Category: Social Justice

So You Want to Talk About Race

Cover image for So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluoby Ijeoma Oluo

ISBN 978-1-58005-882-7

“These conversations will never become easy, but they will become easier. They will never be painless, but they can lessen future pain. They will never be risk free, but they will always be worth it.”

With grace, patience, and occasional humour, Seattle writer and activist Ijeoma Oluo tackles many of the questions you might be too embarrassed to ask about race, for fear of putting your foot in your mouth. Oluo covers such fundamentals as “What is racism?” and “What is intersectionality and why do I need it?” to get readers on the same page, working from the same definitions, before tackling more specific queries, such as “What is the school-to-prison pipeline?” and “Is police brutality really about race?” The chapters do not need to be read strictly in order, but it is helpful to begin with the first five, which are about concepts and definitions, before digging into the twelve chapters that address specific issues.

I first read this book back in March 2018, shortly after it was published. I ended up naming it one of my top non-fiction reads of 2018. At that time, I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the excellent Bahni Turpin. However, I don’t usually write reviews of audiobooks, since I’m not making the kind of notes that I usually take when reading a print book, which form the basis for my reviews. Last fall, I picked up a copy of the new paperback edition, but didn’t actually dig into at that time.  Recently however, I’ve been talking to folks about this book a lot, and been wishing I had written a more substantial review, so the time seemed ripe for a reread.

 So You Want to Talk About Race is a stunning work of emotional labour that takes the time to work privileged readers through hard subjects in a way that may actually have a chance of getting those readers to see it as a question of systemic injustice rather than as a matter of individual failing about which they need to be defensive or angry. This is the fundamental grounding in understanding systemic racism that our education systems currently fail to provide anywhere but the college level, and often not even there. I never took an Indigenous Studies or Women’s Studies class during my post-secondary education, and I’m not even sure my university offered a critical race theory course. This essential knowledge is treated like an optional elective.

In the first chapter, Oluo writes that “these are very scary times for a lot of people who are just now realizing that America is not, and has never been, the melting-pot utopia their parents and teachers told them it was.” And while that was undoubtedly true when she wrote it, it strikes the same note with a deeper resonance in 2020, when many people are opening themselves up to talking and thinking about ideas they might never have entertained before. While this book has a chapter on police brutality, for example, it doesn’t have one about abolishing the police. Even just two years ago, that wasn’t a topic that fit into a 101 conversation about race and racism, but now entire cities are having it about the future of their police departments.

Oluo weaves in personal stories, often at the beginning of the chapter as an illustration of the concept she is about to unpack. Sometimes, such as the chapter on police brutality, it is an example of oppression from her own life as a self-identified fat, queer black woman. But other times, she uses her privilege as an illustration as well, such as the story of the picnic on Capitol Hill, or her college education, which qualified her for jobs that had nothing to do with her political science degree, and earned her higher pay in those jobs, while Black and Latinx colleagues with more experience but no degree were ineligible for promotion. By openly exploring and acknowledging her own privileges without defensiveness, she invites readers to do the same.

This is a book that is less for your unabashedly racist uncle, and more a book for talking with the aunt, cousin, or friend who thinks that they aren’t racist. What Oluo unpacks over the course of seventeen chapters is that racism is less about the beliefs of individual racists, and more about the systems of power that undergird and reinforce those beliefs, causing them to persist generation to generation even as explicit adherence to concepts like eugenics or Manifest Destiny fades. We are racist not because we as individuals are bad people, but because we operate in a system that is larger than any one individual’s beliefs or actions. Individualism blinds us to the larger patterns playing out in society. Again and again, I found myself writing the words “intent vs. harm” into the margins of this book. We desperately want to believe that we cannot be racist if we do not intend to be, but intent does not mitigate harm. If we fear being called racist more than we fear our unexamined racism, the conversation can never progress. If we are too afraid to speak, how will we ever take action?

