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Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

I think this may be the most important book I’ve ever written about (this is my 342nd post and it will be ten years in August since I started bookconscious, plus I’ve had a couple of newspaper review columns and I review for Kirkus). I was chatting with a student in the library last spring, and he asked if we had Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: a Young Black Man’s EducationWe didn’t but I told him I’d order it. He said it was “life-changing,” which seemed promising, and we probably talked about a few other titles that I don’t remember now, but I wrote down then and made sure we had. It stuck with me that he called this one “life-changing” so when it arrived and made its way to the new book shelf recently, I took it home.

Mychal Denzel Smith was twenty-five when Trayvon Martin was killed, and he opens the book there, then revisits his teens and college years and reflects on, examines, dissects bias of all kinds and the political, cultural, and societal context of those biases. I knew I was privileged before I read this book, not only because my family lives very comfortably, but also because I am white. I knew, intellectually, that it is beyond unjust that because of the color of their skin, I really don’t have to be afraid of my kids ever being shot for walking down the street, or for driving, or for wearing a hoodie, or for having their hands in their pockets. I knew that homophobia is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our society’s lack of openness to or acceptance of the gender spectrum. I knew that our culture is not open enough about anxiety and depression and mental illness in general, that we say “they’re depressed,” instead of “they have depression” that we say “try living in the moment” to people whose moments are hellish. I definitely knew about misogyny and gender inequality.

Intellectually I knew these things and I thought my awareness and concern and letter writing and the occasional protest made me an activist and an ally. I’ve questioned some of the things Smith questions and I thought that made me a progressive thinker. But Smith takes the questions farther — he questions the very nature of bias and justice and presents a way forward where “. . . acceptance won’t just be external. Acceptance will become too weak of a word. We’ll only be able to describe it as love.” I can never say I understand what it’s like to be black, of course, but any of the things that I thought was aware of I have now seen through a young black man’s perspective, never to un-see. Smith, like all excellent writers, took me into his story, made me see through his eyes, and feel through his heart. His gift is that he speaks with honesty and intimacy, two things our society doesn’t really make room for in everyday conversation, certainly not in our schools or workplaces, but really, not even between friends.

From the slaughter of unarmed black people (men, but also women, as Smith points out, you just don’t hear about them as much) to the response to Hurricane Katrina and the outrage at LeBron James’ career moves, Smith unravels the long chain of bias that is choking our country. He writes about music and social media, family life and friendship, the problems we plaster over with platitudes even if we are supposedly making progress (mental illness, drug abuse) in America today. His writing is powerful, muscular, direct, and also emotional, nuanced, and sensitive.

My second child and I have had some disagreements about forms of protest I am uncomfortable with — violence (like destroying property or burning cars), and the campus protests that have prevented people with abhorrent views from speaking. When we went to the women’s march event in our town last January, they took a sign that said “Fuck the Alt Right” and I was concerned that the vulgarity would mean people would take them less seriously. (Quick aside, one of our woman senators was there and read the sign and gave them a fist bump, so there’s that!) I have told them, and their brother, that I feel as if you can’t be respected if you break the law or refuse to hear someone, and if protesters want respect, they have to be civil and work within the system. It’s what I read in Martin Luther King Jr.’s books; his belief in nonviolent protest led him to believe that if black people dressed well, spoke well, and behaved well in the face of dogs, hoses, spit, cudgels, and fists, they would win the hearts and minds of whites and rights would follow.

Which partially came true — and Smith acknowledges that. But he also made me face the fact that it’s also my own implicit bias to prefer this way of protesting. I’ve been immersed in a culture that values “respectability,” and conflates that with respect. As a woman I’ve been taught the same by our culture — don’t dress provocatively, don’t be insistent or demanding, don’t be loud, don’t be strident, don’t be ambitious, or you’ll be seen as a slut, a bitch, a harpy, a ball buster. No one will date/marry/hire/respect you. Here’s what Smith has to say: “We shouldn’t be seeking the respect of an unjust system that will not respect us on the basis of our humanity alone. We cannot allow those terms to make the fight for justice mirror our broader system that relies on the oppression of the least ‘respectable.'”  That was one of the passages I read that caused me to actually out the book down and exclaim to myself, “Wow. What the hell have I been thinking?” If you insert any category of people who are marginalized in our culture — black people, native people, immigrants, women, trans people, gay and lesbian people, disabled people — those are words to live by.

