Hi all. Thanks for joining in on this collective read of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. The conversation will take place in comments below. You can tackle any angle as long as you've done the reading. That last part bears some emphasis—this conversation is for people who are reading The New Jim Crow. If you haven't done the reading for the week, please refrain from commenting. Please respect the space of people who've actually put in the hours.
I'd like to start off the discussion with some brief thoughts on Chapter 1 and the Introduction. I can't remember a book that's brought more attention to a particular societal injustice in recent years. This is a credit to the intellectual courage of Michelle Alexander. Alexander is direct and frank about the influence of white supremacy in our history and in our society, and refuses to hem and haw in the name of an empty "moderation." I suspect it's that direct and frank approach that has attracted so many readers to her case. Should any sanity enter our sentencing laws over the next few years, some portion of the credit will likely belong to The New Jim Crow.
Activists and writers have long argued that there are "racist elements" or "racist injustices" embedded in our current crisis of mass incarceration. Alexander would have us push this claim much further, arguing that mass incarceration is "a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow." She disarms the popular notion that it is somehow wrong to discuss a modern Jim Crow in the age of Barack Obama, noting that "no other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a a larger percentage of its black population then South Africa did at the height of apartheid." In Alexander's rendering Jim Crow didn't die so much as it mutated.
The trickiness of white supremacy is a major theme in the first chapter. Alexander pulls from the current Morganite historical consensus, which holds that there was nothing particular in the way that Africans looked or acted that necessitated race-war. On the contrary, racism was created by a series of policies meant to achieve particular ends. In Alexander's view, those ends were continued profits for the nascent American planter class:
Deliberately and strategically, the planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and black slaves. White settlers were allowed greater access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that free labor would not be placed in competition with slave labor. These measures effectively eliminated the risk of future alliances between black slaves and poor whites. Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery. Their own plight had not improved by much, but at least they were not slaves. Once the planter elite split the labor force, poor whites responded to the logic of their situation and sought ways to expand their racially privileged position.
This theme continues through much of Alexander's first chapter—just when it seems that poor whites and blacks are about to unite, a powerful interest bribes poor whites with skin privilege and the grand alliance is sundered. So it was after Bacon's Rebellion. So it was after Reconstruction. So it was after the populist movement. And so it was after the civil-rights movement. In each case, Alexander finds an interest cleaving poor and working whites apart. The New Jim Crow is only the latest machination.
Alexander sees the first rumblings of this in the Nixon presidency:
H.R. Haldeman, one of Nixon’s key advisers, recalls that Nixon himself deliberately pursued a Southern, racial strategy: “He [President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Similarly, John Ehrlichman, special counsel to the president, explained the Nixon administration’s campaign strategy of 1968 in this way: “We’ll go after the racists.” In Ehrlichman’s view, “that subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.”
Crime, Alexander argues, was one of the key issues Republicans used to send that "subliminal appeal." But the use of crime did not end with Republicans. It quickly spread to Democrats. And thus we behold Bill Clinton endorsing "three strikes and you're out" laws, funding a massive prison buildup, and promoting a "One Strike and You're Out" initiative that "made it easier for federally assisted public housing projects to exclude anyone with a criminal history."
And despite claims of shrinking government and kicking the poor off the dole, mass incarceration effectively meant a new sprawling bureaucracy. Prisons, it turns out, are expensive. "The reality is that the government was not reducing the amount of money devoted to management of the urban poor," Alexander writes. "It was radically altering what the funds would be used for. The dramatic shift toward punitiveness resulted in a massive reallocation for public resources. By 1996, the penal budget doubled the amount that had been allocated to AFDC or food stamps."
There's a lot to like in these first two chapters. Connecting mass incarceration to the larger story of white supremacy is important work. As is moving from abstract terms like "mass incarceration" to actual actors and actual policies. Ensuring that progressives remember the damage done by one of their modern presidents is equally important. I am in broad sympathy with Alexander's basic thesis: that caste did not disappear from America in 1968.
But I was also somewhat frustrated by a few (perhaps minor) historical problems. Alexander claims the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves. In fact, it immediately freed thousands of slaves in rebellious states under Union control. ("Never before had so large a number of slaves been declared free," writes historian Eric Foner.) Later Alexander uses Daniel Patrick Moynihan's report "The Case for National Action" as an example of a new consensus that sought to ignore structural racism and indict black culture. It's true that conservatives used the Moynihan report for those purposes, but I don't think Alexander's rendering is as nuanced as could be. Unlike most conservatives, Moynihan was never confused about the root causes of black poverty:
That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary—a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have. That the Negro community has not only survived, but in this political generation has entered national affairs as a moderate, humane, and constructive national force is the highest testament to the healing powers of the democratic ideal and the creative vitality of the Negro people. But it may not be supposed that the Negro American community has not paid a fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which it has been subjected over the past three centuries.
Moynihan believed that part of that price was "culture." I obviously disagree with this, but I think it's important to fairly represent the debate. Moreover Moynihan, unlike most conservatives, did not think the answer to the "tangle of pathologies" was to wag one's finger at black people. Moynihan believed in full employment—"government as the employer of last resort." He authored Lyndon Johnson's famous address at Howard University—arguably the best speech ever given by an American president on racism and white supremacy.
Scholars have shown that the 1950s nuclear family was an outlier in history, not the rule. But Americans shaped by the postwar "cult of domesticity" did not know that, and it is important to note that Moynihan was not ringing the alarm as a social conservative. He believed that poverty was concentrated among large families, white and black, and that these conditions were leading to break-up and potential social dysfunction. Years of research have confirmed his suspicion: break-up can indeed be a trigger for poverty, although it is most often a correlate, not a cause. More typically, as he suggested, the relationship is the other way around: Money problems exacerbate the difficulties of marriage and child rearing. Conservatives have often reversed this part of his message, or ignored it.
Perhaps more importantly, I am less than convinced by Alexander's rendition of white supremacy as a means of cleaving poor whites away from blacks. My view on this is that white supremacy is an interest in and of itself. It's not clear to me where the politics ends and the bribe begins. I generally think that the left tells itself this story in order to evade the political complications of dealing with white supremacy as a sensible, if deeply immoral, choice, as opposed to a con played on gullible white people.
Maybe in the final analysis none of this matters. And I think the broad outlines of Alexander's thesis are correct and evidenced by data. But I found her rendition of history to be a little too pat and would have liked to see her push a bit more on the finer points.
It's been two years since I parted ways with the NFL and opened up my Sundays to other things. At the time I thought of it as a "personal boycott." In other words, you don't stop watching pro football with the intent of igniting a movement, or of affecting one wit of change in the NFL. You do it so you can sleep at night, so that you can preserve your own morality. I left to keep my side of the street clean in the particular way that I like.
I regret losing a common language and a common culture. The NFL allowed for a bridge to other people with whom I had virtually nothing else in common. (Indeed it is interesting that my French studies began in earnest around the same time I stopped watching football.) But everything I've seen since has served to confirm the suspicions that led me to stop watching.
I still follow the news around the game, the way one might follow the doings an ex-spouse. (Oh, Tony Romo. Danny White will always love you.) A few weeks ago, I saw that John Abraham was retiring because he had been suffering from "severe memory loss" for over a year. It now appears that Abraham will return to the team:
Abraham, who suffered a concussion in Week 1 against the San Diego Chargers on Monday Night Football, left the team last Tuesday. He saw a neurologist Monday, which is one of the last stages of the NFL's concussion protocol, Arians said. If Abraham is cleared to play, the NFL's active sack leader could be back in the starting lineup Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Arians said Abraham, who suffered his first reported concussion, had been texting him for the last three days. About 30 minutes before Arians met with the media Monday afternoon, Abraham told his coach he could announce his return.