The paperback edition includes a new preface by the author, as well as a discussion guide. In the preface, the author takes responsibility for some of the short-comings of the first edition, such as the inconsistent terminology she used around Indigenous people. She also moves to more explicitly acknowledge the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, the scholar who coined the term intersectionality to highlight the need for feminism to explicitly consider the experiences of women of colour. Notably, the discussion guide includes not just discussion questions, but also principles for having a safe and productive discussion, such as “do not allow white group members to treat their discomfort as harm done to them,” and “don’t allow people of color to be turned into priests, therapists, or dictionaries for white group members.” These are valuable additions to the book, and I would recommend the newer edition if you’re planning to pick this one up.

You might also like The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward

Hood Feminism

Cover image for Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendallby Mikki Kendall

ISBN 9780525560555

“The patriarchy isn’t dead, nor is it the same everywhere, and calling for solutions without addressing the impact of class and race evades the real problem. As a society, we face a vicious tangle of income inequality exacerbated by unchecked bigotry that has been allowed to seep into every community.”

Meriam-Webster defines feminism as the “theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” But author and activist Mikki Kendall argues that a number of very fundamental and basic needs have been overlooked as feminist issues by mainstream feminism in favour of more specialized interests that only benefit a small subset of already relatively privileged women who have long been at the head of the movement. Arguing that “internal conflicts are how feminism grows and becomes more effective,” Kendall lays out these oversights, and centers the women who have been left behind at the heart of her idea of what the feminist agenda should focus on going forward. This is intersectional feminism, as defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, but Kendall dubs it “hood feminism,” because for her the glaring oversights of the mainstream feminist movement were made readily evident by her own history as a poor, black woman growing up in an underprivileged neighbourhood in Chicago. In Hood Feminism, she lays bare the gaps, in the hopes that it will help us chart a more inclusive way forward.

Kendall begins by rejecting trickle down feminism, or the idea that gains for white women will eventually benefit women of color and trans women as well. She instead proposes reversing this model, and centering the needs of the most vulnerable members of the movement first, rather than continuing to ask them to wait in line for a turn that never seems to come. Hood Feminism also calls for an acknowledgement that “white privilege knows no gender.” Kendall suggests that women in positions of relative privilege should acknowledge that power, because “sometimes being a good ally is about opening the door for someone instead of insisting that your voice is the only one that matters.”

Kendall also points out that the mainstream feminist movement too often asks black women to divorce their feminism from their blackness, sometimes at the expense of black men. Without the nuance of intersectionality, black men are treated as if they have the same power and privilege as white men, even as black women bear daily witness to the fact that this is not true for the men in their lives. The most powerful faces of the patriarchy are not, and have never been, men of colour. She stresses the importance of acknowledging these nuances before effective policy solutions that do not harm marginalized people can be proposed and enacted.

Having established the narrow bounds of our current ideas of feminism, Kendall turns her attention to the broader issues she believes should be viewed through a feminist lens. These include issues as various poverty, hunger, gun violence, education, and housing. For each, she approaches the issue afresh, and demonstrates the unique harms and impacts faced by women and children that qualify them for consideration as a feminist issue. In the case of gun violence, she highlights data showing that “the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that a women will be killed” by her partner. This leads directly to police brutality as a feminist issue, because when black women face domestic violence, they cannot turn to the law for a remedy without risking further violence. By following these connections, Kendall makes the case for broadening the scope of feminism.

Respectability politics are a major theme throughout the book, impacting how people are perceived and valued by society in a variety of situations. But Kendall points to poverty as a key driver away from the ability to maintain standards of respectability, pushing people into impossible choices between food and selling drugs, or shelter and sex work. “Any system that makes basic human rights contingent on a narrow standard of behavior pits potential victims against each other and only benefits those who would prey on them,” she argues. These standards can be advocated from within the community, or without, but whatever the source, they often “reflect antiquated ideals set up by white supremacy” and are “financially and emotionally expensive” to maintain. Respectability comes up again and again as a factor in deciding who deserves help, and who is deemed beneath notice.