But Smith doesn’t leave it there: “Our challenge is to take the spirit with which we have fought for black men — cisgender, heterosexual, class privileged, educated black men — and extend it to the fight for everyone else.” Smith tells readers his goal is to “become an honest black man and a good black writer.” He is those things. We could work towards all becoming honest people and good human beings if 1) everyone read this book and then 2) lived with the words 3) took them in, and 4) did the work of trying to live by them. I’ve done step 1 and started step 2. As a person of faith, as a mother, as a woman, as a human, I don’t think I have a choice but to pursue steps 3 and 4.

If you read nothing else this summer, read Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching.

 

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Last spring I read Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community  by MLK, Jr. This week I finished Why We Can’t Wait, which was written four years earlier. King recounts the momentous events of 1963, including the actions undertaken by civil rights leaders and ordinary citizens in Birmingham, the cruelty and violence that the white establishment in Alabama, especially under Bull Connor’s leadership, perpetrated on nonviolent protestors that galvanized national support for the movement, and the March on Washington. And he writes, as very few others can, of his hope for the future. Last spring I found that encouraging. It was harder to feel hopeful this year.

In 1963, King believed that with continued effort, the nonviolent resistance would not only prevail in bringing about equality for black Americans, but that it had the potential to help bring about an end to economic injustice and even war as well. In the final section of Why We Can’t Wait King writes of his belief that “In measuring the full implications of the of the civil-rights revolution, the greatest contribution may be in the area of world peace . . . . Nonviolence, the answer to the Negroes’ need, may become the answer to the most desperate need of all humanity.” He was talking specifically about not only ending nuclear proliferation, but he armed conflict altogether. A few years later he was struggling to remind his own movement of the benefits of nonviolence in the face of calls for armed resistance to institutionalized racism; that made it very painful to read his optimistic words here.

The other thing I found disheartening was King’s description of Congress in 1963. He described a “stranglehold” by a minority devoted to preserving the status quo  (wealth and power, at the expense of justice) and called for “the growth of an enlightened electorate” to break this hold. Clearly decades later there is still a minority — people wealthy and powerful enough to hold office, — strangling the legislative process in this country. Enlightened is not a word I’d use to describe the electorate.

King also called for “a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement” for the violation of African Americans’ human rights since the beginning of American history. He cited Nehru’s efforts in India to end mistreatment of the Untouchables as an example. But as recently as this summer, the mistreatment of Untouchables in India made international headlines, and around the world in many cultures, there are comparable groups who are treated as lacking in human dignity. Even in America various privileged groups (I say that as someone who is privileged) demonize and discriminate against various “others” like immigrants, young black men, poor women, the mentally ill, muslims, etc. Would restitution have prevented the further entrenchment of institutionalized racism in America? I doubt we’ll ever know.

I think it’s common around the national MLK holiday (still observed as Great Americans Day in Biloxi, Mississippi) to wonder what King would make of the  continuing racial injustice in America. I don’t dare speculate, as a privileged white woman, but I like to hope that he would still believe love can win. On good days, I still believe that too. But re-reading Letter From Birmingham Jail and then reading about the way our president-elect went after civil rights veteran and U.S. Congressman John Lewis this week on social media, I feel as if love and progress have their work cut out for them.

 

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The university where I work selected The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore as the book all incoming freshmen are reading this summer. Since Convocation Day is just under four weeks away, I decided it was time to read it. If you haven’t heard of it, the book is written by a man who heard in college of the fate of another man with the same name, who’d been convicted of killing an off duty police officer during a robbery. The author, stuck by their same name and similar early childhood circumstances, eventually wrote to the convicted man, later visited, got to know him, and after a few years wrote a book about their two lives.

Wes Moore the author and Wes Moore the convicted man were both boys in Baltimore with single mothers. Both got into trouble early in life, although the author’s mother tried more drastic steps to prevent her son from wrecking his life, first moving the young family to the Bronx to live with her parents in her childhood home, then sending Wes away to military boarding school when he appeared to be headed in the wrong direction.