It's very hard for me to imagine myself watching a game in which John Abraham was playing, and I can't help but wonder how Abraham’s coaches and teammates feel. If Abraham is already suffering severe memory loss, there is no scenario in which football improves his prognosis. What will John Abraham be in 10 years?
The crisis around head injuries—or rather the NFL's nonchalance about head injury—forced me out of the game. But since I've been gone, I've grown sensitive about the body in ways that I wasn't before. Only now has it begun to occur to me that a torn ACL is not merely an abstract that will keep my favorite player off of the field, but a part of the human body that has been damaged. That damage will likely haunt that particular human body long past its playing days.
Part of this is my own mix of spirituality and atheism. I generally think of the ghost not in the machine, but as the machine. My body is me, and while my brain is particularly important, when I dislocate an ankle I have injured part of myself. Anyone who is being honest about football knows that injuring people is part of the game. This film of Deacon Jones has always been a favorite of mine, for both its eloquence ("My lateral movements along with my initial speed was just fantastic.") and candor:
You got this 260 pounds up to 4.5 and you got an angle on him, he should go to the hospital, and that's exactly what I tried to do. No remorse in my heart, I tried to put him in the hospital every time I tackled. I wanted to hit and put my back into it, you know, Boom! That's gonna provide that shot that's gonna put the intimidating fear of God into that running back. Let him know and make him go back to that huddle and say to that quarterback. "Dammit, I'm not running in Deacon Jones' area anymore." So each time he came over there, I tried to tear his damn head off.
Players don't talk like this today. But I can remember cheering when seeing an opposing quarterback writhing on the ground. And we now know from brain science that the "small hits" that accumulate to cause CTE are in fact injuries. The philosophy that undergirds John Abraham's return to the field is a kind of mysticism that does not quite regard the brain as an organic part of the body. A man who is suffering from "severe memory loss" as a result of playing football, and then goes out to play again, is playing injured. But he is not playing "injured" in a way that will keep him from attempting to injure other players. And maybe that's the point.
Somehow in my time away, I missed that they've exhumed the body of Jovan Belcher—the pro football player who murdered his girlfriend and then himself. They are looking for signs of brain injury. In college, Belcher was a member of a group called Male Athletes Against Violence. Noted neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, who is doing the tests, said he'd bet "one month's salary" that Belcher had CTE.
As various networks and talking heads now congratulate the NFL for doing the right thing, it's worth remembering that the video of Ray Rice brutally assaulting his then girlfriend simply confirms the narrative that had already been reported. There was already deeply disturbing video of Rice dragging Janay Rice (née Palmer) out of an elevator. The complaint specifically accused Rice of committing "assault by attempting to cause bodily injury of J. Palmer, specifically by striking her with his hand, rendering her unconscious."
The NFL claims that it had never seen the video before today. But the video that was already out there, along with the reporting, was bad enough. The idea that it took today's release to understand the gravity of things is insupportable. You don't become a sports and entertainment juggernaut through absent-mindedness. Likely, there are other forces at work.
There is surveillance video, reportedly in the police's possession, that shows the blow that knocked Palmer out. One day that video will be leaked, and we'll all see Ray Rice deck a woman, and we'll remember that the NFL suspended him for two games.
That is exactly what happened. It will be very interesting to see if the NFL can make Rice's "indefinite" suspension stick. The league suspended Rice for a meager two games for knocking his wife unconscious. The league now propose to suspend him indefinitely for ... the same thing. This suspension only indirectly relates to the protecting women. It mostly relates to protecting the shield.
Last week I posted an essay about my time away from the world of English, and some of the lessons I'd learned. I am incredibly grateful to Middlebury College in general, its language schools in particular, and the French school especially. I am forever indebted, personally, to mes professeurs, Corinne Fertein, Véronique Ogden and Simone Muller. They were not just great French teachers, they were some of the best teachers I've ever had. (The teaching quality in the French school is the subject for another day. It was superior.) I am exceedingly thankful to have been selected as a Kathryn Davis Fellow.
Attending Middlebury was one of the most significant experiences of my life. It's not even so much that I never dreamed I'd go seven weeks without English. It's that—until very recently—I never even knew that this was something worth wanting. My son did a four-week version of the same program. He stayed on another campus, but his group came to visit my campus on the second week. I can't quite explain what it is to see your child, meet all of his friends, and have this entire interaction in another language. It was surreal.
I'll save all the other such experiences for another post. What we have here is my "after" video. (Here is the "before.") The video can't really show the progress that was most important to me. What changed most at Middlebury, for me, was not in how I talked, but how I heard. The first time we did this video there were several moments when I didn't even understand the question. I had no such moments this time.
I now feel that I have a crude map of the language, even if there are many unexplored islands. On the map of things I do not know, prepositions and pronouns loom large. You can see this in the video. I make the typical anglophone mistake of using the preposition "pour" when trying to indicate time. That is because in English we use "for" a lot to express time and duration. The French use a blizzard of prepositions to do similar work, (il y a, depuis, en etc.)
The hardest thing about learning any new skill is that beginning portion when you are forced to walk in the dark, with no map at all. It's not just what you don't know, it's that you have no idea what you don't know and when you'll stop not knowing it. Fear then takes over. Will I ever read Rousseau? Why can't I get that "r" right? When I will I stop embarrassing myself every time I speak? Why do I keep confusing "son" and "ton?" What is wrong with me? Do I have a brain injury? The questions—the darkness—dogs us. And so we quit. It's hard to sit in ignorance—mostly because there are no real signs of when that ignorance will end.
I am privileged, in that I was born into a culture where no one had the right to be the best at anything. You had better dance at that party. No one cares that you can't cabbage patch. And you had better play basketball on that crate—even if you can only rebound and play D. I've sucked at a lot of things in my life. I've also gotten better at them. At 15, I was an awful djembe drummer. By 17, I could both play the djembe, shave a goat-skin, attach it to the head and string the drum. I was a bad poet. I became a better one. I was a bad reporter. I became a decent one. I knew very little about the Civil War. And then I read some books, and I knew much more. It's true that I was not a scholastic high-achiever. But have always been—and expect to always be—a hard student. School never ends for the hard student. She is primarily concerned with her curiosities, not the benchmarks of others.
My expectations for French are derived from my experience. I expect to suck for awhile. Then I expect to slowly get better. The point is neither mastery, nor fluency. The point is hard study—the repeated application of a principle until the eyes and ears bleed a little. And then all of that again. In my time as a hard student, I have found that it is much better to focus on process, than outcomes. The question isn't "When will I master the subjunctive?" It's "Did I put in my hour of study today?"
I've gone back to some classics—English Grammar For Speakers of French. I've gone back to some non-classics—X-Men: Second Coming en Français. I'm going to have three hour long conversations a week. And I am going to do this because I like doing it. I like the study and discovery. Fluency—to the extent it exists—is not really up to any conscious part of me.
I spent the majority of this summer at Middlebury College, studying at l’École Française. I had never been to Vermont. I have not been many places at all. I did not have an adult passport until I was 37 years old. Sometimes I regret this. And then sometimes not. Learning to travel when you’re older allows you to be young again, to touch the childlike amazement that is so often dulled away by adult things. In the past year, I have seen more of the world than at any point before, and thus, I have been filled with that juvenile feeling more times then I can count—at a train station in Strasbourg, in an old Parisian bookstore, on a wide avenue in Lawndale. It was no different in Vermont where the green mountains loomed like giants. I would stare at these mountains out of the back window of the Davis Family Library. I would watch the clouds, which, before the rain, drooped over the mountains like lampshades, and I would wonder what, precisely, I had been doing with my life.
