Book Of The Month: The New Jim Crow

 

It seems we are having a moment in America. Let me correct that it seems we are having a Moment with a capital M in America. What the activists and commentators on social media are doing is raising awareness to the level that traditional media has been forced to respond and in some cases alter the narrative that reinforces white supremacy in the majority of these cases.

But sometimes we need more than the immediate reaction to current events. Before we can start to think of solutions to our current standing in society we must accurately diagnose the problem. Michelle Alexander has done a pretty good job articulating one of the more pressing issues in her book The New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration In the Age Of Colorblindness .

In this book she advances the premise that the disastrous war on drugs and the “tough on crime” mentality in the national consciousness since at least the 1980’s is actually a root cause of the problems plaguing the black community in America and not a result of a pre-existing affinity for crime among the urban poor as the common media narrative would have you believe.  It’s empowering to finally have someone exhaustively examine this topic. When discussing the idea that blackness has inherent criminality in the view of society you rarely find someone who can succinctly articulate the valid points that support your reasoning.

But when confronted with statistics and some general facts about our current state of mass incarceration one with a firm grasp on reality would be hard pressed to deny the inequity  that exists in our judicial system. Explored in depth in this book is the execution of the drug war itself. Although drugs are used at almost identical rates by white and black youths the drug war has almost exclusively been waged in neighborhoods of color.  The prison population that hovers at nearly 50% black despite the fact that we never make up more than 14% of the US population should be a clue that some sort of unnatural selection is being made. And although the media makes a big deal about the arrest and prosecution of violent criminals the majority of African-Americans branded felons by the state have been convicted of non violent drug offenses and are subject to harsh mandatory sentences that even some prosecutors and judges fear are too harsh.

Also explored is the stigma attached to someone labeled a felon in this country. If you are an African-American convicted of a felony your role as a functioning member of society is essentially over. The harsh truth is that another system of control has been constructed in America. Slavery and Jim Crow existed to exploit and expand inequity. Mass Incarceration is nothing short of genocide. A society actively working to weaken an entire population without implicitly invoking race so that it can sleep at night believing that it somehow has realized Martin Luther King’s dream.  But for most of us reducing MLK to platitudes about colorblindness isn’t a solution it’s actually part of the problem. Read this book for the rest of the diagnosis.

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Book Of The Month: Black Panther

What I notice immediately near the beginning of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ iteration of Black Panther was that this wasn’t a hard reboot of the character. While this may be counterintuitive for non-comic book readers nowadays when Marvel starts with a number 1 issue we start with a story that’s pretty much already in progress. I had not read a Black Panther comic in about 10 years so I was pretty unfamiliar with where the character was in the context of the current Marvel Universe timeline.

Coates does a great job getting you up to speed. T’Challa is currently the King of Wakanda (there have been times in the continuum where he has abdicated the throne or otherwise been usurped either by a family member, friend, or foe) and his sister (who has ruled as Queen at some point) is currently in the spirit world. The head of his royal guard (an all-female elite fighting force known as the Dora Milaje) has gone rogue to free her lover who was about to be executed for treason. If you read any online critiques of comic books you’ll know that Marvel’s books have had more success with diversity than its Cinematic Universe. But the film universe’s introduction of Black Panther is probably the main reason this book exists right now. That the editors at Marvel had the idea to get respected Atlantic columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates to try his hand at the complicated mythology of Wakanda is a gift for the significant overlap in their two fan-bases. This is not to say that everyone who reads Coates grew up as a Black Panther fan. But if you are the type of person that follows a writer like Coates and a comic book fan there is a chance that you fall in that sector on the Venn Diagram.

Coates background as a poet serves him well in this endeavor. While expectations may be unreasonably high, Marvel fans are typically used to the interweaving story arcs in comic books. Coates here is threading the needle with three separate character arcs. We follow the rebel Dora Milaje lovers ( whose very existence is making a statement denouncing homophobia) as they free women and children from modern slavery, there is also the Panther’s sister Shuri as she continues her journey through and eventually out of the spirit world and of course there is the main event T’Challa himself as he stamps out the last seeds of rebellion and attempts to make amends to a citizenry that is understandably skeptical because of recent government sanctioned atrocities.

