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Chapter Sixteen: About Lawyers and Politicians

I may be accused of hating black people and immigrants if I continue to express this kind of opinion. Let me say in defense that, for the most part, nonimmigrant white professionals are my problem. The presumably downtrodden immigrants and blacks are pawns in a game played for profit by these professionals; for it’s an American tradition to use others as a front while seeking to advance one’s own interest. To whom do I refer? First we have the Democratic party, working hard to capture votes from these groups by expressing grievances on their behalf. Second we have lawyers, also interested in grievances, but, in this case, focusing on complaints that can be brought to court.

I am the type of person against whom grievances are brought. It is not that I am personally predisposed to cause injury to another; rather, the grievances stem from the nature I received at birth and the nature of my occupation. Politicians will be interested in the fact that I am a white male who can be lambasted for failings of his group and then outvoted. Lawyers will find profit in the fact that I am an inner-city landlord. Deep-pockets justice puts their dinner on the table.

With respect to African Americans, Bill Clinton has shown that a friendly nod and a wink can win their votes, regardless of policies. All you have to do is play the game of racial victimhood. An oppressed class, however, requires an oppressor; and that’s where my kind fits in. In theory, we know that people should be treated on the basis of the content of their character and not their skin color. Individuals, not groups, are judged under the law. But if there are good and bad people in any group, only certain types of people can be called “racist” according to the prevalent interpretation of that word. Black people with the same attitudes and behaviors as racist whites are not “racist” because, by definition, they cannot be. The politically correct definition of racism is “prejudice plus power”, not prejudice alone. The argument is made that, because whites are the majority population and hold most leadership positions, only whites can have power. Therefore, only whites can be racist.

A problem with this argument is that the most “racist” elements within white society tend to be people without power. The Civil Rights movement was directed mainly against poor rural populations in the nation’s poorest section, the South. The rich educated classes favored racial integration to a greater degree. Indeed, “racism” became such a pejorative term precisely because it contained the idea of being lower class. One-sided definitions of racism are self-serving and specious as political talk in general tends to be.

Immigrant populations have always been grist for the political grinders who sometimes do them favors but always want votes. The life of immigrants has traditionally been tough. They are vulnerable to economic exploitation. If it were not so, the business class would not actively support open or loose immigration. In past generations, immigrant groups have applied themselves to their new situation, worked hard, and thrived. They expected and received few excuses for failure. The problem today is that politicians of the Democratic persuasion have added immigrants to the list of officially victimized groups. There is welfare available for indigent persons among them where, in previous generations, there was not. Certain ones among the immigrants quickly pick up on the fact that they have political leverage which others may not have.

As the discipline of a hard life is relaxed, attitudes become cocky, even cynical. (A friend sent me a scurrilous poem from from the Internet which captures a sense of this feeling. It is reprinted in Appendix G.) America seems to be a place where anything goes. Bad behavior is treated almost the same way as good behavior. In that environment, group morals tend to degenerate. It would be easy, in that case, to point the finger at the misbehaving immigrants or their delinquent children. I would argue that the fault, instead, lies with the politicians and lawyers. They are the ones who made the difference.

The most difficult case is Islamic terrorism. Immigrants admitted legally into the United States committed the worst acts of violence in our history when they carried out those September 11th attacks. What should be the community’s response to the attacks? A renewed commitment to maintaining the civil liberties of Arab-Americans? I don’t think so. Profuse statements about the glories of the Islamic religion? I am suspicious of the fact that it took the terrorist attacks for people to discover the many good things about Islam. Like any self-respecting nation, we Americans must take the necessary steps to protect ourselves from further violence. That is government’s first priority. When violent attacks are made upon our people, we should expect all citizens and residents of the United States to condemn the attacks with a clear voice.

Immigrants owe a certain amount of loyalty to a nation which gave them shelter. Some reports indicate that the reaction from the Arab-American and Islamic communities has fallen short of that mark. A retired CIA official told the New Yorker that members of the U.S. intelligence community believe that these groups have sheltered terrorists instead of reporting them to authorities. Our national leaders need to use as much of their political capital as necessary to put effective security measures in place even if this means transgressing political norms that have prevailed since the Civil Rights era.

Having said that, I also believe that incompetence on the part of U.S. intelligence, immigration, and security officials was largely responsible for the success of the September 11th attacks. When the INS sends Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi final approval of their student visas six months after they piloted aircraft into the World Trade Center, one suspects that there’s more to security problems than meets the eye. Before our government makes sweeping changes in the name of fighting terrorism, it needs to assure the public that the fundamentals of sound national security have been met. Otherwise, all this governmental sound and fury could be a smoke screen.

