The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

(Book 127) This is the first book of 127 that I did not read. I wanted to read it but just couldn’t do it. At the end of last month, I lost my brother Paul after a very short illness that no one knew he had. I grew up in a very conservative, very small town sixty miles south of Chicago. There was an ordinance on the books that prohibited any person of color from living there. When I met African Americans in first grade, I asked my mother where they came from and she answered “Otto.” Otto Township was a small community a few miles outside of our town limits. For several years “Otto” was akin to Oz in my mind — there were horses of different colors in Oz and there were people of different color in Otto. My mother worked for the Republican precinct committeeman, a wonderful man named Louis Schultz. I thought we were Republican. In the mock election at school in 1960, I voted for Nixon and he won in the microcosm of West Acres Grade School. In 1962, Paul, the oldest of my siblings graduated from high school and went to college. In 1966 he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr in Chicago as part of the Chicago Freedom Movement and regaled us with the story that stood out for him, an angry white woman, holding an infant and viciously yelling “mother-fuckers” repeatedly at the marchers as they passed. Because of Paul, the 8 year-old who voted for Nixon became the only person in her 8th grade Civics class to take the opposing side in the class debate: Should the US be involved in Vietnam? Paul was the oldest of us and he set the direction we would all take. After losing him on October 26, I couldn’t bear to read Alexander’s book and realize how little had been gained in his lifetime. I will read it, just couldn’t do it this month.

Finally, I’ll get to our discussion. Marcia arranged the meeting for Rosalie, who would have hosted if we were in a non-COVID world. Karen started us off by mentioning that the author’s preface clearly identifies Trump as being such a set-back for racial equality and given that he has not yet conceded the election to Biden, we acknowledged that he is a set back to democracy as well. Rosalie commented that it is difficult to read the book and have no ready solution because the problems are too complex and ingrained in our society. Marcia mentioned that she has also read the book Caste by Isabel Wilkerson which speaks to how deeply entrenched racial inequality is in our country. Chris noted that the one revelation of Caste that everyone is shocked by is that those who would be responsible for the Holocaust in Germany first studied America’s laws and systems for invalidating a race.

Solutions were offered. Some felt that the decriminalization of pot will reduce the incarceration rate. Marcia noted the frightening statistic that in one year 900 young people graduated from college and in that same year 7000 young people were incarcerated. Rosalie talked about the possibility of expungement which would allow felonies to be expunged so that the individual would be able to get a job. Linda added that we have to work on our attention spans, that it seems that news and our reaction to it drops off with each new wave of information. She noted that at the time of the protests for the George Floyd murder that 60% of Americans felt that there was a problem with racial profiling in the police force, but that by election time that percentage had dropped to 30%. Melissa offered that reading history was part of the solution, read it and don’t repeat it. Chris suggested how important it is to stay in touch with your deepest values and continue to fight for what really matters to you.

We discussed how difficult it is to move forward with a country so divided in spirit. We talked about the dissemination of misinformation or alternative facts and Marcia observed that it was Reagan who made Fox News possible and started the War on Drugs, both issues at the bottom of our biggest problems today. Sharon admitted her shock on election day at how many Americans were still voting for Trump and felt we should make an effort to understand one person (Trump supporter) at a time. Linda mentioned articles she’d read that the people voting for Trump felt that Democrats had stopped talking to them, that they went to school, did what they were supposed to do, but don’t have the life they thought they would have. Rosalie said she hoped Biden could find a way to bring more jobs to the country.

Geri opined that it is such a difficult time because of the deep divide in our country and Trump’s refusal to concede, that its hard to deal with the real sadnesses, the deaths from COVID and the two personal deaths that hit our little group this month. In addition to my brother’s death, Chris lost her beloved dog and our fellow book club participant, Archie. I think it was Marcia who added at this point that 1866 people had died of COVID today.

Well, that’s enough of that. It’s time for cookies. We discussed if we still wanted to make an effort to exchange cookies this year and I came this close to doing my Angela Lansbury impression singing “We need a little Christmas, right this very minute, candles in the window, carols at the spinet!” We have decided to do it in a drop off format using Susan’s house, because she was the designated Christmas hostess and is a fairly central location. I must email her about that now.

Typically I put the picture that my brother painted here at the bottom of the post, but I will put the picture that Rosalie sent me of it displayed on her wall next to the photo of her and her two co-defendants after their release from prison. The three of them were arrested for having crossed the line in Omaha, NB, at the airbase which controls all nuclear weapon strikes (after the president pushes the button). They were given a charge of six months, she told me, but at the trial, the charge was reduced to a fine, which she didn’t pay and they never bothered to collect. “All I really remember is that I didn’t go to prison so, unlike most young black men, I was never caged.”