Tag Archives: non-fiction

On the History of Racist Ideas in America

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in AmericaStamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This definitive history starts with Aristotle and a few other ancients that the Founding Fathers would have read. And it surges on to the present (at the time of writing). In spite of the multitude of sources, Kendi succeeds in making the welter readable. That readability, Kendi accomplished by creating a frame and relentlessly keeping that frame in front of readers. He divides the ideas into three groups:
“A group we can call segregationists has blamed Black people themselves for the racial disparities. A group we can call antiracists has pointed to racial discrimination. A group we can call assimilationists has tried to argue for both” (2). And by Kendi’s definition, racist ideas are those that posit one race as superior to another; hence, both segregationist and assimilationist ideas are racist ideas.

His project is made more complex because one person’s thought can exhibit all three in either different speeches/writings or even the same piece. And people can change. For the most part Kendi led me through the maze; however, the W.E.B.DeBois section was least easy to follow. I think that may be explained by two things: it was the longest section, and the nuance had to increase as the complexity increased.

Two points he made really shifted my thinking: First, the distinction between hating Whites and hating racism and the problem when commentators treat them as equivalent. This helped destroy some claims of reverse racism. And second, the problem with explanation as a solution: After discussing how proof of Obama’s birthplace did not end the birther controversy, Kendi says, “[Birther ideas] were not started out of ignorance, so why would they go away out of knowledge?”(494).

In the Epilogue Kendi speaks of strategies for antiracists. It was a whirlwind section that made me want more detail. I am hoping to find the detail in his How to Be an Antiracist.

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Another Book: Bill McKibben’s Falter

Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Since I associate Bill McKibben with climate change writing, I was surprised to hear this book was also about Artificial Intelligence. I went to hear his presentation about the book. (I live in Portland where we have Powell’s City of Books, and authors come to talk about their recent works.) It was done as a dialogue and the questioner dealt only with the climate stuff, as did most of the Q & A. Until the last question. Someone asked about AI. Of course now there was no time. But his answer indicated that he felt we were at a beginning of awareness of AI akin to where we were on carbon in the 70s.

Now even more interested, I got on the library wait list and finally got the book.

The book begins with climate stuff, updates on research. A couple details especially interested me: As the earth warms, the protein content of some plants decreases. At certain concentration of carbon, our cognitive abilities decrease. (I don’t remember how far in the future or what percentage.)

Then the AI. He cites goals and claims of speed of anticipated accomplishments, exponential. He discusses designer babies–not just medical adjustments, but choices of intelligence and character and . . . The latter would be changes that could be passed on genetically, so affecting more than the baby itself. One critique he made was that Designer Baby 1 would have a selection of traits that the parents deemed desirable. Then the science would continue so that Designer Baby 2 would have an even more enhanced set. Thus Baby 1’s time of functional superiority would be short lived, soon to be outdated by the next model, as with most technology.

He discusses solutions in the third section, managing to maintain hope for a move to solidarity even while acknowledging the counterforce of individualism. So the book ends on a cautious hopefulness.

While there is scientific information, the book is readable. And there are footnotes for those who want to follow up. I especially appreciated the balance of his ending.

Lots of good books ahead. But I think it is time for something light and then some sewing.

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Shifting from ‘Criminal Justice’ Frame to ‘Racial Justice’ Frame in One Book

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Because this book has been around since 2010, information from it has trickled into my awareness. Still, there was much in it that I did not already know.

Alexander (no relation) explicated in detail how laws that sound neutral can be racist in their effect; the drug war involves such laws. The short version: blacks and whites use and sell drugs at about the same rate; blacks are imprisoned with felony charges, whites are less likely to be so charged. Felony charges affect people for life after prison: no public housing, no food stamps, the box on employment applications–becoming outcasts. Whites are less likely to go to jail. The judicial system has made it impossible to win lawsuits claiming racism unless there is overt hostile intent–impact is ignored.

She shows how nothing can change without a change in public consciousness as she traces similarities in slavery, Jim Crow, and contemporary drug-war imprisonments. Attitudes find new ways to express themselves and maintain what she names a racial caste system.

The book is very detailed, as it must be, to show the systemic nature of the racism she addresses, something that occurs on an almost subconscious level. I did find the similarities section of Chapter 5, “The New Jim Crow” to repeat too much of what had been clearly presented before, but when she got to the differences, new information surfaced.

The concluding chapter, “The Fire This Time,” defends her claim that legislative change alone will only open new variations of oppression unless public consciousness changes as well. She discusses other solutions that have not worked, including “color blindness.” The claimed neutrality of “color blindness” serves to mask systemic racism. Rather than becoming blind to color, we need to stop being blind to injustice. We need to learn to talk about race. (This is beginning to happen more in the years since the book’s publication.) She points to a time when slaves and white impoverished workers were divided even though they had issues in common and urges a return to working together.

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This Year’s Everybody Reads Book

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American CityEvicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a timely “Everybody Reads” book because of the housing crisis in Portland, OR (some rents increased as much as 100%, gentrification, lack of affordable housing).

Ethnography tends to produce readable books, and this one is no exception. The book is about 90% narrative, stories of people in Milwaukee who experience not one, but serial evictions. Interspersed among the stories are comments about statistics and trends. And the final two chapters discuss causes and possible solutions to the housing crisis and methods. One fault was pointed out in a panel discussion that the author didn’t situate himself as white, male, a reflective move usually associated with ethnography. Strengths were that he triangulated sources so that his lived experiences among the evicted were corroborated by statistics and surveys.