Kendall does address some issues that are already broadly considered feminist issues, such as rape culture and reproductive justice. Here she focuses on the ways we need to broaden our understanding of the issues to be more inclusive of marginalized women, and the ways that women with the most privilege can ensure that they are not contributing to the oppression of other women through complicity in white supremacy. She argues that when white women reinforce stereotypes about women of colour, we legitimize their sexual abuse and reinforce rape culture. “Exotification isn’t freedom,” she argues. Rather, “any feminism that hinges on the fetishization of the beauty of women of color is toxic.” Assertions that sex workers cannot be raped create similar harm, positioning some women as deserving of whatever violence befalls them. In the chapter on reproductive justice, she focuses on black maternal mortality, as well as America’s harmful history of imposing eugenicist reproductive policies on marginalized women. In doing so she calls for a broader feminist understanding of reproductive justice that focuses on more than abortion access.

Hood Feminism provides a broad understanding of why some marginalized women struggle to identify with mainstream feminist organizations and causes. It promotes intersectionality by enhancing our understanding of what constitutes a feminist issue. And it calls on the women who have gained the most from white feminism’s narrow focus to use that relative privilege not for our own further gain, but to reach out and help bring other women onto equal footing, in ways that will benefit us all thanks to the interconnected nature of our society.

You might also like Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmid

Covering

Cover image for Covering by Kenji Yoshinoby Kenji Yoshino

ISBN 978-0-375-76021-1

 “In the new generation, discrimination directs itself not against the entire group, but against the subset of the group that fails to assimilate to mainstream norms.”

Kenji Yoshino is a legal scholar of civil rights, known for his work on gay rights and marriage equality. Covering addresses what he perceives to be the next frontier for civil rights. Yoshino attributes the term “covering” to Erving Goffman’s 1963 book, Stigma, from which he quotes, “passing pertains to the visibility of a particular trait, while covering pertains to its obtrusiveness.” Despite the significant progress made for civil rights in general, and gay rights in particular, Yoshino was left feeling that the transformation was incomplete, and that there were gaps yet to bridge to achieve true acceptance. American culture has largely moved past the demand that gay people convert to being straight (conversation therapy) and even somewhat past the demand that gay people pass for straight within society (don’t ask, don’t tell). Today, the gay people who are most often penalized for their identity are those who act “too gay,” who refuse to cover behavioural aspects of their identity in order to make those around them more comfortable. In the legal sphere, Yoshino cites numerous cases in which “courts have often interpreted these [civil rights] laws to protect statuses but not behaviors, being but not doing,” thus creating a legal enforcement of this state of affairs.

Yoshino is arguing not only for our rights to our identities, but our rights to say and express those identities, and reject demands to convert, pass, or cover our differences. He identifies four areas where covering takes place, including appearance, affiliation, activism, and association. He also delves deep into the possible problems and potential pitfalls of protecting behaviour as well as identity. First, he acknowledges the complexity of identifying what counts as covering. For example, for some members of the gay community, gay marriage might be considered a form of covering because it asks them to assimilate to straight cultural norms by adopting a straight cultural institution that is not compatible with their values or preferences. Yoshino also stresses that rejecting covering cannot come with an inverse demand that minorities act “gay enough” or “black enough,” thus inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes. “My ultimate commitment is to autonomy as a means of achieving authenticity, rather than to a fixed conception of what authenticity must be,” he concludes.

As a gay Japanese American, Yoshino is able to personally touch on covering as it pertains to both race and sexual identity, and he weaves his personal experiences into these discussions, sharing how he continued to cover aspects of his identity long after he came out to his parents. However, he also addresses gender and disability, even though he does not personally experience these covering demands. He identifies a unique double-bind experienced by women in the workplace, where they are “pressured to be “masculine” enough to be respected as workers, but “feminine” enough to be respected as women.” Motherhood also offers a unique example of contextual covering. Outside of work, “mothers seems like paragons of normalcy,” but on the job they are “the queers of the workplace,” forced to downplay this aspect of their identity in order to avoid the mommy track.