I was there to improve my French. My study consisted of four hours of class work and four hours of homework. I was forbidden from reading, writing, speaking, or hearing English. I watched films in French, tried to read a story in Le Monde each day, listened to RFI and a lot of Barbara and Karim Oeullet. At every meal I spoke French, and over the course of the seven weeks I felt myself gradually losing touch with the broader world. This was not a wholly unpleasant feeling. In the moments I had to speak English (calling my wife, interacting with folks in town or at the book store), my mouth felt alien and my ear slightly off.
And there were the latest developments, the likes of which I perceived faintly through the French media. I had some vague sense that King James had done something grand, that the police were killing black men over cigarette sales, that a passenger plane had been shot out the sky, and that powerful people in the world still believed that great problems could be ultimately solved with great armaments. In sum, I knew that very little had changed. And I knew this even with my feeble French eyes, which turned the news of the world into an exercise in impressionism. Everything felt distorted. I understood that things were happening out there, but their size and scope mostly eluded me.
Acquiring a second language is hard. I have been told that it is easier for children, but I am not so sure if this is for reasons of biology or because adults have so much more to learn. Still, it remains true that the vast majority of students at Middlebury were younger than me, and not just younger, but fiercer. My classmates were, in the main, the kind of high-achieving college students who elect to spend their summer vacation taking on eight hours a day of schoolwork. There was no difference in work ethic between us. If I spent more time studying than my classmates, that fact should not be taken as an accolade but as a marker of my inefficiency.
They had something over me, and that something was a culture, which is to say a suite of practices so ingrained as to be ritualistic. The scholastic achievers knew how to quickly memorize a poem in a language they did not understand. They knew that recopying a handout a few days before an exam helped them digest the information. They knew to bring a pencil, not a pen, to that exam. They knew that you could (with the professor’s permission) record lectures and take pictures of the blackboard.
This culture of scholastic achievement had not been acquired yesterday. The same set of practices had allowed my classmates to succeed in high school, and had likely been reinforced by other scholastic achievers around them. I am sure many of them had parents who were scholastic high-achievers. This is how social capital reinforces itself and compounds. It is not merely one high achieving child, but a flock of high achieving children, each backed by high-achieving parents. I once talked to a woman who spoke German, English and French and had done so since she was a child. How did this happen, I asked? “Everyone in my world spoke multiple languages,” she explained. “It was just what you did.”
There were five tiers of French students, starting with those who could barely speak a word and scaling upward to those who were pursuing a master’s degree. I was in the second tier, meaning I could order a coffee, recount a story with some difficulty, write a short note (sans verb and gender agreement), and generally understand a French speaker provided he or she talked to me really slowly. The majority of people I interacted with spoke better, wrote better, read better, and heard better than me. There was no escape from my ineptitude. At every waking hour, someone said something to me that I did not understand. At every waking hour, I mangled some poor Frenchman’s lovely language. For the entire summer, I lived by two words: “Désolé, encore.”
Compared with my classmates on the second tier, my test scores were on the lower end. Each week, in my literature class, we were responsible for the recitation of some French poems (Baudelaire, Verlaine, Lamartine) from memory, and each day we had to recite a stanza. This sort of exercise may well be familiar to readers of The Atlantic, but the rituals required to master it were totally new to me. I had never been a high-achieving student. Indeed, during my 15 or so years in school, I was a remarkably low-achieving student.
There were years when I failed the majority of my classes. This was not a matter of my being better suited for the liberal arts than sciences. I was an English minor in college. I failed American Literature, British Literature, Humanities, and (voilà) French. The record of failure did not end until I quit college to become a writer. My explanation for this record is unsatisfactory: I simply never saw the point of school. I loved the long process of understanding. In school, I often felt like I was doing something else.
Like many black children in this country, I did not have a culture of scholastic high achievement around me. There were very few adults around me who’d been great students and were subsequently rewarded for their studiousness. The phrase “Ivy League” was an empty abstraction to me. I mostly thought of school as a place one goes so as not to be eventually killed, drugged, or jailed. These observations cannot be disconnected from the country I call home, nor from the government to which I swear fealty.
For most of American history, it has been national policy to plunder the capital accumulated by black people—social or otherwise. It began with the prohibition against reading, proceeded to separate and wholly unequal schools, and continues to this very day in our tacit acceptance of segregation. When building capital, it helps to know the right people. One aim of American policy, historically, has been to insure that the “right people” are rarely black. Segregation then ensures that these rare exceptions are spread thin, and that the rest of us have no access to other “right people.”
And so a white family born into the lower middle class can expect to live around a critical mass of people who are more affluent or worldly and thus see other things, be exposed to other practices and other cultures. A black family with a middle class salary can expect to live around a critical mass of poor people, and mostly see the same things they (and the poor people around them) are working hard to escape. This too compounds.
Now, in America, invocations of culture are mostly an exercise in awarding power an air of legitimacy. You can see this in the recent remarks by the president, where he turned a question about preserving Native American culture into a lecture on how we (blacks and Native Americans) should be more like the Jews and Asian Americans, who refrain from criticizing the intellectuals in their midst of “acting white.” The entire charge rests on shakysocial science and the obliteration of history. When Asian Americans and Jewish Americans—on American soil—endure the full brunt of white supremacist assault, perhaps a comparison might be in order.
But probably not. That is because fences are an essential element of human communities. The people who patrol these fences are generally unkind to those they find in violation. The phrase “getting above your raising” is little more than anxious working-class border patrolling. The term “white trash” is little more than anxious ruling-class border patrolling. I am neither an expert in the culture of Jewish Americans nor Asian Americans, but I would be shocked if they too were immune. Some years ago I profiled the rapper Jin. As the first Asian-American rapper to secure a major label contract, he often found himself enduring racist cracks from black rappers abroad and the prodding of fence-patrollers at home. “’Yo, what is this? You really think you’re black, Jin?” he recalled his parents saying. “Bottom line—you’re not black, Jin.’”
Pretending that black people are unique—or more ardent—in their fence-patrolling, and thus more parochial and anti-intellectual, serves to justify the current uses of American power. The American citizen is free to say, “Look at them, they criticize each other for reading!” and then go about his business. In that sense it is little different than raising the myth of “black on black crime” when asked about Ferguson.
I will confess to having very little experience with fence-patrolling, and virtually none with the idea that if you are holding a book, you are “acting white.” The Baltimore of my youth was a place where white people rarely ventured. It would not have occurred to anyone I knew to associate reading with white people because very few of us knew any. And I read everything I could find: A Wrinkle In Time, David Walker’s Appeal, Dragon’s of Autumn Twilight, Seize The Time, Deadly Bugs and Killer Insects, The Web of Spider-Man. I had a full set of Childcraft. I loved the volume Make and Do. I had a full set of World Book encyclopedias. I used to pick up the fat “P” edition, flip to a random page, and read for hours. When I was just 6 years old, my mother took me to the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Garrison Boulevard and enrolled me in a competition to see which child could read the most books. I read 24 that summer, far outdistancing the competition. My mother smiled. The librarian gave me candy. I was very proud.
