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FOUR TAKES: An imperfect union Readings on racial justice and injustices


August 30, 2020

For months following the May 25 killing of George Floyd, Americans have turned out in the streets, breathing new life into the Black Lives Matter movement. Strikingly, many have also turned inward. Week after week, books about race have crowded US bestseller lists. A plethora point to needed change.

One of the more accessible guides to law enforcement and race is “Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution and Imprisonment,” edited by Angela J. Davis, a law professor at American University. This wide-ranging collection addresses multiple shortcomings in the criminal justice system, among them racial profiling, mass incarceration, and prosecutorial bias.

Bryan Stevenson’s contribution is apt to prove eye-opening even to those who thought their eyes were already open. “A Presumption of Guilt: The Legacy of America’s History of Racial Injustice” is a compact yet devastating account of slavery’s legacy. The essay compellingly links the rise of capital punishment, disproportionately inflicted on Black men, to the decline of lynchings, presenting both as forms of racial terror.

Stevenson is probably best known as the author of the memoir “Just Mercy,” recently adapted into a film. He is also the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which, along with offering legal representation to underserved clients, has exhaustively documented lynchings.

The EJI drew attention two years ago when it opened a museum and memorial devoted to racial injustice, in Montgomery, Ala. Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a professor of African American Studies at Princeton, describes a wrenching visit to the museum toward the end of his latest book, “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.”

In despair over what he saw as a resurgence of white resentment under Donald Trump, Glaude had turned to the prominent literary figure for guidance. After the slaying of Martin Luther King Jr., he writes, Baldwin entered a dark period in which he doubted that the country would ever change. Glaude finds us in a parallel moment, in need of Baldwin’s eventual conclusion that we must begin again.

This eloquent, unclassifiable volume is a useful introduction to Baldwin as well as the decades in which he lived. Lavishly gifted and often scorchingly blunt, Baldwin was a product of Harlem who, for a time, sought escape from the wounds of American racism in France. In “Begin Again,” his life becomes a prism for understanding the civil rights movement, as well as Black Power activists’ response to its frustrations. (As Black Americans split over how to achieve change, Glaude notes, some militants derided “We Shall Overcome” as a minstrel tune.)

Glaude has no illusions about where we now stand, even after (or maybe because of) eight years of an Obama presidency. He draws a straight line from the undertones of the Reagan years to Trumpism, and from Trumpism to what he sees as forms of blindness within even the most well-meaning whites. “Begin Again” challenges us to re-found the country on a more honest footing.

“Breathe: A Letter to My Sons” draws from the same well of racial exhaustion. Its author, Imani Perry, is a colleague of Glaude’s at Princeton who has built a distinguished academic career. Yet she knows her success can never fully protect Freeman and Issa, her two sons, from a world that fears Black men. When they were small, Perry took her sons to protests decrying Black deaths, until finally, especially for Issa, it became too much.

Her lyrical prose captures both of these bright spirits. Acknowledging her fears for her sons, she nevertheless urges them to soar. And why should they not? Asked by his preschool teacher what he wanted to be when he grew up, Issa said: happy.

What that might take depends on more than one form of social change. To fair policing, add health care, education, and housing. Especially housing.

In “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has constructed a withering indictment of 1970s-era programs meant to encourage Black homeownership. Mostly, these federal initiatives enriched banks and real estate brokers instead.

Taylor, also at Princeton, argues that poor Black women in particular were lured into housing purchases with the expectation that they would fail. Thousands lacking the means to make repairs purchased decrepit properties on unfavorable terms. The resulting wave of foreclosures reinforced stereotypes about Blacks being unfit for homeownership. At the same time, the new programs reinforced segregation, and helped enhance property values in white neighborhoods.

Taylor’s study is no easy read. Those who stick with it will see similarities to the subprime-mortgage bubble that burst in 2008, laying waste to low-income households. As Taylor notes, housing remains a flawed tool for building Black wealth. But it is essential to family stability and children’s educational prospects. Like policing, it demands the kind of unflinching attention that James Baldwin brought to bear on our still imperfect union.

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