Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

  • Blue Lives Matter

    Talking about "police reform" obscures the task. Today's policies are, at the very least, the product of democratic will.

    Carlo Allegri/Reuters

    The reactions to the murders of two New York police officers this weekend have been mostly uniform in their outrage. There was the predictable gamesmanship exhibited in some quarters, but all agree that the killing of Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos merits particular censure. This is understandable. The killing of police officers is not only the destruction of life but an attack on democracy itself. We do not live in a military dictatorship, and police officers are not the representatives of an autarch, nor the enforcers of law handed down by decree. The police are representatives of a state that derives its powers from the people. Thus the strong reaction we have seen to Saturday's murders is wholly expected and entirely appropriate.

    For activists and protesters radicalized by the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, this weekend's killing may seem to pose a great obstacle. In fact, it merely points to the monumental task in front of them. The response to Garner's death, particularly, seemed to offer some hope. But the very fact that this opening originated in the most extreme case—the on-camera choking of a man for a minor offense—points to the shaky ground on which such hope took root. It was only a matter of time before some criminal shot a police officer in New York. If that's all it takes to turn Americans away from police reform, the efforts were likely doomed from the start.

    The idea of "police reform" obscures the task. Whatever one thinks of the past half-century of criminal-justice policy, it was not imposed on Americans by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are, at the very least, byproducts of democratic will. Likely they are much more. It is often said that it is difficult to indict and convict police officers who abuse their power. It is comforting to think of these acquittals and non-indictments as contrary to American values. But it is just as likely that they reflect American values. The three most trusted institutions in America are the military, small business, and the police.

    To challenge the police is to challenge the American people, and the problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that we are majoritarian pigs. When the police are brutalized by people, we are outraged because we are brutalized. By the same turn, when the police brutalize people, we are forgiving because ultimately we are really just forgiving ourselves. Power, decoupled from responsibility, is what we seek. The manifestation of this desire is broad. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani responded to the killing of Michael Brown by labeling it a "significant exception" and wondering why weren't talking about "black on black crime." Giuliani was not out on a limb. The charge of insufficient outrage over "black on black crime" has been endorsed, at varying points, by everyone from the NAACP to Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson to Giuliani's archenemy Al Sharpton.

    Implicit in this notion is that outrage over killings by the police should not be any greater than killings by ordinary criminals. But when it comes to outrage over killings of the police, the standard is different. Ismaaiyl Brinsley began his rampage by shooting his girlfriend—an act of both black-on-black crime and domestic violence. On Saturday, Officers Liu and Ramos were almost certainly joined in death by some tragic number of black people who were shot down by their neighbors in the street. The killings of Officers Liu and Ramos prompt national comment. The killings of black civilians do not. When it is convenient to award qualitative value to murder, we do so. When it isn't, we do not. We are outraged by violence done to police, because it is violence done to all of us as a society. In the same measure, we look away from violence done by the police, because the police are not the true agents of the violence. We are.

    We are the ones who designed the criminogenic ghettos. We are the ones who barred black people from leaving those ghettos. We are the ones who treat black men without criminal records as though they are white men with criminal records. We are the ones who send black girls to juvenile detention homes for fighting in school. We are the masters of the American gulag, a penal system "so vast," writes sociologist Bruce Western, "as to draw entire demographic groups into the web." And we are the ones who send in police to make sure it all goes according to plan.

    When defenders of the police say that cops do the work ordinary citizens are afraid of, they are correct. The criminal-justice system has been the most consistent tool for making American will manifest in black communities. The tool for exercising that will is not the proliferation of ice cream socials.  I suspect, we would like to know as little about criminal justice system as possible. I suspect we would rather the film of Eric Garner's killing not exist. Then we might comfort ourselves with the kind of vague unknowables that dogged the killing of Michael Brown. ("Did he have his hands up? Was he surrendering? Was he charging?") Garner, choked to death and repeating "I can't breathe," trapped us. But now, through a merciless act of lethal violence, an escape route has been revealed. This overstates things. To the extent that this weekend's murders obscure the legacy of Eric Garner, it will not be due to the failure of protests, nor even chance. The citizen who needs to look away generally finds a reason.

    I wonder if there is some price attached to this looking away.  When the elected mayor of my city arrived at the hospital, the police officers who presumably serve at the public's leisure turned away in a display that should chill the blood of any interested citizen. The police are not the only embodiment of democratic society. And one does not have to work hard to imagine a future when the agents of our will, the agents whom we created, are in fact our masters. On that day one can expect that the tactics intended for the ghettos will enjoy wider usage.

  • The New Republic: An Appreciation

    It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that black lives didn't matter much at all to the magazine.

    The Atlantic

    "Here's at you!"
    —Philip Sheridan

    Last week, Franklin Foer resigned his editorship of The New Republic. A deep, if not broad, mourning immediately commenced as a number of influential writers lamented what occurred to them as the passing of a great American institution. The mourners have something of a case. TNR had a hand in the careers of an outsized number of prominent narrative and opinion journalists. I have never quite been able to judge the effect of literature or journalism on policy, but I know that in my field, if you had dreams of having a career, you had to contend with TNR. My first editor at The Atlantic came from TNR, as did the editor of the entire magazine. More than any other writer, TNR alum Andrew Sullivan taught me how to think publicly. More than any other opinion writer, Hendrik Hertzberg taught me how to write with "thickness," as I once heard him say. A semester in my nonfiction class is never quite complete without this piece by Michael Kinsley. TNR's legacy is so significant that I could never have avoided being drawn into the magazine's orbit. Even if I had wanted to.

    Earlier this year, Foer edited an anthology of TNR writings titled Insurrections of the Mind, commemorating the magazine's 100-year history. "This book hasn't been compiled in the name of definitiveness," Foer wrote. "It was put together in the spirit of the magazine that it anthologizes: it is an argument about what matters." There is only one essay in Insurrections that takes race as its subject. The volume includes only one black writer and only two writers of color. This is not an oversight. Nor does it mean that Foer is a bad human. On the contrary, if one were to attempt to capture the "spirit" of TNR, it would be impossible to avoid the conclusion that black lives don't matter much at all.

    That explains why the family rows at TNR's virtual funeral look like the "Whites Only" section of a Jim Crow-era movie-house. For most of its modern history, TNR has been an entirely white publication, which published stories confirming white people's worst instincts. During the culture wars of the '80s and '90s, TNR regarded black people with an attitude ranging from removed disregard to blatant bigotry. When people discuss TNR's racism, Andrew Sullivan's publication of excerpts from Charles Murray's book The Bell Curve (and a series of dissents) gets the most attention. But this fuels the lie that one infamous issue stands apart. In fact, the Bell Curve episode is remarkable for how well it fits with the rest of TNR's history.

    The personal attitude of TNR's longtime owner, the bigoted Martin Peretz, should be mentioned here. Peretz's dossier of racist hits (mostly at the expense of blacks and Arabs) is shameful, and one does not have to look hard to find evidence of it in Peretz's writing or in the sensibility of the magazine during his ownership. In 1984, long before Sullivan was tapped to helm TNR, Charles Murray was dubbing affirmative action a form of "new racism" that targeted white people.

    Two years later, Washington Post writer Richard Cohen was roundly rebuked for advocating that D.C. jewelry stores discriminate against young black men—but not by TNR. The magazine took the opportunity to convene a panel to "reflect briefly" on whether it was moral for merchants to bar black men from their stores. ("Expecting a jewelry store owner to risk his life in the service of color-blind justice is expecting too much," the magazine concluded.)

    TNR made a habit of "reflecting briefly" on matters that were life and death to black people but were mostly abstract thought experiments to the magazine's editors. Before, during, and after Sullivan's tenure, the magazine seemed to believe that the kind of racism that mattered most was best evidenced in the evils of Afrocentrism, the excesses of multiculturalism, and the machinations of Jesse Jackson. It's true that TNR's staff roundly objected to excerpting The Bell Curve, but I was never quite sure why. Sullivan was simply exposing the dark premise that lay beneath much of the magazine's coverage of America's ancient dilemma.

    What else to make of the article that made Stephen Glass's career possible, "Taxi Cabs and the Meaning of Work"? The piece asserted that black people in D.C. were distinctly lacking in the work ethic best evidenced by immigrant cab drivers. A surrealist comedy, Glass's piece revels in the alleged exploits of a mythical Asian-American avenger—Kae Bang—who wreaks havoc on black criminals who'd rather rob taxi drivers than work. The article concludes with Glass, in the cab, while its driver is robbed by a black man. It was all lies.

    What else to make of TNR sending Ruth Shalit to evaluate affirmative action at The Washington Post in 1995? "She cast Post writer Kevin Merida as some kind of poster boy for affirmative action when in fact he had risen in the business for reasons far more legitimate than her own," David Carr wrote in 1999. Shalit's piece wasn't all lies. But it wasn't all true either. Shortly after the article was published, she was revealed to be a serial plagiarist.

    TNR might have been helped by having more—or merely any—black people on its staff. I spent the weekend calling around and talking to people who worked in the offices over the years. From what I can tell, in that period, TNR had a total of two black people on staff as writers or editors. When I asked former employees whether they ever looked around and wondered why the newsroom was so white, the answers ranged from "not really" to "not often enough." This is understandable. Prioritizing diversity would have been asking TNR to not be TNR. One person recalled a meeting at the magazine's offices when the idea of excerpting The Bell Curve was first pitched. Charles Murray came to this meeting to present his findings. The meeting was very contentious. I asked if there were any black people in the room this meeting. The person could not recall.