Over the first year and a half of Coates run we’ve seen the Black Panther universe expand to three books and then contract back to one. If you are looking for consistency stick with the main story told by Coates. In it he grapples with the concept of a benign monarchy and the unifying power of an external threat. He doesn’t have to go out of his way to weave political statements into the narrative as Black Panther’s very existence is a political statement. Hopefully the spotlight shined on T’Challa by this Friday’s major film release will see this book get the props it deserves.

Book Of The Month: Fire and Fury: Inside The Trump White House

When 63 million people made the decision on November 8, 2016 to vote for Donald J. Trump to become the forty-fifth President Of The United States the rest of the country, indeed the rest of the world was understandably shaken. Whether you loved or hated Trump you could agree on one thing we would be getting something in The White House the likes of which we had never seen. Donald Trump is a man with no boundaries, no sense of decorum, no true ideology except a pathetic need for approval and a more transparent capitulation to white supremacy (I mean more transparent than a normal Republican which is already pretty translucent).

In “Fire and Fury: Inside The Trump White House” journalist Michael Wolff takes advantage of the chaos of the amateurish and discordant Trump Administration to observe and confirm what many of us have suspected. The President and his minions are a house of fools and the entire world is much worse for their usurpation of actual power.

Among the characters profiled in this story you will find no heroes. If you were searching for a “protagonist” I guess you would have to go with Steve Bannon which is odd because he’s done so much to agitate and amplify the worst things about America. But rather Bannon than the feckless Jared Kushner, the ineffectual Reince Priebus, the sycophantic Kellyanne Conway or anyone who’s last name is Trump.

Wolff starts with The Trump Campaign in 2016 through to the ouster of Steve Bannon and weaves a narrative around much of what we already learned through leaks. Throughout the book based on whatever subject or character he is currently expounding on Wolff will sometimes flashback to earlier periods either from the campaign or earlier in Trump’s life. While those of us who have been political news junkies won’t find many new facts it is interesting to hear direct quotes from the principals involved in the story. One thing that is more clear I will say is that even most of the Trump Administration believes their was collusion with Russia and Trump’s family made it worse by obstructing justice and firing Comey.

What I find most disconcerting is the cynical opportunism of the “adults” in the room. The serious Republican operatives who at times are baffled by Trump’s ignorance, arrogance, and incompetence and who privately express concerns about his mental health. Most can’t quite decide if he’s crazy but a running theme throughout the book is that they all agree that he’s a fucking moron. And yet rather than spare us they all put party before country and are playing politics at a time when the geopolitical ramifications could be staggering.

The most troubling thing about Donald Trump himself is that his blatant expression of racial animus is basically his only truth. He hasn’t made a dogged effort to follow through on any of his other campaign promises and as Wolff pulls back the curtain you understand why. The only thing he craves is the accolades, the applause and the attention. Where he actually believes in anything it is the racist, anti-semitic, and sexist stew that has transfixed much of the consciousness of the Make America Great Again crowd.

Trump isn’t the most hardcore believer of course. That would be Steve Bannon. But at times Steve Bannon comes across as a pragmatic and flawed mastermind. You quickly find that only in a room full of mental midgets does he loom as an intellectual giant. This book is interested in telling a very particular story about the ins and outs and political machinations in the Trump Administration. What you will come to understand is that these people are as objectively terrible at being human as any villain in a comic book movie. As a matter of fact I sympathize with the motives of Loki more than any of the people presented in this book. These people are so uniquely despicable they don’t even like each other.

What is pertinent and what gives me most hope as a political partisan but most dread as a citizen of the United States is that by the end of this book (which concludes some time in the fall of 2017) the most competent, and effective political operators have essentially been neutralized in favor of Trump’s incompetent, and extremely corrupt family. While they may not have the same exact nationalist agenda as a true villain like Bannon they do intend to pilfer the Treasury and use their plunder to reward the Republican congress and their donors (many of whom won’t be re-elected as a result). What’s worrisome is that their inability to reign in the worst impulses of Donald Trump could find us on the brink of a nuclear crisis. As Donald Trump, a man who is easily wounded, grapples with the fact that one of the United States’ most bitter enemies doesn’t like him very much and isn’t afraid of him.

As much as the election of Donald Trump gave me existential dread about the United States I still believe there are people here worth saving. Are there enough good people here to stop Trump and his flunkies from destroying our country? That remains to be seen.  Maybe the “adults” in the room will invoke the 25th amendment and deal with the political fallout as opposed to you know… a nuclear one.