Although Yoshino is a legal scholar, his style is literary. Because he integrates elements of his own story within the broader argument, it is possible to locate this stylistic choice in his earlier dreams of being a writer or poet. But he chose the law, because “a gay poet is vulnerable in profession as well as person. Law school promised to arm me with a new language, a language I did not expect to be elegant or moving, but I expected to be more potent, more able to protect me.” However, his command of language, both legal and literary, puts him in a unique position to articulate the gaps that remain, and the legal challenges that stand in the way of bridging them.

You might also like Speak Now by Kenji Yoshino

Rage Becomes Her

Cover image for Rage Becomes Her by Soraya ChemalySoraya Chemaly

ISBN 978-1-5011-8955-5

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

Anger has a bad rap, but it is actually one of the most hopeful and forward thinking of our emotions. It begets transformation, manifesting our passion and keeping us invested in the world. It is a rational and emotional response to trespass, violation, and moral disorder.”

Women are frequently characterized as the more emotional gender, but there is one emotion that is stereotyped more male than female, and which is taboo for women—anger. Anger is considered ugly, selfish, and unfeminine, and from an early age, women are discouraged from expressing it, or even talking about it. Angry women are characterized as hysterical, or downright insane. In Rage Becomes Her, writer and activist Soraya Chemaly argues that this denial of women’s anger is one more way in which women are kept under control by a patriarchal society. Anger can be destructive, but never more so than when it is turned inward and subsumed. Turned outward in constructive ways, it can be a response to injustice that lights a fire for change, and it is this acceptance and expression of women’s anger that Chemaly is arguing for

One of the first things that Chemaly carefully articulates is that anger is not violence, and that when she is talking about rage, she is not advocating acting out in destructive ways. Rather, Rage Becomes Her is about unearthing the ways in which subsuming our rage is eating women alive from the inside, a form of self-destruction. While anger makes men feel powerful, one of the emotions most commonly felt with anger in women is powerlessness, because we are so often forbidden by society to act on, or even speak about, what is making us mad. Chemaly is arguing for the healthy expression of a valid emotion, not violence, revenge, or retribution.

Although Chemaly’s concept is dependent on the gender binary, she is thorough about considering intersectionality wherever possible. Chemaly also notes that while the gender binary is simplistic, it is a societal force that is still actively shaping our lives, and our expectations about anger and its expression, and needs to be considered as such. Most of the studies she cites do not include more than two genders, but she is always thinking about how the conjunctions of race, class, and sexuality complicate the available data, or add depth to an otherwise two-dimensional narrative. White women’s anger is not regarded in the same way as black women’s anger, for example, because “race stereotypes combine with gendered expectations.” Injustice is often layered, as when disabled women have their lack of mobility taken advantage of to sexually harass them, only to be told that this sexual attention is supposedly a validation of their humanity, rather than a violation of it. I appreciated Chemaly’s attention to these complex dynamics throughout the book.

Chemaly’s chapters combine forays into the various reasons women have to be so angry with studies and observations about the expression of emotion, as well as how those expressions are perceived by the people around us. In “The Caring Mandate” and “Mother Rage,” Chemaly touches on a complex aspect of how women’s anger is perceived by society, Specifically, women’s anger receives limited sanction when it is expressed in a “feminine” field, and on behalf of another person, such as a child, or someone else the woman has been charged with caring for (often for free). Women who express anger on their own behalf are selfish. If they express anger in a public forum, in a traditionally “masculine” field, they are likely to trigger a violent pushback against their intrusion, and their disruption of the “proper hierarchy.” The final chapter is dedicated to exploring the healthy expression of anger—not anger management, but “anger competence” as Chemaly puts it.

As you might expect, reading Rages Becomes Her was an enraging experience. Statistics like “56 percent of American men think sexism has been eradicated from American life” or “a woman killed by a man she knows has, on average, been strangled seven times prior to her murder” are bound to boil the blood. Chemaly also assures that reader that writing it was equally enraging, which is unsurprising given that she includes many personal stories from her own experiences or those of her female relatives. It is a book that affirms that women have a lot to be angry about, and offers validation and comradery to those who have been feeling that rage in a society that repeatedly denies its existence. And finally, it offers encouragement to not just accept that anger, but to turn it towards building a community that will use it as fuel for working to make the world a better place. Women have managed their anger for long enough; now it is time to wield it.

