I’ve admired Trevor Noah because he’s funny AF and also speaks about and advocates for policies I myself support.
But, reading about his life in South Africa as a child born into a world where he embodied an actual crime by simply existing is immensely powerful and profound. And, I’m not sure that I could admire him any more now, particularly after reading the last chapter of this book.
Central to this little gem is the story of a mother and her son. But, the richness of that relationship and the context within which it is lived is more than worth anyone’s time. That it’s beautifully crafted is all the more rewarding. Moreover, it’s a story we would all do well to read carefully and consider thoroughly given the times we’re currently navigating and the reckoning these times call for.
It shouldn’t surprise me that I finished this book laughing through choked-back sobs. But, I did.
John Lewis, who literally fought like hell to ensure black Americans (and all Americans) could secure the same rights, not least the right to vote, that you and I have, will be laid to rest today in Atlanta. He fought his entire life for justice and to ensure that those who had no voice were not forgotten and would be heard. And, his work and legacy are far from complete.
I have a confession.
I took voting for granted for a long while. I voted regularly and researched the candidates I’d be voting for to ensure they reflected my own vision for my community. But, I also occasionally missed a local election or voted straight ticket out of laziness or simple complacency. I voted, but… I could have done better.
It wasn’t until I watched my husband—Cuban by birth and to the core, and an exile from his own country because he dared think outside the state-sanctioned box—vote the first time we were eligible to vote in Finland, our home by default. He was in his 50s at that time, as we left our neighbourhood polling station. He looked at me, and told me it was the first time in his life that he knew definitively that his vote mattered and would be counted. And, that he felt heard and seen.
I no longer to take voting for granted. I think of my husband’s words each time I sort through the details of ensuring I can vote overseas now. It matters. And, not everyone enjoys the same rights that we do to exercise our voices freely.
Please, check your voter registration details (and register if you haven’t) to make sure everything from the spelling of your name to your address is correct and up-to-date. If you plan to vote by absentee ballot, request your ballot now and know what you need to research and how you’ll vote (scroll down to ‘Know Your State’) before your ballot arrives. And, given Covid and issues with United States and other Postal Services, make sure you send your ballot with sufficient time to ensure it arrives in time to be counted.
If you have done as much of the above as you can, pour yourself your favourite beverage and spread the word to your friends and family. (Hell, you can just share this post, if you want, although, just sharing the link vote.org is fine, too.)
If you are healthy and feel confident enough to volunteer as a poll worker in your community, do so. So many poll workers are retired and they are at an increased risk for Covid. Do a quick Google search to see what the rules are in your state / community. And, if you have teenage kids and want them to understand the importance of civic duty, even if they cannot vote, they may be able to work the polls.
There are so many ways you can help make this specific election matter. But, it requires doing something. So, let’s do some good and do something.
John Lewis fought for all of us and shed his own blood on that bridge in Selma so that we and others wouldn’t need to. He got into good, necessary trouble his entire life so that our voices would be heard and counted. Now, it’s up to us. The best simplest sort of good, necessary trouble we can get into and perhaps the most patriotic act is the simple act of voting.
In today’s world in particular, there are days when it seems as though we are drowning in information. Too much data. Too much ‘stuff’ to process and make sense of. That feeling is only partially true, however. Across various areas and arenas, we know far too little, particularly when we focus on issues surrounding health and human rights. All too often we take the absence of information or data or evidence as a sign that we may relax a bit.
We desperately need to shift that thinking. The Uncounted, by Sara ‘Meg’ Davis provides a road map for how we may begin to shift our thinking and perspectives in order to adjust how, amongst whom and what we collect data in a relatively simple way, and in a way which may pay huge dividends, particularly amongst those most in need and previously most neglected in policy planning and financing.
‘The Uncounted’ is a fantastic read, one which profoundly challenges the notion that in the absence of information or evidence we don’t need to worry about issue X. That is, if we carefully examine those variables for which we have no data or evidence, perhaps upon digging deeper and enlisting assistance from those more acutely and intimately aware than we are, we will find previously hidden information and data. And, that data and information are likely to radically shift how we design programmes or policies on various issues. We will no longer be able to simply dismiss an issue as unproblematic. Quite simply, ‘The Uncounted’ provides a profound argument for carefully considering how we examine and apply the absence of evidence as an indicator.