    I always knew I could never work at TNR. In the latter portion of the magazine's heyday, in the mid-'90s, I was at Howard University with aspirations toward writing. Howard has a way of inculcating its students with a sense of mission. If you are going into writing, you understand that you are not a free agent, but the bearer of heritage walking in the steps of Hurston, Morrison, Baldwin, Wright, and Ellison. None of these writers appear in Insurrections of the Mind. Howard University taught me to be unsurprised by this. It also taught me that writing was war, and I knew, even then, that TNR represented much of what I was at war with. I knew that TNR's much celebrated "heterodoxy" was built on a strain of erudite neo-Dixiecratism. When The Bell Curve excerpt was published, one of my professors handed out the issue to every interested student. This was not a compliment. This was knowing your enemy.

    TNR did not come to racism out of evil. Very few people ever do. Many of the white people working for the magazine were very young and very smart. This is always a dangerous combination. It must have been that much more dangerous given that their boss was a racist. (Though I am told he had many black friends and protégés.) Peretz was not always a regular presence in the office. This allowed TNR's saner staff to regard him as the crazy uncle who says racist shit at Thanksgiving. But Peretz was not a crazy uncle—he was the wealthy benefactor of an influential magazine that published ideas that damaged black people.

    A writer for TNR told me how, in the mid-'90s, Peretz would come down to the office from Cambridge and lobby young writers to write what turned out to be the fictional "Taxi Cabs and the Meaning of Work." The writer told me that the young interns and fact-checkers would squirm in their seats. But no one took a stand. And perhaps it is too much to expect writers in their mid 20s, with editors in their late 20s, to say to Peretz, "Please stop shopping this racist bullshit." But the task was made infinitely easier by a monochrome staff that could view Peretz's racism as an abstraction, and not something that directly injured their families.

    Things got better after Peretz was dislodged. The retrograde politics were gone, but the "Whites Only" sign remained. I've been told that Foer was greatly pained by Peretz's racism. I believe this. White people are often sincerely and greatly pained by racism, but rarely are they pained enough. That is not true because they are white, but because they are human. I know this, too well. Still, as of last week there were still no black writers on TNR's staff, and only one on its masthead. Magazines, in general, have an awful record on diversity. But if TNR's influence and importance was as outsized as its advocates claim, then the import of its racist legacy is outsized in the same measure. One cannot sincerely partake in heritage à la carte.

    In this sense it is unfortunate to see anonymous staffers accusing TNR's owner Chris Hughes of trying to create "another BuzzFeed." If that is truly Hughes's ambition, then—in at least one important way—he will have created a publication significantly more moral than anything any recent TNR editor ever has. No publication has more aggressively dealt with diversity than BuzzFeed. And not unrelated to this diversity has been a stellar range of storytelling and analysis, that could rival—if not best—the journalism in the latest iteration of TNR.

    No one who works in magazines is happy to hear about writers and editors losing their jobs—even when those people have the enviable luxury of walking out on principle. And when I think of TNR's history, when I flip through Insurrections, when I examine the magazine's archives, I am not so much angry as I am sad. There really was so much fine writing in its pages. But all my life I have had to take lessons from people who, in some profound way, cannot see me. TNR billed itself as the magazine for iconoclasts. But its iconoclasm ended exactly where everyone else's does—at 110th Street. Worse, TNR encouraged incuriosity about what lay beyond the barrier. It told its readers that my world was welfare cheats, affirmative-action babies, and Jesse Jackson. And that white people—or any people—would be urged to such ignorance by their Harvard-bred intellectual leadership is deeply sad. The in-flight magazine of Air Force One should have been better. Perhaps it still can be.

  • Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid

    Violence works. Nonviolence does too.

    Noah Berger/AP

    In a recent dispatch from Ferguson, Missouri, Jelani Cobb noted that President Obama's responses to "unpunished racial injustices" constitute "a genre unto themselves." Monday night, when Barack Obama stood before the nation to interpret the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, he offered a particularly tame specimen. The elements of "the genre" were all on display—an unmitigated optimism, an urge for calm, a fantastic faith in American institutions, an even-handedness exercised to a fault. But if all the limbs of the construct were accounted for, the soul of the thing was not.

    There was none of the spontaneous annoyance at the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, and little of the sheer pain exhibited in the line, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." The deft hand Obama employed in explaining to Americans why the acquittal of George Zimmerman so rankled had gone arthritic. This was a perfunctory execution of "the genre," offered with all the energy of a man ticking items off a to-do list.

    Barack Obama is an earnest moderate. His instincts seem to lead him to the middle ground. For instance, he genuinely believes that there is more overlap between liberals and conservatives than generally admitted. On Monday he nodded toward the "deep distrust" that divides black and brown people from the police, and then pointed out that this was tragic because these are the communities most in need of "good policing." Whatever one makes of this pat framing, it is not a cynical centrism—he believes in the old wisdom of traditional America. This is his strength. This is his weakness. But Obama's moderation is as sincere and real as his blackness, and the latter almost certainly has granted him more knowledge of his country than he generally chooses to share.

    In the case of Michael Brown, this is more disappointing than enraging. The genre of Obama race speeches has always been bounded by the job he was hired to do. Specifically, Barack Obama is the president of the United States of America. More specifically, Barack Obama is the president of a congenitally racist country, erected upon the plunder of life, liberty, labor, and land. This plunder has not been exclusive to black people. But black people, the community to which both Michael Brown and Barack Obama belong, have the distinct fortune of having survived in significant numbers. For a creedal country like America, this poses a problem—in nearly every major American city one can find a population of people whose very existence, whose very history, whose very traditions, are an assault upon this country's nationalist instincts. Black people are the chastener of their own country. Their experience says to America, "You wear the mask."

    In 2008, Barack Obama's task was to capture the presidency of a country which historically has despised the community from which he hails. This was no mean feat. But more importantly, it was not unprecedented. And just as Léon Blum's prime ministership did not lead to a post-anti-Semitic France, Barack Obama's presidency should never have been expected to lead to a post-racist America. As it happens, there is nothing about a congenitally racist country that necessarily prevents an individual leader hailing from the pariah class. The office does not care where the leader originates, so long as the leader ultimately speaks for the state. On Monday night, watching Obama both be black and speak for the state was torturous. One got the sense of a man fatigued by people demanding he say something both eminently profound and only partially true. This must be tiring.

    Black people know what cannot be said. What clearly cannot be said is that the events of Ferguson do not begin with Michael Brown lying dead in the street, but with policies set forth by government at every level. What clearly cannot be said is that the people of Ferguson are regularly plundered, as their grandparents were plundered, and generally regarded as a slush-fund for the government that has pledged to protect them. What clearly cannot be said is the idea of superhuman black men who "bulk up" to run through bullets is not an invention of Darren Wilson, but a staple of American racism.

    What clearly cannot be said is that American society's affection for nonviolence is notional. What cannot be said is that American society's admiration for Martin Luther King Jr. increases with distance, that the movement he led was bugged, smeared, harassed, and attacked by the same country that now celebrates him. King had the courage to condemn not merely the violence of blacks, nor the violence of the Klan, but the violence of the American state itself.

    What clearly cannot be said is that violence and nonviolence are tools, and that violence—like nonviolence—sometimes works. "Property damage and looting impede social progress," Jonathan Chait wrote Tuesday. He delivered this sentence with unearned authority. Taken together, property damage and looting have been the most effective tools of social progress for white people in America. They describe everything from enslavement to Jim Crow laws to lynching to red-lining.

    "Property damage and looting"—perhaps more than nonviolence—has also been a significant tool in black "social progress." In 1851, when Shadrach Minkins was snatched off the streets of Boston under the authority of the Fugitive Slave Law, abolitionists "stormed the courtroom" and "overpowered the federal guards" to set Minkins free. That same year, when slaveholders came to Christiana, Pennsylvania, to reclaim their property under the same law, they were not greeted with prayer and hymnals but with gunfire.

    "Property damage and looting" is a fairly accurate description of the emancipation of black people in 1865, who only five years earlier constituted some $4 billion in property. The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 is inseparable from the threat of riots. The housing bill of 1968—the most proactive civil-rights legislation on the books—is a direct response to the riots that swept American cities after King was killed. Violence, lingering on the outside, often backed nonviolence during the civil-rights movement. "We could go into meetings and say, 'Well, either deal with us or you will have Malcolm X coming into here,'" said SNCC organizer Gloria Richardson. "They would get just hysterical. The police chief would say, 'Oh no!'"

    What cannot be said is that America does not really believe in nonviolence—Barack Obama has said as much—so much as it believes in order. What cannot be said is that there are very convincing reasons for black people in Ferguson to be nonviolent. But those reasons emanate from an intelligent fear of the law, not a benevolent respect for the law.

    The fact is that when the president came to the podium on Monday night there actually was very little he could say. His mildest admonitions of racism had only earned him trouble. If the American public cannot stomach the idea that arresting a Harvard professor for breaking into his own home is "stupid," then there is virtually nothing worthwhile that Barack Obama can say about Michael Brown.

    And that is because the death of all of our Michael Browns at the hands of people who are supposed to protect them originates in a force more powerful than any president: American society itself. This is the world our collective American ancestors wanted. This is the world our collective grandparents made. And this is the country that we, the people, now preserve in our fantastic dream. What can never be said is that the Fergusons of America can be changed—but, right now, we lack the will to do it.

    Perhaps one day we won't, and maybe that is reason to hope. Hope is what Barack Obama promised to bring, but he was promising something he could never bring. Hope is not the naiveté that would change the face on a racist system and then wash its hands of its heritage. Hope is not feel-goodism built on the belief in unicorns. Martin Luther King had hope, but it was rooted in years of study and struggle, not in looking the other way. Hope is not magical. Hope is earned.

  • The Gospel of Rudy Giuliani

    Why is no one talking about American-on-American crime?

    Lisa Hornak/Reuters

    On Sunday, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani went on Meet the Press to discuss the killing of Michael Brown. Giuliani offered the kind of candor and tough talk that almost made him president:

    The fact is that I find it very disappointing that you're not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We are talking about the significant exception here [in the Brown case]. I'd like to see the attention paid to that that you are paying to this.

