Heather McGhee, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together: Similar ground to Dying of Whiteness—ways in which racism divides whites from people of color, especially Black people, and thus leads to worse outcomes for everyone. The public pools that were closed around the country to avoid integration, denying everyone but people who could afford private pools the ability to swim so that they wouldn’t be swimming together, are both metaphor and very concrete example of this general worsening. With pools, “[a] once-public resource became a luxury amenity, and entire communities lost out on the benefits of public life and civic engagement once understood to be the key to making American democracy real. Today, we don’t even notice the absence of the grand resort pools in our communities ….” Appeals to white racism allowed Republicans to switch from high marginal taxes and investment in the middle class to low taxes and disinvestment. In 1980, five out of six students at public colleges were white; now it’s under six in ten; and it is no accident that public funding for higher education was gutted during this transition, and student debt skyrocketed—including for the whites who are still the majority of those borrowers (though they carry lower debt loads). McGhee wrote before the most recent round of voter suppression measures, but those too will disenfranchise a lot of white people in order to disproportionately harm Black voters. And pollution in minority communities hurts and kills those communities, but also contaminates nearby white communities: more segregation means worse air quality in a city, even controlling for poverty.
Thus, McGhee argues, progressive politics should focus on rejecting the zero-sum framing which is right now the automatic way in which many whites perceive progressive policies, even ones presented in race-neutral terms. For example, she emphasizes the benefits of diversity, not for white people but for decisionmaking, citing research suggesting that groups with less demographic similarity produce better solutions and do better at discovering the different information held by different members. It’s more cognitive effort, which means it’s less comfortable even without racism, but it works better.
Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America: Interesting book on how livestock were central to the encounter between English colonists and Indians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The English assumed that livestock cultivation would both allow the English settlers to control the new lands, transforming them into private property, and “civilize” Indians. But that’s not what happened for a very long time—instead, because of limited labor resources, the colonists regularly let their livestock run wild, which led to more conflict with Indians since the colonists wouldn’t stick to the land they said they wanted. Indians tried to integrate the new animals into their existing worldviews, but colonists often had the raw military power to insist both on their special status as property—even if wandering free in the woods—and on their subordinate status as nonhumans, contrary to many Indian understandings of the natural world. “As agents of empire, livestock occupied land in advance of English settlers, forcing native peoples who stood in their way either to fend the animals off as best they could or else to move on.” Anderson suggests that the intrusions of livestock can explain why Indian violence was primarily directed against settler property, not settler persons, including why they would sometimes mutilate animals instead of carrying them off to eat. Indians knew how much livestock mattered to the English, and the animals had “amply earned the Indians’ enmity in their own right” by destroying Indians’ cultivated crops and eating the plants that deer had previously consumed.
Michael W. Twitty, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South: An awful lot of lists of places, ethnic groups, and foods, but also a narrative of the meaning of food, heritage, and place to a Black man whose conversion to Judaism and his gayness make him often unusual in any group in which he finds himself. Twitty navigates the fact that there are white rapists in his family tree, and that tracing Black genealogy has been difficult because of the erasures of slavery; he uses genetic testing to identify his various lineages and emphasizes its contingent and probabalistic, but still helpful, results.
Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents: If you’ve read a lot about US racism, there might not be much new here—Wilkerson compares it to Indian caste systems because of caste’s requirements of hierarchy and degradation, but I think I might have gotten more from a book about Indian caste systems. Most shocking-but-not-shocking fact: “In hiring black teachers for segregated schools during Jim Crow, a leading southern official, Hoke Smith, made a deliberate decision: ‘When two Negro teachers applied to a school, to “take the less competent.”’ ” I also appreciated Wilkerson’s point that caste is at work “in how the parties respond to their respective bases. The Republican reverence for its base of white evangelicals stands in stark contrast to the indifference often shown the Democratic base of African-Americans ….”