It paid off. Military school led to an Army commission, then to Johns Hopkins, the Rhodes scholarship, a White House fellowship, a Wall Street career, a book deal. The other Wes Moore got into increasingly more dire situations, including selling drugs, and had four children by the time he was twenty. When he watched the mother of two of his children succumb to addiction he couldn’t face his own part in it. He found out about Job Corps, got his GED in a very short time, and trained as a carpenter. Back in Baltimore, he could only get low paying unskilled jobs and under continued financial pressure as he tried to support his family, he went back to dealing drugs.

The Other Wes Moore juxtaposes these two stories, focusing primarily on the first 20 years of each Wes’s life. It’s a telling portrait of life for poor, young black Americans, and it’s also a heart-breaking look at what happens when society does not fulfill its promises fully — Wes the convict is smart, but he never graduates from school and if anyone tries to help him there it goes unmentioned. His mother was in college (ironically, at Johns Hopkins) and also working to support herself and her kids when Pell grants were cancelled and she was forced to drop out. When Wes made it through Job Corps he was prepared to live a new life, but was not given a chance with a living wage or even a job where he could apply his skills, and he turned back to crime.

Yes, the author’s mother managed to keep her kids safe, and sacrificed to get him first to private school in the Bronx and then military school, and yes, people have free will, and should be able to take responsibility for their actions. Still, I was really struck by how different things could have been if the convicted Wes had just had a couple of things go differently in his life. But there was something that bothered me even more: he claimed he wasn’t even at the robbery, and therefore could not have participated in the murder. Wes the author mentions this, but does not pursue it, or even spend more than a sentence or two on it. In the introduction to the book he writes,”Wes, it should never be forgotten, is in prison for his participation in a heinous crime.” So I guess he just doesn’t question the verdict, even though he’s come to know the man who claims he wasn’t there.

It seems to me that a man who has become devoutly religious while serving a life sentence who still maintains his innocence deserves more than a passing reference to his contention that he didn’t do it. He was young black man with a record, and I don’t know if I have enough faith in the justice system to believe his conviction was definitely just. That really bothers me, but it’s true. Society had given up on him long before and had sentenced him to a life of despair. So it’s not much of a leap to wonder if society would even think twice about locking him up. The community was demanding justice for a police officer. In light of all the recent attention given to the endemic police bias in Baltimore, I can’t help but wonder. Would that bias trickle into the justice system? I can’t imagine it wouldn’t.

As a memoir, The Other Wes Moore is compelling, but there were some stylistic choices I had a hard time with. I’ve never been a fan of reconstructed dialogue, which Moore employs not only in the sections about his own life and family (at least he was there) but also those about the other Wes. The author is a good storyteller though, and when I was reading the book those sections didn’t bother me. So maybe it was my overall discomfort that made me think twice as I looked back at the book when I was finished. Is it a good choice for a community-wide read? Absolutely — there is a great deal to discuss about race, economic and social inequality, education, family, personal responsibility, even the power of books and stories to change lives.

But I remain disquieted nonetheless.

 

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It’s been almost two weeks since my last post; I have two reviews due for Kirkus tomorrow and both books arrived late last week, so I’ve been busy with those. Before that I was busy with the book I’m going to tell you about today — Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King, Jr. I chose this book for my “published the year you were born” title for Book Bingo; that said, I believe this book was written the year I was born and published a year later. This book is both uplifting and deeply disturbing.

Disturbing because I didn’t realize how little I understood the time it was written and because it was a disturbing time. The nonviolence of the movement MLK had founded was called into question when justice did not appear to be coming after federal legislation. Victories won on the national level did not mean equality in many communities. And the Black Power movement was not only questioning nonviolence, they were countering it. MLK writes of being booed by young black people in Chicago. I had no idea.

Why did I have no idea? Probably because white people wrote my history textbooks — and honestly, we never made it through the Civil Rights era in high school history class anyway. I guess I grew up thinking the civil rights movement was a success and that was all I needed to know. Of course I’ve since realized that is a trite and incomplete view of things.

Where Do We Go From Here is a moving book, as MLK passionately defends nonviolence as a tactic and gives eloquent and clear voice to where America — black and white — should go, together. The wisdom packed into this volume is almost overwhelming. King writes that “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” And then he lays out, point by depressing point, all the ways American society is not governed by this kind of power, nor ruled by this kind of justice. That racism is so deeply ingrained as to be invisible, often leaving white liberals unaware of their deep-seated prejudices. Look around and you’ll see why it’s depressing — the same could be said of American society today.