    Yes. It's almost as if killers tend to murder people who live near them. Moreover, it seems that people actually hold officers operating under the color of law to a different standard. This is an incredible set of insights, which taken together offer a revelation so profound, so far-reaching, that it must not be wasted on our shiftless minority populations. The Gospel of Rudy Giuliani must sally forth across the land and challenge a culture that accepts neighborly violence and differing standards of death.

    For nearly 15 years, our politicians have told us that murder perpetrated by Islamic terrorists represented an existential threat to the country. From al-Qaeda to ISIS, we are told that radical Islam is a killer that will drive us all into the sea. In fact, however, the most prolific killer of Americans hides behind a cloak of sensitivity and political correctness. The time has now come for some tough talk: The American people have one of the highest murder rates in the industrialized world. Almost all of these people are killed by other Americans. War hustlers and Bin Laden pimps love to go around screaming, but 9/11! Three thousand people died on 9/11. Nearly 15,000 Americans were killed in 2012. Americans perpetrate roughly five 9/11s against other Americans every year. By the end of this week, more Americans will be killed by other Americans than were ever killed by ISIS.

    Why are our politicians ignoring this plague of American-on-American crime? Why are American leaders not protesting the cult of death that fills the graveyards of America? Who will bravely challenge the culture of failure that says that Americans should only be outraged when Muslims kill Americans? Who will challenge the American pathology that says that a boy who walks unarmed is acting French?

    I demand a TSA checkpoint at every shopping mall to shield Americans against Americans. I demand drones to kill Americans before they kill other Americans. I demand that American leaders stop pretending that American morgues and American cemeteries are full of young men because of jihadis. The evidence is clear—American-on-American violence is a silent killer that only Americans can stop. American criminality is now so rampant that it must always be the only topic of any conversation. Let us not speak of any act of international terrorism until American terrorism has been wholly vanquished.

    I realize that uttering these hard truths will find me ostracized from an America where my brave stand and incredible courage will not be appreciated. But this great truth, this high principle, must be spoken in every corner of our country. To limit the Gospel of Giuliani to black people would imply that we regard them as separate category of humanity, fit to be judged by a separate standard. And we wouldn't want that.

  • The Cosby Show

    Declining to seriously reckon with the rape allegations against him is reckless. And I was once reckless.

    Matt Rourke/AP

    On Monday, 66-year old Joan Tarshis accused Bill Cosby of raping her. Tarshis says the attack took place in 1969, when she was 19 and working as comedy writer:

    ... [H]e told me that he wanted to work on a monologue together, and I had an idea for something about an earthquake that had just happened. It was my first earthquake. I had some funny lines, and he said, Sure, let's work on that. And then? We went up to his cottage after they were done shooting. That's when it happened. He offered me a drink. It was a red eye, a bloody mary topped off with beer. He always made the drinks; he didn't have a bartender.

    And then next thing I know, I was being undressed on his couch. I was so out of it. But I remember saying to him—I thought I would outsmart him—I said, I have an infection down there, and if you have sex with me, you're going to get it, and then your wife will know. He immediately switched to another orifice, which was worse ...

    Yes. He was holding me down. He's much bigger than I am. He's very big. I couldn't resist. He was forceful. He definitely used force. There was nothing I could do except wait for it to be over. I was in shock.

    Tarshis is the fifth woman to publicly accuse Bill Cosby of raping her. There is now a sixth: model Janice Dickinson. In a civil suit brought by Andrea Constand, some 13 women were set to testify that Cosby had raped them too. They ultimately did not testify because Constand settled with Cosby. Tarshis says she was not among those 13, and so the total number of accusers appears to now stand at 15 including Dickinson.

    Perhaps it is not fair for a journalist to consider, or even publicize, anonymous allegations of criminal activity. Even then we are left with six accusations of sexual assault: Tamara Green says that Cosby drugged and groped her in 1970. Beth Ferrier says that Cosby drugged and raped her in 1984. Janice Dickinson says Cosby drugged and raped her in 1982. Barbara Bowman says that Cosby drugged and raped her "multiple times" when she was 17 in 1985. And Andrea Constand says that Cosby drugged and raped her in 2004. Taken together, the public accusations span some 30 years and are remarkably similar in their detail.

    Most of these allegations came after Constand sued Cosby in civil court. Her lawyers tracked down several accusers, some of whom wanted to use their names, and some of whom didn't. Perhaps all of these women are lying. Certainly, false criminal allegations happen. It is not unheard of for celebrities to be targeted for false allegations. The Cosby case is different, though, in its sheer volume and lack of ulterior motive—no civil suit, no criminal charges.

    A defense of Cosby requires that one believe that several women have decided to publicly accuse one of the most powerful men in recent Hollywood history of a crime they have no hope of seeing prosecuted, and for which they are seeking no damages. The alternative is to see one of the most celebrated public fathers of our time, and one of the great public scourges of black morality, revealed as a serial rapist.

    I spent parts of 2006 and 2007 following Bill Cosby around the country. He was then in the midst of giving a series of "call-outs" in which he upbraided the decline of morality in the black community. Our current organic black conservative moment largely springs from these efforts. It's worth distinguishing an "organic black conservative" from a black or white Republican moment. Black Republicans, with some exceptions, don't simply exist as people who believe in free markets and oppose abortion, but to assure white Republicans that racism no longer exists. Organic black conservatives (like Cosby, for instance) are traditionalists, but they hold no such illusions about America's past. They believe this country to be racist, perhaps irredeemably so, but assert nonetheless that individual effort can defeat trenchant racism. The organic black conservative vision is riding high at the moment. Thus even the NAACP cannot denounce the outriders of Ferguson without the requisite indictment of "black on black crime."

    The author of this moment is Bill Cosby. In 2004, he gave his "Poundcake Speech," declaring black youth morally unworthy of their very heritage. Cosby followed the speech with a series of call-outs. I observed several of these call-outs. Again, unlike typical black Republicans, Cosby spoke directly to black people. He did not go on Fox News to complain about the threat of the New Black Panther Party. He did not pen columns insisting the black family was better off under slavery. He was not speaking as a man sent to assure a group that racism did not exist, but as a man who sincerely believed that black people, through the ethic of "twice as good," could overcome. That is the core of respectability politics. Its appeal is broad in both black and white America, and everywhere Cosby went he was greeted with rapturous applause.

    I published a reported essay in 2008, in this magazine, on these call-outs. In that essay, there is a brief and limp mention of the accusations against Cosby. Despite my opinions on Cosby suffusing the piece, there was no opinion offered on the rape accusations. This is not because I did not have an opinion. I felt at the time that I was taking on Cosby's moralizing and wanted to stand on those things that I could definitively prove. Lacking physical evidence, adjudicating rape accusations is a murky business for journalists. But believing Bill Cosby does not require you to take one person's word over another—it requires you take one person's word over 15 others.

    At the time I wrote the piece, it was 13 peoples’ word—and I believed them. Put differently, I believed that Bill Cosby was a rapist.

    Rape constitutes the loss of your body, which is all you are, to someone else. I have never been raped. But I have, several times as a child, been punched/stomped/kicked/bumrushed while walking home from school, and thus lost my body. The worst part for me was not the experience, but the humiliation of being unable to protect my body, which is all I am, from predators. Even now as I sketch this out for you publicly, I am humiliated all again. And this happened when I was a child. If recounting a physical assault causes me humiliation, how might recounting a sexual assault feel? And what would cause me to willingly stand up and relive that humiliation before a national audience? And why would I fake my way through such a thing? Cosby's accusers—who have no hope of criminal charges, nor civil damages—are courting the scrutiny of Cosby-lovers and rape-deniers. To what end?

    The heart of the matter is this: A defender of Bill Cosby must, effectively, conjure a vast conspiracy, created to bring down one man, seemingly just out of spite. And people will do this work of conjuration, because it is hard to accept that people we love in one arena can commit great evil in another. It is hard to believe that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist because the belief doesn't just indict Cosby, it indicts us. It damns us for drawing intimate conclusions about people based on pudding-pop commercials and popular TV shows. It destroys our ability to lean on icons for our morality. And it forces us back into a world where seemingly good men do unspeakably evil things, and this is just the chaos of human history.

    And one cannot escape this chaos by hiding behind the lack of a court conviction. O.J. Simpson was not convicted in court for murdering his ex-wife. The men accused of killing Emmett Till were found innocent. ("If we hadn't stopped to drink pop, it wouldn't have taken that long," mused one of them.) Police and government forces conspired to kill a Black Panther, Fred Hampton. They were never criminally prosecuted in any court.

    Courts belong to the society, not the other way around. This is why many Americans scoff at the idea that O.J. was never convicted of killing his wife. And this is why many other Americans scoff at the idea that the government didn't kill Fred Hampton. Ducking behind an official finding is kind of cowardice that allows us the luxury of never facing hard questions. Cowardice can be insidious. Sometimes it is a physical fear. Other times it's just taking the easy out.

    I would not dismiss all journalists who've declined to mention these allegations as cowards. It's worth considering what it feels like to, say, have been among those convicting Richard Jewell in the press. And should I have decided to state what I believed about Cosby, I would have had to write a much different piece. It would not have been enough to say, "I believe he is a rapist." A significant portion of my reporting, perhaps the lion’s share of my reporting, would have had to be aimed to investigating the claims.

    The Bill Cosby piece was my first shot writing for a big national magazine. I had been writing for 12 financially insecure years. By 2007, when I finished my first draft, I had lost three jobs in seven years. I had just been laid-off by Time magazine. My kid was getting older. I was subsisting off unemployment checks and someone else's salary. A voice in my head was, indeed, pushing me to do something more expansive and broader in its implication, something that did not just question Cosby's moralizing, but weighed it against the acts which I believed he committed. But Cosby was such a big target that I thought it was only a matter of time before someone published a hard-hitting, investigative piece. And besides, I had in my hand the longest, best, and most personally challenging piece I'd ever written.

