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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.'"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Soccer star Hope Solo is alleged to have assaulted her sister and 17-year old nephew in June of this year. Unlike Ray Rice, Solo is still plying her trade as a goalkeeper for the national team. This led several peopleto claimthat Solo is the beneficiary of a double standard. In The New YorkTimes Juliet Macur makes the argument:
One can argue the differences between an N.F.L. player punching his soon-to-be wife and a soccer star brawling with her family, but it is indisputable that both qualify as domestic violence. The glaring contrast in Solo’s case is that while several football players recently accused of assaults have been removed from the field, she has been held up for praise by the national team.
On Thursday she was even given the honor of wearing the captain’s armband in celebration of her setting the team’s career record for shutouts in its previous game. The question is why.
Celebrating Solo’s achievement right now is like allowing running back Adrian Peterson, who has been accused of child abuse, to continue to play for the Minnesota Vikings — and then awarding him the game ball for his next 100-yard game.
This analysis strikes me as incorrect, as it does for Slate's Amanda Hess. It also exists outside the bounds of human history. Ray Rice did not so much "brawl with his family" as he pummeled his fiancé into unconsciousness. Contrary to the flimsy notion that Real Men don't hit women, Real Men have been pummeling women for much of human history.
It is now becoming fashionable to ignore human history and dump all manner of insupportable violence committed by athletes into the same bucket. The label on that bucket reads "Something Bad, Which We Should Punish." It is true that what Ray Rice did was violent and wrong. It is also true that what Adrian Peterson did was violent and wrong. And it also true that what Hope Solo is alleged to have done is violent and wrong. But they are not the same specimen of violent and wrong.
In our society we recognize different kinds of violence. We understand, for instance, that lynching enjoys a particular place in American history. We generally grant that Emmett Till was not merely murdered, but that he was murdered in a fashion that places his death in a specifically heinous tradition in our history. And thus we understand that what happened to Till, or what James Byrd, or what happened to Sam Hose is not the same thing as what happened to Tupac Shakur or Sam Cooke. This does not mean that what happened to Shakur or Cooke was good. It means that it wasn't a lynching.
In the history of humanity, spouse-beating is a particularly odious tradition—one often employed by men looking to exert power over women. Just as lynching in America is not a phenomenon wholly confined to black people, spouse-beatings are not wholly confined to women. But in our actual history, women have largely been on the receiving end of spouse-beating. We have generally recognized this in our saner moments. There is a reason why we call it the "Violence Against Women Act" and not the "Brawling With Families Act." That is because we recognize that violence against women is an insidious, and sometimes lethal, tradition that deserves a special place in our customs and laws.
This is the tradition with which Ray Rice will be permanently affiliated. Hope Solo is affiliated with a different tradition—misdemeanor assault. If she is guilty she should be punished. And perhaps we do need to have a conversation about punishing athletes for assaulting people. But we don't need Ray Rice to make that case. And we should not pretend that if Ray Rice were accused of assaulting his younger brother and his 17-year old nephew, we would be having this conversation.
Hope Solo only becomes Ray Rice through the annihilation of inconvenient history—through some forgery that implies that there is no tradition of men controlling women through violence. We are familiar with other such forgeries. It is how a conversation about the racism of Richie Incognito becomes a conversation about banning black people from using the word "nigger." Or how the destruction of Mike Brown's body becomes a debate about "black-on-black crime." Or how Ray Rice knocking his wife unconscious morphs into, "Yes, but women do it too." Indeed they do—but neither with the consistency, nor urgency, nor lethality of men.
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.