On ‘The New Jim Crow’, by Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


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.





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On ‘The View from Flyover Country’

The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten AmericaThe View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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On ‘A Perilous Path’

A Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality, and the LawA Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality, and the Law by Sherrilyn Ifill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

‘Never again.’

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.

‘Never again’, indeed.

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On ‘The Fire Next Time’

The Fire Next TimeThe Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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On ‘I Can’t Breathe’

I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay StreetI Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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On ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the wake of November 2016 and with a GOP-controlled federal government, many of us from the progressive movement—myself included—questioned how large swaths of the United States continue to elect officials who advance legislation that effectively harms those most in need. They appear to vote against their own self-interests. But, why and how?

JD Vance’s memoir allows a glimpse into the realities for those from the holler—Appalachia and the Rust Belt, regions which overwhelmingly supported the likes of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.

Vance’s tale is one of family, and one which left me muttering, ‘oh no’ and ‘oh dear’ again and again. It is not a rosy or happy tale for much of the book, and parts of his narrative are difficult to read given how utterly awful it is to imagine as a child’s life. Yet, Vance escaped a cycle of substance abuse, physical and emotional trauma and countless uncertainties commonplace within his community and family. His journey, by his own account, is unimaginably unlikely, and he considers himself unbelievably lucky to have not just graduated from a university (the first in his family to do so), but to also have been accepted to and excelled at a leading law school, Yale Law. It is an incredibly unlikely story of the American Dream fulfilled.

Yet, he also poignantly and carefully paints a reality for those of us unaware of the life of those in the holler, even those who left the hills and valleys of Appalachia for jobs in the Rust Belt. Jobs which now no longer exist and no longer guarantee hillbillies or the working class in general a life better than that of their parents. His own mother faired worse than his grandparents, a reality his grandparents apparently struggled with as well. For those like Vance, achieving the American Dream of upward mobility is less a dream than a drug-fuelled pipe dream. That understanding—that working hard increasingly means little towards escaping poverty—intertwines with the physical and emotional pain experienced by many amongst his social and cultural network both in Middletown, Ohio and the hills of Kentucky. Increasingly, dependency on opiates became the norm and the primary means of escape, a heart-breaking reality that becomes inescapable for many and has resulted in far too many overdose deaths to younger and younger cohorts. The life he now lives offered many opportunities to him, whilst simultaneously presenting so many unknowns and uncomfortable moments. He now occupies two social classes, separated worlds away from one another. He didn’t just receive an education in law; he survived an incredibly steep learning curve into the world of the those born to privilege.

I don’t share much of Vance’s world view nor can I really fully understand the life he has lived thus far. Yet, much of this book resonated with me. And, much of what he has to say about how to address the shrinking idealism of the American Dream and how we can recover some of the ideological distance that divides our discussions today made sense to me. Rather than focusing on what divides us, perhaps we can all retrain our lens on what unites us. It may be a seemingly insignificant or impossible task taken at the individual level. But, each individual action and reaction when taken collectively can affect change, at the personal, community and societal levels.

JD Vance’s memoir illustrates this rather nicely, whereby any one of the actions in his own life undoubtedly made a profound difference to where he is now and might have lead him on an entirely and far less hopeful path.

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On World AIDS Day 2017

1 December every year is World AIDS Day.

This year’s theme is ‘My health, my right‘. That is, one’s right to health represents a fundamental human right, and one’s right to health encompasses and extends to rights to sanitation and housing, nutritious food, healthy working and living conditions, education and access to justice. All of which are accessible free from stigma and discrimination, and free of violence.

I may no longer devote much of my working life to issues surrounding HIV. But, I still very much believe in continuing to focus on the response to HIV and ensuring that no one is left behind in our local, national, regional and global responses to HIV and various other related issues.

On this World AIDS Day, much like each and everyone before it, my thoughts are with all those living with HIV first and foremost. My thoughts are also with those who have died far, far too young and long before they needed to. Their faces remain at the forefront of my mind on many days, but particularly today.

I also extend my thanks and gratitude to all of those who tirelessly continue to devote their voices, time and indefatigable energy to making sure others are not left behind. All those who work on HIV-related issues ensure that people living with HIV continue to receive the attention they need, at times desperately so. From activists to policy makers to aid workers to healthcare professionals, those working on HIV also ensure that those affected by HIV are placed at the centre of discussions on HIV policy, funding and programming, and highlight the necessity of inextricably linking access to health as but one fundamental human right.

Health. Gender equality. Freedom from harm. The freedom to make decisions about one’s health and one’s own life. Respect and dignity. These are but a few of the words which come to mind on each World AIDS Day. And, they represent a world we can look forward to, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Here’s to all those living with, affected by and responding to HIV. You deserve so much more than one day each year. You are worth so much more than one day on a calendar. May we collectively never forget your worth.

AIDS ribbon tree