How to Be Less Stupid About Race by Crystal M Fleming

Although systemic racism has existed throughout our history, the COVID pandemic has unveiled a razor-sharp light on its ugly face for all to see.   The pandemic has unleashed an enormously disproportionate toll on black and brown communities, in terms of illness and of deaths, because of the underlying vulnerabilities in housing, healthcare, education, criminal justice, and economic resources — present because of decades of institutionally sanctioned denial of resources to these communities.   The good news is that it has thrust these issues to the forefront of our national conversation, and has inspired uprising and protest against the institutions that support and perpetuate the injustices,  particularly within the criminal justice system, which is the most urgent.  In support of this effort to undo racism, it is urgent for us to educate ourselves on this topic of racism, because especially we white folks really are particularly stupid when it comes to race.

Dr. Fleming, a professor of sociology and Africana studies at Stonybrook University, is probably one of the best authorities on race and racism.  She has studied this topic at Harvard and then additionally in France as she researched their history of colonialism and oppression.  More importantly, after returning to the US and exploring broader theories on racism, beyond the more patriarchal and, really, white perspective she’d received in the ivory tower, she learned how deeply rooted racism was in this country.  She learned how white supremacist ideas underlie every aspect of our nation, from the laws to the economy, and from education to the health care and housing systems.  And she has, so fortunately for us, translated her learning into this extremely accessible, heart-warmingly honest book.

If you’ve been following this blog, you may have noticed that I’ve been trying to do this work.  I’ve been trying to read as much as I can about racism and antiracism to try to open my brain to all that I’ve been oblivious to over most of my life.   It is hard and uncomfortable, but it is urgent and necessary and, in fact, vital if we even hope to move on and build an antiracist society.  And those with the power, those of us who are seen as white, are the ones who need to do this work.

Why do I like this book so much?  I love Fleming’s voice.  She deftly combines a deeply personal account of her own journey to becoming an active antiracist with frequent injections of scholarly notations and historical perspective.  She is unique in that she adds an entire chapter on black women’s and women of color’s issues, which differ further from those of just general people of color.   In addition, hearing her views on Barack Obama was quite interesting to me as well – but I will not give up any spoilers, by telling you what those views were.  Finally, I love that Fleming gives constructive suggestions on what to do, steps forward, on working on becoming more antiracist.  This work is ever-continuing and ever-evolving and not formulaic – it may be very different and very personal to each of us.  But her suggestions are topical and relevant and are informed by her research and experience.

I am on a mission to listen, to learn and hopefully to change.

I will continue to read other books on this topic, of course, but so far,  this is “the” book.  If you’re going to read only one – it might be this one.

A MUST-READ!

 

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates

This work by Ta-Nehisi Coates, written in the form of a letter to his adolescent son, Samori, is a treatise on his experience as a Black man in America.  What Coates is doing here is what so many Black parents in America have needed to do:  encourage their children to be cautious in order to preserve the sanctity and safety of their Black bodies.   As he states on page 129-130, “When I was eleven my highest priority was the simple security of my body.  … already you have expectations,…  survival and safety are not enough.”  And “What I am saying is that it does not all belong to you, that the beauty in you is not strictly yours and is largely the result of enjoying an abnormal amount of security in your black body.”  He is sharing his own past struggles as well as those around him, in order to communicate his concern for his son’s safety, while also communicating generally the plight of living in a body of color in this country.

Unless you have been living under a proverbial rock over the last few months, you have to be aware of the uncovering of the ongoing racism that we have been seeing in our country.  I say uncovering because the racism is not new – no, it has been going on since White men arrived on these lands–  but it’s once again being exposed for what it is on a national level.  While I rarely quote in this blog, I find that Coates’ words are far more poetic and useful than my own here.  He says, on page 17,  for example, “To be black… was to be naked before the elements of the world…  the nakedness is the correct and intended result of the policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”  This, I believe, says it all.  This is the institutionalized, ratified, codified racist structure upon which our country was built.  It began with the enslavement of a people, evolved into a Jim Crow structure and now exists in the form of a criminal “justice” system that is an entirely purposeful perpetration of a racist segregation of people based on the color of their skin.  It’s all the same thing.

