I’m a history buff. Or rather, my parents are history buffs and therefore, it rubbed off on me. For my dad, history is his jam, with particular emphasis on the Civil War. We would take trips to obscure (and not so obscure) Civil War battlefields and watch documentaries on the big players of both the Union and the Confederacy. So I consider myself to know a few random facts about the Civil War and Reconstruction. However, despite Juneteenth appearing in my Google Calendar in recent years, I had no idea what it was. I honestly thought Google had made up a clever June Nineteenth name just ’cause. And boy do I feel ignorant.
In the wake of the protests spreading across the globe following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I felt compelled to do more. I didn’t want to risk protests during a pandemic (although I completely understand and support those who did). I wondered how these protests were different than the ones following Trayvon Martin’s death. How these calls for change were any different than those following the Sandy Hook shooting. Time and again, I’ve seen how people stand up and say “hey, this is wrong and we demand action” and then no action comes of it.
But this does seem different. My way of taking action may not have been public protest but I talked to friends about their feelings, I am examining my own behaviors and knowledge and have found that saying “that’s such a tragedy” or “the cycle of poverty is hard to break” just wasn’t good enough. So my friends and I started a book club. This might seem small in the scheme of things and having never participated in a book club before, had the potential to be derailed but so far, we have been able to not just educate ourselves on a topic but share other resources we have come across.
The book we chose was The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander which sadly and shockingly is 10 years old but still relevant and as far as I can see, accurate. This books ties well together with the Civil War knowledge, especially after recently watching a mini-series on General Ulysses S. Grant (then President Grant), covering the Civil War, Reconstruction and his presidency. The New Jim Crow blows the lid off my brain as it explains how following the Civil War (and Juneteenth), there was a period of advancement and measures of equality among freed slaves. But then white people got tricky and introduced the Jim Crow Laws which legally and easily prevented the advancement of blacks in America. And then we had the Civil Rights Movement and the Jim Crow Laws were overthrown. And all was right with the world, right?
Nope. Then there was this other tricky bit which Michelle Alexander calls the New Jim Crow. The new tricks and legal twists that were implemented to keep blacks covertly separate, to keep them in a cycle of poverty, to keep them as second class citizens and build the system we’re seeing now of prejudice in the law and minds of society while still saying “but look! Integration is done and racism is gone”. My mind is blown. My mind goes back to Captain America and the Hydra motto: cut off one head, two more will grow in its place. And for the non-nerds out there, Hydra was basically the underlying villain for centuries, masked as overt evil like the Nazis. But even when the Nazis are defeated, Hydra prevails in the hearts and minds of the average citizen, lurking below the surface and manipulating the people (end nerd rant).
And we are only on Chapter 1. CHAPTER 1!!!! Through our conversations, we have come up with a few ‘supplemental resources’ among ourselves that either build on Alexander’s writings or our own understanding of what is going on. Those include:
- 13TH – While I haven’t watched this yet, this documentary aligns with what is examined in The New Jim Crow: the prison system and how it’s disproportionately filled with black men. Named for the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery in the Constitution, this was made in 2016 (available on Netflix).
2. A White Woman, Racism and a Poodle – absolutely absurd, relatable and tragic story. This was shared by a friend on Instagram about a white woman’s experience living in a town where she was frequently pulled over for impeding traffic aka: going just under, at, or just over the speed limit, and ultimately what she realized as the real reason for the police obsession.
3. LA-92 – this recommendation came from a member of my book club. After watching the trailer, I can see how it came up and also how important it is for those of us who don’t personally remember the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots to understand. Does it look familiar to you?
There is still a lot for us to learn and understand and even after we get to Chapter 2 (let alone the whole book), we still will probably never understand what it’s like. But I’ve seen so many people taking steps: protesting, reading, educating, promoting, supporting. That maybe this time will be different and maybe this time, the change will be lasting and we won’t be reading The New, New Jim Crow in 20 years.