Monday, February 27, 2017

Dorothy Hughes: The Expendable Man

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I can't remember exactly how this book got on my list, because I rarely read mysteries, but really, it's such a great, important read. Like so many things lately, it's one of those books that, even though it was written in 1963 and takes place in the 1940s or 1950s, could take place today. (This happened to me recently at the OCMA exhibit about the Black Panthers with a map of discriminatory bank loans that mapped almost exactly to current poor, black neighborhoods, and when I saw "I Am Not Your Negro."

What it is: Dorothy Hughes was a mystery writer who started writing mysteries in her 40s. The story is superficially obvious: guy gets conned by sketchy girl, girl dies, cops decide guy did it and [won't spoil the ending]. But the terror comes with the part Hughes doesn't reveal right away, and that white readers won't pick up right away (I didn't): guy is a patsy because he is black. And, as I keep reminding myself to keep in mind: one of the privileges of whiteness is the ability to be innocent in the face of police. Being white means every encounter with the police is not a potential life and death situation. Being white means teaching your kids to respect the police as benevolent authority figures, not as menacing, potentially lethal actors who can strip you of your very humanity.

Why you should read it: First, it's a great read, even if, like me, you're just not that into mysteries. But the humanity and the cruelty in Dr Hugh Densmore's story almost brought me to tears. Dr Densmore could be any person of color today standing in for the white man that the police don't want to or can't find. He could be any of the innocent men on death row that Bryan Stevenson advocates for. The police in the book may be more honestly vocal about their racism than the police that we deal with (at least in California) now, but the way they act in the book doesn't seem too far off.

My "aha" moment: The first fifty or so pages of the book flow along a little oddly- strange things happen to Dr Densmore, but they could happen to anyone. He's jumpy and a little nervous, but maybe he's just in a rush. He picks up a teenage girl and spends hours in the car regretting it. Maybe he thinks it's just not seemly? How could I have missed it that he's jumpy because he's black? Because I'm white. Because whiteness comes with the privilege of invisibility. Later, when the police are closing in, Dr Densmore spends much of his time in Arizona trying to find places which are either safe because they're in public, so his enemies won't feel comfortable assaulting him, or safe for him to eat at (there aren't any Jim Crow laws, but he knows that he isn't really safe in most establishments), or safe because no one will see him. His body is literally not safe. He cannot be invisible. The giant shiny white Cadillac he has borrowed from his mother is the story's metaphor for sticking out, but really, it is his skin. 

Rating: Library, but tell your friends, especially those who don't/won't read nonfiction. This is hard-hitting. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Bryan Stevenson: Just Mercy

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'Just Mercy' has been on my list for awhile. Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, which works for the end of unjust incarceration and for racial justice. He works tirelessly to get people off of death row, or to stay their executions, or to get their sentences to match their crimes- the disgusting penalties children receive are one of his projects.

What it is:  'Just Mercy' tells the story of Stevenson's career framed by the story Walter McMillian- a man sentenced to death for a crime he couldn't have committed. A white teenage girl was killed in a small Alabama town while McMillian, a well-known local black character, was at a fish-fry with much of the black community. The local law enforcement community hadn't been able to solve the crime, so they figured out how to pin the crime on McMillian, complete with a lying witness. The crime was considered so heinous that McMillian was housed on death row, even before the trial. The jury sentenced him to life in prison, and the judge overruled the sentence and sentenced him to death. It seems heinous because it is.

Why you should read it: This kind of miscarriage of justice is not unique to McMillian's case. Stevenson has dedicated his life to overturning this kind of injustice, especially in Alabama and the south. "In Alabama, even though 65 percent of all homicide victims were black, nearly 80 percent of the people on death row were there for crimes against victims who were white. Black defendant and white victim pairings increased the likelihood of a death sentence even more." As he writes, "Some victims are more protected and values than others." As Jill Levoy argued in Ghettoside, some victims don't matter to the system: their homicides are never investigated. On the other hand, some victims matter so much to the system that people are unfairly persecuted.