And it is our obligation to blow this apart.

I’m still struggling with how we, as individuals can make a difference, but the very first step is understanding how deeply entrenched the problem is.  This takes looking both inward at our own implicit biases, which we all have, and examining the structural racism upon which our country has been erected.  Understanding the deeply rooted fear of a child for his own bodily security, and then as he grows, for the safety of his peers and then for the safety of his children, as Coates relays here, gives an up-close-and-personal view of what it is like to live in his skin.  We feel his terror and we feel his rage over having to feel that terror.  This is where we start.

The more I read, the more I understand how little I know.

 

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

The more I read, the more I understand how little I know.  Many books have taught me this, but few as starkly as this one.  And in this moment in our history, I feel it is imperative for all white folks to be reading books like this one – at the very least this one.  Because racism is our problem.

Robin DiAngelo,  through trainings and lectures on racism and working with people of color, has helped both herself and many others become aware of the phenomenon of white fragility.  Because the power of white folks over black folks is so fundamental to the structure of our society, white folks have the luxury of being able to tune it out while black folks cannot.  What DiAngelo focuses on in this book is the responsibility of us white folks to do our own work and to take responsibility for our own part in the perpetuation of this power differential, which is racism.

One of the first steps is to separate the notion that being racist or committing racist acts falls into the binary of the good/bad person.  As DiAngelo points out, our images of racists are generally from the 1960’s, when we see white people brutally attacking black people, and we equate all racist acts with those people.  On the other hand, we have to realize that we as white folks inadvertently commit acts of racism frequently, and while our intentions may not be bad or hurtful, it does not mitigate the fact that the impact of our actions or words may still be.  This does not make us bad people – but it does make us racists and it does still mean we’ve committed racist acts.  We are still responsible for having committed them and are still responsible for changing our behavior and avoiding these acts in the future.

What are we to do?  As I am continuing to learn here, we are responsible to learn about the history of racism, the systemic ways in which white folks have had power over black folks since 1619 in the U.S., and how we need to get over ourselves.  We have to learn to let down our defenses, be open to criticism, and be curious and honest about learning how to be better and more just.  It’s not about being nicer, but more sensitive and responsive to the other.  As DiAngelo states in the book: “Stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others that we don’t have them.”  And this is hard.  We will make mistakes.  But if we don’t try, we will not make any progress toward achieving a more equitable space for others and a more just society.

And everybody benefits from a just society.

Let this book be the beginning of our work.

 

Neuland by Eshkol Nevo

if he thinks about it, Dori has to admit that he has been feeling diminished by his life lately — disconnected from his wife, possibly over-connected with his son Netta, and unrecognized for his passion for teaching history to the next generation.  That is, until he is called upon by his sister to travel from Israel to South America to search for their father, who has just disappeared.  During the course of this search, he encounters Inbar, a young woman who is embarking on a journey of her own, as she seeks to distill her own trauma and sort out her own way forward.  As their paths converge, they bond almost inadvertently and what they discover is quite startling on many levels.

This book was initially hard work.  At least for me, it took about 250-300 pages to become engaged in the lives of the characters enough to really and truly HAVE to see it through.  Once I was there,  however, it definitely reached that “page-turner” level.  Moreover, it grew in complexity as it progressed  It was as if the seeds had to be planted and given time for the roots to take hold.  Once they were firmly embedded, the story was then able to branch out, creating a complex plot line that fully blooms.

One of my favorite characters is Lily, Inbar’s grandmother.  We meet Lily as a grandmother, whose memory is failing.  And we meet her in glimpses of her memories of her younger self, making the arduous trek to Palestine from Europe just before the war.  We see the hopeful young pioneer with a dream of what Erez Yisrael, the Land of Israel, will be: the homeland of the Jews, the refuge for those with no other place to go.  And we see her own personal struggle with choices she makes for herself, for her country, and for her ideals.

There is a lot to digest here in these pages.  There is a lot of discussion about the land of Israel,  where the Jewish homeland should really be and if what is happening now is actually working.  Is Israel today a failed experiment?  Who has the right to make that decision?  Are there too many people in Israel broken by wars there to make these decisions?

