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 ‘No Friend But the Mountains’ by Behrouz Boochani

No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus PrisonNo Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wasn’t really sure what I thought about this book until I finished it. This book was certainly not an easy read; but, it is a necessary read.

Behrouz Boochani, a Kurd originally from Iran, has been detained on Manus Island off the coast of Australia since 2013. Six years, without any indication of when he may be freed.

He is neither a refugee nor a migrant. He is neither here nor there, but trapped in legal limbo, imprisoned without a charge or end date in sight. His only crime was seeking refuge from a life largely untenable in his homeland. No trial, no hearing, no consideration preceded his detention.

He is sadly not alone.

This book does not provide a justification for why he left Iran, risking his life along the route and now ‘living’ in conditions we can only imagine because of his writing. He dwells not on why he left Iran, but on the ‘life’ he and those like him now live day in and day out on Manus. His reasons for seeking refuge are not the issue; the conditions under which he and others like him must exist are.

What makes this work even more impressive is that he wrote it entirely on a mobile phone from Manus Island.

As we in the West demonise those who seek refuge, we justify the conditions under which we detain them when the flee unimaginable suffering and conditions of systemic violence. We do not consider how bad it must be if individuals will leave their homes with only what they wear or what they can carry in order to seek something better. Nor do we consider the toil of confinement or the inhumanity of how we discuss and treat those individuals seeking refuge when they exist in limbo. As discussions about the detention of children reach a fevered pitch in the US, Boochani’s work provides not just the meaning of indefinite detention on the psyche of an adult man, but a critical examination of it from inside. And, it leaves me shuddering. Imagine, then, what such confinement and conditions mean to a child, separated from their parents and left to fend for themselves or rely on other children for their care.

This work is important. And, we should all be shamed by it so long as we allow such practices to continue, regardless of country of origin or country of destination or country of detention.

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On ‘On Tyranny’, by Timothy Snyder

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth CenturyOn Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Two minutes in to this book, I said to my husband, ‘This should be required reading for every single person in the United States.’

Two minutes later, I amended that absolutely everyone. Everywhere.

The last two-plus years have been a surreal nightmare for anyone longing for a just, fact- or evidence-based world, ruled by democratic principles or adherent and respectful to the rule of law. We should have understood how fragile our democracies were. We should have known how easy it is for the likes of the Trumps and the Farages of the world to rile up racist, classist, xenophobic, misogynistic sentiments.

We should not be surprised by how quickly this all becomes the new normal. It’s all intended to exhaust us and wear us down. And, I fear it’s working a little too well.

I lived in Moscow as the keys to the kingdom passed from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. And, I watched as the masses ignored his assault on the budding free press and democratic infancy of the post-Soviet era that favoured rampant oligarchy and corruption and as Putin crushed any sort of dissent or criticism. In a world run by those with the most power, it mattered not that one of the wealthiest individuals on the planet criticised Putin. He lost and ended up behind bars and silenced, because he pissed of Putin. I watched in horror as Russians declared their love for the man with the stone-cold stare who craved power above all. And, he still does.

Everyone–everyone—needs to read this book. And, keep it close to them as we watch the shit storm in the US primarily but elsewhere continue. And, everyone must understand that we are teetering awfully close to full-on, full-scale tyranny.

I’ll be reading this book again and again and again.

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Just stop

I am so terribly weary from being a woman at the moment.

Last summer, a friend visiting Helsinki brought along pictures from the Women’s Rights March in DC from 1992, I believe. One of the signs from that day that my friends and I carried read, ‘US out of my uterus’. And, here we are

It’s not just the laws, governing and policing of lady bits going on. Or the pain and uncertainty that women living in those specific parts of the US or world will or currently feel given the limited options available to them. Or even the desperate measures they’re likely to resort to given their realities.

It’s primarily the vitriol and misogynistic context and tone to comment after comment after comment from men directed at women. To me, to women I know and to women I’ll likely never meet. It’s been seemingly constant since the fiasco and farce that was the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh.

And, frankly, I’m just tired of it all. Increasingly, I find that I genuinely do not like many, many, many men. [Thankfully, I married a feminist who gets this and shares my outrage, and call many other woke men friends. I do not dislike, y’all, if that wasn’t obvious already.]

Most of this rant will seem likely to the men feeling secure in their positions and who truly welcome equality with their uterus-possessing friends. We thank, y’all. Seriously. So, help us get this message out, eh?

If you claim to be an ally or want to know how to be one, here’s an idea: Just stop, listen / read our words, try to understand our despair and anger, and ask instead how you can help support the women in your life rather than tell them what they should feel or how they should act. [Mansplaining 101 from a woman’s perspective.]

And, if you feel it’s necessary to make snarky comments to someone you don’t know because of the safety of your keyboard, really? [Mansplaining 101 from a man’s perspective, because this is 2019 and women are still not taken seriously. And, hence, this post and my rage.]

Unless you have lived your entire life since puberty dealing with period shame,

Unless you have held your breath waiting for your period to come because various methods fail on occasion,

Unless you have watched as your idea was shot down or dismissed by someone in authority only to hear a man in the room say literally the same exact thing and be congratulated for their brilliance, 

Unless you have been told stop beingso emotional‘ or ‘overly hormonal’ when you disagree with a man, 

Unless you’ve been told on numerous occasions that you’re being a bitch so it must just be ‘that time of the month‘ [NB: this link is a fucking gem of an example of everything which induces rage in me at the moment in that sort of cumulative sort of way from a lifetime of it],

Unless you have had to wrestle and wiggle your way out of the clutches of *that* dude,

Unless you’ve been genuinely terrified that you won’t be able to wrestle and wiggle away *this* time,

Unless you’ve had to justify what you were wearing, or how flirty you were or weren’t or that no really does means no,

Just stop.