    It was not enough.

    I have often thought about how those women would have felt had they read my piece. The subject was morality—and yet one of the biggest accusations of immorality was left for a few sentences, was rendered invisible.

    I don't have many writing regrets. But this is one of them. I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough. I take it as a personal admonition to always go there, to never flinch, to never look away.

  • Charles Barkley and the Plague of 'Unintelligent' Blacks

    A history of respectability politics, from the postbellum period to today

    Ida B. Wells (Wikimedia)

    Charles Barkley recently explained why "we as black people are never going to be successful." His reasoning is painful:

    "We as black people are never going to be successful, not because of you white people, but because of other black people. When you are black, you have to deal with so much crap in your life from other black people," Barkley said.

    Barkley, a native of Leeds, [Alabama,] said African Americans are too concerned with street cred than true success and that's holding the community back.

    "For some reason we are brainwashed to think, if you're not a thug or an idiot, you're not black enough. If you go to school, make good grades, speak intelligent, and don't break the law, you're not a good black person. It's a dirty, dark secret in the black community.

    "There are a lot of black people who are unintelligent, who don't have success. It's best to knock a successful black person down because they're intelligent, they speak well, they do well in school, and they're successful. It's just typical BS that goes on when you're black, man."

    It's worth noting that there isn't much difference between Barkley's claim that "there are a lot black people who are unintelligent" and the claims of a garden-variety racist. I assume that Barkley meant to say something more nuanced. That more charitable analysis, though, is far from a "dirty dark secret." The notion that black irresponsibility is at least part of the "race problem" is widely shared among black America's most prominent figures, beginning—but not ending—with the president of the United States.

    I've written on this several times and there's really no need to do it again. I simply maintain, as I always have, that if aliens were to compare the socioeconomic realities of the black community with the history of their treatment in this country, they would not be mystified. Respectability politics is, at its root, the inability to look into the cold dark void of history. For if black people are—as I maintain—no part of the problem, if the problem truly is 100 percent explained by white supremacy, then we are presented with a set of unfortunate facts about our home.

    And the looking away is quite old. In his book Lynching: American Mob Murder in Global Perspective, historian Robert Thurston traces the roots of respectability politics to the postbellum era. Asked to assess the problem of lynching, black public figures condemned barbarism—but not just the barbarism of white mobs.

    "The criminal record of the Negro people is alarming in its proportions," wrote the great black educator Kelly Miller in 1899. "The whole race is given an evil reputation by reason of its criminal class." Miller was not pro-lynching. But he believed that black criminality was part of the cause and argued that black protest would be fully justified until the rate of black criminality was zero:

    It is not sufficient to say that ninety-five out of every hundred Negroes are orderly and well behaved. The ninety-five must band themselves together to restrain or suppress the vicious five.

    Miller was not an outlier. "The percentage of Negro criminals is unusually large," asserted Francis J. Grimké. Mary Church Terrell assailed “negroes who are known to have been guilty of assault” claiming that they were "ignorant, repulsive in appearance and as near the brute creation as it is possible for a human being to be.” Terrell asserted that the "best negroes" have no sympathy for such "brutes." In 1918, Tuskegee graduate and educator William J. Edwards claimed in his memoir that “there are criminals in the Negro race for whom no legal form of punishment is too severe.” He went further arguing that the Negro was on a lower order of civilization and often “uneducated, undisciplined, untrained, he is often ferocious or dangerous; he makes a criminal of the lowest type for he is the product of ignorance.”

    To a person, all of these black leaders opposed lynching, and said as much. But it is not enough to allow those words to be written off as simply of their time in history. Even in that time there were black people who refused to look away. None stand higher than Ida B. Wells:

    Like many other persons who had read of lynching in the South, I had accepted the idea meant to be conveyed—that although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order, unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape led to the lynching; that perhaps the brute deserved justice and the mob was justified in taking his life.

    But then Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Lee Stewart, friends of Ida B. Wells, were lynched, and it became clear that in he case of lynching, the claim of rape might be the pretext for something else:

    This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was. An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the raced down and keep the nigger terrorized.

    What Wells did with this realization is what makes her extraordinary. Wells had, at that point, been run out of Memphis for investigating the death of her friends. She lived in the North, having been threatened with death by neo-Confederates.* But Wells returned to the South—sometimes with pistol in hand—and spent a significant part of her career investigating and exposing lynchings. To put this differently, having seen her own fault, she rededicated herself to the self-education, to hard study, and publicizing the truth.

    When we think of the fight against lynching today, very few people think of the words of Kelly Miller, Francis Grimké, or William J. Edwards. We think of Ida B. Wells because of her unrepentant fight against the barbarism of white supremacy. This version of history is a mistake. It allows the Charles Barkleys of the world and the racists who undoubtedly will approvingly quote him to pretend that they are exposing some heretofore arcane bit of knowledge. In fact they are employing two of the most disreputable traditions in American politics—false equivalence and an appeal to respectability. This is the black tradition that believed that "brutes" were partially responsible for lynching in 20th century, and believes that those some brutes are partially responsible for the "achievement gap" in the 21st.

    Thinking people have a decision to make. Will they follow a tradition that half-apologizes when powerful people commit awful crimes? Or will they follow the tradition of Ida B. Wells, of study and investigation, of trying to understand, no matter how horrible that understanding may ultimately seem to be?

    *I changed this sentence. It originally used the phrase "neo-confederate fatwa." I changed it because it reflected my limited understanding of what the term "fatwa" means. I try to stick with what I know. Thanks to those who kept me honest.

  • Mapping the New Jim Crow

    America's entire history is marked by the state imposing unfreedom on a large swath of the African American population.

    Theodore R. Johnson and KaNisa Williams

    Update: An earlier version of this post included a chart that compared black America's incarceration rate with those of other countries. The chart incorrectly listed black Americans' incarceration rate in 2010 as 4,347 per 100,000 Americans. In fact, that is the rate for black American men. The rate for black American women is 260 per 100,000 Americans, and the rate for black Americans as a whole is 2,207 per 100,000 Americans. The graphic has been updated.


    Theodore Johnson's excellent piece appraising "Black America" as a country gives us some sense of the beast with which Michelle Alexander was grappling. Another factoid to consider while looking at this: "No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities," writes Alexander. "The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid."

    Somehow, looking at Johnson's post, the term "mass incarceration" seems not to capture exactly what this country is doing to its African American population. Does this equal a "new Jim Crow?" The more I think about it, the less important I find the debate to be. Was convict-leasing really "slavery by another name?" I'm not quite convinced. But at the same time the greater point seems to be that America's entire history is marked by the state imposing unfreedom on a large swath of the African American population. Whatever the successes of the past 50 years, there is no evidence that that trend has ended.

    I would be remiss if I did not offer two other entries into the debate. Here is law professor James Forman's critique of The New Jim Crow. Forman mostly agrees with Alexander but offers an argument for jettisoning the "Jim Crow" framing. In support of Alexander, I offer the concluding words from chapter three of Randall Kennedy's Race, Crime and the Law. Kennedy published his book in 1997, but this section—on inmate rights—feels especially relevant to our conversation:

    Some observers will argue that the indifference, if not hostility, shown by governments at every level toward inmates despite the large percentage of whites in the inmate population negates any suggestion that this indifference or hostility is tainted by illicit racial sentiments. That argument, however, should by no means be viewed as decisive.

    First, it may be that the politically influential sectors of the society are unaware that whites constitute a large proportion of inmate populations. It is possible, indeed likely, that the imagery of the Negro as criminal has misled some people into believing that blacks (and other people of color) constitute an even larger percentage of incarcerated populations than is actually the case, thereby misleading these same people into erroneously minimizing the number of whites who face danger and misery in jails and prisons.

    Second, even if voters and their representatives do have an accurate understanding of the racial demographics of inmate populations, that alone does not negate the possibility that racially selective hostility or indifference is at work in affecting public sentiment and thus public policy regarding incarceration. Although whites constitute a large proportion of the prisoner population, white inmates constitute a much smaller percentage of the overall white population than is the case with black inmates. In 1990, for every 100,000 white Americans, 289 were in jail or prison; for every 100,000 black Americans, 1,860 were in jail or prison.

    It is entirely plausible that the white-dominated political institutions of America would not tolerate present conditions in jails and prisons if as large a percentage of the white population were incarcerated as is the reality facing the black population. It is surely possible, to many likely, that if the racial shoe were on the other foot, white-dominated political structures would be more responsive than they are now to the terrors of incarceration. That possibility should make more alarming the fact that the darkening of jail and prison populations during the past twenty years has been attended by a discernible increase and hardening of antagonism toward the incarcerated.

    One indication of this increased public hostility is the return of chain gangs and other policies calculated to increase the immiserization of prison life. It is impossible to say definitively whether attitudes toward the in-carcerated would be different if those who are jailed and imprisoned represented as large a proportion of the white population as the jailed and imprisoned represent of the black population. That this hypothesis is at least plausible is itself a damning statement about the state of American race relations.

    Moreover, apart from the matter of governmental intentions, the plain fact is that deplorable, unlawful conditions in jails and prisons have a distinctively racial appearance because such a relatively large percentage of the black population is, has been, or will be incarcerated. At present, jails and prisons are among the most influential institutions of socialization in African-American communities. The extent to which authorities allow these institutions to remain dangerous, destructive, lawless hells is the extent to which authorities strengthen the belief held by an appreciable number of black Americans that the “white man’s” system of criminal justice remains their enemy.

    I highlighted the sentences about proportionality because they offer some perspective on the "collateral damage" critique. Previously, I asserted that the sheer number of white people damaged by mass incarceration made it hard to view it strictly through the lens of racist control. But looking at those numbers relative to the total population of each group tells a different story.

    I know that a number of you had feelings about the book, on reflection. Feel free to offer them here.

