Tag Archives: racism

Over 40 Years in “Closed Cell Restricted”: How Albert Woodfox Survived Solitary

Photo by msppmoore CC-BY SA 2.0

When Woodfox was eighteen, he was arrested for robbing a bar and sentenced to fifty years in prison.

Two weeks after Miller’s death, the four men were charged with murder. There was an abundance of physical evidence at the crime scene, none of which linked them to the killing. A bloody fingerprint near Miller’s body did not match any of theirs.

Woodfox often woke up gasping. He felt that the walls of the cell were squeezing him to death, a sensation that he began to experience the day after his mother’s funeral, in 1994. He had planned to go to the burial — prisoners at Angola are permitted to attend the funerals of immediate family — but at the last minute his request was denied. For three years, he slept sitting up, because he felt less panicked when he was vertical. “It takes so much out of you just to try to make these walls, you know, go back to the normal place they belong,” he told a psychologist. “Someday I’m not going to be able to deal with it. I’m not going to be able to pull those walls apart.”

Woodfox is reserved, humble, and temperamentally averse to drama. When he talked about himself, his tone became flat. He was scheduled to speak at a panel on solitary confinement the next day, and he felt exhausted by the prospect. “I get apprehensive when somebody asks me something I can’t answer, like ‘What does it feel like to be free?’ ” he said. “How do you want me to know how it feels to be free?” He’d developed a stock answer to the question: “Ask me in twenty years.”

At The New Yorker, Rachel Aviv profiles Albert Woodfox, a man originally sentenced to 50 years in prison for robbery. A member of the Black Panthers and the Angola 3, Woodfox spent over four decades in solitary confinement, despite a stunning lack of evidence against him in a prison murder.

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‘My Name Is Emily, and I’m a White Supremacist.’

the_anti-slavery_society_convention_1840_by_benjamin_robert_haydon

How am I a white supremacist? Well, I was born and raised in the United States of America, a country built by slave labor on stolen land, and every privilege I’ve ever enjoyed has come at the expense of someone else’s oppression. The education I received was white supremacist education, from its demand that I learn to write and speak “proper English” to its reliance on a literary, scientific, and artistic canon comprised of and curated almost exclusively by white men. My aesthetic tastes are permeated with subtle coding that extends subconscious preference to those who look like me and communicate themselves in a way I can identify with. I have interjected my unwanted, unwarranted opinion into conversations that are out of my lane, and I have chosen to look the other way rather than confront instances of racism because of cowardice, complacency, and a misplaced sense of politeness. The very foundations of my way of life are in white supremacy, and the list of microaggressions I have committed, and will no doubt continue to commit in spite of my “good intentions” for as long as I’m alive, is virtually endless.

Earlier this year, Emily Pothast penned a candid, introspective, and challenging essay in The Establishment exploring the ramifications of growing up in a culture saturated with racism. A good read when it was published in May, it has a renewed timeliness in light of last week’s US presidental election and the ensuing conversations about the impact of race and racism.

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Who’s to Blame for Trump? Media’s Socioeconomic Blind Spots

young women holding signs at a donald trump rally

It wasn’t poor whites who criminalized blackness by way of marijuana laws and the “war on drugs.”

Nor was it poor whites who conjured the specter of the black “welfare queen.”

These points should not minimize the horrors of racism at the lowest economic rungs of society, but remind us that those horrors reside at the top in different forms and with more terrible power.

Among reporters and commentators this election cycle, then, a steady finger ought be pointed at whites with economic leverage: social conservatives who donate to Trump’s campaign while being too civilized to attend a political rally and yell what they really believe.

—  Who are the most fervent Trump supporters? Not necessarily the poor- and lower-class white communities you might think from reading the news. Writing in The Guardian, Sarah Smarsh — political liberal and native Kansan — picks apart the class bias fueling the one-dimensional media coverage of poor white communities who are “blamed” for the rise of Donald Trump. Spoiler alert: even in red states, there’s diversity and nuance.

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Red, White, and Bruised

Cleveland's "Ten Cent Beer" riot in 1974

Kyle Swenson | Longreads | July 2016 | 14 minutes (3,440 words)

 

My hometown isn’t very good at stomaching bad news. The word on Tamir landed on an icebox Monday afternoon deep into December. The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office must have been watching the calendar—and the Doppler radar. The announcement arrived in the patch of dead static between Christmas and New Year’s when most of the country is unplugged or has hit the mental snooze button. As Prosecutor Timothy McGinty started his press conference, a perfect storm of human error, a tragic accident, winter rain began soaking the city. That night, spot protests were small in number. But the word went out: tomorrow afternoon, downtown, be there. Read more…

Paul Beatty’s ‘The Sellout’ and the Racism of The Little Rascals

Paul Beatty

“That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book—that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.”