Evicted

Cover image for Evicted by Matthew Desmondby Matthew Desmond

ISBN 9780553447446

“There are two freedoms at odds with each other: the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home.”

Between 2007 and 2009, the American housing market was shaken by the subprime mortgage crisis, in which banks foreclosed on millions of homeowners who could not keep up with their rapidly inflating mortgage payments. But another group of people is deeply affected by the trauma of displacement on a more regular basis: the renting poor. Many of these families are spending between fifty and seventy percent of their monthly income on housing, and even a small crisis can easily cause them to fall behind on the rent, making them subject to eviction.  Sociologist Matthew Desmond takes the reader into two of Milwaukee’s poorest neighbourhoods, one predominantly white, the other mostly black, and spends eighteen months examining what happens when landlords evict those who have fallen behind on the rent.

Desmond begins on Milwaukee’s black North side, with the properties own and managed by a black couple named Sherrena and Quentin. Sherrena’s motto was “the hood is good,” and they regularly bought and rented out marginal properties that required more work that they could honestly keep up with to really be fit for habitation. They could regularly expect to collect $20 000 in rents on the first of every month. On the South side, Desmond examines a run-down trailer park owned by a man called Tobin, who attracted press attention because the park was so dilapidated that the city considered it an “environmental biohazard.” Despite this state of affairs, Tobin earned nearly half a million dollars a year from his property. Landlords can ask tenants to move out with only twenty-eight days’ notice, but when they are behind on the rent, an eviction notice may provide only one to five days’ warning before the sheriff’s deputies and a crew of movers show up to clear the home. The contents of the home are then deposited on the curb, or taken to storage and held for payment, driving the family further into debt.

A significant factor that emerges in both of the neighbourhoods Desmond examines is the presence of children. As a single mother with two sons, Arleen struggled terribly to find a new place to rent that would accept her children. When Pam and Ned were evicted from Tobin’s trailer park, they faced an even bigger dilemma. Pam had two daughters from a previous relationship, her daughters with Ned, and another baby on the way. No landlord wanted that many children causing additional wear and tear on the property. When an eviction comes, children often lose many or most of their possessions, miss or have to change schools, and are sometimes separated from their immediate families as they are shunted off to different relatives who can provide shelter while the parents look for a new home.

Desmond draws particular attention to the plight of black women, who face a disproportionate rate of eviction. Desmond points out that “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” The problem is compounded by the fact that with so many men in jail, the women are frequently raising children alone. Black women with children are by far the most likely to face eviction. Unable to miss work or obtain childcare, they are often unable to attend housing court to contest their eviction. An eviction record then further decreases their likelihood of being able to secure housing in the future. If they choose to miss work to attend court, they may find themselves both homeless, and out of a job.

One very interesting aspect of the book comes not in the body of the work, but in the author’s note, where Desmond describes the process of researching and writing Evicted. He not only went into these neighbourhoods to conduct interviews, but actually lived in them, renting a trailer in Tobin’s mobile home park, and later moving in with an acquaintance on Milwaukee’s black North side. Most interestingly, the landlords were fully aware of what he was working on, and it actually seems as if they trusted him more readily than many of the tenants, some of whom believed that Desmond was probably an undercover cop, or maybe working for the landlord.

Evicted is a book that is largely about documenting the problem, and putting a human face on it. However, Desmond does offer some policy suggestions at the end of the book, such as expanding the housing voucher program, and providing a right to legal representation in housing court.  I was surprised by his support of housing vouchers, because earlier in the book he discussed how landlords overcharge by an average of $55 a month when they know that a tenant has a housing voucher. This means that the tenant pays up to 30% of their monthly income towards the rent, and the rest is paid for by tax dollars through the housing voucher. But Desmond does point out that this program is much more scalable than trying to build more public housing. The idea of representation in housing court made a lot of sense; Desmond describes how seventy percent of tenants do not even go to court, which means a default eviction, and ninety percent of those who do show up do not have a lawyer. This means that housing court, as it currently stands, essentially functions as an eviction assembly line. No doubt another entire book could be written about the possible policy solutions to the eviction problem.