For carrying books in black neighborhoods, in black schools, around black people, I was called many things—nerd, bright, doofus, Malcolm, Farrakhan, Mandela, sharp, smart, airhead. I was told that my “head was too far in the clouds.” I was told that I was “going to do something one day.” But I was never called white. The people who called me a nerd were black. The people who said I was going to “do something one day” were also black. There was no one else around me, and no one else in America then cared. This was not just true of me, it was true of most black children of that era who were then, and are now, the most segregated group in this country. Segregation meant many of us had to rely on traditions closer to home.
And at home I found a separate culture of intellectual achievement. This is the tradition of Carter G. Woodson, Frederick Douglass, and Malcolm X. It argues for education not simply as credentialism or certification, but as a profound act of auto-liberation. This was the culture of my childhood and it gave me some of the greatest thrills of my youth.
I was a boy haunted by questions: Why do the lilies close at night? Why does my father always say, “I can dig it"? And who really killed the dinosaurs? And why is my life so unlike everything I see on TV? That feeling—the not knowing, the longing for knowing, and the eventual answer—is love and youth to me. And I have always preferred libraries to classrooms because the wide open library is the ultimate venue for this theater. This culture was reinforced by my parents, and the politically conscious parents around me, and their politically conscious children. The culture was so strong that it could be regarded as a kind of social capital. It was so old that it could also be regarded as a legacy. This legacy is more responsible for my presence in these august pages than any other. That is because a good writer must ultimately be an autodidact and take a dim view of credentials. My culture failed to make me into a high-achieving student. It succeeded at making me into a writer.
I have never had much of an urge to brag about this. I have always known that in failing to become a scholastic achiever, I forfeited knowledge of certain things. (A mastery of Augustine comes to mind.) But what I did not understand was that I had also forfeited a culture, which is to say a tool kit, a set of pins and tumblers that might have unlocked the language which I so presently adore.
Scholastic achievement is sometimes demeaned as the useless memorization of facts. I suspect that it has more to offer than this. If you woke my French literature professor at 2 a.m., she could recite the deuxième strophe of Verlaine’s “Il Pleure Dans Mon Coeur.” I suspect this memorization, this holding of the work in her head, allowed her to analyze it and turn it over in ways I could only do with the text in front of me. More directly, there is no real way for an adult to learn French without some amount of memorization. French is a language that obeys its rules when it feels like it. There is no unwavering rule to tell you which nouns are masculine, or which verbs require a preposition. Memory is the only way through.
At Middlebury, I spent as much time as I could with the master’s students, hovering right at the edge of overbearing. On average, I understood 30 percent of what was being said. This was, of course, the point. I wanted to be reminded of who I was. I wanted to be young again, to feel that old thrill of not knowing. It is the same feeling I had as a boy, wondering about the lilies and dinosaurs, listening to “The Bridge Is Over,” wondering where in the world was Queens.
And I was ignorant. I felt as if someone had carried me off at night, taken me out to sea, and set me adrift in a life-raft. And the night was beautiful because it held all the things I would never know, and in that I saw my doom—the time when I could learn no more. Morning, noon, and evening, I sat on the terrace listening to the young master’s students talk. They would recount their days, share their jokes, or pass on their complaints. They came from everywhere—San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, Boulder, Hackensack, Philadelphia, Kiev. And they loved all the things I so wanted to love, but had not made time to love—Baudelaire, Balzac, Rimbaud. I would listen and feel the night folding around me, and the ice-water of youth surging through me.
One afternoon, I was walking from lunch feeling battered by the language. I started talking with a young master in training. I told her I was having a tough time. She gave me some encouraging words in French from a famous author. I told her I didn’t understand. She repeated them. I still didn’t understand. She repeated them again. I shook my head, smiled, and walked away mildly frustrated because I understood every word she was saying but could not understand how it fit. It was as though someone had said, “He her walks swim plus that yesterday the fight.” (This is how French often sounds to me.)
The next day, I sat at lunch with her and another young woman. I asked her to spell the quote out for me. I wrote the phrase down. I did not understand. The other young lady explained the function of the pronouns in the sentence. Suddenly I understood—and not just the meaning of the phrase. I understood something about the function of language, why being able to diagram sentences was important, why understanding partitives and collective nouns was important.
In my long voyage through this sea of language, that was my first sighting of land. I now knew how much I didn’t know. The feeling of discovery and understanding that came from this was incredible. It was the first moment when I thought I might survive the sea.
My personal road to this great feeling, to these discoveries, to Middlebury, was not the normal one. I was raised among people skeptical of a canon that had long been skeptical of them. I needed some independent sense of myself, of my cultures and traditions, before I could take a mature look at the West. I wanted nothing to do with Locke because I knew that he wanted little to do with me. I saw no reason to learn French because it was the language of the plunderers of Haiti.
I had to be a nationalist before I could be a humanist. I had to come to understand that black people are not merely the victims of the West, but its architects. The philosophes started the sentence and Martin Luther King finished it. The greatest renditions of this country’s greatest anthems are all sung by black people—Ray, Marvin, Whitney. That is neither biology nor a mistake. It is the necessary cosmopolitanism of a people, viewing America from the basement and thus forced to take their lessons when they get them—absorbing, reinterpreting, refining, creating.
Now it must never be concluded that an urge toward the cosmopolitan, toward true education, will make people stop hitting you. The inverse is more likely. In the early 19th century, the Cherokee Nation was told by the new Americans that if its members adopted their “civilized” ways, they would soon be respected as equals. This promise was deeply embedded in the early 19th century approach to this continents indigenous nations.
“We will never do an unjust act towards you. on the contrary we wish you to live in peace, to increase in numbers, to learn to labor, as we do,” Thomas Jefferson said. “In time you will be as we are; you will become one people with us; your blood will mix with ours; & will spread, with ours, over this great Island. Hold fast then, my Children, the Chain of friendship, which binds us together; & join us in keeping it forever bright & unbroken.”
The Cherokee Nation—likely for their own reasons—embraced mission schools. Some of them converted to Christianity. Other intermarried. Others still enslaved blacks. They adopted a written Constitution, created a script for their language and published a newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, in English and Cherokee. Thus the Native Americans of that time showed themselves to be as able to to integrate elements of the West with their own culture as any group of Asian or Jewish American. But the wolf has never much cared whether the sheep were cultured or not.
“The problem, from a white point of view,” writes historian Daniel Walker Howe, “was that the success of these efforts to ’civilize the Indians’ had not yielded the expected dividend in land sales. On the contrary, the more literate, prosperous, and politically organized the Cherokees made themselves, the more resolved they became to keep what remained of their land and improve it for their own benefit.”
Cosmopolitanism, openness to other cultures, openness to education did not make the Cherokee pliant to American power; it gave them tools to resist. Realizing this, the United States dropped the veneer of “culture” and “civilization” and resorted to “Indian Removal,” or The Trail of Tears. The plunder was celebrated in a popular song:
All I want in this creation
Is a pretty little wife and a big plantation
Away up yonder in the Cherokee nation.
The Native Americans of this period found that America’s talk of trading culture for rights was just a cover. In our time, it is common to urge young black children toward education so that they may be respectable or impress the “right people.” But the “right people” remain unimpressed, and the credentials of black people, in a country rooted in white supremacy, must necessarily be less. That great powers are in the business of using "respectability" and "education" to ignore these discomfiting facts does not close the book. You can never fully know. But you can walk in the right direction.