It may well be that many individuals of Middle Eastern descent have been improperly arrested and detained. The case of prisoners held in legal limbo, without access to lawyers or specific charges brought against them, seems obviously to reflect questionable policies. I also doubt the justice of seeking the death penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui when his crime was wanting to commit terroristic acts. It makes little sense to put student visas from China on hold for an indefinite period in order to fight terrorism. Instead, we need such things as government computers that can talk with each other, intelligence agents and police who talk with immigration officials, and an end to the “visa express” system in Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps the most egregious “security measure” is the Bush Administration’s proposal to go to war with Iraq. Wars, even if effective, kill many innocent people. International terrorism is a problem for the international political community rather than for a single national government, albeit a military superpower.

As a landlord, I have employed Mexican roofers who did quality work. I have had Mexican, Somali, Hmong, and other immigrant tenants who have paid their rent on time and not caused damage to the property. Day in and day out, business people of Middle Eastern extraction operate most of the small shops in my neighborhood. I have made a reasonably good living from renting apartments to a predominantly African-American clientele. The African-American caretaker has done a good job of making needed repairs and keeping the place clean. Without help from people of different races and nationalities, I would not still be in business.

So why am I making an issue of immigrants or the African American community? It is because the politics of immigration and race are amiss.There is a disconnection between relations among persons of these various groups as I personally know them and what I read in the newspaper. My inner-city neighborhood is not seething with racial difficulties, not to my knowledge at least. Enter the lawyers and the picture changes dramatically. There must be discrimination in our community because that gives lawyers an opening to ply their trade. There must be social injustice for the politicians to fix.

As a landlord, I sometimes feel that I am surrounded by sharks waiting for me to make a wrong move. On KMOJ, the local African-American radio station, I heard several public-service announcements which let people know that there are almost a dozen ways that landlords can illegally discriminate against tenants. The Urban League has a hot line for tenants to report problems and learn possible legal remedies. Vanessa Williams, too, has a recorded message about this. I have heard of social-service agencies that conduct sting operations against landlords who might be engaging in racial discrimination. If you have an apartment vacancy, they will send two teams of persons posing as prospective applicants, one white and the other black, to see if you treat them differently. If you make the wrong choice, you wind up in court. A landlord friend tells the story of an applicant with an arrest on his record whom he sent downtown for a document relating to its disposition in court. An employee at City Hall told this man he had a discrimination case against my friend - presumably, discrimination against persons who had served their sentence for a crime. Fortunately, the applicant did not pursue the complaint.

In 1997, however, a Minneapolis jury awarded an African American tenant $490,181 because the landlord had exhibited four different types of discrimination - race, gender, disability, and public-assistance status - against her and her children. Allegedly, he had used the “n-word”. The landlord, whom I interviewed, denied saying it. The tenant had claimed that the furnace was not working but would not let anyone into her unit to fix it. When, after knocking, the landlord entered this apartment to check the thermostat at the furnace repairman’s request, the tenant claimed that he was peeking at her in the bathroom. That’s how the dispute started. Financially put threw the wringer, this landlord is now dead. The tenant used the proceeds of her settlement to buy a house and new furniture. The plaintiff’s attorney used her court victory as a springboard to run for the state legislature as a DFL-endorsed candidate.

There is an industry of legal-aid and other attorneys who specialize in housing discrimination cases. While this is considered bottom-feeding for the large law firms in town, they do sometimes assign their new employees to such cases to gain trial experience. (Even if the work is done pro bono, these firms can collect fees if they win the case.) The legal-aid attorneys are entrepreneurs of the law, seeking to develop new angles to prove discrimination.

I once attended a legal workshop to learn how these people operate. The presenter was discussing cases of discrimination against Somali tenants. I always assumed that if a landlord had fewer Somali tenants than their share of the population, he might be vulnerable to discrimination lawsuits. At this workshop, I learned that the landlord could also be vulnerable if the percentage of Somali tenants exceeded their share of the population, the theory being that Somali immigrants are persons who may not know their legal rights and landlords would naturally want to rent to them to take advantage of their ignorance. The problem was proving such a case. The presenter had devised an esoteric set of arguments to pursue discrimination cases under such circumstances involving a concept called “disparate treatment”. I asked the presenter if Somalis actually did face this type of discrimination in Minneapolis. His response showed that he considered it more a professional challenge than anything else.