Evicted offers a series of portraits of instability, of chronic poverty in a life with no centre or grounding. It chronicles the rise of eviction rates, and paints an empathetic portrait of the impact this constant uncertainty has on poor families. It also upends the notion that homelessness is caused solely by poverty, and examines the ways in which eviction can contribute to impoverishment. Desmond makes the case that housing is an overlooked issue in our efforts to address poverty, and asks the reader to consider what it means about our values if we refuse to confront this problem.

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You might also like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

The Hate U Give

Cover image for The Hate U Give by Angie Thomasby Angie Thomas

ISBN 978-0-06-249853-3

“It seems like they always talk about what he may have said, what he may have done, what he may not have done. I didn’t know a dead person could be charged in his own murder, you know?”

Starr Carter is a girl with a foot in two worlds. By day, she attends Williamson, a suburban prep school where she is one of only two black students in her year. In the evening, she goes home to Garden Heights, the city’s poor, black neighbourhood, where she has lived all her life. She is one person at home and another person at school, because she can’t be too “bougie” in the neighbourhood, or too “ghetto” at school. But the wall she has carefully built between her two selves begins to crumble when she is the only witness to a police officer shooting and killing her childhood friend, Khalil. The killing gains national headlines as protestors take to the streets to protest the murder of yet another unarmed black boy. In the day’s following Khalil’s death, Starr faces a choice between remaining silent, and speaking up. But even if she can find her voice, will it be enough to get justice for Khalil?

One of my favourite aspects of The Hate U Give was Starr’s family. Her mother is a nurse, and her father is an ex-gang member who now runs a convenience store. Her mother wants to move the family out of Garden Heights, while her father is determined to remain in the neighbourhood and contribute to its betterment. She has a younger brother who isn’t old enough to quite grasp what is going on, and an older half-brother who is fully part of their family, yet still connected to his mother and other sisters. Her uncle is a police officer who works in the same department as the man who killed Khalil. Starr’s family feels warm and incredibly real, complicated, and human. Most of the story’s more didactic moments are seamlessly written into conversations with her parents as they try to help her through the aftermath of Khalil’s murder. Starr’s father, Big Mav, was perhaps my favourite character, especially with his theory about how Hogwarts houses are like gangs. After getting out of the gang life himself, Big Mav is determined to keep his children safe, but he struggles with how to do that while also keeping them connected to where they came from.

While I loved Starr’s family best, her peer relationships are equally notable. Even before Khalil’s death, Starr notices that her relationship with her best friends, Maya and Hailey, is changing. Angie Thomas really captures the painful experience of growing apart from childhood friends. In the case of Khalil, Starr is left to regret that she let him slip largely out of her life, and now he is gone forever. And as she watches Hailey and Maya react to Khalil’s murder—without knowing she is the witness—she is left with difficult choices about whether or not her school friendships can survive the class and cultural divides between them. For the past year, Starr has also been hiding from her father the fact that she is dating Chris, a white classmate, and the time has come for her to face up to her complicated feelings about this relationship. Starr learns a lot by talking things through with her dad, but she also has to figure out how to have difficult conversations with her friends.

Someone who we don’t get to know very well is Khalil himself. His murder is the book’s inciting incident, so he is alive only for the first couple of chapters. Afterward, there is a stark conflict between Starr’s memory of her friend, and the image of him portrayed in the media. He becomes a symbol more than a person. While we learn a few new facts over the course of the story that help flesh Khalil out, he is still someone we did not know until he was already gone—which of course is true of the real-life victims of police brutality. I was reminded of Claudia Rankine’s essay “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” in The Fire This Time, in which she writes about how victims are transformed from individuals to evidence, a process which their loved ones are helpless to prevent.

The Hate U Give is a brutal coming-of-age story about the harsh realities that face young black men and women in America. It is fundamentally about identity, and Starr’s struggle to bring the two halves of herself together. But it is also about families, communities, and building relationships. The strength of this narrative is in the way it balances the hard topics—racism, police violence, gangs, drugs—with themes of family, friendship, justice, and love.