The citizen is lost in the labyrinth constructed by his country, when in fact straight is the gate, and narrow must always be the way. When I left for Middlebury, I had just published an article arguing for reparations. People would often ask me what change I expected to come from it. But change had already come. I had gone further down the unending path of knowing, deeper into the night. I was rejecting mental enslavement. I was rejecting the lie.
I came to Middlebury in the spirit of the autodidactic, of auto-liberation, of writing, of Douglass and Malcolm X. I came in ignorance, and found I was more ignorant than I knew. Even there, I was much more comfortable in the library, thumbing through random histories in French, than I was in the classroom. It was not enough. It will not be enough. Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.
This September we're going to revive the old book group. But instead of looking at the Civil War and Reconstruction, we're going to look at mass incarceration. There's no better book to start with on that project than Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. Here is a rough schedule. We can discuss below whether this works for people. Our moderator, Kathleen, will be leading the discussion.
The New York Times has a feature today looking at the brief life of Michael Brown, informing us that he was "no angel." The reasons for this are many. Brown smoked marijuana. He lived in a community that "had rough patches." He wrote rap songs that were "by turns contemplative and vulgar." He shoplifted and pushed a store clerk who tried to stop him. These details certainly paint a portrait of a young man who failed to be angelic. That is because no person is angelic—least of all teenagers—and there is very little in this piece that distinguishes Brown from any other kid his age.
What horrifies a lot of us beholding the spectacle of Ferguson, beholding the spectacle of Sanford, of Jacksonville, is how easily we could see ourselves in these kids. I shudder to think of my reaction, at 17, to some strange dude following me through my own housing development. I shudder to think of my reaction, at 17, to some other strange dude pulling up next to me and telling me to turn down my music.
And if Michael Brown was not angelic, I was practically demonic. I had my first drink when I was 11. I once brawled in the cafeteria after getting hit in the head with a steel trash can. In my junior year I failed five out of seven classes. By the time I graduated from high school, I had been arrested for assaulting a teacher and been kicked out of school (twice.) And yet no one who knew me thought I had the least bit of thug in me. That is because I also read a lot of books, loved my Commodore 64, and ghostwrote love notes for my friends. In other words, I was a human being. A large number of American teenagers live exactly like Michael Brown. Very few of them are shot in the head and left to bake on the pavement.
The "angelic" standard was not one created by the reporter. It was created by a society that cannot face itself, and thus must employ a dubious "morality" to hide its sins. It is reinforced by people who have embraced the notion of "twice as good" while avoiding the circumstances which gave that notion birth. Consider how easily living in a community "with rough patches" becomes part of a list of ostensible sins. Consider how easily "black-on-black crime" becomes not a marker of a shameful legacy of segregation but a moral failing.
Here's a talk I gave yesterday at The City Club of Cleveland outlining the Case for Reparations. I lost track of time, so I didn't get to talk as much about housing as I wanted. But the most of the basics of the case are there. I want to thank the City Club for having me out, and hosting my very first talk on reparations. There will be a lot more of these over the next year. Hope you enjoy.
A few weeks ago I received an anxious text from my wife informing me that a group of young men were fighting outside of our apartment building. We've spent most of our adult lives in New York, and most of that time in New York living in Harlem. I love Harlem for the same reason I love all the hoods I have lived in. I walk outside in my same uniform, which is to say my same jeans, my same fitted, my same hoodie, and feel myself washing away, disappearing into the boulevard, into the black and (presently) the brown, and becoming human.
There have been young people fighting outside my window for as long as I can remember. I was no older than five sitting on the steps of my parents' home on Woodbrook Avenue watching the older boys knock shoulders in the street—"bucking" as we called it then—daring each other to fire off. From that point on I knew that among my people fisticuffs had their own ritual and script. The script was in effect that evening: show cause (some niggas jumped me in the park), mouth off (I ain't no punk), escalate (wait right her son, I'm bout to get my shit).
My wife wanted to know what she should do. She was not worried about her own safety—boys like this are primarily a threat to each other. What my wife wanted was someone who could save them young men from themselves, some power which would disperse the boys in a fashion that would not escalate things. No such power exists. I told my wife to stay inside and do nothing. I did not tell her to call the police. If you have watched the events of this past week, you may have some idea why.
Among the many relevant facts for any African-American negotiating their relationship with the police the following stands out: The police departments of America are endowed by the state with dominion over your body. This summer in Ferguson and Staten Island we have seen that dominion employed to the maximum ends—destruction of the body. This is neither new nor extraordinary. It does not matter if the destruction of your body was an overreaction. It does not matter if the destruction of your body resulted from a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction of your body springs from foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be be destroyed. Protect the home of your mother and your body can be destroyed. Visit the home of your young daughter and your body will be destroyed. The destroyers of your body will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.
It will not do to point out the rarity of the destruction of your body by the people whom you pay to protect it. As Gene Demby has noted, destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. All of this is old for black people. No one is held accountable. The body of Michael Brown was left in the middle of the street for four hours. It can not be expected that anyone will be held accountable.
We are being told that Michael Brown attacked an armed man and tried to take his gun. The people who are telling us this hail from that universe where choke-holds are warm-fuzzies, where boys discard their skittles yelling, "You're gonna die tonight," and possess the power to summon and banish shotguns from the ether. These are the necessary myths of our country, and without them we are subject to the awful specter of history, and that is just too much for us to bear.
James Poulos is trying admirably to get at this, noting that we fear Lincoln's awesome prophecy. But even Poulos can't quite escape:
We know that America is exceptional in one key respect—we came to democracy without much bloodshed. Around the world, from Hungary and Russia to Iraq and Nigeria, we see the dream of peaceful democratization dragged again and again to what the philosopher Hegel called the slaughter-bench of history. Racial strife and murderous governments, not liberty and democracy, are the rule in history, the established pattern. We know that, mercifully, democratization scourged us only once in ferociously modern style: during the Civil War.
The last sentence here nullifies the first. Some 600,000 Americans—2.5 percent of the American population—died in the Civil War. What came before this was a long bloody war—enslavement—against black families, black communities and black bodies. What came after was a terrorist regime which ruled an entire swath of this country by fire and rope. That regime was not overthrown until an era well within the living memory of many Americans. Taken all together, the body count that led us to our present tenuous democratic moment does not elevate us above the community of nations, but installs us uncomfortably within its ranks. And that is terrifying because it shows us to be neither providential nor exceptional, and only special in the subjective sense that our families are special—because they are ours.
My family lives in Harlem. My wife did not call the police. An older head told the angry boys that they needed to take it somewhere else, which they did. Black people are not above calling the police—but often we do so fully understanding that we are introducing an element that is unaccountable to us. We introduce the police into our communities, the way you might introduce a predator into the food chain. This is not the singular, special fault of the police. The police are but the tip of the sword wielded by American society itself. Something bigger than Stand Your Ground, the drug war, mass incarceration or any other policy is haunting us. And as long we cower from it, the events of this week are as certain as math. The question is not "if," but "when."
Ferguson, Missouri, August 15 (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
I'm slowly catching up on my reading on the week's events in Ferguson and trying to get my head around what exactly happened. In the meantime, one idea creeping into the discourse—that black people are unmoved by intra-community violence—deserves to be immediately dismissed. Eugene Robinson, reacting to the tragic murder of Knijah Bibb, offers an incarnation here:
We’ve been through this so many times. Brown, from all reports, was a good kid who had just graduated from high school and was about to enroll in college. But young black men are automatically assumed to be dangerous thugs—and are not given the benefit of the doubt that young white men are accorded. This is racist and wrong, and it must change.