Another insight into emerging legal strategies came at a conference held at the William Mitchell School of Law in March 2001. An attractive young woman with spiked blonde hair, horned-rim glasses, and a black leather mini-skirt, who headed a project for Hennepin County Legal Aid, lectured conference participants on how to sue landlords for sexual harassment. She prefaced her remarks by observing that the typical landlord was a white-male entrepreneur out to rape his tenants, especially minority women. At first, I thought that this was the type of sexual harassment which she proposed to combat. More important than landlord-tenant harassment, though, were cases of one tenant harassing another. As employers are held liable when employees harass each other at the work place, so landlords might be held legally responsible for allowing an environment to develop in their buildings in which tenants felt sexually pressured or embarrassed. I could feel interest building up in this room when she went on to mention the $250,000 jury awards which attorneys in Ohio had recently won pursuing this type of case. Afterwards, a swarm of young lawyers crowded around the presenter seeking details.

Lawyers and neighborhood groups persuaded Minnesota state legislators to pass a law which allows neighborhood organizations to petition courts to take over management of buildings whose owners have neglected maintenance, thereby gaining access to the owner’s checkbook to the extent of his equity in the property. The Statute is numbered Section 504. A young white-male attorney named Greg Luce teamed up with a female social worker who worked in the Somali community to form “Project 504”, a legal machine to apply the state statute to Minneapolis rental properties with special attention to Somali immigrants. Luce recruited law students to gain work experience from his projects. The landlords, of course, had to match those efforts by hiring other attorneys unless they had personal expertise in the law.

The landlord from whom I bought my apartment building had bought another building on Park Avenue, the site of Ann Prazniak’s murder, which now housed primarily Somali tenants. This landlord believed that attorney Luce was leafleting the Park Avenue building to suggest that he could get tenants some months of free rent if they had maintenance problems. If a majority of the tenants engaged his services, then even more benefits were possible. At another nearby building to which the 504 law had already been applied, Luce reportedly entered the building with a male infant strapped to his chest. Angry work crews at the site thought he was interfering with their work, interpreting the strapped-in baby as a human shield. The Star Tribune did a story on Greg Luce and his partner, depicting them as gritty idealists. In October, 2001, Project 504 received a “nonprofit innovation award” from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits for its many contributions to the cause.

I view this situation in ecological terms. Lawyers individually serve a useful function. Theirs is not, however, a productive function. Like wolves, they are predators on other occupations. Public policy should be concerned with the balance of population between the wolf packs and herds of prey. Minnesota has a population of 22,000 attorneys, twice as many as in 1980. Even so, the University of St. Thomas has established a new law school, located in downtown Minneapolis, which plans to stress “service to the poor” - read, suing people like landlords. In the meanwhile, the city of Minneapolis has lost thousands of rental-housing units. A thickening pack of lawyers thus seeks to make a living off a dwindling stock of landlords, especially those at the low end of the rent scale.

The irony is that federal Fair Housing laws are probably unconstitutional. Congress wrote this legislation on the basis of its power to “regulate foreign and interstate commerce”. If there is one commodity which seldom crosses state or national borders, it would be housing. But constitutional foundations are endlessly elastic in today’s legal environment. I would question whether the productive economy should be turned into lunch meat to feed attorneys or society itself be restructured to become congenial to the interests of the Democratic party. I would also question whether employment in our society should be conditioned upon being exposed to political indoctrination in the form of diversity-training workshops. In Minnesota, the supreme court now requires that attorneys take these courses as a prerequisite for practicing law in the state.

As a landlord, I see cases of tenants, behind on their rent, who make promises of payment when certain monies are received. More than a few refer to lawsuits won or expected to be won. It seems to me that young African Americans, in particular, have the idea that their path to prosperity lies in filing and winning lawsuits rather than working in a career. Is this helpful? From their personal standpoint, perhaps it is. From the community’s standpoint, however,this is an extension of the casino mentality of getting something for nothing. I believe that, if the economy will not otherwise provide enough good-paying jobs for honest work, a policy of shorter work hours could bring such jobs to African Americans and others currently excluded.

As for the lawsuit mentality, this could be stopped quite simply by putting caps on permissible jury awards and attorney fees for certain types of cases. How about asking the Minnesota legislature to set an absolute dollar limit of, say, $25,000 per person (including attorney fees) on all court settlements of cases relating to discrimination or sexual harassment? Without costing the taxpayers anything, such legislation would immediately improve Minnesota’s business climate and attract new businesses with jobs that might satisfy our lawsuit-hungry population. I’m afraid, however, that because it would affect the number of lawyers doing business in the state and because the Democrats depend on financial support from trial lawyers, my suggestion is politically impractical.

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