-Paul Beatty’s satirical novel The Sellout, winner of the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction (and now the 2016 Man Booker Prize), is a brutally funny-awful-sad-funny riff on racism in America, about an African American man who attempts to re-segregate his hometown — a fictional suburb of Los Angeles called Dickens. Beatty’s protagonist paints a border around Dickens, distributes “No whites allowed” signs to the local businesses, and gets help from a local celebrity, Hominy Jenkins, who was an understudy to Buckwheat and the last surviving cast member of the 1920s and ’30s serial “The Little Rascals.”

Through Hominy we also get a primer on the racist history of Hollywood — what was removed from public view, and what is still on display today. Beatty’s book led me back through my own childhood memories watching “The Little Rascals” in reruns during the early 1980s, unaware of the racist humor that was excised from syndication. Through The Sellout we get a tour of our ugly cultural past — Our Gang and Looney Tunes as just a start — and Beatty’s humor guides us through the injustices of the present.

Further reading:

• Interview with Paul Beatty (Scott Simon, NPR)
• New York Times Book Review (2015)
• An excerpt from The Sellout

Just Below the Surface

Photo: Oyster Shell // Ivan Walsh

Summer Brennan | The Oyster War | Counterpoint Press | August 2015 | 20 minutes (5,042 words)

The following is an excerpt from Summer Brennan’s excellent The Oyster War: the True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America, appearing courtesy of Counterpoint Press. Buy the book here.

***

The road to the oyster farm is paved with the moon-white grit of pulverized oyster shells. There is a gleam to it, and to drive it in the dusk of the dry summer months is to see the dust-coated leaves of the ditch plants take on the powdery luminosity of white moths.

Hugging the edge of the estuary’s northernmost inlet, the narrow lane rises a little above a lush wetland dotted with egrets and blue herons, and then winds down again to the edge of a vast and shining body of water. This is Drakes Estero, what’s been called “the heart of the park.” The air feels different here. In winter or summer, heat or cold, there is an enlivening bite of freshness.

I was at the farm one evening in the late summer of 2013 to look for Oscar, one of the farm’s workers. He had given me an unauthorized tour of the planting sites the month before, and I was worried that allowing him to do so had accidentally gotten him fired. Word on the street was that it had. I was initially shocked to hear this, but considering how contentious things had gotten, what with the legal battle and all the national media attention, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. For owners Kevin and Nancy Lunny, who by some estimates had already sunk more than a million dollars into their efforts to restore the farm and keep it open, the stakes could not have been higher.

Like many of the oyster workers, Oscar lived in one of the rundown buildings that made up the farm’s small land-based component—a smattering of sheds, cottages, trailers and pre-fab homes. At least, that is what he told me, though I didn’t know if he still lived there. The buildings were scattered over just about an acre and a half, so I figured it wouldn’t take too long to look.

I pulled up and parked my borrowed, mud-splattered 1991 Toyota station wagon in front of a weatherworn white building. A brightly painted sign exclaimed it to be the “Oyster Shack.” No more than 600 square feet in total, it housed the retail portion of the business in front and the tiny hatchery in back, where the oysters were grown from spat (or “seed”) the size of sand grains. On the wall of an adjacent shed was pinned a large American flag.

The pop radio station I’d been listening to on the drive out had turned to white noise. I switched it off and got out of the car. Read more…

‘The Fight Is Yours’: Roxane Gay & Ta-Nehisi Coates on Writing and Talking About Race

Photos via Wikimedia Commons and Flickr

RG: Discussions about race, particularly in mixed company, are often combative and contentious. How the hell do we talk about race?

TC: No idea. I just try to communicate with as much honesty and respect as possible. I think we should not forget that a not so insufficient portion of this country sees it as in their interest to disrupt and marginalize such discussions. Everyone isn’t convince-able…

RG: How can allies best serve as allies? What is an ally? Are they needed?

TC: I don’t know. I think it’s probably terribly important to listen. It’s terribly important to try to become more knowledgeable. It’s important to not expect that acquiring of that knowledge — in this case of the force of racism in American history — to be a pleasant experience or to proceed along just lines. They certainly don’t proceed that way for black people. It’s going to be painful. Finally I think one has to even abandon the phrase “ally” and understand that you are not helping someone in a particular struggle; the fight is yours.

-From a conversation between An Untamed State author Roxane Gay and Between the World and Me author Ta-Nehisi Coates about the challenges in writing and discussing race in our culture, at Barnes & Noble‘s site.