The panel discussing the book included a sociologist, an urban planner,who specializes in intersections of race and gender, and a community psychologist. The book’s finding that evictions cause poverty instead of vice versa was presented as new information to sociology, though not to urban planning.

The stories are vivid, the experiences depressing. It is well written, but still hard reading. Some evictions were for trivial issues. Not all were for non-payment of rent. Property managers would sometimes work with those behind in rent, other times not. It seemed arbitrary. Court expenses were added on, so that the person whose rent was 3/4 or more of their monthly check had more to pay than just back rent to clear their records. In addition, it was hard to get another place to rent with a recent eviction on their record, starting a downward spiral. Every eviction disrupted not only the family, but also the neighborhood network. And then there were the school changes for the children. Another finding of the book was that the more children one had, the more likely they family to be evicted.

In the solution section, Desmond observes, if housing is a basic right, we have to rethink “the right to make as much money as possible by providing families with housing–and especially to profit excessively from the less fortunate” (305). Where previously we have made choices favoring profit, we need to reconsider those choices and values. Without that change, he asks us how we would respond to a situation where we could make a lot of money. Thus even while faulting the system, he is sympathetic to the landlords and property managers.

It is definitely a book worth reading and pondering. Then working to make changes needed to alleviate the problem of housing insecurity.

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Among Portland traditions is the all day event called Wordstock, an event currently presented by Literary Arts and held in several venues near the Portland Art Museum. After last year when the crowds were twice the number expected and disgruntled people stood in line but still didn’t get in to sessions, it was a relief to have the six added venues. Large auditoriums were almost filled, but a few empty seats remained, so I’m guessing that most people got in to sessions of their choice.

Several of my choices were sessions recorded for later presentation on Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB)’s Thinking Out Loud, starting with Sherman Alexie in dialog. He read his first picture book, Thunder Boy, Jr., interspersing many observations and anecdotes. In addition to enjoying his humor, I appreciated his observation that laughter, in addition to making harsh reality bearable, functions as prayer.

Last year I came home with a list of 12 books, mostly all novels, to add to my to-read list. This year there were fewer books and novels for later. One session was a dud–bad acoustics, bad diction. Who knows, I might have been interested in one of the books had I heard what was said.

I did come away wanting to read two memoirs from teachers: Michael Copperman’s Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta, for a more realistic look at what a teacher can accomplish than the Hollywood myth, and Nicholson Baker’s Substitute: Going to School With One Thousand Kids for some of his observations about meaningful education.

Baker and an afternoon presenter, Sallie Tisdale, made similar observations from their childhoods and recommended their freedom: each had been allowed to read anything they wanted to.

From the session titled “Tales of Two Americas,” I came away with novels (Richard Russo), essays (Karen Russell) and poetry (Kevin Young) to read. Don’t hold your breath, but someday there will be posts reviewing these various readings.





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Boys in the Boat–A Good Read

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin OlympicsThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the most amazing things about this book was that in spite of knowing the ending, it was suspenseful through and through. The second amazing thing is that it explained rowing to someone who had no clue (me) and little interest in sports in such a way that it was clear but not too much.

The story of the road to the Olympics is told mostly from the perspective of Joe Rantz; however, as he requested, it is told in the context of “the boat”–more than the shell that they propelled with oars, “the boat” is the spirit of the team working together in perfect harmony. The physical boat too is a character, and Pocock, its maker, stands out as one filled with wisdom about people as well as rowing and boat building.

The story is told in the context of the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the drums of encroaching World War II. Joe’s surmounting of personal struggles as well as economic is admirable.

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Memoir: a way into understanding self and others

The Language of BaklavaThe Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I read that each vignette was to be related to a food, I thought, This isn’t going to work; I’m going to be bored quickly. However, food was so important to Abu-Jaber’s father, his family, and culture, that it did work. I was soon caught up in the narrative and the organizing device slipped into the background. I would be reminded with each recipe, then it would again retreat.

I have read about first-generation dual-culture challenges, but this is the first second-generation memoir I have read. Not only the push-pull of old-country Vs. new-country values and expectations, but also parent expectations Vs. peer expectations added to the complexity of Diana’s growing up. In spite of narrating teen-ager frustration and rebellion, Abu-Jaber presents a sympathetic portrait of her father. Her mother, though mentioned less often, is still a dominant figure, also presented sympathetically.

Abu-Jaber’s descriptive language pulled me into the appeal of each culture, periods of confusion, times of identifying with where she was, and times of missing where she was not. Making the transition from living in New York state to Jordan, she describes her first ride through town: “The sidewalks are not like the orderly, straight-line sidewalks of our old neighborhood. Here, they wind around and roam this way and that, as if they’ve decided to go where they pleased.” On returning to a Jordanian city after visiting Bedouin relatives, she ponders ” . . . a larger, more formless question, something about whether people have to decide exactly who they are and where their home is. Do we have to know who we are once and for all? How many lives are we allowed?”

The book was well paced. I didn’t have any moments of “when will this end?” that sometimes occur about three quarters of the way through a memoir. It is not only a good read, but opens a necessary window on immigrant experience, on insights of identity formation, some of which are transferable to non-immigrants.

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