  • The Racist Housing Policies That Built Ferguson

    The geography of America would be unrecognizable today without the race-based social engineering of the mid-20th century.

    A 1916 leaflet proposes to segregate St. Louis. The measure passed. (Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center)

    The Economic Policy Institute has just released a report by Richard Rothstein that gives some sense of how the world of Michael Brown came to be. It turns out that that world was born from the exact same forces that forged cities and suburbs across the country—racist housing policy at the local, state, and national levels. Rothstein's report eschews talk of mindless white flight, and black-hearted individual racists, and puts the onus exactly where it belongs:

    That governmental actions, not mere private prejudice, were responsible for segregating greater St. Louis was once conventional informed opinion. In 1974, a three-judge panel of the federal Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that “segregated housing in the St. Louis metropolitan area was … in large measure the result of deliberate racial discrimination in the housing market by the real estate industry and by agencies of the federal, state, and local governments.”

    Similar observations accurately describe every other large metropolitan area; in St. Louis, the Department of Justice stipulated to this truth but took no action in response. In 1980, a federal court order included an instruction for the state, county, and city governments to devise plans to integrate schools by integrating housing. Public officials ignored this aspect of the order, devising only a voluntary busing plan to integrate schools, but no programs to combat housing segregation.

    A lot of what's here—redlining, housing covenants, blockbusting, etc.—will be well-known to those with a good handle on 20th-century American history. I focused on this particular era in my case for reparations. But it bears constant repeating: The geography of America would be unrecognizable today without the racist social engineering of the mid-20th century. The policy included—but was not limited to—mortgage loans backed by the Federal Housing Authority and the Veteran's Administration:

    At its peak in 1943 when civilian construction was limited, the FHA financed 80 percent of all private home construction nationwide. During the postwar period, it dropped to one-third. But even when subdivisions were not built with advance FHA commitments, individual homebuyers needed access to FHA or VA insured mortgages, so similar standards for new construction pertained. Subdivisions throughout St. Louis County were developed in this way, with FHA advance commitments for the builders and a resulting whites-only sale policy.

    The FHA’s suburban whites-only policy continued through the postwar housing boom that lasted through the mid-1960s. In 1947, the FHA sanitized its manual, removing literal race references but still demanding “compatibility among neighborhood occupants” for mortgage guarantees. “Neighborhoods constituted of families that are congenial,” the FHA manual explained, “… generally exhibit strong appeal and stability.” This very slightly sanitized language suggested no change in policy, and the FHA continued to finance builders with open policies of racial exclusion for another 15 years.

    In 1959, the United States Commission on Civil Rights concluded that only 2 percent of all FHA-backed loans had gone to blacks. "Most of this housing," concluded the report, "has been in all-Negro developments in the South."

    As it relates to black America, segregation must always be understood, as a system of plunder. Once the big game has been fenced off, then comes the hunt:

    According to a study by the St. Louis nonprofit Better Together, Ferguson receives nearly one-quarter of its revenue from court fees; for some surrounding towns it approaches 50 percent. Municipal reliance on revenue generated from traffic stops adds pressure to make more of them. One town, Sycamore Hills, has stationed a radar-gun-wielding police officer on its 250-foot northbound stretch of Interstate.

    With primarily white police forces that rely disproportionately on traffic citation revenue, blacks are pulled over, cited and arrested in numbers far exceeding their population share, according to a recent report from Missouri’s attorney general. In Ferguson last year, 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches and 93 percent of arrests were of black people—despite the fact that police officers were far less likely to find contraband on black drivers (22 percent versus 34 percent of whites). This worsens inequality, as struggling blacks do more to fund local government than relatively affluent whites.

    And this is but one aspect. I strongly suspect that if I talked to some housing attorneys in the region they could tell me a story.

  • The Old Jim Crow

    Black people: America's premier outlaw class

    Harriet Tubman, outlaw (Library Of Congress)

    I'm still processing much of what was talked about here during our reading of The New Jim Crow. In continuing my studies this week, I picked up Randall Kennedy's book Race, Crime, and the Law. As I've said before, one insight that's stuck from Alexander's work is the need for skepticism when we discuss "law" and its cousin "order." Laws are not synonyms for justice. Indeed, Alexander is arguing not that the criminal-justice system is flawed but that it is fundamentally unjust and has always been so.

    That latter point deserves some emphasis. If there's one thing I am drawing from the historical portion of Kennedy's work, it's that America has always viewed its black population as a kind of sleeper cell—either criminals in fact, or criminals in waiting. All of our racist political rhetoric, from birtherism to "welfare queens" to "state's rights" to Willie Horton to Sister Souljah, reflects this. Black people represent an element in this country that tends to either break the law or exploit its loopholes at the expense of good, hard-working white people.

    And this view is old. For most, if not all, of their existence, black people have been America's premier outlaw class. From Kennedy:

    Prior to the Civil War, many jurisdictions made slaves into “criminals” by prohibiting them from pursuing a wide range of activities that whites were typically free to pursue. Authorities enacted criminal statutes barring slaves from learning to read, leaving their masters’ property without a proper pass, engaging in “unbecoming” conduct in the presence of a white female, assembling to worship outside the supervisory presence of a white person, neglecting to step out of the way when a white person approached on a walkway, smoking in public, walking with a cane, making loud noises, or defending themselves from assaults. Governed by a separate law of crimes, slaves were also subjected to a separate brand of punishment. Slaves, for example, were subjected to capital punishment for a wider range of crimes than any other sector of the population. Virginia, for instance, defined seventy-three capital crimes applicable to slaves but only one—first degree murder—applicable to whites.

    To criminalize black people for reading, walking, worshipping—things whites do all the time—is to essentially criminalize black humanity. And this not just a matter of enslaved black people. States like Illinois and Oregon passed laws barring all black people from entering their borders. Among those criminalized by these laws was a black man who brought his fiancée to Illinois in hopes of marrying her. He was prosecuted and convicted, and in upholding his conviction the Illinois Supreme Court declared its intent "to exclude any further ingress of negroes, and to remove those already among us as speedily as possible."

    The Fugitive Slave Act took this criminalization further, essentially allowing white "man-catchers" to declare black people escaped slaves—again criminals—and remand them to custody. And there was great incentive to do so, as the individual enforcers of the act were given $5 if it were determined "that a slavemaster was not entitled to an alleged fugitive slave" but $10 if it were determined the slavemaster did have a right to his "property." A U.S. marshal refusing to participate could himself be criminalized and fined $1,000. A marshal who allowed an enslaved person to escape "would be liable to an owner for the full value."

    One reason why I was hoping for a tighter history from The New Jim Crow is that I could intuitively feel the connections between the new system and the old. I thought that those links deserved more attention, more clarity, and would have strengthened the case. I suspect Kennedy would be skeptical of a "new" Jim Crow. Nevertheless, his history makes clear how much the old system of justice and the new have in common—criminalizing the behavior of black humans, punishing black humans under harsher terms, incentivizing the seizing of black bodies. I suspect there's even more.

    The consequences of rendering black people criminals for being human have been profound and extend beyond the argument over whether we really are facing a "new" Jim Crow. The fact is that for most of our history, every black person who's ever actively resisted was effectively committing a criminal act. Harriet Tubman might grace postage stamps today, but in her time she was a criminal who likely would have been executed or sold South had she been caught.

    Frederick Douglass was a flagrant criminal. And he knew it:

    I appear before you this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master and ran off with them.

    The black men who served in the Union Army were regarded by the Confederate opposition not as soldiers but as outlaws:

    We cannot treat negroes ... as prisoners of war without a destruction of the social system for which we contend .... We must claim the full control of all negroes who may fall into our hands, to punish with death, or any other penalty.

    And it wasn't just the Confederates—80 percent of all Union soldiers executed for mutiny were black. Martin Luther King was a criminal. Rosa Parks was a criminal. Malcolm X was not just a criminal in his youth but regarded and treated as such by the FBI until the end of his life. Indeed, J. Edgar Hoover criminalized much of black leadership from Marcus Garvey to King to Malcolm to the Black Panthers for his entire career.

    And Hoover did much more. When Viola Liuzzo was brutally murdered by white supremacists, Hoover's FBI spread rumors that she was heroin addict who liked to sleep with black men (a crime in several states.) The rumors had the intended effect:

    ... the July 1965 issue of The Ladies' Home Journal published a poll that asked if readers thought Liuzzo was a good mother. Fifty-five percent didn't. ("I feel sorry for what happened," said one woman in a focus group convened to talk about the Liuzzo story, "but I feel she should have stayed home and minded her own business.")

    Why was Hoover so dead-set on criminalizing Liuzzo? Because Hoover himself was a criminal who'd placed an informant in the car with her murderers. The informant had cut his teeth beating the daylights out of Freedom Riders. Hoover did nothing to restrain him. Liuzzo's husband tried to defend her name. He later turned to drinking and died. Liuzzo's family sued the FBI and lost. Today the name of J. Edgar Hoover—an inveterate racist and scourge of black people—decorates the headquarters of the incorruptible FBI.

    Even being technically within the law has not insured protection for black people. The Freedom Riders were not seeking new laws; they were trying to get the federal government to enforce a Supreme Court ruling already on the books. The response from law enforcement was to treat them like outlaws. The attorney general's office was essentially created to enforce civil rights for black people, but when called to actually enforce the law, Robert Kennedy denounced not the Southern police but the Freedom Riders, for producing "good propaganda for America's enemies." Meanwhile informants, ostensibly in his employ, were helping white supremacists wreak havoc.

    All of this must be remembered the next time the police invoke "Stop Snitchin'"—the same police who've long maintained a blue wall of silence. The uncomfortable fact is that "The Law" in America has been—at best—a halting friend of black people, and more often a direct enemy.