This would be a fantastic book for a book club, were it not for the length of the book.  (This tiny review does not at all do it justice. ) On the other hand, since we’re all still pretty much stuck at home anyway, we have time to read very long books!  Maybe give this one a try.  I”d be curious to hear what others think about it.   We’ll have a mini-book club discussion right here on this blog…

 

Becoming Eve by Abby Stein

Born to what was considered a royal Hasidic family —  a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov — Abby Stein was raised as a boy in one of the most gender-segregated societies on earth.  From an early age, she knew she was a girl and when she, at the age of 4 years, expressed this to her mother, she was given the very clear message that this was never to be spoken about again.  Throughout her childhood, she rebelled, against god, against her restrictive society, and against a world that did not allow her to be herself.

This memoir was so detailed and heartfelt – until it wasn’t.  We hear about every moment in Abby’s early life.  Her journey from one yeshiva to the next, from one rebellion to the next.  There are very intimate passages, revealing her first love for a young man who is obviously struggling with his own sexuality.  This episode is quite tenderly written and the reader feels such empathy for these two who cannot pursue their love in the restrictive society in which the two “boys” live.   We hear about the details of the study in which Abby immerses herself, how she advocated to learn about law and ultimately about mysticism.  And some of the details about Hasidic life are quite interesting.  And we hear about her marriage to Fraidy, which is actually quite sweet and hopeful, to some degree.

But suddenly, when she describes Fraidy giving birth to their son, and all of a sudden, it is as if she drops off a cliff and, POOF! she is a woman.  There is little to no mention of how she disengages from her prior life, with the exception of an epilogue, which tells only of how she tells her father she is a woman. We do not hear about her connection with her child, we do not hear about she experiences the transition from her insular world of Hasidism to the outer world, we do not hear about much of anything else.  This I find unbelievably disappointing and a sorely missed opportunity.  After hearing so much detail, the absence of detail is astounding.

I did learn from this book, but I was disappointed by the ending.  On the other hand, I do hope that Abby finds peace with her family and can connect with them.  She obviously loves them dearly and they do her.  I hope they can find a way to see that she is exactly who she always was.

 

 

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

 

Bryan Stevenson is a graduate of Harvard Law School who, after graduating, went down South to work to establish the Equal Justice Initiative, which began as a legal nonprofit defending those who found themselves unjustifiably on death row, but expanded to defending others who were also victims of our imbalanced justice system here in the U.S. The primary thread that runs through the book is the story of Walter McMillan, an African American framed for the murder of a white woman in a laundromat in Alabama.  And while Walter’s story is compelling and tragic in and of itself, the many others that Stevenson shares with us along the way similarly intrigue and horrify in their revelation of the truth of how racially biased our criminal justice system is and has been for decades.

I honestly feel like this book should be required reading for every American.  Whatever we think we know about racism and bias – it’s just not enough.  Racism is ugly, and painful and insidious and pervasive and it infects our law enforcement, our criminal justice system, and our politics and even our day-to-day interactions with others.  This book reveals the magnitude of the problem. Thousands of individuals have had outrageous sentences for smaller crimes and so many children – 13 and 14 years old! — have been given extremely harsh, long sentences really just because they were of color.  Most of these “criminals” were victims themselves, whether of their circumstances, of trauma they’d experienced, or of their poverty that prevented them from obtaining suitable defense.

I think that Bryan Stevenson is one of the true heroes of our time.  He has stood up for the impoverished and for those who have had no voice and given them a voice.  He has bravely fought for those who would have been killed because of inhumane death penalty laws (one could argue – as I have, that all death penalty laws are inhumane).

I have not seen the movie, but I believe the movie could not possibly have all the details that this book provides and I always believe the details are crucial.  Especially in an important book such as this one.

This is absolutely a MUST READ!

P.S.  It’s been awhile since a book has made me cry the way this one has.  There is one particular vignette that really threw me, for its beauty and its power.  If you read this book and come upon a story about a chocolate milkshake, you’ll know when it was that I cried the hardest…!