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A Black Woman’s Body on the Tennis Court: Claudia Rankine on Serena Williams

Photo by Jimmy Baikovicius, Flickr

What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like? Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” This appropriated line, stenciled on canvas by Glenn Ligon, who used plastic letter stencils, smudging oil sticks, and graphite to transform the words into abstractions, seemed to be ad copy for some aspect of life for all black bodies.

Hurston’s statement has been played out on the big screen by Serena and Venus: they win sometimes, they lose sometimes, they’ve injured, they’ve been happy, they’ve been sad, ignored, booed mightily (see Indian Wells, which both sisters have boycotted since 2001), they’ve been cheered, and through it all and evident to all were those people who are enraged they are there at all—graphite against a sharp white background.

—Poet Claudia Rankine, writing in Citizen: An American Lyric.  Rankine’s book—a form-shifting treatise on race, primarily composed of prose poems—includes a lengthy essay on Serena Williams’s place in the lily-white world of professional tennis. Citizen has been hugely lauded since its October 2014 publication, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and the 2015 Pen Open Book Award, among others. Williams won her sixth Wimbledon title on Saturday and is currently the top-ranked female tennis player in the world.

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Looter to Who? James Baldwin on Racism in America

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

In 1968, essayist, novelist and activist James Baldwin spoke with Esquire about racism in America, Dr. Martin Luther King, poverty and police brutality. In our current era of high profile police violence in communities like Ferguson, Missouri, and protests in Baltimore, Maryland, Baldwin’s words sound as prescient and, unfortunately, fresh as they did forty-seven years ago, proving the slow pace of progress in America, and how much hard work we have left to do. Below is an excerpt from the interview:

Q. How would you define somebody who smashes in the window of a television store and takes what he wants?

BALDWIN: Before I get to that, how would you define somebody who puts a cat where he is and takes all the money out of the ghetto where he makes it? Who is looting whom? Grabbing off the TV set? He doesn’t really want the TV set. He’s saying screw you. It’s just judgment, by the way, on the value of the TV set. He doesn’t want it. He wants to let you know he’s there. The question I’m trying to raise is a very serious question. The mass media-television and all the major news agencies-endlessly use that word “looter”. On television you always see black hands reaching in, you know. And so the American public concludes that these savages are trying to steal everything from us, And no one has seriously tried to get where the trouble is. After all, you’re accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting. I think it’s obscene.

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‘A Century of Public Policy Designed to Segregate and Impoverish its Black Population’

Photo by Arash Azizzada

As I described in the Making of Ferguson, the federal government maintained a policy of segregation in public housing nationwide for decades. This was as true in northeastern cities like New York as it was in border cities like Baltimore and St. Louis. In 1994, civil rights groups sued the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), alleging that HUD had segregated its public housing in Baltimore and then, after it had concentrated the poorest African American families in projects in the poorest neighborhoods, HUD and the city of Baltimore demolished the projects, and purposely relocated the former residents into other segregated black neighborhoods. An eventual settlement required the government to provide vouchers to former public housing residents for apartments in integrated neighborhoods, and supported this provision with counseling and social services to ensure that families’ moves to integrated neighborhoods would have a high likelihood of success. Although the program is generally considered a model, it affects only a small number of families, and has not substantially dismantled Baltimore’s black ghetto.

In 1970, declaring that the federal government had established a “white noose” around ghettos in Baltimore and other cities, HUD Secretary George Romney proposed denying federal funds for sewers, water projects, parkland, or redevelopment to all-white suburbs that resisted integration by maintaining exclusionary zoning ordinances (that prohibited multi-unit construction) or by refusing to accept subsidized moderate-income or public low-income housing. In the case of Baltimore County, he withheld a sewer grant that had previously been committed, because of the county’s policies of residential segregation. It was a very controversial move, but Romney got support from Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had been frustrated by unreasonable suburban resistance to integration and mixed income developments when he had been the Baltimore County Executive and governor of Maryland. In a 1970 speech to the National Alliance of Businessmen, Agnew attacked attempts to solve the country’s racial problems by pouring money into the inner city as had been done in the Johnson administration. Agnew said that he flatly rejected the assumption that “because the primary problems of race and poverty are found in the ghettos of urban America, the solutions to these problems must also be found there… Resources needed to solve the urban poverty problem—land, money, and jobs—exist in substantial supply in suburban areas, but are not being sufficiently utilized in solving inner-city problems.”

-From Richard Rothstein’s essay at the Economic Policy Institute, examining “a century of public policy designed, consciously so, to segregate and impoverish its black population. A legacy of these policies is the rioting we have seen in Baltimore.”

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