Book review by Adam Shatz, published in the London Review of Books, print edition of May 4, 2017
Reviewing: Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America; by James Forman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 306 pp, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 374 18997 6
One of the great paradoxes of the Obama era is that it encouraged so many liberals, both black and white, to see the black experience in America not as a slow, arduous struggle for freedom culminating in the election of a black president – Obama’s version, not surprisingly – but as an unending nightmare. Not least among the reasons was that a black man of unerring self-discipline and caution, bipartisan to a fault, should have provoked such ferocious white resistance – fanned by the man who questioned the validity of his birth certificate and then succeeded him as president. This most eloquent champion of ‘post-racialism’ may have been the most powerful man in the world, yet he remained a prisoner of his race, of his ‘black body,’ as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in Between the World and Me.1 In the face of repeated police shootings of young black men or atrocities such as the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, Obama did little more than deliver one of his formidable speeches. And – as he did in Charleston – sing ‘Amazing Grace’, as if only a higher power could cure America of its original sin, and end the nightmare.
That nightmare began in the early 17th century, when Africans were packed into slave ships and transported to the American colonies, where they – or those who survived the Middle Passage – were sold at auction, stripped naked for the perusal of prospective buyers. With the defeat of the South in the Civil War – by 1804, all the northern states had abolished slavery – four million slaves won their freedom. Under the protection of federal troops, they gained the right to vote, and to elect representatives to state legislatures and the US Congress, in the unfinished revolution known as Reconstruction. But the forces of white supremacy in the former Confederacy proved resilient and inventive, and succeeded in overturning the gains of Reconstruction: black captivity wasn’t liquidated so much as reconfigured. When the last federal soldiers left the South in 1877, Southern legislatures passed a series of laws that mandated segregation in public facilities (housing, schools, restaurants, drinking fountains and bathrooms), and banned interracial marriage. White tyranny was also enforced by a sharecropping system that kept black farmers tied to the land; a ‘poll tax’ and literacy tests that prevented blacks from voting; elaborate codes of deference to white authority that black men defied at risk to their lives; and lynchings, which many whites attended with their families for pleasure. (Between 1877 and 1950, nearly four thousand black men were lynched.) This brutal racial caste system, which lasted from the late 19th century until the mid-1960s, when the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were signed into law, was known as ‘Jim Crow’ (the origins of the term remain mysterious). Perhaps the greatest lie of Jim Crow was that segregation meant ‘separate but equal’. During and after the First World War, many of the South’s black captives voted with their feet in the ‘Great Migration’ to the North. They settled in the slums of Chicago, New York and Los Angeles under a form of residential segregation they would discover to be no less thorough, and sometimes no less ruthless, for being ‘de facto’ rather than ‘de jure’. As Malcolm X remarked, ‘the Mason-Dixon line begins at the Canadian border.’
In 1964 even Nina Simone, no racial optimist, could sing ‘Old Jim Crow, don’t you know, it’s all over now!’ But in the early 1990s, many blacks started to wonder if they were becoming victims of a new Jim Crow. Its targets appeared at first glance to be more limited – young black people who committed drug-related crimes, rather than blacks as a caste – but its reach was national, and the lure of the drug economy would prove hard for poor blacks to resist.
By the early 2000s, the number of Americans behind bars had grown from 350,000 in 1972 to more than two million, and an increasing proportion were black: a larger percentage, in fact, than in apartheid South Africa. The risk that an African American would be incarcerated at some point in their lifetime had doubled since Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation; and more black adults were under the control of the criminal justice system – whether in prison, on probation or on parole – than were enslaved in 1850. Once again, it seemed, the defeat of one system of racial oppression had given birth to another, only this one was concealed by the ennobling rhetoric of ‘colour-blindness’, as well as the fact that it appeared to be protecting Americans from crime. As the contours of this system of mass incarceration became visible – inspiring television shows like The Wire and Orange Is the New Black – the New Jim Crow thesis travelled from black radio and the church to academic journals…
13th: Damning documentary on racist prison system in the United States deserves an Oscar, film review by Peter Travers, published in Rolling Stone, Oct 5, 2016
Ava DuVernay’s documentary film 13th is a history lesson and indictment of the “new slavery” – the mass incarceration of African-Americans – and a major wake-up call
Note to the Academy: The Oscar for this year’s Best Documentary belongs to 13th, Ava DuVernay’s incendiary, indelible and indispensable document about the myth of racial equality in America. As we all learned in school, the 13th amendment – enacted on Jan. 31, 1865 – abolished involuntary servitude in these United States. Like hell it did. There was a loophole, which basically said no servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Translation: If you’re white and rich enough to afford a lawyer, no problem, If you’re a minority with nothing, you’re fucked. Welcome to the era of mass criminalization and the prison industrial complex, where African-American inmates are forced into unpaid manual labor by a systemic corporate culture that profits from human bondage. Slavery is alive and well. And hot damn, do profiteers want it to continue…[13th was nominated for best documentary film at the 89th Academy Awards on Feb 26, 2017. The film lost to O.J.: Made in America.]