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You might also like Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Imbeciles

Cover image for Imbeciles by Adam Cohenby Adam Cohen

ISBN 978-0-14-310999-0

“Whitehead’s representation of Carrie at the trial and on appeal was an extraordinary case of malfeasance. Not only did he violate well-established ethical rules about the duty of loyalty to a client…but his entire representation of Carrie, in a case of enormous importance to her, was a fraud.”

In 1907, Indiana passed the first law authorizing a state to engage in eugenic sterilization, which permitted medical operations that cut off the reproductive abilities of those who were deemed “unfit” to procreate for a variety of reasons. However, it would take twenty years for the constitutionality of such laws to be sanctioned by the Supreme Court, and that case would come from Virginia, a relatively late adopter of eugenic sterilization. At the centre of that case was Carrie Buck, a girl of nineteen who had already borne one illegitimate child, and who was the daughter of a woman who had also been deemed “feebleminded.” In a nearly unanimous decision that has never been overturned, the Supreme Court ruled on Buck v. Bell in 1927, upholding eugenics laws broadly, and Carrie’s sterilization specifically. In Imbeciles, Adam Cohen investigates this miscarriage of justice, chronicling the rise of the eugenics movement in America, and how Carrie Buck was actively misrepresented for the sake of this cause.

It is difficult to understate the tragedy of Carrie’s situation. The family that took her in when her mother was unable to care for her did not adopt her, so much as they used her for free labour. When their nephew raped her, they dealt with the situation by having Carrie committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded, where the main evidence of her supposed feeblemindedness was the promiscuity evidenced only by her pregnancy. Because her mother was already a resident of the colony, the doctors who were supposed to be caring for her singled Carrie out to be the guinea-pig of their schemes for improving the “American stock.” Every guardian, advocate, and caretaker who should have protected her not only failed in their duty, but actively colluded in her victimization. Two in particular stand out: Irving Whitehead, the lawyer who was supposed to be representing her, but who instead cooperated with the opposition, and Aubrey Strode, the lawyer for the colony, who the evidence suggests was not a believer in eugenics, and yet bent himself tirelessly to the task of seeing it upheld by the nation’s highest court.

As a history, Imbeciles deals primarily with the men who shaped Carrie’s fate, rather than with the woman herself. No doubt these prestigious and well-educated men left a larger record than a woman who had to leave school after the fifth grade, and who did not speak publicly about her situation until the 1980s. Cohen profiles the four men who played the largest roles in forming and deciding Carrie’s case: Dr. Albert Priddy, Harry Laughlin, Aubrey Strode, and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Priddy was the head of the Virginia colony where Carrie was committed, and he was avid advocate of eugenic sterilization, as well as the person who chose Carrie to be at the centre of a test case that would confirm the constitutionality of eugenic sterilization. Aubrey Strode, the colony’s lawyer, both drafted the Virginia eugenics law, and defended the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where the majority opinion in favour of Carrie’s sterilization was penned by Holmes. Though he never met Carrie, Harry Laughlin, head of the Eugenics Record Office, and a eugenics evangelist, was an expert witness in the case. Together, they sealed her fate. Each man merits two chapters, a structure that bogs down the narrative and creates repetition as Cohen retreads portions of the timeline with each new figure.

Cohen touches only a little on the decided misogyny that pervaded eugenics legislation. Women could be deemed feebleminded simply for being too sexual, as was a significant factor in Carrie’s case. In covering up the rape committed by their nephew, the Dobbs family cast Carrie as an immoral woman unable to control her own base urges. All evidence not created by those with a personal stake in the matter suggests that Carrie was of normal intelligence, if undereducated. She performed perfectly well in school, completing the fifth grade before the Dobbs family pulled her out so that she could do more work. She communicated with the colony via letter during her parole, and after her discharge. When she was placed in a home during her parole, the family assumed she must be an epileptic, because she seemed to be of perfectly normal intelligence. Although men were also sterilized, 67% of the operations performed in the wake of Buck v. Bell were conducted on women, who often did not understand the purpose of the procedure they were being subjected to. And since Carrie Buck was white, Cohen touches even less on the implications of such laws for African Americans and other non-white citizens.

