Review: “A Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality, and the Law”, Ifill, Lynch, Stevenson, Thompson

This is a book that consists of a discussion between four persons: Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund (LDF), Loretta Lynch, the eighty-third attorney general of the United States, Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and Anthony C. Thompson, a professor of clinical law and the faculty director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at New York University School of Law.

It’s a quite varied and senseful debate, if one can call it as such, where those persons speak of inequality, indifference, inherent racism, and the consequences of capitalism, almost entirely in regards to the USA. If one has read Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Jill Leovy, and similar thinkers, this will not be entirely new information that will blow your mind.

However, it is quite a necessary book that brings much-needed stuff and information to the surface. For example, from Stevenson:

Bryan Stevenson: I think if you don’t hold people accountable for the narrative assaults that they make, then you’re never going to prevail. Because the South never voted for the Voting Rights Act, or the Civil Rights Act. They regrouped, started organizing in precisely the way you are describing, and then, forty-eight years later, they won a Supreme Court case, Shelby County, because their narrative persuaded the United States Supreme Court that we don’t need the Voting Rights Act anymore (at a time when we still saw the same suppression efforts). So I agree.

I look at domestic violence. When we were young, there was a show on TV called The Honeymooners. And the punchline was Jackie Gleason saying to his wife, “To the moon, Alice,” which was a threat of violence. And everybody laughed. We didn’t take domestic violence seriously. When women called the police to their homes after being assaulted, the cops would tell. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a piece of federal legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin in nearly every sphere of American life, including voting, public accommodations, public education, public facilities, and employment. jokes to the guy to get him calm. As long as he was calm, they wouldn’t make arrests. And then we began to work on the narrative. We actually allowed women who are survivors of that violence to have a voice. They made the movie The Burning Bed. And we started talking about the pain and the injury and the suffering. Before you knew it, we started to think differently about that. And today, even these elite, professional athletes are risking something—not nearly enough, we still have a long way to go—when they engage in these acts of violence.

I think we’ve seen the same thing on climate change. But we haven’t made that kind of effort on race in my view, to direct things at the communities that need a narrative shift. And I think until we do that, we’re not going to make progress.

What all of the participants speak of is mainly the need for change via grassroots movements; naturally, the corporations (which are effectively in power in a plutocratic oligarchy, which the USA is in 2018) will not do this for us:

Loretta Lynch: We have to focus on growing the next group of people who are going to join the political discourse, and in fact wield that power at a local level. I think it’s important, because we were blessed for eight years. We had a wonderful president. He will go down in history as one of our greatest presidents. I was tremendously proud to work for him. But politics is about more than who the president is. Law enforcement is about more than who the Attorney General is. It’s so much more than that. What we were trying to do is to travel across the country and empower local voices, to highlight people who are dealing with these issues in communities at the grassroots level. And we were trying to lift their voices up, amplify them, and share them with the nation. Those voices are still out there.

This is a little book which exudes eloquence and honesty. Another example:

Bryan Stevenson: Well, it’s sort of funny. We’re doing this cultural work, and for me it’s been very energizing, because I went to South Africa, and what I experienced there was that people insisted on making sure I understood the damage that was done by apartheid. When I talked to Rwandans, you can’t spend time in Rwanda without them telling you about all of the damage done by the genocide. I go to Berlin, and you can’t go a hundred meters without seeing those markers and monuments that have been placed near the homes of Jewish families that were abducted during the Holocaust. The Germans want you to go to the Berlin Holocaust Memorial. And then I come to this country, and we don’t talk about slavery. We don’t talk about lynching. We don’t talk about segregation. And so, our project is really trying to create a new landscape. I never thought during my law practice that I’d be spending so much time working on a museum, but our museum is called “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.” We have to get people to understand the damage that was done to this country with this legacy.

We kidnapped 12 million Africans. Kidnapped them. Brought them across the ocean in this torturous journey. Killed millions of them. Held them in captivity for centuries. And we haven’t acted as though we did anything wrong. We must increase a consciousness of wrongdoing: lynching over four thousand people, taking black people out of their homes, burning them alive, hanging them from trees, brutalizing them, causing one of the largest mass migrations in the history of the world, when 6 million black people fled the American South for the North and West as refugees and exiles from terror. And then segregation: saying to black children every day, “You can’t go to school because you’re black. You can’t vote because you’re black.” And we haven’t really developed any shame about this history. So what I want to do is, I want to increase the shame index of America. Because we do a lot of things great—we do sports, we do all that stuff. But we don’t do mistake very well. We don’t apologize very well.

And if you don’t learn to be shameful about shameful misbehavior, you’ll keep doing that behavior over and over again. I think if you say, “I’m sorry,” it doesn’t make you weak, it makes you strong. You show me two people who’ve been in love for fifty years, and I’ll show you two people who’ve learned how to apologize to one another when they get into trouble. I think we have to create that cultural moment where apologizing becomes okay. And part of the reason why we don’t want to talk about this history, is we’ve become such a punitive society. Most people think, well, if we talk about slavery, lynching, segregation, someone is going to have to get punished. And I just want to say to people, “I don’t have any interest in punishing America for its past.” I represent people who have done really terrible things. I’m not interested in prioritizing punishment. I want to liberate us. I want to get to the point where we can say, “That was bad and that was wrong and we need to get to someplace that’s better!” I want to deal with this smog created by our history of racial inequality, so we can all breathe something healthy, feel something healthy.

All in all, this is a great book to read for injecting some much-needed voices that are not likely to be aired over mainstream media.

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