Noah Brier | June 2, 2020

Why is this interesting? - The Today Edition

On racism, history, and America

Noah here. One of the rules of WITI is that we stay away from domestic politics. If you know us, you’ll know it’s not because we aren’t interested, but because we believe there are better places to find thoughts on the day-to-day machinations of our country’s government. 

What’s happening right now obviously transcends that rule. I agree with those protesting. It’s clear we need radical change if we ever hope to unravel the systemic racism that is tightly woven into so many parts of American society and government, particularly the police. I also recognize that as a white man, I can never have the depth of perspective required to properly articulate what it's like to live in this country while black. 

So, in the open-minded, curious, and collaborative spirit of WITI, I thought it was best to do the thing we’ve been doing since we started: sharing some of the most affecting articles I’ve read on race in America, the great majority of them from black writers. This is most definitely not meant to be a syllabus, but rather a list of articles that have most shaped my view on how America works and doesn’t work for a great many people, and how deeply embedded racism is in this country. The list obviously has holes and isn’t even comprehensive to my own reading. But these are the pieces I have either shared most with others or continue to come back to my mind months or years later.

As always, I would welcome your thoughts and contributions by simply replying to this email or leaving a comment. We are also always looking for more contributors, particularly ones who are not white men, if you’re interested please get in touch and we will share the contributor’s guide.

Onto the links …

Today’s Links:

  • The whole 1619 Project was amazing, but I was particularly moved by Nikole Hannah Jones’ opening piece, Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true. It offered a historical perspective that touched on nearly every major American event of the last four hundred years, extending my understanding of the depths of systemic racism far deeper into every aspect of American history than I had previously understood. Here’s a small bit about World War II: “We like to call those who lived during World War II the Greatest Generation, but that allows us to ignore the fact that many of this generation fought for democracy abroad while brutally suppressing democracy for millions of American citizens. During the height of racial terror in this country, black Americans were not merely killed but castrated, burned alive and dismembered with their body parts displayed in storefronts. This violence was meant to terrify and control black people, but perhaps just as important, it served as a psychological balm for white supremacy: You would not treat human beings this way. The extremity of the violence was a symptom of the psychological mechanism necessary to absolve white Americans of their country’s original sin. To answer the question of how they could prize liberty abroad while simultaneously denying liberty to an entire race back home, white Americans resorted to the same racist ideology that Jefferson and the framers had used at the nation’s founding.”

  • Speaking of Nikole Hannah Jones, her piece on choosing a school to send her daughter to in Brooklyn was an excellent look at the realities of segregation in New York City schools, something I leaned on heavily as I thought about where to send my own daughter to kindergarten in the same borough.

  • More recently I found this piece she wrote in 2015 for ProPublica, Yes, Black America Fears the Police. Here’s Why. “As far as we could tell, no one had been hurt. The shooter was long gone, and we had seen the back of him for only a second or two. On the other hand, calling the police posed considerable risks. It carried the very real possibility of inviting disrespect, even physical harm. We had seen witnesses treated like suspects, and knew how quickly black people calling the police for help could wind up cuffed in the back of a squad car. Some of us knew of black professionals who’d had guns drawn on them for no reason.”

  • Speaking of having guns drawn on you for no reason, here’s a piece Ty Ahmad Taylor, a friend of mine, wrote in 2014 about all the times he’s been stopped by police.

  • While this isn’t strictly about race, this 2012 n+1 piece about prisons is one I come back to often. It argues, essentially, that we’ve merely shifted crime from our cities to our prisons. “The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie—but as the single most shameful lie in American life.”

  • In a year when we have seen a massive disparity in COVID deaths along racial lines, I have often come back to this 2018 New York Times Magazine piece, Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis. This bit in particular stood out: “In 2016, a study by researchers at the University of Virginia examined why African-American patients receive inadequate treatment for pain not only compared with white patients but also relative to World Health Organization guidelines. The study found that white medical students and residents often believed incorrect and sometimes ‘fantastical’ biological fallacies about racial differences in patients. For example, many thought, falsely, that blacks have less-sensitive nerve endings than whites, that black people’s blood coagulates more quickly and that black skin is thicker than white.” There’s even some evidence that one of the reasons the black community wasn’t hit as hard by the opioid crisis is because doctors are less likely to prescribe painkillers to black patients.

  • I think I have read almost everything Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote for The Atlantic. The Case for Reparations probably sticks out most, though I also often think of his coverage of Obama, particularly My President Was Black and Fear of a Black President.

  • Speaking of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me is one of the few books I’ve read in the last decade that I walked away thinking, “this will be an important book twenty years from now.” It’s a letter from Coates to his son about being black in America. Towards the beginning he explains, “But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”

  • Speaking of that belief, I spent some time last year digging into the data around the relationship between race and genetics, or rather the lack thereof. It was spurred by this excellent two-and-a-half-hour takedown of The Bell Curve. Which I followed with a bunch of source reading, including this excellent piece on How Heritability Misleads about Race and this 1994 Bell Curve review from NYRB, The Tainted Sources of ‘The Bell Curve’, which rips apart the deeply racist sources Charles Murray cites. 

  • Finally, I’ve been thinking often of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and came back to this piece by Wesley Morris on how “the Oscars keep falling for racial reconciliation fantasies.” In particular, this bit keeps floating around my brain: “Any time a white person comes anywhere close to the rescue of a black person the academy is primed to say, ‘Good for you!,’ whether it’s 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' 'Mississippi Burning,' 'The Blind Side,' or 'The Help.' The year 'Driving Miss Daisy' won those Oscars, Morgan Freeman also had a supporting role in a drama ('Glory') that placed a white Union colonel at its center and was very much in the mix that night. (Denzel Washington won his first Oscar for playing a slave-turned-Union soldier in that movie.) And Spike Lee lost the original screenplay award for 'Do the Right Thing,' his masterpiece about a boiled-over pot of racial animus in Brooklyn. I was 14 then, and the political incongruity that night was impossible not to feel. 'Driving Miss Daisy' and 'Glory' were set in the past and the people who loved them seemed stuck there. The giddy reception for 'Miss Daisy' seemed earnest. But Lee’s movie dramatized a starker truth — we couldn’t all just get along.”

Like I said at the top, this is my list, or at least a portion of it. None of these pieces present answers to how to reform the system as it exists now, but, at least for me, they offered some context to help me try and better understand, empathize, and support in whatever way I can. (NRB)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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