‘The Uncounted’ is rich in ethnographic descriptions, documenting the various assumptions made by multilateral agencies charged with dispersing funding to and establishing guidelines for countries in how they respond to HIV, tuberculosis and malaria (e.g., The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, UNAIDS, WHO, PEPFAR, etc) and local-level agencies and individuals best situated to argue for expanding programmes and funding schemes within communities. For those unfamiliar with such agencies, Dr Davis disentangles these various personalities and agencies rather neatly, making it clear who does what and whose voice is perhaps most necessary in deciding upon programmes and policies to address HIV in particular. Following the progress and steps necessary to count the uncounted within the Caribbean region provides evidence for how we can begin to shift our thinking and truly ensure full inclusion of all individuals affected by HIV and specifically those least likely to date to receive crucial services and support.
Reading ‘The Uncounted’ during a global pandemic proved rather surreal,not simply because some of its key characters are also playing a crucial role in current events vis-a-vis Covid-19. As our global health-related realities have been thrown into chaos this year with the emergence of Covid-19, I’m curious to see how various elements of Dr Davis’ careful and thorough work play out. Whilst focused primarily on HIV, and the very real oversights in counting typically hidden populations such as men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers and people who use drugs, certainly many individuals, and perhaps the most vulnerable, will go uncounted in the wake of Covid-19. Will health, social, and economic policy makers and planners at local, national, and international levels solicit the perspectives from those at the community levels most intimately associated with the epidemics and acutely aware of problems in providing treatment, care and support to those affected in order to understand who, what, why and where? Or will they rely on the absence of evidence as evidence of absence simply because individuals are not counted by the powers that be? How will key populations be accounted for? Will they?
My hope is that the powers that be across power structures would heed the advice and road maps provided by Dr Davis. The reality is that in some places, that advice and those road maps are not being considered. And, in those places it seems as those Covid-19 is raging unchallenged. [Insert heavy sigh here.]
‘The Uncounted’ provides this cynic with a bit of hope, however, particularly with regards to HIV. Hope that we expand our perspective ever so slightly, yet in a way which we can make a huge difference to communities and key populations who may have previously faced stigma, discrimination and institutional neglect, and who may finally receive the crucial support to transform structures that place them at the response to HIV. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary. And, to my mind, long overdue.
Clearly, we can no longer that that ‘absence of evidence as evidence of absence’.
I’m not sure that writing a review of this particular book is necessary. My first reaction can be summed up quite simply: Read this book. Now. Right now.
Given the long-overdue awakening taking place not just in the United States at this moment, but across many former colonisers and countries characterised by white privilege and power at the expense of everyone else, those of us who know nothing about the lived experiences of POC need to listen carefully and silently to their voices now. This book goes a long way in granting us at least one voice rather clearly and unapologetically. She is not angry, although she has every right and reason to be. She is not preachy or admonishing, although I’d certainly expect anyone writing a book like this to be. This book made me uncomfortable and angry, despair and cringe, and it made me mutter again and again, ‘what the fuck is wrong with people’?! Not POC, but those of us who have and know white privilege without ever accepting or acknowledging it.
The simple notion that history and institutions have made it difficult for those of us not lucky enough to have been born white is undeniable. Correcting it, let alone simply accepting it, shouldn’t be a matter of debate. And, yet, here we are in 2020 still wondering why a statue for a slave trader or Confederate general is so offensive to some.
As much as this book angered me, it oddly and rather refreshingly offered up doses of hope. I am a firm believer in knowledge being a powerful weapon if wielded properly. I suspect Reni Eddo-Lodge shares that old adage. She provided me with a bit more information about racism and racist institutions in the UK, and by doing so allowed me to gain a bit of objectivity on institutions which have parallels in my own country, the US. She also understands how we all need to be gentle with ourselves as we disentangle and make sense of atrocities from our historical past in order to do the hard and necessary work of dismantling them as we move forward. This is painful as a process and incredibly uncomfortable at times. As long as we, each of us, does something with the knowledge we gain and the awareness necessary to be and live as antiracists, those small steps collectively can help us to achieve our goals. Let’s move forward rather than stand still in our despair and anger and frustration.
I will read this book again. More so, I will continue to think about every bit of this tiny, powerful book, and how I can be the change and do something and do better every single day.
