Category: Social Justice

The Outside Circle

Cover image for The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellingsby Patti LaBoucane-Benson

Art by Kelly Mellings

ISBN 978-1-77089-937-7

“One of the most devastating outcomes of colonial policy in Canada is the over representation of Aborginal people in the criminal justice system and of Aborginal children in government care.”

Pete is a young Aboriginal man wrapped up in the gang life, struggling to support his younger brother Joey, and his mother Bernice, who is addicted to heroin. When a fight with his mother’s boyfriend sends Pete to jail, he discovers how illusive his crew’s loyalty really is. Promises to pay for a lawyer go unfulfilled, even after he carries out a Tribal Warriors vendetta against an inmate who is a member of another crew. Eventually, time served and good behaviour gets Pete admitted to a traditional aboriginal healing centre in Edmonton, where the program aims to help First Nations people process their history in order to help them understand the cycle of abuse in which they have been trapped. There Pete must face the many ways he has failed his family and himself in order to begin to make changes in his life.

Though Pete is a fictional character, the program to which he is admitted is a real Native Counseling Services of Alberta facility located in Edmonton, called the Stan Daniels Healing Centre. Author Patti LaBoucane-Benson is a Métis woman who has worked for two decades as a counsellor and researcher for NCSA. Pete is a composite of people she met and experiences she has had during this career. Artist Kelly Mellings visited residential school sites, Aboriginal communities, and conducted extensive research in order to help him understand the world he would be depicting. The result is a powerful story about the impact of alternative justice programs.

Art from The Outside Circle Despite its grounding in research and educational intent, The Outside Circle does not feel didactic or forced, and much of that is down to Mellings’ exceptional and detailed artwork. The book makes a strong first impression with an extremely striking cover and end pages that employ a limited black, white, red, and gray colour palette. Mellings describes this as evoking a noir feel, but I was also reminded of traditional west coast Aboriginal art that tends to primarily employ red and black. The interior illustration style is primarily realistic and detail-oriented, although many visual elements are symbolic or spiritual in nature. For instance, a mask tends to appear over Pete’s face when he is angry, whereas the appearance of a bear represents reconnecting with his heritage. The deep connection between spirituality and healing in the program depicted here did leave me wondering about how we can best support healing for Aboriginal people who are not religious, but this is not a weakness of the book so much as an area for further inquiry.

In addition to being well illustrated, The Outside Circle makes good use of text, and even photos. A full page is dedicated to showing Bernice signing away her parental rights, but instead of the actual legal document, the text on the contract describes Canada’s long history of forcibly separating Aboriginal children from their parents, first with residential schools, then the 60s Scoop, and finally the modern foster care system. Although the book is largely digitally drawn, there is a multimedia aspect as well. When depicting the history of residential schools, some of the illustrated panels are replaced with historical photographs. Together with Mellings’ illustrations, they powerfully evoke pain and a history of abuse and neglect.

Beautifully illustrated, and grounded in real life, The Outside Circle is a powerful story of one man’s struggle to reconnect with a culture that has only fragmentarily survived repeated and deliberate efforts to stamp it out.

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The New Jim Crow

Cover image for The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexanderby Michelle Alexander

ISBN 978-1-59558-643-8

“Claims that mass incarceration is analogous to Jim Crow will fall on deaf ears and alienate potential allies if advocates fail to make clear that the claim is not meant to suggest or imply that supporters of the current system are racist in the way Americans have come to understand that term. Race plays a major role—indeed a defining role—in the current system but not because of what is commonly understood as old-fashioned, hostile bigotry.”

The New Jim Crow is the first book by law professor and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander, in which she makes a case for prioritizing mass incarceration as a racial justice or civil rights issue rather than only discussing it in a criminal justice context. She further argues that this issue is more urgent than affirmative action or improved civil rights enforcement. Alexander’s rhetorical device is to make a metaphorical comparison between the impacts Jim Crow once had on the lives of black people, and the disproportionate effects of mass incarceration on the African American population today. In discussing mass incarceration, Alexander is referring “not only to the criminal justice system but also to the larger web of law, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison.” What follows is a devastating portrait of the American criminal justice system and its social consequences.

Perhaps the most important thing this book does is break down the differences between the racial hostility and open bigotry that most Americans recognize as racism, and the quieter, more insidious forms of racial bias that are now that primary form of discrimination faced by American minorities. Alexander demonstrates how Supreme Court decisions that eviscerate the 4th Amendment and narrowly interpret the 14th Amendment have allowed a racially unequal criminal justice system to flourish since the War on Drugs began in the 1980s. Because the court system will only punish discriminatory sentencing if it can be traced to overt bias in a particular case, discriminatory sentencing patterns, although clearly demonstrable, cannot be challenged.  In fact, Alexander takes the reader through the entire criminal justice process, from stop and frisk, to arrest, to prosecution, and sentencing, demonstrating at each step how the courts have failed to protect against unconscious racial bias. Her assertions are supported by references to significant legal precedents, and illustrated by examples of real people who have been affected by this system.