But we should be just as outraged over Knijah’s death—and just as determined that this kind of killing should never happen again.
The entire Prince George’s County police force—not just the homicide division—has been working long hours to try to find Wallace and is motivated by what a police spokesman called a “sense of moral outrage.”
That feeling should be universal. The near-constant background noise of black-on-black violence is too often ignored. Yet it continues to claim victims at a rate that our society should consider outrageous and unacceptable.
There are a number of things wrong here. To the extent that killings by the police generate more outrage, it is completely understandable. Police in America are granted wide range of powers by the state including lethal force. With that power comes a special place of honor. When cops are killed the outrage is always different than when citizens are killed. Likewise when cops kill under questionable terms, more scrutiny follows directly from the logic of citizenship. Great power. Great responsibility.
There is a pattern here, but it isn't the one Eugene Robinson (for whom I have a great respect) thinks. The pattern is the transmutation of black protest into moral hectoring of black people. Don Imus profanely insults a group of black women. But the real problem is gangsta rap. Trayvon Martin is killed. This becomes a conversation about how black men are bad fathers. Jonathan Martin is bullied mercilessly. This proves that black people have an unfortunate sense of irony.
The politics of respectability are, at their root, the politics of changing the subject—the last resort for those who can not bear the agony of looking their country in the eye. The policy of America has been, for most of its history, white supremacy. The high rates of violence in black neighborhoods do not exist outside of these facts—they evidence them.
This history presents us with a suite of hard choices. We do not like hard choices. Here's a better idea: Let's all get together and talk about how Mike Brown would still be alive if Beyoncé would make more wholesome music, followed by a national forum on how the charge of "acting white" contributes to mass incarceration. We can conclude with a keynote lecture on "Kids Today" and a shrug.
Alors, c'est tout. Je suis arrivé et maintenant je dois disparaître. Je vais retourner en aout. À bientôt. Vous me manquez. J'ai très très peur. Mais les choses doivent être faites, no? Demandez Jacque Brel.
A family in its one-room flat in Chicago, date unknown. (AP)
In "The Case for Reparations," I tried to move the lens away from the enslaved and focus on their descendants. Narratively, I thought it made a much more compelling read and I it got us past the "but they're all long-dead" argument. Also, once you understand enslavement as central—not ancillary—to American history, you can then easily intuit that it would have some serious effects on policy 100 years later. When you then consider what directly followed enslavement—disenfranchisement, pogroms, land theft, terrorism, the entire suite of plunder—it seems inconceivable that 20th-century domestic policy would not be awash in white supremacy.
On some vague level, I understood this to be true. Some years ago (before I came here) I read Kenneth Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier. No one who wants to understand the shape of America's cities and suburbs can afford to skip this book. I would go so far as to say that you can't really talk intelligently about urban policy without grappling with Jackson's work. Crabgrass is ostensibly a history of the suburbs in America, but it ranges from antiquity to the 20th century and puts the American obsession with a front lawn and detached housing in context. That makes for great reading, and then, about halfway through the book, the bombshells start dropping. In painstaking detail, Jackson shows how the Federal Housing Administration and the Home Owners' Loan Corporation subsidized segregation, and helped author the wealth gap. I'd heard the term redlining before, but Jackson's book really laid out, in detail, how federal policy worked.
I thought of Jackson's book years later when I picked up Isabel Wilkerson;sThe Warmth of Other Suns. Where Jackson outlines the racist policies of federal, local, and state government toward American cities, Wilkerson's work (among other things) tells us how black people responded to those policies. More importantly, for my work, she reversed a popular trend to conflate impoverishment with racism, and pretend as though "the black poor" are the "real" problem. If only quietly, Wilkerson builds a strong case that the policy of the American government has not been to encourage a black middle class, but to discourage it and open it for plunder.
Chicago is one of three cities that feature prominently in Warmth. Having had some experience reporting in the city, I began to consider focusing there. The other candidate was Detroit. I wish I could have gotten both. I did a mini deep-dive on Detroit history some years ago, and I strongly suspect that a long, beautiful magazine story about history and could be written from there, if some journalist would take up the challenge. I tried some years ago and failed. (You can read my attempt here.) Two important books featured prominently in that attempt—Robert Conot's American Odyssey and Thomas Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis.
Conot's book has been forgotten, and I don't really know why. It's a long, deeply readable, history of Detroit from its earliest origins. In my research, I did not encounter a better one volume history of the city. It shows how examining Detroit's "crisis" as though it began in the 1960s is a mistake. Sugrue's book is more recent and has fared a lot better. It localizes much of what Kenneth Jackson discusses and—again—shows just the degree to which racist violence shaped the Detroit we know today.
I decided to focus on Chicago after reading Arnold Hirsch's essential, if dense, Making the Second Ghetto. Hirsch's book can be read in conjunction with Sugrue's, though Sugrue is less in the weeds and more readable. But again, if you want to understand modern Chicago, you can't do without Hirsch's work. Every time I hear someone speak about "black on black crime" in Chicago, I want hurl a hardcover of Making The Second Ghetto at them.
The "Making" part is important and here is when the core of my reparations argument began to form (emphasis added):
Ghetto-building does not make for an edifying tale. To speak of agency and policy is, ultimately to speak of responsibility. The 'Second Ghetto' did not just happen. It was willed into existence.
As an aside, in each of these books, I thought I saw the dim outline of an argument for reparations. It was as though the authors were going right up to the edge, and saying "Won't someone rid America of its troublesome amnesia."
Having decided to focus on Chicago I went to Beryl Satter's history of contract lending in the city, Family Properties. The Warmth of Other Suns is the mother of "The Case for Reparations." Family Properties is the father. No two books were more important to me in my research. Satter's book is many things at once. It is a history of housing. It is an analysis of relationships between black and Jewish communities. And it is a family memoir (her dad was both a housing activist and a landlord.) But most importantly it is an account of how federal policy was used to fleece people—many of whom are still living. It was in Satter's book that I first came across the name Clyde Ross. There's some lovely karma in this, because Ross was profiled in the pages of this magazine in 1972. But I didn't even know about the 1972 article—nor did my editors—until I read about it in Family Properties.
What I saw in all of these books that was so damning was intent. Government policy toward African-Americans is not an argument for the ineffectuality of government, on the contrary it is an argument for just how effective government can be. The intent of mid-20th-century policy was the elevation of a white middle class and the preservation of white supremacy. The policy was a rousing success. That became apparent reading some of the "place-based" sociology evidence. Patrick Sharkey's Stuck in Place, Robert Sampson's Great American City, and Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton's American Apartheid. I recommend reading these three together. Massey and Denton's book gives you the national numbers on segregation and its effects on black people. Sharkey's book shows how those numbers have not changed since the early '70s and how they are perpetuated in black neighborhoods. Sampson's book focuses, with laser-precision, on those effects in Chicago.
Each of these books are indebted, somehow, to the work of the great sociologist and public intellectual William Julius Wilson. But there is a shift in each of these. Massey and Denton are directly in debate with Wilson—they believe Wilson downplays segregation. Sharkey and Sampson (I suspect) see themselves building on Wilson's neighborhood focus. But their work is also in conflict with the view that the black impoverished class is the "truly disadvantaged." Certainly they are "more" disadvantaged groups, but racist policy continues to be a grievous injury. If I were going to start again I would go like this:
1.) Crabgrass Frontier, by Kenneth Jackson
This gets us grounded and immediately dispenses with the popular notion that our cities and suburbs were unplanned. I can not stress how necessary this book is.