NB: Like many, I’m genuinely struggling to put into words what I feel or to process what we’re collectively witnessing and experiencing in this moment. This is my own first step, based on a personal experience from this morning and how it might help me, at least, move forward and do something — anything — to affect positive change within my own network. The specifics of this morning’s experience are anonymised in order to protect my friend’s identity. This is my own perspective and reflects that alone.
I am not necessarily good at difficult conversations. I have never have been, and it’s perhaps the flaw I recognise as most unfortunate about myself. And, the flaw I struggle with the most.
If I am completely honest, I see the ugliest parts of myself surface during those moments. Specifically, I do not deal with criticism well at all, despite being more critical of myself than anyone else could ever hope to be. Contrary to understanding its necessity in helping me do and be better as a wife, friend, instructor, writer, [insert descriptor/role here], constructive criticism makes me exceedingly uncomfortable in the moment. I have no problem questioning my own beliefs on my own, but publicly I find such instances particularly painful and typically shy away from them whenever and as much as possible. I am also working on this. Because I want to grow as a person and be a better person for those in my life as well as my own community. But, it’s damn hard work.
Given the current backdrop of various bits of chaos that has become 2020, and the unreal events unfolding in the United States specifically, difficult and uncomfortable conversations are necessary. So, when a friend with whom I share very little ideologically reached out to ask me about a sensitive topic, I took a deep breath and dove in head first.
And, you know what? I regret nothing. It felt good. It worked. It was respectful and honest. Unresolved, but solid and a step in a direction we both welcomed. And, that’s something.
Because neither of us approached this conversation from the perspective of needing to be right or correct or proving our point, it worked.
To me, this moment provided an opportunity, not only offering the chance to reach an understanding of a perspective and the thoughts of someone with whom I do not share a world view. But, also, a chance to help someone I know understand a bit more about where to find resources and perhaps look at their own world view in a slightly different way, one which might prove more beneficial to those unlike us who desperately need allies who look like us. This moment hearkened back to a time when liberals and conservatives / Democrats and Republicans / blue states and red states could discuss the issues of the day and find a way forward rather than ripping one another apart.
This friend and I conversed with the intention of listening and gaining insight rather than being heard and judging one another. We challenged one another (I hope), but we also chatted aiming to help one another rather than selfishly and myopically support and validate our respective viewpoints. We did not approach the conversation intending to pick apart everything; instead, we tried to unpack one thing. We asked probing questions and patiently waited for responses. We left labels aside, placed pins in other important topics which were tangential to this specific topic and focused instead upon the meanings we might have missed by using various labels previously.
And, we left the conversation with points to think about and consider, with an agreement return to our discussion later. We did not leave feeling frustrated, angry, hurt of belittled.
We provided ourselves with a way to move ourselves as well as our communities forward. And, that’s huge.
So many of us right now are hurting, whether we agree on what pains us or not. So many of us lament and despair the loss of innocent lives and the inhumanity we are collectively witnessing, all in the middle of a global pandemic that demands social distancing and has impacted our social and economic realities if the not the very fabric of our lives. We may not necessarily agree on what causes the pain or anguish, or indeed upon on what specifically what must change. But, we agree that the wounds run deep and divisions are killing us. And, that change is necessary.
To me, we must also confront continuing injustices such as institutionalised racism and a system rigged to maintain the status quo and extreme power differentials in place. Doing so requires finding common ground and understanding wherever and whenever we can. It won’t be easy, and perhaps might result in more than a little blood, sweat and tears, for some real and for others allegorically and metaphorically. But, the difficult, sensitive and hard conversations and discussions must take place.
So, here’s an invitation: Come talk to me.
I will listen. I will do my best to be open to those difficult conversations, without judgement or justification. I will do my best to be respectful and less reactionary or defensive. Primarily, rather than shy away from them, I invite those discussions and conversations, welcoming them and genuinely consider them. I may not always agree, but I will seek out ways to reach consensus where possible and check my own biases and privileges and assumptions as necessary. I hope all of us will do likewise. Otherwise, nothing will change.
Michelle Alexander is a voice we need to listen to more. Not for pithy soundbites, but for reasoned, careful and critical perspectives on who we are, what our past and present can tell us and where we have gone horribly wrong. It will not be an easy lesson, but it will be a necessary one.
