I wrapped up last month with a trio of heavy books that were thought provoking, educational, and very well researched. The review for the first of those has already been posted, and this review will cover the other two, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, by Carol Anderson, and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, by Michelle Alexander. I’m combining these two because they cover a lot of the same ground, I read them back-to-back, and am having trouble distinguishing them from one another.
White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (4 stars; never been reviewed)
Anderson, a professor at Emory University, wrote this as a response to discussions of “black rage” in places like Ferguson. She laid out her thoughts in August of 2014 in an article for the Washington Post, and felt that the subject was worth expanding into a book. I agree. The article is good, and heartfelt, but lacking in the rich detail of an historical narrative constrained by the limited space of an op-ed, and the issues she’s discussing need to be discussed, because they are poorly understood by mainstream white America: our system of social control was designed specifically to target the black community, and is used to hold them down and keep them in check.
That sounds like an hysterical cry to people who don’t understand white privilege and the inequitable enforcement of law, and that is precisely why more needs to be written.
Anderson ably traces the shifting ground of American racism, and it’s constant and predictable re-branding following every incident of social upheaval: whether it be the codification of the Black Codes following the Civil War and re-institution of slavery by another name, the persistence of white domination during the era of Jim Crow, the re-formulation of Jim Crow and state-sanctioned segregation in 1956 with the signing of the Southern Manifesto by 101 members of Congress, following Brown v. Board of Education, or the rise of stand-your-ground laws, continuance of police brutality, questionable Supreme Court decisions, and institutionalization of voter ID laws in the aftermath of America electing its first black president. There’s a lot of ground to be covered, is what I’m saying.
For me, the richest parts of this book were those detailing the multi-decade attempts to defy, stall, and then undermine first the Brown v. Board decision. State legislatures first shut down public schools rather than provide equal education to black students – and this went on for years. An entire generation of black children were denied education because southern states preferred not paying for education over equality. On top of this, money was funneled to white families to help pay for private schools – ensuring that segregation would continue. And, in fact, this process is still going on in America, and is unlikely to end any time soon.
The only area that felt underdeveloped, to me, was the discussion of the re-branding of white racism in the 1960s that is represented by the Lee Atwater quote, above. Lee Atwater, for those who might recognize the name, but can’t place it, historically, was a political consultant, advisor to both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former RNC chair. The Republican Party engaged in a strategic series of moves to broadly take southern states into their fold, embrace white supremacy, re-brand racism to make it more palatable to mainstream white society, then preach color blindness so that calls of “racism” couldn’t be levied against them. As Atwater so adeptly put it in 1981, racism is “so abstract” that it’s almost impossible to argue with.
I think this era of American politics is utterly fascinating, and the coalescence of the Republican party and the Dixiecrats has utterly defined our age. Donald Trump – indeed most of the Republican party itself – wouldn’t exist without William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, and we would be able to call the War on Drugs, police brutality, voter ID laws, and so many other basic problems in this country racist without spluttering indignation from the conservative voting bloc.
This underdevelopment in White Rage, however, is ably drawn out in my next book.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness (5 stars; reviewed three times, average rating of 4.33)
This book is everything. Can I give this book more than five stars? Because it totally deserves more than five stars.
I generally avoid neologisms whenever possible – especially when they dance so precipitously on the edge of cultural appropriation – but reading this book is the very definition of “woke”. If you go into this with no idea of white privilege, or the systematization of racism, or the continuance of slavery into the modern era, or any number of a myriad of a racial issues – you’ll be hard-pressed coming out the other end equally ignorant. Alexander lays these issues bare, and the book is so heavily riddled with tangible facts, it’s virtually impossible to give this a fair reading and not agree with the very premise of the book: mass incarceration as a result of the War on Drugs is a deliberate targeting of black communities for social control by the white ruling class.
That’s a damning charge – but, I think, it is also indisputable. I consider myself fairly well versed in both American history and issues involving racial injustice – but this book is overflowing with nuggets of wisdom that I had either previously not be exposed to, or didn’t grasp as fully as I wanted. Chief among them is how racism has morphed over the last several decades to hide in plain sight. Working in conjunction with White Rage, I feel like I have a far better grasp on something I knew to be true, but couldn’t properly explicate.
But that’s just a small part of the book. Alexander traces the roots of the system of a racialized American caste: from Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 codifying the segregation of poor whites and enslaved blacks to the creation of a modern permanent caste hierarchy along racial lines, and the 400 years that connect the two, this book explores every facet of institutionalized racism in America.
I could literally write 3,000 words just on the important details laid out in clear and direct prose. Hell, my notes for the book pushed 2,000 words. Here are some quick examples of things discussed in the book that I felt worth writing down:
-illegal drug use was on the decline in 1982, when Reagan declared his war on drugs, and the administration did not start talking about crack until 1985
-In some communities, 80% of black men have a criminal record, exposing them to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives
-Finland, Germany, and the US have all had similar crime rates, but the US is the only one to see their incarceration rates dramatically rise. Finland has actually seen theirs fall. The only country with incarceration rates comparable to the US is Russia, and no country incarcerates their minorities like we do.
-Mass incarceration doesn’t just legalize discrimination, it removes black men from society. Blocking them from voting, serving on juries, separates them physically (prisons, jails, ghettos), allows discrimination in employment, housing, public benefits, and education.
-“Race” is a fairly new concept. In early American history the planter elite stood above both whites and blacks, who were fairly equal. Race was invented to justify taking land from the “savage Indian.” Africans were easier to enslave than Indians, so importation started. Then blacks and poor whites were separated after Bacon’s rebellion, with whites getting some privileges based around labor. Thus set apart, the enshrinement of racial slavery began.
-Reagan’s Justice Department cut white collar investigators in half to focus on street crime.
-Agencies responsible for [drug] treatment, prevention, and education was drastically reduced. For instance, National Institute on Drug Abuse was reduced from $274m (1981) to $57m (1984). Department of Education $14m to $3m.
-tools for creating the new racial caste: civil forfeiture, the militarization of police, federal funding connected to drug arrests, erosion of the 4th amendment, stop and frisk, mandatory minimum sentences, three strikes laws, the public defender system, permanent secondary class status for felony convictions, plea bargains, racial profiling
McKluskey v Kemp allows for racial discrimination when direct bigotry can’t be demonstrated, making racist patterns of law enforcement legal. Because of the rules of discovery, racism is almost impossible to prove. Prosecutorial discretion is insurmountable
-Georgia has a two strike policy. Prosecutors have invoked it against 1% of white drug defendants, but 16% of black drug defendants. 98% of those serving life sentences for drug offenses under the provision are black. This was challenged in court, but upheld because of McKlusky v Kemp.
There is almost no end to the valuable information in this book. It is vital reading, and should be required for anyone who is socially conscious. I realize this is less a review than it is an outpouring of love for this book – but that’s really what I’m left with.
I’ve got about a dozen people in my life who I would love to force this book on – but that I would even need to do that is probably the surest sign that they’d never read it in the first place. It’s not that this book is eye opening (because, I think, its basic premise is fairly obvious to anyone following these issues since it was written almost a decade ago), it’s that I’ve never come across a book that so clearly lays it all out there.
I don’t really know where else to go with this review except to say that regardless of how much understanding you have on matters of racial injustice in America, I think you’ll get a lot out of this book, and find it a valuable resource. As a compendium of knowledge – this book should have a spot on everyone’s book case or kindle. And if you need your eyes to be opened, this book is a pry bar.