 

 

The Body is Not An Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor

body not apology

In this book, borne of her movement and website of the same name, Sonya Renee Taylor, an activist and poet, propels the argument that our society has constructed systems which have forced most of us to apologize for the bodies that we live in.  Because we may not live in the body of the selected ideal of our time – whether because of our weight, our skin color, our ability, our gender identity, or any other identity – we are often made to feel less-than by the world around us, perpetuated by our own voices inside.  And for this we feel shame, we shrink away, we deny ourselves experiences that might actually give us joy.  In this book, Taylor seeks to provide the reader with tools to combat the external and internal pressures that we feel, in order to achieve “radical self-love,” that innocent, basic love for our bodies that we were all born with.

I think this is an important book to read, for anyone who has ever experienced discomfort in their body.  And honestly – who hasn’t???  It is delivered honestly, compellingly, and with a sensitivity to anyone of any identity who might be reading the book.  There is some sprinkling of her own journey, but she also derived quite a bit from others as well, which I appreciate.

I was particularly intrigued by the section on the “Body Shame Profit Complex” (LOVE this name) and actually wish there had been more on this.  This refers to the advertising industry which has allied with all the other companies that make billions of dollars on our attempts to improve the defects we perceive in our bodies – everything from make up to anti-aging creams to the diet industry.  Think about it – how much do you spend on these types of items each year?  I know I contribute to this complex on a regular basis.

I think this book differs from others in that it is not trying to teach new behaviors, nor self-acceptance, but rather self-love — which is different.  It hits deeper and is more sustainable if done properly and consistently and it also requires forgiveness and “grace” for the moments when you slip.

One soft criticism of the book that I have is that I believe it needed more vignettes, more stories about people to illustrate the concepts.  There are so many important ideas that are proposed here, and I think they are easy to read through quickly and potentially gloss over.  Occasionally, Taylor does provide examples of what she means to say with the use of  narratives, such as that of a young girl who is taunted for the bald spots on her head.  This is such a vivid image and becomes so starkly etched in the mind of the reader.  I wish she’d done this more often, so that more arguments would be similarly strengthened.

I think it will take awhile for me to fully digest all of the ideas proposed here.

I’d love to hear from others who have read it!

At Risk by Alice Hoffman

at risk

Polly and Ivan are concerned about their daughter, Amanda.  She’s a gymnast and has an unusual diarrheal illness for the past couple of weeks.  Their pediatrician, who knows them well, can deduce that this is not a good sign and from her low white blood cell count he is extremely worried about the possibility of cancer.  But not in a million years is he expecting that she’d be positive for AIDS, having contracted it from a blood transfusion after a complicated surgery for appendicitis 5 years prior, before blood was screened for the virus.  The paranoia and alienation that the whole family experiences is unexpected and devastating, possibly even worse than the actual diagnosis.

This book, published in 1988, reminds us of the experience that so many went through when HIV first appeared in the 1980’s.  With ads on TV for HIV medications so commonplace and ordinary today, it’s hard to remember that not so long ago, there was mass victimization of those who were infected with the virus.  Children infected via intrauterine transmission or from blood transfusions were sometimes not allowed in school because of fears of casual contact transmitting the virus to others, even when there was early evidence that this was not possible.  Millions of infected adults suffered not only from the disease but from the indignities of being ostracized from a society who rejected them because of their disease.  And we have still not cured it.  [The reason for this has probably more to do with financial incentive than the science – it is more beneficial for pharmaceutical companies to produce medications that sustain patients with the disease than to cure it.  Just as with cancer. But I digress…]

As for the book, I found the story compelling, but the writing a bit awkward.  It is told in the present tense, which I often dislike.  More importantly, though, the narration also shifts from one character to another almost as if they are passing a hot potato from one to another, to another.   This shift occurs so frequently and over so many characters that it dilutes and distracts from the actual plot and it is harder to become attached to the truly important players.   We just can’t feel that sorry for everyone.  So while the story is tragic, it does not cut quite as deeply as it might.

Nevertheless, At Risk is a timepiece and tells a part of the story of our bitter history of the HIV epidemic that is important to remember.  We think of HIV as a disease of adults only, but there were thousands of children affected by the disease as well.  And still are today.