2.) The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson
I would read this to get a more intimate history in the mix early. It's very important to remember that beneath all of this are the lives of individual Americans. Warmth is the finest piece of journalism I've read on America in a very long time.
3.) The Origins of the Urban Crisis, by Thomas Sugrue
This picks up on a lot of the research in Crabgrass around redlining, but zooms in on Detroit. It also adds another feature: pervasive white violence. The thing to understand about racist "policy" is that it existed in consort with racist private policy, racist civic groups, and racist people.
4.) Making the Second Ghetto, by Arnold Hirsch
A tough read, but an essential, granular analysis of how Chicago's ghettos were "made."
5.) Family Properties, by Beryl Satter
The perfect compliment to Hirsch. Satter's book breathes more, and connects all of that policy to actual people in North Lawndale. More disturbing: Satter shows that public policy made private plunder possible.
6.) American Apartheid, by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton
In a sense, a compilation of the effects of everything you will have read up to this point. Massey and Denton demonstrate that African-Americans are not just another "ethnicity" on the come up, but the most hyper-segregated group in American history.
7.) Great American City, by Robert Sampson
Back to Chicago, one last time. Again, a book about effects. Sampson is no longer in the realm of history. His data is very recent and very depressing.
8.) Stuck In Place, by Patrick Sharkey
By this point, you will likely be thoroughly bummed out. I was. Sharkey finishes us off by critiquing the "progress" made after the Civil Rights movement. Again, we see the enduring and pervasive effects of segregation. A bracing and important read.
Editor's note: This is the third 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 and part two, on slavery, is here.
About five years ago, I began a deep dive into the Civil War, most of it chronicled here. That dive culminated in an essay in our commemorative Civil War issue, much like my deep dive on housing and "colorless" policy culminated in The Case for Reparations. The earlier piece built toward the later one. The Civil War revealed to me the price, and the bounty, of enslavement in this country. The things I focus on in the reparations piece—housing and 20th-century policy—all spring from that periodof American history. I could not have understood 20th-century discrimination without understanding its 19th-century manifestations. My entry into this periodwas idiosyncratic and the reading list below reflects that. Again, nothing here is definitive. I can only show you the path I walked.
Before I took the dive into the Civil War, I understood the enslavement as a moral catastrophe. I also had some vague sense that that enslavement had helped shepherd America into being. Finally I knew that the Civil War was somehow related to slavery. All three of these notions ultimately had to be revised. That enslavement in America was somehow more than a moral problem became apparent while reading the grandfather of all Civil War histories, James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. Battle Cry is ostensibly a history of The Late Unpleasantness, but it is also an expression of the centrality of enslavement in American history.
The first 200 pages or so show that the War was about not only the perpetuation of "African slavery," but its expansion. McPherson quotes directly from the mouths of secessionists who have no problem laying out bondage as their primary casus belli. McPherson shows the essential place enslavement held in the economy of the South and in America at large. Thus the conflagration that follows does not appear out of thin air. Thus when McPherson begins detailing double-timing and flanking maneuvers you have some sense that you are doing something more than watching people play out a violent football game.
Conservatively speaking, 600,000 soldiers lost their lives in the Civil War, two percent of the American population at the time. Twenty percent of all Southern white men of military age died in the War. Until Vietnam, more people had died in the Civil War than all other American wars combined. An interest which compelled that amount of death and suffering must be something more than vague disagreement over a "way of life."
...by 1860, there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States. In the same year, the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined. So, of course, the war was rooted in these two expanding and competing economies—but competing over what? What eventually tore asunder America's political culture was slavery's expansion into the Western territories.
I quote that a lot, because it contradicts this idea of enslavement as ancillary to American history, and establishes it as foundational. Blight was pulling from Roger Ransom's incredible paper, The Economics of the Civil War. Again, the numbers are simply mind-bending—in a state like South Carolina, almost 60 percent of the people were enslaved. Beyond the numbers, Blight's lectures brought to life the words of the actual people who were enslaved. Pulling from a great number of oral sources, Blight bids us not to forget that there were actual humans, not abstract figures, who were being enslaved.
In understanding the humanity of the enslaved, I don't know if there is a better book than The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Because Douglass wrote three autobiographies, and Life and Times is the longest, it tends to get short shrift. But, for my money, it's the best of the three and one of the most beautiful autobiographies ever written by an American. Douglass's portrait of slavery is just gripping. Forgive me for quoting at length:
The close-fisted stinginess that fed the poor slave on coarse corn-meal and tainted meat, that clothed him in crashy tow-linen and hurried him on to toil through the field in all weathers, with wind and rain beating through his tattered garments, and that scarcely gave even the young slave-mother time to nurse her infant in the fence-corner, wholly vanished on approaching the sacred precincts of the "Great House" itself. There the scriptural phrase descriptive of the wealthy found exact illustration. The highly-favored inmates of this mansion were literally arrayed in "purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day."
The table of this house groaned under the blood-bought luxuries gathered with pains-taking care at home and abroad. Fields, forests, rivers, and seas were made tributary. Immense wealth and its lavish expenditures filled the Great House with all that could please the eye or tempt the taste. Fish, flesh, and fowl were here in profusion. Chickens of all breeds; ducks of all kinds, wild and tame, the common and the huge Muscovite; Guinea fowls, turkeys, geese and pea-fowls; all were fat and fattening for the destined vortex...
Alas, this immense wealth, this gilded splendor, this profusion of luxury, this exemption from toil. this life of ease, this sea of plenty were not the pearly gates they seemed to a world of happiness and sweet content to be. The poor slave, on his hard pine plank, scantily covered with his thin blanket, slept more soundly than the feverish voluptuary who reclined upon his downy pillow. Food to the indolent is poison, not sustenance. Lurking beneath the rich and tempting viands were invisible spirits of evil, which filled the self-deluded gormandizer with aches and pains, passions uncontrollable, fierce tempers, dyspepsia, rheumatism, lumbago, and gout, and of these the Lloyds had a full share.
Douglass is a masterful narrator, and one of the things he communicates is that slavery is not a sanitized form of forced labor, but first and foremost, a system of violence, an assault on black bodies, black families, and black institutions. This all gets lost in the talk about economics and robbing people of their work. That robbery was abetted by the destruction of people. For me no book better captures this then Thavolia Glymph's Out of The House of Bondage. Glymph is specifically interested in the violence that allegedly mild slave-mistresses visited upon their slaves. By focusing on what people think of us as the mildest form of slavery (the domestic) Glymph reveals that enslavement is not violent sometimes, but is, itself, a form of violence.
Picking up from yesterday's readings on racism as a "done thing," as a choice, these readings helped me understand why that choice was made and how essential it was to the American project. And if that is the case, if enslavement was essential, how could it be that its effects faded in 1860? Douglass says "a man is worked on by what he works on." For 250 years, Americans worked on the breaking of people for profit. What I found, going forward, is that enslavement had worked on us too. You can see its ghost all over American policy, especially in the realm of housing.
And so the sources:
1.) Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson
Just a beautiful read. One of my favorite books of all time, and a book that does not entertain Neo-Confederate dissembling.
As I've said before, the idea of reparations precedes this month's cover of The Atlantic, and the work around it—among scholars, activists, and writers—has been ongoing, even if the interest of the broader world is fickle. Following up on the autopsy of an idea, I thought I'd give some larger sense of how something like this came to be. My hope is to give people who are interested some entrée into further reading, and also to credit the antecedents to my own thinking. Perhaps most importantly, I wish to return to one of the original features of blogging—the documentation of public thinking. I would suggest that more writers, more academics, and more journalists do this, and do so honestly. It have come to believe that arguing with the self is as important as arguing with the broader world.
