens, at bottom our generalized lack of regard for these and other dehumanized groups leads to laws and practices that...

  7. 3 Aliens, Illegals, Wetbacks, and Anchor Babies: The Dehumanization of Immigrant Workers and Their Families
    (pp. 35-58)

    Foremost in my mind in drawing this broad canvas of societal regret is our shameful and demeaning treatment of undocumented immigrants as less than human—as “aliens,” “illegals,” and “wetbacks”—as what a California state senator, William Craven in 1993, meant in referring to the children of undocumented immigrants as a people “perhaps on the lower scale of our humanity.”¹ During the previous two decades, when I championed the legacy of immigrants to the United States, documented or not, I had no doubt about the humanity of immigrants and therefore the virtues of my promoting compassionate immigration policies. Ignoring vicious...

  8. 4 Beasts of Burden: Farmworkers in the U.S. Field of Dreams
    (pp. 59-75)

    The largely negative societal view of Mexicans, Latinos/as, and particularly Latino/a immigrants, readily extends to farmworkers. Although early in the twentieth century “Okies” represented the face of the U.S. farmworker in the West, as did black laborers in the South, along with a variety of immigrant groups such as Japanese and Filipinos in the Far West, over time Mexican immigrants replaced these workers in all corners of the United States. For example, California’s agricultural workforce, less than half of which was Latino/a in 1965, became over 97 percent Latino/a, the vast majority of Mexican background, by the mid-1990s.¹ Confirming this...

  9. 5 The Wages of Poverty: Inequality, Welfare Queens, and the Homeless
    (pp. 76-92)

    Farmworkers, many of them impoverished, are the poorest of U.S. workers and demonstrate that our residents may have jobs but still suffer poverty. Our farmworkers tend to remain invisible within U.S. rural settings, as does the so-called underclass that services the cities, from dishwashing in restaurants to mowing lawns and cleaning hotel rooms. Hurricane Katrina briefly exposed the broad swaths of poverty extending into our urban landscapes, manifested during that crisis in the divide between those with the means to depart and to afford temporary housing and those left behind. Whether invisible or exposed, working or not, our poor garner...

  10. 6 Sexuality and Dehumanization: Homophobia in U.S. Law and Life
    (pp. 93-100)

    Despite considerable progress in their legal and societal treatment since the 1960s, for the most part the U.S. homosexual population remains constructed in subhuman terms. Pejorative terms abound such asfag,faggot,fairy,queer,fruit,sissy,dyke, andhomo, as well as the dismissive retort of “no homo” in today’s hip-hop culture. Despite the Supreme Court’s invalidation in 2003 of criminal antisodomy laws, which were previously enforced against LGBT populations, opportunities remain for constructing the U.S. sexual minority population in criminal, and thus subhuman, terms. Singer Anita Bryant, a staunch critic of gay equality, famously galvanized voters in Florida against...

  11. 7 Dehumanizing Criminals: The Monsters of Death Row
    (pp. 101-112)

    My father once offered me his views on the death penalty; they made sense to me, especially when I had my own son years later. He declared his opposition to capital punishment, unless of course one of his children was murdered. As a parent I could understand his need for retributive justice and repeated it often as my own position. On further reflection, however, his reasoning raised many questions. What if the victim’s parents were deceased? What if the killer was the parent? Or the child killed a sibling? What if the killer had his or her own children, who...

  12. 8 Flying While Muslim: “Ragheads” and Human Rights
    (pp. 113-125)

    Even before September 11th, Arabs and Muslims were frequent targets of subhuman constructions, with Hollywood films describing them as “jackals,” “towel-heads,” “sons of dogs,” “scum-buckets,” “sons of unnamed goats,” “pigs,” “rats,” and “camel-dicks.”¹ Particularly vile characterizations included variations on familiar slurs of African Americans: “sand niggers” and “dune coons.” After the September 11th attacks, the images became even more ominous, vicious, and urgent, as represented by a cartoon that depicted an evolutionary chart, with a bearded Middle Easterner positioned between apes and Uncle Sam plunging a knife into Uncle Sam’s back.² Muslims in particular were constructed as terrorists—as cowardly...

  13. 9 From Slavery to the New Jim Crow of Mass Incarceration: The Ongoing Dehumanization of African Americans
    (pp. 126-148)

    While conceptualizing this book I would ask friends and colleagues to identify the most regrettable policy or practice in U.S. history. Not surprisingly, slavery came up most often. As readily demonstrated in this book and elsewhere, subhuman images of black slaves accompanied this abominable practice. Yet despite the abolition of slavery as declared by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, subhuman constructions of African Americans abound today, accompanied by policies and practices that continue their past subordination.

    Here, I examine what it means for overcoming subhuman constructions that they persist even in the face of acknowledged regret...

  14. 10 You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby? Gender and Dehumanization
    (pp. 149-159)

    No doubt women in the United States have advanced considerably toward equality since the nineteenth century, when they were denied the right to vote and excluded from higher education and certain professions. Nevertheless, women suffer ongoing subordination that questions their decision making about their bodies and the value of their contributions in the workplace. They also routinely experience the violence of gender hatred in the form of rape, domestic abuse, and other attacks. Before discussing this continuing oppression it is important to recognize the unique dynamics that surround the subordination of women. As discussed below, the image of women was...

  15. 11 International Dehumanization
    (pp. 160-166)

    As mentioned in the Introduction, although my focus is on domestic regret, much of the landscape of regret detailed above has international dimensions. Most evidently, our vilification of Muslims and Muslim-appearing individuals in prosecuting the War on Terror encompasses fronts both domestic (such as the interrogative profiling of these groups and antimosque and anti-Sharia law efforts) and international (the torture of suspected terrorists at locations abroad and U.S. military interventions in Iraq and elsewhere). Immigration is another domestic policy with an international impact. In addition to drawing Mexican laborers, the incessant lure by U.S. employers dependent on cheap immigrant labor...

  16. Conclusion: A Blueprint for Humanization through Compassion
    (pp. 167-188)

    Having examined the absence of humanity for a number of U.S. groups and individuals throughout this book and the connection of subhuman images to regrettable U.S. policies, in this final chapter I question whether we can reshape those subhuman constructions to restore humanity and help establish and ensure our legacy as a generation of vision and compassion. The pessimists among us can point to at least two nagging shortfalls in the task of imagining and restoring a fully human image. First, as detailed in Chapters 9 and 10 and below, the process of humanization might take generations to accomplish, and,...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 189-236)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 237-240)
    (pp. 241-241)