Imbeciles in is a revealing history of American sterilization, with a somewhat repetitive focus on the legal process of the case, and its shortcomings. Cohen points out the continued relevance of this subject as genetic science continues to advance, and also highlights the ways in which such sentiments tend to get tied up in anti-immigration rhetoric. Words that we use lightly today—idiot, imbecile, moron—carry a weight of historical baggage that many people are unaware of, and Imbeciles shines a light on that history.

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You might also like Speak Now by Kenji Yoshino

Just Mercy

Cover image for Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson by Bryan Stevenson

ISBN 978-0-8129-8496-5

“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”

As a young law student, Bryan Stevenson was somewhat adrift at Harvard Law School, unsure of his direction or his future. He wanted to do something that would help people, but he was having trouble connecting his theoretical education with meaningful action. Then, an internship at the Southern Prisoner’s Defence Committee led to work helping inmates on death row in the Deep South. Most of these prisoners were indigent, and could not afford legal counsel to help review or appeal their cases. The experience made a profound impression, and led him to found the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama in 1994. Stevenson would go on to appeal countless death sentences, and challenge the practice of sentencing minors to life without parole. Just Mercy recounts his experiences representing people who have been written off by society.

The main case threaded through Just Mercy is that of Walter McMillian, who was convicted in 1988 of the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison, and sentenced to death in Alabama. Stevenson’s association with the case began with a call from the original trial judge, who got wind that Stevenson had been looking into McMillian, and called to try to scare him off of representing him. Stevenson took the case anyway, and the result is an investigation that seems like something out of a television crime drama. The tenuousness of the evidence on which McMillian was convicted is scarcely believable, the racism poorly concealed, and the unwillingness to admit an error simply stunning.

Just Mercy draws interesting parallels to one of American’s most beloved classic novels, To Kill a Mockingbird. McMillian was from Monroeville, Alabama, home to author Harper Lee. The town continued to publicize and celebrate the work, even as a wrongful conviction took place in their midst. While To Kill a Mockingbird lionizes Atticus Finch for his defence of Tom Robinson, Stevenson encountered repeated obstruction from the community, and even received death and bomb threats for his defence of McMillian. The irony is not lost on Stevenson, who also notes the unhappy ending for the accused in Lee’s novel.

Walter McMillian in the main thread running through the book, appearing in every second chapter, but his is not the only story. In the chapters between, Stevenson highlights other types of abuses that lead him to do this work, such as life without parole sentences for children, the incarceration of the mentally ill, and the prosecution of women who have suffered still births. While this results in a book that is less focused on a particular case, it ultimately proves to be a strength. These chapters serve to show that Walter McMillian is not isolated or even a particularly extreme case, and give a better idea of the breadth of the problem. The alternating chapters even serve to provide some sense of suspense in McMillian’s case, despite the fact that the outcome was widely publicized and is therefore probably generally known to readers.

Beyond specific cases, Just Mercy also serves to highlight the how short legal services are for the poor, and the lack of re-entry programs for exonerated prisoners. Every time Stevenson took on a new case, other prisoners would hear about his work and seek his help, creating an impossible case load. Once, in a case where Stevenson was representing a veteran who suffered from PTSD, and injured two children by setting off a bomb, the victims’ families asked for Stevenson’s assistance seeking financial aid they had been promised but never received.  They sought his help even though he was representing the man who had caused the injuries in the first place.

Even when prisoners get help and are able to win their release, they face problems reintegrating into society. Someone who is convicted of murder and then later found to be innocent remains ineligible for services that exclude people who have been convicted of felonies. Originally setting out to provide legal help, Stevenson subsequently found himself also doing social work, providing assistance and support to those he had helped set free. Thus Stevenson paints a broad portrait of a problem that goes beyond any one wrongfully convicted prisoner, and serves to highlight a broken system in desperate need of reform.

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