Okay. On y va.
Recently, a young woman told me that this generation of Americans was "the most diverse in American history." The assumption was that across the span of that history, there was some immutable group of racial categories whose numbers we could compare. I am not sure this holds up. Biracial is a new category for America, but it is not clear to me that today there are relatively more children of black and white unions than there were in the past. We certainly are more apt to acknowledge them as such, and that is a good thing. Nevertheless, the assumption of that "something new" is happening "racially," that these terms are somehow constant is one of the great, and underestimated, barriers to understanding the case for reparations.
The myth of any such constant was exposed to me at Howard University. I was a history major—and yes, I am bragging about this, and not at all humbly. In all my history classes we were treated to the dizzying taxonomy of race—mulatto and Italian, creole and quadroon, Jew and mestizo. This terminology would change quickly, change back, and then change again. And borders would change with them. Not even continents were constant. "Africa begins at the Pyrenees," we read in The Races of Europe.
No work more influenced my own thinking on this more than St. Clair Drake's two-volume work Black Folk Here and There. Drake is better known for his study of Chicago, Black Metropolis, a book that informed the profile I wrote of Michelle Obama and, to some extent, my work on reparations. But Black Folk was the first book that made the argument that sticks with me to this day—that there is nothing particularly "natural" about viewing people with darker skin and curlier hair as inferior. Drake surveys all perceptions of people with darker skin, curlier hair, or both across history. He finds very little consistency and concludes that racism, as we know it, is basically a product of the slave trade, which is to say the seizure of power.
The import of this all came home for me many years later in Barbara and Karen Fields's Racecraft. The book is a collection of essay, and is sometimes hard to follow, but its basic insight is brilliant. Basically, Americans talk about "race" but not "racism," and in doing that they turn a series of "actions" into a "state." This is basically true of all our conversations of this sort, left and right. You can see this in all our terminology—racial justice, racial quotas, racial discrimination, etc. But this language is ahistorical, and it obscures the current conflict. Affirmative action, for instance, is not intended to remedy plunder (action) but to aid "women and people of color" (state) or produce "diversity" (another state). And the benefits of affirmative action are not people who have been plundered, but "the black race."
But American notions of race are the product of racism, not the other way around. We know this because we can see the formation of "race" in American law and policy, and also see how formations differ across time and space. So what is "black" in the United States is not "black" in Brazil. More significantly the relevance and import of "blackness" is not constant across American history. Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom helped me a lot on this. At the start of the book the English are allying with the rebellious Cimarrons against the hated and demonic Spanish. By the end of the book the great-grandchildren of the English are convinced that blacks are a singular blight upon the Earth. The change is not mysterious. Morgan traces the nexus of law, policy, and financial interest to show how current notions of "blackness" and "whiteness" were formed.
It is important to remember that American racism is a thing that was done, and a world where American racism is beaten back is not a world of "racial diversity" but a world without such terminology. Perhaps we can never actually get to that world. Perhaps we are just too far gone. But we should never forget that this world was "made." Whiteness and blackness are not a fact of providence, but of policy—of slave codes, black codes, Jim Crow, redlining, GI Bills, housing covenants, New Deals, and mass incarcerations.
I did not understand it at the time, but this way of thinking pushed me toward reparations. In the popular mind, reparations is seen as a "race-based" scheme, i.e., giving money to people solely because they are black or have direct African ancestry. But if you understand racism as the headwaters of the problem, as injury, as plunder you can reorient and focus not on the ancestry but on the injury.
For me it goes back to Black Folks Here and There. I came to St. Clair Drake feeling a deep need to prove that the Ancient Egyptians were "black." (The whole first volume is a consideration of "race" and Ancient Egypt.) I was dogged by Saul Bellow's challenge: "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?" I left feeling like Ralph Wiley—Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus. Wiley's point was that the entire exercise of attempting to prove the worth of humans through monuments and walls was morally flawed. This was radicalizing. It warned me away from beginning an argument with racist reasoning, by accepting its premises. The argument for racism is corrupt at its root, and must be confronted there. You can understand how such thinking might inevitably lead you toward reparations.
Over the next few days I'll write three more posts like this—covering enslavement, housing and domestic policy, and thinking around reparations. If I were starting out and trying to grapple the relationship between "race" and "racism," here is how I would proceed. It is not the only—and perhaps not even the best—path. It's simply the one I'd suggest.
2.) White Over Black, by Winthrop Jordan
I don't agree with this book, but it's important to confront the counterargument—that Anglo-American culture is racist at its very root and predisposed toward hatred of black people.
3.)The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter
A deeply amusing book that finds great minds—chiefly Ralph Waldo Emerson—arguing that race explains why "Celts" are Catholic and "Saxons" Protestant. It also reveals how poorly racist thinking ages. The book is an eminently readable guide through the evolution and conception of white people. Again, nothing inevitable here.
4.) Black Folks Here and There, by St. Clair Drake
The source for me. This book changed my life. I've listed it so low because at the time I read it, I had nothing else to do, really. I didn't do much homework. I skipped a lot of class. I just soaked stuff like this up.
5.) "On Being White ... and Other Lies," by James Baldwin
No one is better on the idea of "race," and particularly whiteness, and its import than Baldwin: "No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations and a vast amount of coercion ..." In this essay, he brings together all the history and wastes no words dumbing down its likely import:
... in this debasement and definition of black people, they have debased and defined themselves. And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white. Because they think they are white, they dare not confront the ravage and lie of their history. Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers .... Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety.
This, to me, is the deepest significance of reparations. People who think this is just a matter of giving black things vastly underestimate the challenge. Reparations may seem impractical. Living without history, I suspect, will—in the long term—prove to be suicidal.
Editor's note: This is the first part in a four-part series on the works of history that informed the author's recent piece, "The Case for Reparations." Part two, on slavery, is here.
Forgive my absence these past few days. June's cover story has taken on a life of its own. But it's a life that I will soon be parting with. I am leaving you for awhile, a fact that saddens me because this space—more than any other resource—is responsible for so much of what I've learned over the past few years. That learning hasn't been limited to the comprehension of the force of racism in American history, or even American history at all.
As some of you know, I've spent the past two years or so grappling with the French language. It has gotten the better of me, repeatedly, piling up the humiliations like lumber. But I suspect that there is no other real way to learn at my age, and possibly not at all. This summer I expect the humiliations to increase substantially as I head off for seven weeks of intense immersion. Je vais parler en français, écrire en français, lire en français, et finalment, penser et rêver en français. Alors, I can't really do this while being normal. So I won't be talking to, well, anyone in my life, except those few people who speak French. I think of this like living underwater for awhile, like exploring all the beautiful and weird things that live in the deep.
After next Thursday, you will not hear from me for awhile. I want to thank the Francophone Horde who've talked to me, and chatted with me en français as I have grappled with the language. My first French tutor rose up from the horde and, Kathleen, I am forever in your debt. I want to thank my editors James Bennet, Scott Stossel, John Gould, and Bob Cohn for supporting me in this. I have long believed that the best part of writing is not the communication of knowledge to other people, but the acquisition and synthesizing of knowledge for oneself. The best thing I can say about the reparations piece is that I now understand. I can not control what others do. But I can understand as much as possible in the short time I have with you.
P.S. Thank you for the shirt.
P.P.S. Be sure to watch the video! It explains a lot!