The New Jim Crow isn’t necessarily ‘new’ information to me. It’s clear just by reading the news and examining life in the US today that the unequal treatment of black and brown men by law enforcement and criminal justice systems proliferates. White men commit a crime and are given laughable ‘sentences’, if any sentence is handed down at all (e.g., Brock Turner, Jeffrey Epstein, etc). Black or brown men are accused of committing similar crimes, even if very little or no evidence exists, and given harsh sentences (e.g., Brian Banks). Whilst my own radar tends to pick up and focus more on cases involving sexual assault, the War on Drugs and its tendrils that weed in and out of various parts of society provides far, far too many examples of the uneven application of the law, and sadly the inability of the law to provide justice in many cases.
Mass incarceration stems not from an inherent quality in black and brown communities, but from perceptions and the specific focus placed on those communities by law enforcement and criminal justice systems. Drug use rates have remained relatively steady amongst various sub-groups for decades in the US, whereby white folks tend to use various drugs more (not less) than black and brown populations. Crime rates are tied to poverty, not race, contrary to popular perceptions and media portrayals. Yet, up to 90% of traffic stops in some parts of the US involve cars driven by black men. Law enforcement resources are placed in black and brown communities to ‘police’ for drugs and crime. In areas where both white and black individuals peddle drugs on street corners, blacks are stopped and searched (and ultimately) arrested more than whites. Hence, the perception that communities of colour are involved in more crime, simply because they are stopped more often and at higher rates than whites. It’s a systemic pattern and it has unreal and lasting consequences for those communities already burdened by being poor or less advantaged.
Perhaps one of the more tragic aspects of the War on Drugs is the long-term, lasting consequences for those caught in its web. Once arrested, rather than convicted, job prospects become less likely. Hiring discrimination persists amongst those who have faced charges (not necessarily convictions) related to drugs crimes, often for life. And, this discrimination is not only legal, it may stem from any actual wrongdoing. Public housing, education including acceptance to a university to securing financial aid to attend, social benefits, military service. All of these various means to improve one’s position and escape a cycle of poverty (and ‘crime’) are cut off from those who have sometimes done nothing more than smoke a joint. They are not violent offenders nor are they trafficking or dealing drugs. They have simply been caught with something less dangerous than drunk driving. Yet, the sentences are harsher and the consequences last a life-time. And, disproportionately, these consequences affect young, black and brown men.
It’s hard not to feel a bit hopeless after reading The New Jim Crow; as a book, it offers very little hope. However, knowledge is power, and understanding the pervasiveness of a racialised social control measure such as mass incarceration and the role of the War on Drugs in creating it can help us to finally address the nation’s troubled history vis-a-vis race. By addressing this trouble history, the aim is not to attain colourblindness, but to become colour conscious. From slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, the connections are clear. Ignoring them will not eliminate our race-related tensions. Throwing shade on those historic tensions and the various systemic biases related to them, whether intentional or not, will help to finally reach something akin to genuine equity and justice.
This book deserves widespread distribution and careful thought and discussion, not simply for the brilliant and thorough research of crime statistics and legal decisions for much of the last 150 years in the United States. But, because it allows us to understand our collective social flaws and provides hope that we can actually address these issues, if only to tackle the hard tasks. At a time when we see those racial tensions intensifying thanks to an administration hell-bent on demonising the other, this may be the hardest task of all. But, it is also incredibly necessary for the future for all of us.
If we ever hope to move beyond that which divides us, we must collectively rip off those band-aids, acknowledge various problems that plague us as a nation and society, and begin the truly difficult discussions in order to find long-term and permanent solutions to address those problems.
This book helps with that first step: ripping off the band-aids, and highlighting how we did not simply arrive at this particular moment. We should have expected it. And, anyone living in or from a flyover region most likely intuitively knows this. Class. Race. Gender. All of these issues have divided us for much longer than the current political rhetoric of divisiveness. Really, rather than collectively rising up against a system rigged from day one to benefit those already in power at the expense of the rest of us, we fight one another based on characteristic X [insert identity here]. Yet, we all continue to struggle. We all continue to lose our footing or positions. And, we all continue to work harder to move towards attaining that American dream as we navigate the worst sort of nightmare.
Thank you, Sarah Kendzior, for this collection of rather timeless essays and commentaries on the condition of life in flyover America. It’s brutal. It’s real. And, it’s completely necessary.
I’d love to have these same individuals revisit each of their discussion points as we approach the midterms and nearly two years into the Trump administration’s reign.