Stop telling me what I should say, what I should do, what I should feel or any other thing I do with my body or my mind. This is my body. This is my mind. And, these are my emotions.

And, I own them. All.

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Image credit: Anne Lesniak.

Further reading:

Three books that I think every single person on the planet should read right now:

The insanity of Helms-Burton today

The headlines this week are making my head hurt. This one in particular.
 
For 60 years, the US embargo against Cuba has not at all affected those in power; it has, however, impacted the average every day lives of Cubans. People like you and me. 
 
Having visited that tiny island nation of immense beauty and unimaginable and boundless kindness before, during and after President Obama’s attempts to normalise the relationship between DC and Havana, I can tell you, Cuban people’s lives were improving in the wake of that process. And, that change was coming from within and at the hands of Cubans, the very people who should, who MUST, decide the fate of their own country.
 
Senator Marco Rubio and his ilk know fuck all about today’s Cuba other than the bitter pill of one-sided history written by those who pilfered Cuba’s resources and enjoyed immense privilege and wealth at the hands of the poor and powerless before fleeing to Miami. Like them or hate them, resent them or respect them with a huge asterisk, those who inspired the Revolution brought education, healthcare and running water and electricity to those who previously did not enjoy such ‘luxuries’. Most Cubans today recognise the silliness within their own country, whilst simultaneously understanding that the Revolution brought things that they do want and now expect. Problems, of course, persist in Cuba. But, the Castros — Fidel and Raul, specifically — no longer hold the reins. For fuck’s sake, people, Fidel is dead.
So, can we please, move one from nonsense, ineffective and failed policies?!
Change is coming to Cuba, despite US sanctions and vilification. But, that change is coming at the discretion and based on the ideas of Cubans in Cuba — not from those who sit comfortably and bitterly in Florida pining for a country rifled by inequality. [Hmm… Irony is hilarious, eh?]
But, rehashing and rebranding 60 years of sour grapes will not hurt the Cuban government; it will hurt Cubans — every day, normal Cubans like my family and friends there. And, frankly, that pisses me off. 
 

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A taxi, driven by Dari, featured an American flag.

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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Vote. Please.

I voted weeks ago.

The process as an overseas American voter was relatively easy and straightforward for me. My biggest concern was that my voter registration information made its way to the Voter Registrar’s office in Connecticut by the deadline, and that I’d receive my ballot with plenty of time to mail it back ensuring its arrival before election day.

My registration arrived. My ballot arrived (via email—a first for me). I printed it off that day and mailed it back in early October. My civic duty was fulfilled.

This process is not new to me, given that I’ve voted via absentee ballot in every election since 2000.  I miss the I voted stickers, naturally. But, each year, I complete and fill in the overseas voter registration forms, mail them off and wait. It’s a pain, but it is necessary. Particularly now.

Please, vote. Far too many individuals do not take the time to exercise their right and civic duty by voting, particularly in mid-term elections. Far too many individuals assume that their one vote doesn’t make any difference at all. Far too many individuals think that politics has absolutely nothing to do with their daily lives.

There was a time in my life when I didn’t think of mid-term elections or my one absentee ballot as all that important. That changed in 2012, when I watched my husband vote in a municipal election in Finland.

Because we are residents in Finland, who have lived here for more than two years, we are granted the right to vote in municipal elections — not national elections since we are not citizens. But, we can exercise our voices on matters related to community-level issues, issues which perhaps affect us more. Those elections coincided with elections in the US, and I found myself researching candidates on both sides of the pond for both of my homes. But, I also watched as my husband took his civic duty incredibly seriously.

It wasn’t until after he voted that I fully understood how meaningful that experience was for him. Immediately after he voted, he said to me, ‘That’s the first time in my life that I’ve voted and known that my vote would be counted and it mattered.’ He was 52 years old at the time.

As a Cuban, who lived at times in the US and Russia, he was never able to take part in elections other than those in his home country. Cuban elections are not exactly ‘elections’. Given this experience, he understands perhaps more than most just how important showing up and exercising that privilege is. And, he understands voting as a mighty powerful privilege granted to few. He has not nor will he miss an opportunity to vote in Finland since being granted that right.

[To give you an idea of how seriously he takes this, during the last municipal election, he again researched candidates and platforms, discussed it at length with me, and then voted, and helped me get to the local polling station before they closed. Those elections coincided with a particularly awful bout of the flu which had me bedridden. As much as I was ready to blow off voting, he all-but offered to carry me to the polling station. I ended up voting about 30 minutes before the polling station closed.]

Voting is a beautiful thing to witness. That democratic process carries immense power, if only we exercise it. It conveys even more meaning and power to those who enjoy it later in life and do not accept it as a given. Voting is precious and can just as easily be taken away. We must exercise that right and we must protect by making informed decisions which matter not just for our own personal selfish reasons, but also for our society as a whole.

Please, vote. Encourage your friends and family and strangers to vote. Take the time to help someone vote if they need assistance finding or getting to their polling station. So, so many individuals wish they had the opportunity, right and privilege so many of us take for granted.

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