King also wrote that poverty and militarism must be vanquished for all people, black and white, to ever come together and make a better world. That we are all linked, black lives to white lives, American lives to foreign lives. That we have to take care of the other in order to preserve ourselves.

I admit, I could not finish this book. The horror of realizing that a leader who saw what needed to be done to complete the work he’d started, saw that without economic justice there would be no racial justice and no peace in the world, was permanently silenced by just that kind of injustice and violence was more than I could stomach in the present climate.

But I know this: the thing that keeps me going is the belief that love eventually prevails, in the face of everything that stands against it. King knew it and refused to give up. It has to happen, as he writes, “The ability of Negroes and whites to work together, to understand each other, will not be found ready-made; it must be created by the fact of contact.” One person at a time, that’s what we’re here to do.

I’ve been struggling with coming to terms with a difficult person I have to interact with regularly. As an experiment in cultivating compassion, throughout Holy Week I prayed silently for that person by name and also prayed for understanding on my own part of his situation; what could cause this anger and bitterness and malice, and how could I respond? Could I turn my heart of stone (fear, resentment, anger, irritation, suspicion) into a heart of flesh? No matter what you think of prayer or God, know that this mindful, intentional shift in perspective worked. By the end of the week I was able to not grit my teeth when I faced him, to reflect with compassion on his misery rather than react resentfully.

That’s love correcting everything that stands against love. That’s justice. It’s not perfect. It’s not complete – it’s an action, correcting. It’s not done yet, and may not be in my lifetime. But things will get better, and if we look hard enough, and reflect carefully enough, they will have begun without us.

 

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Last spring I attended the Public Library Association conference and one of the speakers was Bryan Stevenson. His talk was tailored to the vast hall filled with librarians, (he reminded us of public libraries’ important role as one of the last egalitarian institutions in America) but much of what he said is in Just Mercy, the book he has just published.

Just Mercy is about Stevenson’s work as the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. EJI works to free the wrongly incarcerated, especially those on death row, and to bring about reform in a justice system that “continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.” The book is remarkable not only because it is appalling that in the nation founded on principles of “liberty and justice for all” we have such a broken system, but also because the tireless work Stevenson and his colleagues do and the injustices they attempt to right both go largely unnoticed.

Stevenson writes eloquently and passionately about some of the people who have changed his life: Henry, the first death row inmate he met, who sang a hymn as the guard pushed him roughly out of the visitation room where he and Stevenson had spent more than their allotted time; Jimmy Dill, a man whose disabilities did not dissuade the state of Alabama from executing him, and whose stutter reminded Stevenson of a childhood encounter; Walter McMillian, one of the wrongly convicted whose freedom Stevenson won and who became a friend. He writes of the individual circumstances of these people’s lives and also of the broad and shocking statistics that bear witness to the lack of justice available to the poor, disabled, mentally ill, women, children, and minorities in our justice system. Stevenson equates today’s mass incarceration with slavery, racial terrorism (lynching and convict leasing following abolition), and legalized segregation as the most damaging racial injustices in American history.

Stevenson also writes eloquently about being afraid, angry, and broken: “You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, and injustice and not be broken by it.” This is the most stunning thing about Just Mercy. While Stevenson suggests, and has brought about, many specific reforms, his final prescription for ending injustice is so simple that there is not one person who can’t participate in it.”We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing.”

It’s that basic. We are all broken. Accept that, and we could be on the road to real racial and economic reconciliation. Reflecting on what he shared at Walter McMillian’s funeral, Stevenson notes, “Walter’s case had taught me that the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?

If you read Just Mercy you’ll conclude that we don’t. And you’ll conclude that racism is still pervasive in America today. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in his column about Bryan Stevenson last month, “THE greatest problem is not with flat-out white racists, but rather with the far larger number of Americans who believe intellectually in racial equality but are quietly oblivious to injustice around them. . . . We are not racists, but we accept a system that acts in racist ways.”

Embrace Stevenson’s call to just mercy, to compassion, to understanding and healing, and this can end.

 

 

 

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