    I keep going back to the first conversation I ever had with Mr. Clyde Ross. I keep thinking about him telling me that he'd fled Mississippi seeking "the protection of the law." And now I am thinking about William Goodell (quoted by Kennedy) speaking of black people:

    [The enslaved] is nevertheless accounted criminal for acts which are deemed innocent in others, and punished with a severity from which all others are exempted. He is under the control of law, though unprotected by law, and can know law only as an enemy, and not as a friend.

    So little has changed.

  • Books for the Horde: The New Jim Crow, Chapter 6

    Is the current prison system really intended as a way to control black people, or is something more nuanced at work?

    A 1937 Home Owner's Loan Corporation residential security map of Philadephia (Wikimedia)

    This is our last installment for The New Jim Crow. I want to thank everyone for joining and look forward to reading your conclusions. Essentially, I think The New Jim Crow is a solid book overall, and an excellent tool for activists. Unfortunately, from a scholarly perspective, I think the book leaves a lot of us asking for more.

    Alexander's greatest insight, for me, was a simple but important one—the law is not a divine mandate but the work of fallible humans, with human agendas. By the same token, labels like "criminal" and "felon" should be understood as the labels they are, not as facts of nature. Sometimes both the label and the law are just, and sometimes they are not. But there is no real reason why either has to be just. (Oddly enough, no one has better articulated this than the "gangsta rappers" who Alexander regards as modern-day minstrels. It's worth spending some time with both the song and video for Freeway's "What We Do" to see what I mean.)

    The scholarship and hurried manner of Alexander's writing posed a problem for me. In the last chapter she extends her critique of Clinton to Obama. Her core insight is correct—simply changing the faces of the people executing policy does not guarantee a just policy. But because of past errors (which we've discussed), I found myself constantly checking the footnotes. And I left feeling like I'd be uncomfortable citing that portion (as well as other portions) of the book in a debate.

    I was not convinced, in the end, that mass incarceration really is a "new" Jim Crow, in much the same way that I am not convinced that Jim Crow was a "new" slavery. I tend to think that names mean something and it's worth delineating the difference between systems. I also think we can do this work of delineation without minimizing the evil inherent in each. I still feel uncomfortable with the idea that masses of incarcerated white people are merely collateral damage on the way to controlling black people. I suspect something more nuanced at work.

    I use these words "suspect" and "unconvinced" intentionally, for even as I write this, I am not so sure that Alexander is wrong. A brief historical note will explain why. In the '40s and '50s, African Americans and advocates of fair housing understood that some network of discrimination was at work. But they did not understand how far the network actually went until the discovery of redlining maps, which made it painfully clear that what they were seeing was not random mindless bias but federal policy. For years it was believed that whites enslaved blacks because of "mindless bias" against dark skin. It took the work of historians like Edmund Morgan and St. Clair Drake to show that white supremacy was not a remnant of the Dark Ages but the product of a modern, ostensibly civilized age.

    We are still inside the period of mass incarceration, and historians (as opposed to lawyers and law professors) have just begun to really dig into the roots of our era. I would not be shocked if one day they discover the evidence that I found wanting in this book—evidence of intentionality, of direction, which shows that the carceral state really was, at its roots, an attempt to control black people, and to continue the long tradition of American plunder. Should that day come, The New Jim Crow will likely be seen as prophetic.

  • To Raise, Love, and Lose a Black Child

    Jordan Davis's mother, Lucia McBath, reflects on the guilty verdict in his murderer's trial.

    Jordan Davis and his mother, Lucia McBath (Courtesy Lucia McBath)

    Last Friday, I called Jordan Davis's mother Lucia McBath. It's been almost two years since her son was murdered by a man who took offense to his music. The murderer was Michael Dunn. After shooting the boy, Dunn drove to a motel with his girlfriend. He ordered pizza. He mixed a few cocktails. Then, the next day, he turned himself in and claimed that he was defending himself against a shotgun-wielding Davis. No shotgun was ever found. In his first trial, Dunn was convicted of attempted murder, for shooting—unjustifiably—at Davis's friends. He was not convicted of murdering Jordan Davis after the jury deadlocked. The state of Florida retried the case, and this time convicted Dunn of first-degree murder.

    McBath and I had talked twice before and each time I'd found her to be a woman of direct and open feeling. The first time we talked she cried as she recounted the life of her lost son. The second time she stood before my son and insisted that he mattered, though all the powers of the world might tell him different. With wild theories of phantom shotguns now banished, I wanted to know how McBath felt and how she was filling the yawning space left by her departed son.

    "I guess I'm speechless," she said. "Excited. Happy. It feels like the weight of the world has been lifted. But I definitely am waffling back and forth. I was elated about justice for Jordan, but I would prefer to have him here, thriving and growing. I wish that was my reality, but in light of everything this is the best I can get."

    She told me that she'd taken the energy that she'd once put into child-rearing and given herself over to activism. She has set up a scholarship fund in her son's name. She is working with President Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative.

    "I've been working with them because my heart is for our people," she said, speaking of My Brother's Keeper. "My heart is for everyone, but I know that there is a lot of work that has to be done for my own people."

    McBath spoke about the need to inculcate our young with certain values and morals. But I knew that she had taught those same values and morals to her son. And they had not saved him.

    "It's very difficult to know that it doesn't matter what morals you instill in your children," she said. "That there are certain people who will never see the value and known who they are."

    Davis hailed from the striving class of America. He grew up with all the comforts and possibilities that black people associate with Atlanta, where he was raised, and which Americans at large associate with middle-class life. And yet African Americans raised in such circumstances understand that in so many ways they are not that far removed from the block. Many of them are just a generation away, and they still have cousins, brothers, and uncles struggling. Their country cannot see this complexity, and thinks of the entire mass as the undeserving poor—which is to say, in the language of our country, criminal.

    "For these people, The Cosby Show was just amusement," McBath said. "They don't know that in the black community the Cosbys exist. They don't know that we educate our children, we train up our children, we have fathers, nurturing, and supporting. We have that. But that's the America that a lot of people don't know exists, and they don't know because they don't want to see it."

    But American blindness had not dissuaded her, and when I asked about the path forward she spoke mostly (like the president she supports) of communal self-improvement. "We've become apathetic and comfortable, thinking we have arrived," she said. "A lot of us know we have an African-American president, but they don't know how he got there. They don't know what our forefathers did to get him there. And you can't fault our children. Shame on us, the parents. Shame on us."

    In this I heard the essential problem of 21st-century black philosophy. Black people are a minority in the country they built. The legacy of that building has remanded them to the basement of America. There are only two conscious ways to escape the basement: (1) Appeal to the magnanimity of white people. (2) Become super-human. The first option is degrading and demoralizing, in that concedes the possibility of not being human. Whatever can be said of the nonviolent protests of the '60s, they rejected a right that Americans cherish in all their myths and histories: the right of self-defense. The appeal essentially says, "We will be human when you allow it."

    The second option—being twice as good—is impossible as a reality. And, to paraphrase Michelle Alexander, this is not because there is something wrong or special about black people, but because we are, like everyone else, ultimately human. Indeed, the notion that 40 million people will prove themselves "twice as good" as some other million is the opposite of humanism. Perhaps "twice as good" works as a kind of religion—a personal inspiration for those of us who cannot bring themselves to say, "We will be human when they allow it."

    The unspoken option is guns. But this is not really an option at all—and not merely because it is impractical. Black people are Americans, one of the oldest classes of Americans. It is crucial to understand this. We are not seeking integration into someone else's burning house. We built the house. It belongs to us as much as it belongs to anyone. And I think we will no more destroy our own American home than we would shoot down our own American children. Perhaps that isn't even the 21st-century problem. Perhaps it's the problem of a minority. But something happens to the black person who realizes that his fundamental political condition consists of navigating between a suite of bad choices.

    And white people know this. And white people want no part of this. The day I talked to Lucia McBath, I read a story about a white couple suing over "wrongful birth." The "wrongful birth" came about because one of the mothers was mistakenly artificially inseminated by a black man. The mothers claimed that their desire was to "find a donor with genetic traits similar to them." There are all sorts of genetic traits influencing everything from height to weight to eye-color to predilections to certain diseases. But the traits that the couple wanted were those that firmly would place their child under the protective dome of white America.

    Instead the parents (Jennifer and Amanda) got a black girl (Payton) who belongs to an outlaw class. One need not doubt the mothers' claims of love to understand what is happening here:

    Jennifer bonded with Payton easily, and she and Amanda loved her very much .... Even so, Jennifer lives each day with fears, anxieties and uncertainty about her future and Payton's future .... One of Jennifer's biggest fears is the life experiences Payton will undergo, not only in her all-white community, but in her all-white, and often unconsciously insensitive family .... Jennifer's stress and anxiety intensifies when she envisions Payton entering an all-white school .... Jennifer is well aware of the child psychology research and literature correlating intolerance and racism with reduced academic and psychological well-being.

    This scenario is almost indistinguishable from any black parent forced to confront the future of their child in this country. The heart of the problem is that the mother's child has been kicked out the dome and thrown into the wiles where—like all of us—her child stands a not-insignificant chance of becoming Jordan Davis.

    And this was the summer of Jordan Davises, the summer of bodies when every day, a black parent could log on to the Internet and see the bodies of black people choked into oblivion, beaten on the side of the road, stalked and raped, tased for straying too long, pistol-whipped for running too fast, shot down for mental illness, shot down for cos-play, shot down for allegedly ignoring orders, shot down for too quickly obeying orders.

    "I’m still watching," McBath told me. "It might be a different circumstance, but it all brings back to my mind what happened with Jordan. This is what certain individuals believe about black people. Our forefathers have spent a lot effort trying to get rid of these prejudicial ideas."

    I asked her about Trayvon Martin. And she told me again that Jordan had been horrified by Martin's shooting. "Jordan kept saying, 'Mom, that could have been me. Mom, that could have been me.' We talked at length," she said. "He said, 'He didn't even do anything wrong.' And I told him, 'Jordan, you don’t have to be doing anything wrong. You are a young black male and they are certain people who will never give you respect.'"