My "aha" moment: Jail is the solution to white people's complacency. I've been thinking a lot about white complacency lately. It's easy to look at Trump and neo-Nazis and conservative racism, but a lot harder to look at liberal racism. We benefit off of systemic racism just like everyone else. Stevenson describes Southern racism like this: "For a hundred years, any sign of black progress in the South could trigger a white reaction that would invariably invoke Confederate symbols and talk of resistance." Now we deal have mass incarceration of black men, women, children and the mentally ill. But it's okay, because crime.

Rating:  Buy it, or get it at the library then donate the cost of the book to EJI.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Carla Power: If the Oceans were Ink

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I admit to knowing not very much about Islam (bad religion major!). Carla Power has written an insightful book that not only educated me about Islam, but also allowed me to challenge my perceptions of how white Westerners think of Muslims among them. I've read plenty of books about the Middle East, Muslim countries, etc, but this book fits right in with the time-to-educate-yourself theme.

What it is: Carla Power was already a journalist on Islamic culture and politics but realized she wanted to know more about the Koran proper and the spirituality behind the religion. So she spent a year with an Islamic scholar, Mohammad Akram Nadwi- following him, reading the Koran with him, attending his lectures, etc. Nadwi has written biographies of thousands of women, which leads to fascinating discussions of women's roles in the religion.

Why you should read it: What you think you know about women in Islam, what you've been told about women in Islam, what you want to believe, etc., will really be shaken up by reading this book, and Power is right there with you thinking this through. She takes a no-nonsense, honest-with-herself approach, which is welcome.

My "aha" moment: Nadwi's feelings about hijab, which actually means barrier, or separation, are beautiful. The idea of covering oneself in simple, modest clothing (men included) before God, is lovely. It's not the misogynist "elbows are too sexy and distracting" of Orthodox Jews (my people), and something that gets totally lost in the discussions of who should be able (secular countries) or required (Muslim countries) to wear hijab or burka.

Rating: Library. I'll be honest, I didn't love the writing. But this book really made me think, and showed me a huge hole in my knowledge.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Jeff Chang: We Gon' Be Alright

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I read a lot of books. I recently heard Michael Eric Dyson speak about his new book, Tears We Cannot Stop, in which, among other things, he speaks about white ignorance. Whenever white people are afraid, he argues, they plead ignorance. Slavery? What slavery? The Civil War was about economics. It is our job to learn about, and intentionally overcome this ignorance. So I decided to start blogging the books I read again. Trump is terrible, but he didn't become the Great Pumpkin in a vacuum. He was elected by people who forget that they are part of a false racial binary, that they are where they are because America is built on a false idea of racial superiority. White America spends too much of its time intentionally ignoring the opportunities to humbly listen to what is going on around them to pay attention to the havoc the system causes to black and brown people. Instead we call on black and brown people to teach us, to explain to us what they mean by systemic racism, or why they are harmed by oppressive police tactics. That's messed up. So I'm going to share what I read, and maybe others can learn a little bit, or will be inspired to pick up some of these books themselves, or to have a dialogue. I'm gonna try out a new format to make this easy to digest.

 What it is: We Gon' Be Alright is a short (168 small pages) book of essays by Jeff Chang, prolific author. The essays are very current- Trump hadn't been inaugurated, but he was about to be president. There's an essay on Beyonce's Lemonade and #blacklives matter, with an emphasis on Ferguson
Why you should read it: The subtitle of Chang's book, "Notes on Race and Resegration," tells it all. You want to know why we are where we are? White flight or gentrification- what happens when black and brown people are forced to the suburbs, and what does it mean that the news writes stories about the tragic tale of no more kids in San Francisco? This is the book.
My "aha" moment: Diversity really is for white people. The first essay, "Is Diversity for White People?" was the most moving, in my opinion. Chang walks the reader through this history of the words and meanings of "diversity" and "affirmative action," and convincingly argues that diversity is not really for people of color at all, but for the benefit of white people. Admissions departments at universities, mayors of diverse cities (Oakland), etc., all use diversity as marketing tools to attract people. As Chang writes, "The appearance of diversity signaled excellence, and the appearance of excellence signaled diversity." What a joke: diversity has become a tool for white people to feel better about ourselves, not a true indicator that things are working.
Rating: Library, or read the essays online. If you buy it, pass it around! Easy to read for your not-that-into-reading friends.