Tag: Michelle Alexander

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2015

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2015. Click the title for a link to the full review. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.

Between the World and Me

ISBN 978-0-8129-9354-7

Cover image for Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi CoatesBorrowing the conceit that James Baldwin used in his 1963 best-seller The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ meditation on what it means to be black in America takes the form of a letter to his fifteen-year-old son. This technique allows the work to feel at once deeply personal and widely applicable. 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 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. The best sections include Coates’ thoughts on the role education, formal and informal, has played in his life, and his reflections on what it is like to be a secular black man in a community that has traditionally leaned on religion.

Categories: Memoir

The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami 

ISBN 978-0-8166-9198-2

Cover image for The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami by Matthew Carl StrecherWinona State University professor of Japanese literature Matthew Carl Strecher undertakes an extensive examination of two of the most fascinating stylistic elements present in the works of Haruki Murakami: magic realism, and parallel narratives. The Other World is present from Murakami’s earliest works, right through to his most recent novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami traces its evolution. Strecher explains Japanese literary traditions and techniques the Western reader might be unaware of, while also examining Murakami’s works through the lens of European literary theory, including Baudrillard, Derrida, and Barthes. He also contextualizes Murakami’s place within the Japanese literary tradition, even as he characterizes him as a global writer. For those who have read a large portion of Murakami’s work, and want to gain a greater understanding of its significance, Strecher offers a readable scholarly overview.

Categories: Criticsm 

The Inconvenient Indian

ISBN 978-1-4529-4031-1

the-inconvenient-indianIn this sweeping and unconventional history–which was one of the 2015 Canada Reads selections–Thomas King draws examples from the United States and Canada to illustrate the fate of the native peoples of North America since the arrival of European colonizers. King’s work is an informal account rather than an academic history, and his approach involves a healthy dose of humour, which may be off-putting to some readers given the serious nature of the topics he is dealing with. For King, humour is part of how he copes with the darkness of the history he is addressing, and this may help make a difficult topic more accessible. During the Canada Reads event, Craig Kielburger compared it to the humourous approaches used by Rick Mercer and Jon Stewart for raising awareness of current events. The litany of abuses King covers provides a very clear idea of why First Nations and Native Americans might be distrustful of government efforts to improve their current situation. While King is primarily looking back at what has already happened, understanding these issues is also crucial to moving forward.

Categories: Canadian, History

The New Jim Crow

ISBN 978-1-59558-643-8

Cover image for The New Jim Crow by Michelle AlexanderLaw professor and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander argues that mass incarceration is the most important racial justice issue in America today. 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. 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 New Jim Crow is also important because it breaks 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.

Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed

ISBN 978-1-250-05293-3

Cover image for Selfish, Shallow, and Self-AbsboredEdited and selected by novelist and essayist Megan Daum, Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed is a collection of essays by writers about the decision not to have children. Each writer has their own journey to making this choice; some knew this fact about themselves all along, and others came to it more gradually. The essays vary greatly in tone. Some are quiet and introspective, while others are angry or angst-ridden. As a whole, this collection neither disparages parenthood, nor advocates the child-free life, but simply seeks to ease some of the stigma that surrounds the decision by offering a window into the minds of those who have made it, and found it to be the right choice for them. Once inside, it shows that the variety within the group is at least as great as that between those who choose children, and those who chose not to procreate. Within its scope—predominantly female, American writers—the collection offers a varied look at a personal decision loaded down with a great deal of cultural baggage.

Categories: Essays

That’s it for me! What were your favourite non-fiction reads of 2015?

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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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