Health Justice Now by Timothy Faust

In this book, Timothy Faust surgically cuts through the complicated mess of the American health care system, gives his diagnosis and prescription for a solution:  a single payer system.  In an acerbically articulate and well-researched argument, he outlines the defects in our current systems, which are many.  The ways in which the insurance companies overcharge and deny their customers, the ways in which hospitals and pharmaceutical companies play the system to reap enormous profits at the expense of patients and patient care, and the ways in which even public insurance programs are fallible are all explained in full. And Faust also broadens the definition of health care to include those factors that contribute to one’s health, such as housing, food, poverty, environmental safety, etc. that are often systemically limited by race, gender, class, and ability.  HIs answer?  The single payer.  A single payer system pays for all, regardless of race, gender, class or ability and pays for all needs.  In this scenario, primary care is accessible to all, so that health care is accessed early, when disease may be either preventable or caught early enough to be inexpensive or less expensive to treat.  It makes sense.  And while those who profit from the insurance fraud game and the pharmaceutical industry sham will fight tooth and nail and lobby with every dollar you spend on your medications, it really would bring health care to all and make it the right it should be and not the privilege it has become in our country.

I think this is a timely and crucial reading for us all at this moment in our country, when we are about to embark on the next presidential election, when many of the democratic candidates are supporting a singe payer system.  I think it is incumbent upon us all to learn why this might be a good thing for our country and how this actually might be the only equitable way to provide health care.  I think we have to move away from seeing health care as a commodity and see it as our obligation as humans to care for one another, to allow for the dignity of others, no matter what their medical (or financial!!) situation is.

That said, I do think the tone of the writing might be a bit too angry.  While I agree with all that he’s written here, and I’m probably as angry as he is, I worry that his tone might be too polarizing – a problem that has plagued dialogue in this country on both sides.  If we are to speak to each other, we need to temper ourselves just a bit, in order to open up and let others in.  There are many solid arguments in this text and I worry that someone might not appreciate them because they’ve been alienated by the outright hostility toward the establishment.  Again, I agree with the author in his opinion, but if I didn’t, I might be put off.

I think this is an essential text in this political moment.  it’s dense, it’s not a fun read, but it’s our obligation as American citizens to open our minds and our hearts to learning how we might provide health care to everyone in this country.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Careyou

bad blood

This is the fascinating tale of one of the most outrageous scams in Silicon Valley – and the most outrageous part is that it is true!  It is the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her startup, Theranos.  Elizabeth Holmes started out at Stamford, as an engineering student, but impatient to get started earning her first millions, she  quickly decided to drop out and start her own company.  She had in mind that because she had a fear of needles, she would develop a laboratory testing device that could run multiple tests on a small drop of blood from a finger stick specimen, taken by a device that would be relatively painless.  However, what began as a good idea, ballooned into a project that because of blind arrogance, deaf ears to any guidance or advice, paranoia, and pure irrational greed, broke laws and broke lives and caused irreparable harm to so many.  And it appears that, like most narcissists,  Elizabeth Holmes was completely unrepentant, seeing herself as the victim.

What is wonderful about this story is that it is told by the investigative reporter who broke the story for the Wall Street Journal, which gives both credibility and an insider’s perspective.  Careyou writes with vivid detail, laying out the gradual development of the background on Elizabeth Holmes, how she came to start the company, and how she ruled it, along with her henchman (and apparent lover) Sunny Balwani, with an iron fist, firing immediately anyone who disagreed with anything she said or did (even if they were looking out for her benefit and the welfare of the company).  He tracks her ascent to stardom, and it was nothing short of that.  People worshipped her – just as she worshipped Steve Jobs and took on much of his persona, even adopting his notorious black turtlenecks and deeper voice.  And because she had their attention, she was able to convince so many to invest in her dream.  Unfortunately, that is all it was.  She could not make it a reality, and because she could not face this, she faked it and lied to the world that it was.

This is a tragic story of how greed and ego took precedence over peoples’ health and welfare, and lawyers, Silicon Valley giants, politicians, and others bought right into it, swindled by a young, polished liar.  And, as Careyou acknowledges, the true heroes of the story are those who stood up to her and her pit bull lawyers and despite being tormented and hounded, told the public the truth. It is because of these brave people that these crackpot lab testing facilities were not expanded and put into more locations throughout the country and led to hurt even more individuals than they already did.

The details will just astound you!