American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of an Underclass (Massey & Dento

When Massey’s name appeared on the City Club site, I decided it was time to pick up this book. Plus, I’m intrigued by Rothstein’s new book, The Color of Law, and he’s coming to the City Club also, but his book is still in hardback.

In American Apartheid, Massey and Denton make a very convincing case residential segregation is the root cause of a range of problems, problems that are increasingly become the norm as the generations pass. They also argue that this segregation, though informed by class, is largely race-based, and its creation and maintenance (to this day) is very much deliberate.

I could not always follow the statistical pieces, but I tended to get the gist of them. If there are any flaws here, it is that this book can, at times, sound like a dissertation. Perhaps it’s the product of it being a collaboration, but it felt like there was too much repetition. A minor complaint. When I hit those sections, I tended to skim.


Locking Up Our Own (Forman Jr.)

During the Holocaust, some Jews were enlisted? compelled? by the Nazis to serve as camp leaders or other kinds of functionaries. It was a masterful kind of psychological slavery, making these Jews or kapos, select the people who would get on those trains. I can understand why some people took the job as a feeble attempt to control what they could of a situation that was escalating at a pace and to a scale rapidly beyond their comprehension. At least, I think that was their intention. But we know about the road to Hell. . .

I’m not sure this comparison is apt, but it lingered in my mind as I read Forman’s book. As the title possessive pronoun indicates, this book focuses on how some blacks participated – actively, even eagerly – in constructing the intricate mechanism that we know now as mass incarceration. Forman makes two points about this. First, he argues that no one sees or is responsible for the whole big picture. Hence, no one was paying attention to its accumulated impact. I am less convinced about the second part of his argument – that since this system was built up piece by piece over time it will have to be dismantled piece by piece over time. There are so many interested in protecting / preserving / profiting from the status quo, that piece-by-piece would take too long. There is the “fierce urgency of now,” an urgency that includes my own students.

More convincing, though, is the evidence Forman presents about how some members of the black community who had the best of intentions (there’s that word again), became co-architects of what has become the destruction of their own communities. I was particulary interested in the elements of class and colorism that Forman introduced, topics I haven’t really considered in depth. To be fair, though, some of these people sought an “all-of-the-above” approach, but with the escalating intensity of the drug trade and its correlation with the influx of guns, the notion of a Marshall Plan for cities was abandoned, leaving only warrior policing behind.

As an English teacher, I appreciated Forman’s attention to language. The way we talk about these things matters. What if we called it “a war on guns” and “drug control”?

Forman at the City Club in Cleveland

Book Club discussion at the City Club May 22

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Stevenson)

Stevenson is coming to Cleveland in March, so I ordered the book (which deserves a wider release and a much better cover). If you’re in the area, I hope you can make it ( The book starts off as a kind of memoir, a coming-of-age or awareness story as Stevenson finds himself and his true calling in the prisons and especially in the death rows of the south. He writes with remarkable clarity and precision about moments that transformed him and his thinking – getting accosted by the SWAT team outside of his apartment in Atlanta because he remained in his car to listen to a Sly and the Family Stone marathon, for example.

He focuses on the case of Walter McMillan, one of his first cases. He recounts, in an impressively straightforward manner, the case against McMillan and how it was, and there’s no better word for it, concocted. He takes us through the steps he and his still new organization took to try to right this very large wrong. To his credit, Stevenson does not end the account of McMillan’s case after it is resolved (trying to avoid spoilers here). Instead, he follows the story of the human being.

From the title to the ending, this is a stunning and important book about issues that demand not only our attention, but our action. We can’t let Stevenson or even his organization ( stand alone.