In addition to demonstrating how the criminal justice system has been immunized to claims of racial discrimination in the courts, Alexander also illustrates a criminal justice system that is corrupted by cash. This money comes not in the form of individual bribes, but in federal funding that can only be used by local enforcement offices if they commit to the War on Drugs, and in the form of forfeiture laws that, even after scandal and revision, enable police departments to enrich themselves at the expense of the communities they are supposed to protect. Prisons can be run on a for-profit basis, as if they were supposed to be a business rather than a form of rehabilitation. The prisoners inside can be leased out as cheap labour to the highest bidder, the only legal form of slavery in the United States today. The prisoner may owe money to the prison upon release, be required to pay a variety of fees for court supervision, or even to have their voting rights reinstated, perpetuating disenfranchisement. This system spends billions of dollars on enforcement, prosecution, and incarceration but almost nothing to prevent recidivism, denying newly released felons access to food stamps, subsidized housing, and student loans.

The primary parallel between Jim Crow and mass incarceration is that people who are labeled felons are legally subjected to many of the forms of discrimination that Jim Crow once perpetuated. And thanks to uneven enforcement and prosecution, these people are disproportionately African American. However, Alexander is careful to acknowledge and point out important differences between Jim Crow and mass incarceration. Although she sees significant similarities, she is by no means saying that the two are the same, or should be approached in the same way. Rather, her bold assertion seems designed to illustrate how a system that is intended to be colorblind can, through the conscious or unconscious biased application of discretion, have an outcome that is similar to that of an overtly racist system of control like Jim Crow. The difference is that mass incarceration has a plausible deniability that enables it to skirt modern non-discrimination laws.

For many, suggesting a parallel between Jim Crow and mass incarceration is a provocative assertion. However, perhaps the most controversial suggestion comes in Alexander’s final chapter, “The Fire This Time,” in which she suggests that affirmative action is masking the consequences of mass incarceration, and making African Americans complicit in a new system of racial oppression. This is a minor aside in her final chapter that is not deeply explored, but I expect it will ignite much debate. However, it is a significant piece of the puzzle when faced with the question, how could we have missed this for so long? Preserving affirmative action has long been a major battle for civil rights advocates, but it is one that Alexander believes may have unforeseen consequences.

The New Jim Crow is a provocative and well-documented work of consciousness-raising that will cause readers to interrogate their assumptions about race, bias, poverty, and law enforcement. What Alexander is asserting here is not a conspiracy, but a fundamental failure to attend to evidence of inequality in the face of our desire to believe we have achieved a post-racial society. Though it has a narrow scope primarily confined to African American men and the War on Drugs, it opens the door to further scholarship and discussion.

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Between the World and Me

Cover image for Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coatesby Ta-Nehisi Coates

ISBN 978-0-8129-9354-7

“The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”

Titled after a poem by African American poet Richard Wright about a black man who is tarred and feathered, Between the World and Me uses conceit of a letter to the author’s fifteen-year-old son to explore what it means to be black in America. The scale is at once national and yet deeply personal; Ta-Nehisi Coates encompasses America in geography and history, but also speaks directly to his own child and his individual circumstances. Touching on everything from slavery, to segregation, to mass incarceration, Coates challenges orthodoxies and rejects easy answers in his pursuit of understanding. Between the World and Me challenges America to look darkness in the face, be discomfited by it, and learn to live with that discomfort, rather than remain swaddled in the soothing layers of the Dream.

In the opening chapters, Coates shares how his own awareness of his place in society developed, and then contrasts that with how different his son’s upbringing has been. He rejoices in having been able to give his son a better life, and yet cautions against being caught up in “the Dream” that has perpetuated racism in the United States. He also shares the painful ways in which he has not been able to make his child’s life different, the ways in which he has felt powerless to save or protect his son from the assumptions that always shroud young black men. “You must be responsible for your body in ways that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which somehow, will always be assigned to you,” he cautions his child.

Education, often thought to be to solution to uplifting the oppressed, comes under intense scrutiny from Coates, who grew up poor in Baltimore. Of his early education he writes, “I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance.” Later, he attended the prestigious, historically black Howard University but left without taking a degree. Though Howard was an important site for the formation of his identity, so significant that he dubs it “the Mecca,” he found the classroom to be “a jail of other people’s interests,” and preferred instead to pursue his interests by reading widely. All that reading gives weight and depth to this thin volume, providing the grounding in black history and scholarship that is necessary to write about these issues so concisely without reducing them to absurdities. In many ways I feel inadequate to assess this book because I know I do not have that grounding myself.