  • How to Steal Things, Exploit People, and Avoid All Responsibility

    The case for reparations: a narrative bibliography

    North and South Lawndale (Payton Chung/Flickr)

    I started this narrative bibliography for "The Case for Reparations" back in June, but, regrettably, I didn't finish the final section before I left for the summer. Some time has passed but I think it is very important that, as much as possible, I complete this public acknowledgement of all the previous work that contributed to my own.

    As I've written, the process began with the understanding that racism was a "done thing" and not an irrepressible clash between people of different hues. Another way of putting this is to say white supremacy is not an invention of white people; white people are an invention of white supremacy. The second step was understanding that the most flagrant demonstration of white supremacy, enslavement, is not ancillary to American history but at its very roots. The enslavement of Africans is foundational to the United States, and it is tough to imagine this country without it. The third step was understanding that the legacy of that enslavement gave us a suite of policies that injured—and continues to injure—people who are alive and well and living in North Lawndale.

    Knowing those three things, the way forward became clear to me.

    I first seriously grappled with the concept reparations in my early 20s, in the form Randall Robinson's moving argument in The Debt. A taut and beautifully rendered book, The Debt mostly focuses on enslavement. But I remember sitting with Robinson some years ago—he was the subject of my first big profile for a national magazine—and hearing him almost off-handedly note that housing discrimination alone is estimated to have cost black people billions. And I recall dimly thinking, "Some of those people are alive."

    One critique made by those who oppose reparations holds that the claim is null because it was made so long after the actual injury, when all members of the injured class were dead. But this is not true of a claim rooted in housing discrimination. Maps show who lived where. Records of the policies are clear. Histories have been written outlining the execution of these policies and their effects. Indeed, a paper trail probably exists for those who'd been directly refused loans. I knew a reparations claim could be made by living victims.

    But was that actually something "new?" And was the "Everybody who was enslaved is dead" argument really an argument, or a component of some larger device? In this pursuit, the historian Roy E. Finkenbine was indispensable in shaping my thinking. His article on Belinda Royall's petition and her early claims of redress for enslavement established that reparations was not an "after-the-fact" claim; in fact blacks and whites had made the claim long before enslavement ended. For many of the same reasons, historian Mary Frances Berry's biography of reparations activist Callie House—My Face Is Black Is True—was equally important. Callie House argued for "pensions" for enslaved black people. Again, this was a claim made while the direct victims were alive.

    Finally, I came upon this issue of the Journal of African-American History, totally devoted to reparations. The issue is indispensable for understanding the history of the reparations movement. I am specifically indebted to anthropologist James M. Davidson for his article, "Encountering the Ex-Slave Reparations Movement From the Grave." Taken together I understood that the claim for reparations was—at the very least—as old as the United States of America itself. The claim for reparations did not begin a century after the crime, but was made at the time of the crime and immediately after.

    Now I began to see the entire device—a method by which you exploit a people and then clean yourself of all responsibility. An act is committed—enslavement, for instance. The victims make a credible claim. The claim is disputed with poor logic. (“They have been taught Christian civilization, and to speak the noble English language instead of some African gibberish. The account is square with the ex‑slaves.”) The people making the claim eventually die. At that point the claim is acknowledged as having been credible, but because the claimants are dead, nothing can be done.

    The counter-strategy to reparations has always been to run out the clock. It was true in the time of Callie House. It is true today. The vast majority of the responses to "The Case for Reparations" are not so much responses, but evasions. The respondents prefer to ignore the details of the claim ("The people to whom reparations were owed are long dead."), to ignore the facts of history ("What about...Japanese Americans, interned during World War II?") or to to simply flail around like a six-year-old ("OK. Whatever. Reparations scholarships to Middlebury for all!")

    Understanding that those who could make a reparations claim were very much alive, I wanted to understand who the claim was being made against. One popular response to reparations is to say "I didn't own any slaves, so I can't be held responsible." Other versions of this include "My ancestors came over in 1920, I can't be held responsible." Or, "My great-great grandmother was half-black, I should not have to pay." The first flaw in this logic is to believe that the reparations claim is rooted in the allegedly distant past. I now knew that it wasn't. But the second flaw is to conceive of reparations as a claim made against individual white people, as opposed to American society itself.

    Kim Forde-Mazrui's scholarly article "Taking Conservatives Seriously: A Moral Justification for Affirmative Action and Reparations" was crucial in understanding this question. The article notes that the state, necessarily, outlives its individual citizens. Americans pay for things, all the time, that they are not individually responsible for. If the "I didn't do it" argument was followed to its logical end, the state would effectively dissolve.

    At that point I then felt I had argument. The rest was left to the team here at The Atlantic—the awesome editors, fact-checkers, and copy-editors—as well as number of scholars and writers who served as my readers. This is not a completely thorough list of all my readings, but it does capture the highlights. It also is not a thorough list of all the great scholarship out there on reparations. (The work of economist William "Sandy" Darity Jr., for instance, merits mention here.) I would encourage people who enjoyed my article to continue to explore this scholarship themselves. With the new-fangled Internet, much of it is widely available.

    On y va.


    Editor's note: This is the final part in a four-part series on the works of history that informed the author's recent piece, "The Case for Reparations." Part one, on race and racism, is available here; part two, on slavery, is here; part three on housing policy is here.

  • Continuing Education

    It is one thing to understand someone whom you know and speak with regularly. It's still another to understand a stranger.

    Luxerta/Flickr

    On Thursday, I was at Cornell making the case for reparations. I've never written anything that has garnered this much attention, and I confess some bewilderment at the response. Yesterday there were people sitting in the aisles, people standing outside the room, people sitting in windows, people outside of windows listening. I've been writing professionally for most of my adult life. I've done this because I love the act of writing, which is to say I love the act of discovery, of revelation, and then the attempt to share that revelation in all its fullness and clarity.

    You can never be sure how many people will want to share in that feeling. And so I have found that it is best to not think too much about the ranks of one's readers, one's prominence or profile. The reasons to write were my own when I commenced 20 years ago, as a young poet, and they remain mine today as a not-so-young journalist. And yet sometimes you look up and there are people listening, and if not in large numbers, then in larger numbers than anything you ever imagined. You can never be sure quite why. No matter. This too, redounds.

    The greatest boon of "The Case for Reparations" is that it has put me in conversation with some of the best minds of my generation, the generations preceding, and the generations following. My favorite portion of these talks, is after the speech when I get to listen to the audience, the small private lunches with students, or the dinners with academics. And so it was yesterday when I found myself listening, within a few short hours, to arguments for, and against, a binational Israel, then a short treatise on the history of black satire in America, and finally the possibility of reparations in a capitalist economy. In this sense, I felt myself back at home, back at Howard, out on the Yard, debating with the brothers and sisters, and catching up on the doings of various radicals, nationalists, and professed social democrats.

    Those are the moments of magic for me because they remind me of why I came to writing—for discovery, revelation, for study. I find myself thinking of George L. Ruffin's estimation of Frederick Douglass:

    His range of reading has been wide and extensive. He has been a hard student. In every sense of the word, he is a self-made man. By dint of hard study he has educated himself, and to-day it may be said he has a well-trained intellect. He has surmounted the disadvantage of not having a university education, by application and well-directed effort.

    He seems to have realized the fact, that to one who is anxious to become educated and is really in earnest, it is not positively necessary to go to college, and that information may be had outside of college walks; books may be obtained and read elsewhere. They are not chained to desks in college libraries, as they were in early times at Oxford.

    Professors' lectures may be bought already printed, learned doctors may be listened to in the lyceum, and the printing-press has made it easy and cheap to get information on every subject and topic that is discussed and taught in the university. Douglass never made the mistake (a common one) of considering that his education was finished. He has continued to study, he studies now, and is a growing man, and at this present moment he is a stronger man intellectually than ever before.

    I find myself thinking of Malcolm X in the jail cell, wearing out his eyes in search of the knowledge, and at the end of his life, searching still:

    My greatest lack has been, I believe, that I don't have the kind of academic education I wish I had been able to get—to have been a lawyer, perhaps. I do believe that I might have made a good lawyer. I have always loved verbal battle, and challenge. You can believe me that if I had the time right now, I would not be one bit ashamed to go back into any New York City public school and start where I left off at the ninth grade, and go on through a degree. Because I don't begin to be academically equipped for so many of the interests that I have. For instance, I love languages. I wish I were an accomplished linguist. I don't know anything more frustrating than to be around people talking something you can't understand. Especially when they are people who look just like you.

    In Africa, I heard original mother tongues, such as Hausa, and Swahili, being spoken, and there I was standing like some little boy, waiting for someone to tell me what had been said; I never will forget how ignorant I felt. Aside from the basic African dialects, I would try to learn Chinese, because it looks as if Chinese will be the most powerful political language of the future. And already I have begun studying Arabic, which I think is going to be the most powerful spiritual language of the future.

    I would just like to study. I mean ranging study, because I have a wide-open mind. I'm interested in almost any subject you can mention. I know this is the reason I have come to really like, as individuals, some of the hosts of radio or television panel programs I have been on, and to respect their minds—because even if they have been almost steadily in disagreement with me on the race issue, they still kept their minds open and objective about the truths of things happening in this world.

    But time raced ahead of Malcolm, and he died not knowing—and knowing how much he did not know. So it goes for all of us, eventually.

    At the end of my talk yesterday, a woman approached me with a question. She was a native of Côte d'Ivoire, and when I learned this I immediately asked, "Vous parlez français?" And to this she granted a mild, "Bien sûr." A great fear came over me, because I knew that if I were serious about my studies—if I truly aspired to be that hard student—I must attempt speak to her in French, if she were willing. She was. And so we talked about reparations for the enslaved, for the plundered, for the colonized—and we did it all in the language of the colonizer.