What a brilliant dialogue, and a necessary one. Despite the despair and frustration and outrage many of us feel daily, it’s important to hold on to hope. And, that is the message that rings through in the final pages of this short, but eloquent read.
Perhaps these words need to become slogans in today’s America. One of the most profound realities expressed here ever-so-poignantly and clearly is that we will never begin to move beyond our history of repression until we fully accept, acknowledge and understand it’s consequences. Perhaps more so, we must open our eyes to the full-scale of those atrocities.
From the decimation of indigenous populations and usurping their existence and power to the long history of slavery and the aftermath in Jim Crow and segregation both real and imagined. History has consequences, and sweeping those horrors under giant carpets won’t suffice in moving beyond and tackling the various issues which continue to persist.
If we want a country guided and fueled by hope, acceptance, justice and equality if not equity, we also must work within our communities to create those realities. Yes, the national conversation is important. But, change is change, no matter how large or small, and most of live lives within small communities, both real and virtual. Stand up (or sit down), speak truth to stupid and power, and find ways to create communities which reflect those ideals of just, hopeful, righteous and kind. Those ripples we create may travel far, and that is the only thing which will change the national fabric in any long-term and lasting way.
This book, and just about anything else written by James Baldwin, remains relevant. It’s spooky and altogether tragic that pieces written in the 1960s reflect the current realities lived by black communities and individuals in the US today.
Eloquent. Honest. Brutally clear and well-reasoned throughout, The Fire Next Time, much like all of his works, should be required reading for us all. They also serve as a stark reminder of the as yet unfulfilled promises of the Civil Rights era.
We will never move beyond the divisions we face now if we do not honestly and openly sit down and listen to one another and attempt to understand what it means to grow up black in the US.
I can’t imagine anyone watching the video of the last minutes of Eric Garner’s life and not being utterly horrified. Horrified by the excessive use of force and complete lack of concern for a man’s life.
I also cannot imagine how haunted Matt Taibbi must be from the research and passion he put into this book. But, I’m glad he took on those ghosts and took such care into getting the narrative right. He succeeded in so many ways.
By all accounts, Eric Garner shouldn’t be dead. At least not because of an illegal choke-hold. But, he is, leaving a giant hole in his family’s life as well as the community he called home. By all accounts, the man responsible for choking him to death — Daniel Pantaleo — should have been held to account. He was not. In a rather twisted alter-reality, Pantaleo is viewed by many as the victim.
This book isn’t just about that fateful arrest and its aftermath. It’s about a system — in New York as well as the United States in general — that forces us all to examine our own ideas of community, safety and policing, and the consequences of attempting to ‘feel safe’. It’s about what we’re willing to allow police to do to feel safe. And, it’s about what we will accept as ‘the way it is’.
As much as I respect anyone who chooses a career in law enforcement, I also fear how far the justice system itself has gone to protect its members. When entire communities recount story after story after story of ‘walking while black’, being pulled from cars and brutally beaten for asking a question, and then charged with crimes they did not and could not possibly commit, we must recognise that something is broken. And, it’s not the windows.
Taibbi packs so much food-for-thought within this book. It’s heartbreaking, even more so when you consider living within the realities he describes so painstakingly. We know Eric Garner’s name because of the clear evidence of brutality captured on a cell phone. The world saw that video and collectively gasped. We gasped again when a grand jury came back with no indictment.
Taibbi begins this book by describing another event in Staten Island. Ibrahim ‘Brian’ Annan, a young man stopped by police around the same time Garner was choked, was pulled from his car and beaten so violently by two police officers that one leg was broken in three places. He was charged with a total of seven felonies, all of which were eventually dropped, a process which took nearly a dozen court appearances and more than two years. The charges lobbed against Annan were so absurd and so obviously intended to simply force him to relent even the judge presiding over the cases found them silly. Annan’s beating was not captured on film. And, whilst disabled, he lived to tell the story. But, sadly, this is not uncommon in Staten Island, in particular, or in other inner cities in general (think Baltimore and Freddie Grey). It is sadly not new, either. Taibbi also tells the tale of Clementine Ross, a woman who has been waiting 50 years for closure on the shooting of her husband by a cop in Arkansas. His crime? Asking for a receipt.
Matt Taibbi focuses on a killing on Bay Street. But, given all of the names of all those who have died before and since Eric Garner, individuals primarily unarmed and shot by law enforcement officials, I’m surprised any of us can breathe.