If Coates is brutal in his dissection of the American Dream, he is no more merciful to black dreams of Mother Africa, or even to France. He credits the history department of Howard University for disabusing him of his youthful notions about a mythical ancient Africa whose lost grandeur somehow ennobled the subsequent suffering of black people. As a child, he never even imagined the world beyond Baltimore, let alone America, but as an adult he travels abroad for the first time to France, and subsequently returns there with his son. But even as he sees the allure of a place where black people were not enslaved and are not part of that country’s “particular problem” or “national guilt,” he warns against indulging too deeply in whatever comfort that may offer. “Remember the Roma you saw begging with their children in the street, and the venom with which they were addressed,” he entreats his son.

Throughout the book, Coates addresses what all of this means to him as a secular black man in the context of a highly religious community. If Coates’ views do not seem especially hopeful, perhaps it is because they have been irrevocably shaped by the conviction that the destruction of a black body is also the final end of the person who resided there, not just inside the flesh as believers in the soul might have it, but one with the flesh, and destroyed with it. He emphasizes seeking and struggling over hope and firm answers, and by refusing to put hope on a pedestal, Coates forces readers to look long into the face of the question he lives with every day.

If there is a difficulty in Between the World and Me, it is with the slipperiness of the thing Coates calls “the Dream,” and his lifelong pursuit of the question of how to live in a country that has been defined by it. “The question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile,” he tells his son. “You cannot arrange your life around the hope that that they [the Dreamers] will change, because there is a good chance they will not.” But just as Coates hunted for his own conclusions in the library of Howard University rather than demanding that they be served up to him in the classroom, he seems to demand that the reader engage with these questions for herself rather than expecting him to answer them.

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Bad Feminist

Cover image for Bad Feminist by Roxane Gayby Roxane Gay

ISBN 978-0-06-228271-2

“On my more difficult days, I’m not sure what’s more of a pain in my ass—being black or being a woman. I’m happy to be both these things, but the world keeps interfering.”

Roxane Gay is a novelist and a professor of English, but I came to her work through Twitter. In the midst of many a heated discussion about racial issues, feminism, and pop culture, I would stumble across her thoughtful comments and observations. Eventually I started following her, and reading both her opinion pieces and personal essays. Many of those essays are reprinted here in Bad Feminist, a loose, wide-ranging collection of cultural commentary and personal reflection.

Gay titles her work Bad Feminist, but the collection is really very intersectional, particularly dealing with race and Gay’s experience as a black woman in America. She opens with an essay about her experience advising a black students association while she was a graduate student, and how rewarding and exhausting that experience was. This essay was striking because it conveyed both how much help some of her black students needed to achieve the success they wanted, and how much they feared being seen to care about education. Race remains an inseparable part of the conversation throughout the book.

The title Bad Feminist is controversial, because of course it implies that there is a contrasting good feminist, but this is precisely what Gay is fighting against, in herself as much as in others. Feminism can be undermined by more than baggage about supposedly hating men and sex; it can be undermined by our own internalized sense of insufficiency, the feeling that we aren’t strong enough to live up to the expectations feminism sets for us. We have to fight our own expectations about what it means to be a feminist as well as deal with the cultural baggage that has been attached to the term. Gay points out reflections of this problematic attitude throughout our culture, seeing its echoes in the demand for likeable female protagonists while male characters are allowed to be anti-heroes.

Gay is both an avid consumer and a thoughtful critic of popular culture, and one that is capable of critiquing a novel or television show’s problematic aspects while also delighting in the enjoyable parts. She enthuses about The Hunger Games, but notes “It is disturbing that within the world of The Hunger Games, it is perfectly acceptable for teenagers to kill one another or die or otherwise suffer in really violent ways, but not at all acceptable for them to explore their sexuality.” Likewise, Gay’s pieces aren’t without some of their own problems. On the importance of speaking up about rape culture, Gay quotes the Latin adage qui tacet consentire videtur (he who is silent is assumed to consent) which seems like a particularly ill-chosen proverb given how much time feminists have spent trying to hammer in the idea that silence is not consent. But even when we disagreed, I found her funny, thoughtful, balanced, and above all, passionate about her topic. However, her concern with the fast-moving world of pop culture also means that her essays are, in many cases, of-the-moment rather than lasting critical reflections.

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Men We Reaped

Cover image for Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Wardby Jesmyn Ward

ISBN 978-1-60819-765-1

“If Demond’s family history wasn’t so different from my own, did that mean we were living the same story over and over again, down the through the generations? That the young and the Black had always been dying until all that was left were children and the few old, as in war?”