    I am approaching the end of my third year studying French. This was the first time I'd had a complicated conversation with a native French speaker who I did not know, and managed to follow along. This means more than is immediately apparent. Before I began studying I did not understand that comprehension comes on several levels. It is one thing to understand someone whom you know and speak with regularly. It's still another to understand a stranger. And another still to understand a group of strangers who are talking about something of which you have no knowledge. So this small conversation was a moment for me—like the novice yogi going from bridge to wheel. And there again I felt one of the revelation, the discovery, the neurons firing, stretching, growing.

    I started the case for reparations looking to answer a question that has burned at me since I was a child in West Baltimore—what was the wall which stood between the world and me? And now I feel myself to know the answer. And I feel that while my country may need to lie to itself, it can no longer effectively lie to me. That is a kind of liberation. And still I feel other kinds calling out to me.

  • Book for the Horde: The New Jim Crow, Chapters 4 and 5

    What does it mean to be a black woman and consider tying yourself to a black man living in contemporary America?

    The Bronx's Soundview projects (Dan DeLuca/Flickr)

    Hi all. This is our third week of reading Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. As usual, the conversation will take place in comments below. You're welcome to join in, as long as you've done the reading. If you haven't done the reading for the week, please refrain from commenting.

    At this point in the book, I feel like I have a good sense of the strengths and weakness of The New Jim Crow, both of which are on display in these two chapters. My sense is that Alexander excels at explaining how allegedly "color-blind" law really is about as "color-blind" as the poll tax. In Chapter Four she returns to the impact of the drug war on people who live in public housing:

    In 1996, President Clinton, in an effort to bolster his “tough on crime” credentials, declared that public housing agencies should exercise no discretion when a tenant or guest engages in criminal activity, particularly if it is drug-related. In his 1996 State of the Union address, he proposed “One Strike and You’re Out” legislation, which strengthened eviction rules and strongly urged that drug offenders be automatically excluded from public housing based on their criminal records. He later declared, “If you break the law, you no longer have a home in public housing, one strike and you’re out. That should be the law everywhere in America.”

    In its final form, the act, together with the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998, not only authorized public housing agencies to exclude automatically (and evict) drug offenders and other felons; it also allowed agencies to bar applicants believed to be using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol—whether or not they had been convicted of a crime ...

    The [Supreme] Court ruled in 2002 that, under federal law, public housing tenants can be evicted regardless of whether they had knowledge of or participated in alleged criminal activity. According to the Court, William Lee and Barbara Hill were rightfully evicted after their grandsons were charged with smoking marijuana in a parking lot near their apartments. Herman Walker was properly evicted as well, after police found cocaine on his caregiver. And Perlie Rucker was rightly evicted following the arrest of her daughter for possession of cocaine a few blocks from home. The Court ruled these tenants could be held civilly liable for the nonviolent behavior of their children and caregivers. They could be tossed out of public housing due to no fault of their own.

    Reading this I kept thinking about how any talk about racism in America ultimately turns to the marriage rates among black women. (Making conversations about racism into conversations about black sexuality is old.) I don't think very many people have thought much about what it means to be a black woman and consider tying yourself to a man living under the system Alexander outlines. As she notes, an appalling number of black men are in the hands of the state.

    Those who push marriage are basically saying, "You should really consider hitching your life to a man who has higher chance of giving you HIV, who might return to jail, and who might render you homeless because he wants to smoke a joint." Alexander brings this up explicitly when discussing Obama's upbraiding on the lack of black fathers: "The media did not ask—and Obama did not tell—where the missing fathers might be found."

    In general, I feel that when Alexander is talking about the law she's at her best. When she strays, I can feel it. Her discussion of "gangsta rap," for instance, felt hamfisted and dated. She repeats the trope that hip-hop was unconcerned with violence in its early days (anyone who's seen Wild Style knows this not to be true) and used to be characterized by happier music like "My Adidas" (which was preceded a year earlier by Schoolly D's ode to the "Park Side Killers"). More importantly, none of what is problematic in hip-hop—its exaggerated violence, its terror of female sexuality—is really unique to hip-hop so much as its unique to media that target young men; comic books and video games sprout to mind. I found this portion unfortunate, because the natural soundtrack to The New Jim Crow is some of the music she regards as the New Minstrel Show ("Bird in Hand," "Everyday Struggle," "Memory Lane," "One Love, "MAAD City.")

    I can continue to feel like the writing here is rushed, and could have used more time. Enough from me, though. Let's go to comments.

  • Books for the Horde: The New Jim Crow, Chapters 2 and 3

    How the powers afforded to law enforcement encourage racism and plunder

    Richard Bauer/Flickr

    Hi all. This is our second week of reading. This week we're focusing on Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. Per last week, the conversation will take place in comments below. To repeat: You can tackle any angle as long as you've done the reading. If you haven't done the reading for the week, please refrain from commenting. We had some people violate this rule this week. This week I will ban these people, under the novel theory that demanding a hearing, while refusing to grant one, evidences ill-breeding.

    From this week's chapters, I thought Alexander's strongest portions lay in her lucid explanation of the proud powers enjoyed by law enforcement. A few particularly damning highlights:

    On how law enforcement IDs drug couriers:

    The profile can include traveling with luggage, traveling without luggage, driving an expensive car, driving a car that needs repairs, driving with out-of-state license plates, driving a rental car, driving with “mismatched occupants,” acting too calm, acting too nervous, dressing casually, wearing expensive clothing or jewelry, being one of the first to deplane, being one of the last to deplane, deplaning in the middle, paying for a ticket in cash, using large-denomination currency, using small-denomination currency, traveling alone, traveling with a companion, and so on. Even striving to obey the law fits the profile! The Florida Highway Patrol Drug Courier Profile cautioned troopers to be suspicious of “scrupulous obedience to traffic laws.”

    On how easily efforts to profile "criminals" quickly become efforts to profile black people:

    In Los Angeles, mass stops of young African American men and boys resulted in the creation of a database containing the names, addresses, and other biographical information of the overwhelming majority of young black men in the entire city. The LAPD justified its database as a tool for tracking gang or “gang-related” activity. However, the criterion for inclusion in the database is notoriously vague and discriminatory. Having a relative or friend in a gang and wearing baggy jeans is enough to put youth on what the ACLU calls a Black List. In Denver, displaying any two of a list of attributes—including slang, “clothing of a particular color,” pagers, hairstyles, or jewelry—earns youth a spot in the Denver Police’s gang database. In 1992, citizen activism led to an investigation, which revealed that eight out of every ten people of color in the entire city were on the list of suspected criminals.

    On the financial incentives implicit in the War on Drugs:

    In fact, the Times reported that police departments had an extraordinary incentive to use their new equipment for drug enforcement: the extra federal funding the local police departments received was tied to antidrug policing. The size of the disbursements was linked to the number of city or county drug arrests. Each arrest, in theory, would net a given city or county about $153 in state and federal funding .... As a result, when Jackson County, Wisconsin, quadrupled its drug arrests between 1999 and 2000, the county’s federal subsidy quadrupled too .... Suddenly, police departments were capable of increasing the size of their budgets, quite substantially, simply by taking the cash, cars, and homes of people suspected of drug use or sales.

    On the (predictable) result of these incentives—plunder:

    One highly publicized case involved a reclusive millionaire, Donald Scott, who was shot and killed when a multiagency task force raided his two-hundred-acre Malibu ranch purportedly in search of marijuana plants. They never found a single marijuana plant in the course of the search. A subsequent investigation revealed that the primary motivation for the raid was the possibility of forfeiting Scott’s property. If the forfeiture had been successful, it would have netted the law enforcement agencies about $5 million in assets. In another case, William Munnerlynn had his Learjet seized by the DEA after he inadvertently used it to transport a drug dealer. Though charges were dropped against him within seventy-two hours, the DEA refused to return his Learjet. Only after five years of litigation and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees was he able to secure return of his jet. When the jet was returned, it had sustained $100,000 worth of damage.

    (For more on this see Sarah Stillman's work.)

    Again, I think Alexander's insistence on pushing the envelope on actual racism is one of the book's most striking features. Liberals have largely retreated on this front. We prefer to talk about "inadvertent," or "unintentional" racial effects. Alexander is arguing for actual racism as a factor in every stage of the criminal-justice process. Her citation of this study on policing in Seattle is an excellent example of how, after controlling for everything, racism remains a significant factor in who we police, who we arrest and who we jail.

    I don't yet know what to think of her insistence on disregarding violent crime. Her basic argument is that the drug war is the major factor in understanding mass incarceration. I am not sure that she's wrong. I just don't find her totally convincing. I read this sentence, for instance ...

    As much as half of state prisoners are violent offenders, but that statistic can easily be misinterpreted. Violent offenders tend to get longer prison sentences than nonviolent offenders, and therefore comprise a much larger share of the prison population than they would if they had earlier release dates.

    ... and wasn't sure how it proved her point. I'm not saying it doesn't—but it could have used some unpacking, some "Talk To Me Like I'm Stupid." And there a lot of places in these chapters, particularly around the history, that feel rushed in that same way. I kept wanting Alexander to slow down and bang home her point with more evidence and more examples. I also wanted her to write with more care. While disregarding violent crime as a factor in incarceration, she quickly changes the subject:

    The most important fact to keep in mind, however, is this: debates about prison statistics ignore the fact that most people who are under correctional control today are not in prison.

    Yes. But the argument is about mass incarceration. Certainly parole and probation are related, but they are different.

    I find myself slightly frustrated by this book. Its overall argument strikes me as correct. And its underlying arguments strike me as plausible (drug war vs. violent-crime debate.) But I was left in several pages wanting more. The result is that I find myself checking footnotes and looking up sources to make sure that Alexander is giving me these stories in all their fullness and import.

    Feel free to opine up them, or anything else in the chapters that caught your eye.

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