Between October 2000 and June 2004, no less than five young, black men died in DeLisle, Mississippi, Jesmyn Ward’s hometown. Of course, there were more than five, but the loss of these particular young men, beginning with her brother Joshua, and ending with her friend Roger emotionally devastated Ward. The causes of death ranged from drug-induced heart attack to car accident to murder, but though they were unconnected on the surface, Ward lays bare the reality of life in the South, exposing the invisible threads of poverty and blackness that unite their untimely deaths. These deaths and a confusing homesickness called Ward home to the South again and again, even as she was trying to escape by attending college on the West coast, and then grad school in Michigan.

Men We Reaped is a series of obituaries, hung together by the context of life in the South, and a deep sense of foreboding about the next inevitable death. Ward begins with her family history, leading up to the marriage of her parents, then switches off to recount the life and death of the final victim, Roger Eric Daniels III. Returning to her own family, she shares her childhood and her parents’ troubled marriage, and continues to switch off biography and autobiography until the two timelines meet, and her story culminates with the first death, the loss of her younger brother, Joshua Adam Dedeaux. This unusual structure means that those who died first are ghosts in the stories of those who died later, but covering the deaths in reverse chronological order has the peculiar effect of bringing those ghosts back to life, only to relive their tragic deaths once more.

Though the litany of deaths make clear the extent of the problem, Ward writes most movingly about her own family’s history, and her relationship with her brother. There is no surprise or admonition when thirteen-year-old Joshua, three years her junior, reveals that he is selling drugs to help make ends meet in their father’s household. It is simply the inevitable stop-gap for most young men in the depressed Southern economy. Ward herself is sixteen at the time, and living with their mother, being slowly lifted away from her brother as she is educated at a private Christian school paid for by the white man whose house her mother cleans. The gulf between them continues to widen until Ward feels like the naïve and sheltered younger sibling in contrast to her hardened and street smart younger brother.

Writing this book is part of Ward’s struggle to make sense of make happened and come to terms with it, and the events are clearly still quite emotionally raw even a decade later. The list of tragedies is grim and unrelenting, “it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time,” Ward writes. The spectre of her own substance abuse—self-medication for grief and despair—hangs over the narrative, but is never completely addressed. But by setting the women of her family—two sisters, her mother, and grandmother—against the short and violent lives of the men in the community, Ward is able to draw an incisive portrait of the gendered consequences of racism and poverty in the American South.

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Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet

cybersexismby Laurie Penny

ISBN 978-1-4088-5320-7

“The Internet made misogyny routine and sexual bullying easy, but first it did something else. It gave women, girls and queer people space to speak to each other without limits, across borders, sharing stories and changing our reality.”

To give the author the first word, “the feminist revolution and the digital revolution have grown up together, and both are incomplete.” In Cybersexism, Penny examines the way the two revolutions have intersected, with some disappointing results for feminism. Tim Berners Lee conceived of the internet as being for everyone, but in practice, the internet can be a very hostile place where anonymity and distance dissolve social mores about what is acceptable, leading to misogyny and threats of violence. Sharp and occasionally even funny, Penny gives a revealing introduction to the internet’s rampant misogyny. In the face of all this, Penny retains a relentless positive attitude towards the possibilities the internet offers for providing a platform for people to share their experiences, and allowing members of communities to reach out to one another across the globe.

Penny knows a thing or two about the violence that women in the public eye face. While working on this piece, Penny was staying in a safe house, after several female British journalists received bomb threats on Twitter. I wasn’t familiar with Penny’ specific story before reading this Single, and she doesn’t get into her own situation very much, but as I read up on her online while writing this review, I read a story that was very familiar, because it is one that I’ve read about countless female public figures before. The sexualized and gendered abuse faced by women who share their opinions freely online creates the kind of environment that forced Penny, and many women like her, to seriously considering “kicking it in for the good of my mental health.” Some give up and disappear because they simply can’t cope with it anymore, but for those who don’t, Penny reminds us that we shouldn’t “ever imagine there’s not a cost.” In many cases, their livelihoods come at the cost of their peace of mind.

Of course, not every woman who makes a home for herself on the internet faces the kind of vitriol discussed here. But every time one woman speaks up about her experiences, a host of others find the strength to give voice to their own, once they realize that they are not alone. You may spend most of your time, as I do, on parts of the internet that are relatively safe for women, even dominated by women, but any time you venture into a new area, it has to be acknowledged that this “could be any of us” if we anger the wrong people. But as Penny points out, this very sharing of experiences is part of the power of the internet. And given how much of our future depends on the web, we cannot afford to advise women to “just stay away” from this public space until it is “safe.”

Penny has tackled a large topic in a short work, and as such Cybersexism focuses on unveiling the issues and considering causes, but was not deeply involved with seeking solution. I’m looking forward to reading Unspeakable Things, Penny’s forthcoming book on gender and power in the twenty-first century in the hope that a longer work will allow for the space for this very talented writer to engage the issues in greater depth. Nevertheless, Cybersexism gets the discussion off to an excellent start.

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