Maria Konnikova, The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win:Konnikova became a pro poker player by apprenticing to a master and listening to his advice, eventually, about how to move past emotional reactions and learn to think about the whole context of a poker game. She wanted to understand risk and chance and assert whatever control she could over an unpredictable world; although she rejects the ten-thousand-hours-of-practice rule, it’s also clear that practice is required, though not sufficient, so that evaluations of situations can become fast and frugal.
Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: How the feds were involved in the creation of the largest carceral state in the world, starting with antipoverty programs that were funneled at least in part through police/law enforcement structures because that was politically simple. The antipoverty focus faded but the crime control remained. Hinton argues that things like after-school programs overseen by police exposed poor kids, especially poor Black kids, to enhanced surveillance, though she doesn’t actually seem to provide evidence that the recordkeeping was such that this really worsened the situation for them. Funding for greater incarceration and moves to longer sentences, by contrast, clearly did.
Sarah Kendzior, Hiding in Plain Sight: A lot of (good) rhetoric but not a lot of facts per page about American corruption and its (I hope) apotheosis in Donald Trump. Her editorials and her earlier book, The View from Flyover Country, would be better reads in terms of forcing us to confront harsh truths about the criminals who have flourished over the past few decades.
Martin Senftleben, The Copyright / Trademark Interface: How the Expansion of Trademark Protection Is Stifling Cultural Creativity: An extensive exploration of copyright/trademark conflicts, where trademark rights are asserted to prevent the free use of cultural symbols that were never in copyright or whose copyright has been expired. He makes a great point that both the US and EU legal systems are much more aggressive about preventing trademark from duplicating or extending patent rights than they are about preventing copyright overlap, suggesting that “we care more about freedom to build upon Lego brick functionality than we care about freedom to remix Mickey Mouse and the Mona Lisa.” Senftleben, understandably, thinks that’s a bad choice.
Allie Brosh, Solutions and Other Problems: More disjointed and rambling than her first book, which she acknowledges and says is a reflection of the disjointedness and meaninglessness of life. Although she’s an engaging writer, and although what happened to her after her first book (serious health crises, both physical and mental) is affecting, I would probably stick with the first book.
Jen Gunter, The Menopause Manifesto: After a few chapters of history/rumination on misogyny in medicine, a very comprehensive overview of what we know about menopause’s physical—including cognitive/emotional—effects and variations, as well as potential treatments for different symptoms that are causing distress. I definitely agree that we need more information about and discussion of menopause: I had no idea that much, much heavier periods—enough so that I became anemic—were reasonably common in the menopause transition, until I started researching. She’s a fan of properly prescribed hormone therapy, and down on compounded medications, whose quality control/dose regularity is worse than Big Pharma’s even though their chemical composition is no more “natural” or better in any other way: “Compounded hormones aren’t helping women avoid the gaps in medicine; they’re exploiting them.”
Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America: Kendi has a very specific, deliberately ahistorical idea of what constitutes racism, or more specifically antiracism, which I don’t think works as well as he does. But the idea of tracing American theories of race from Cotton Mather to Angela Davis is interesting, and I did learn some things.
Sarah Chayes, On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake: While others diagnose our key political problem as monopoly, Chayes thinks that it’s corruption—which both aids and is aided by monopoly. With fewer specifics than I might have hoped for, Chayes draws connections between the US past, the US present, and the present of other countries. For example, in comparing the US Gilded Age and Afghanistan: “Beneath what is usually framed in economic terms as corporate consolidation, I saw clusters of people sorting themselves out into relatively stable, rival—yet often allied—corruption networks.” And she finds continuities among the corrupt. “Every kleptocratic network that I have investigated, from Afghanistan to Honduras to Central Asian or African countries, has included a skein of outright criminals.” Personal relationships through marriage and kinship might not be as vital in the US as in other places [though see Trump] because other US institutions are stronger—colleges, the Koch network, and money, “that leveler.”
The most common and most effective tactic to deploy against anticorruption is to exploit and inflame ethnic or similar identity divisions. The solutions or natural reactions to corruption come from the labor movement or, if alternatives seem useless, violent extremism; widespread disasters like WWII offer the opportunity for reform. Chayes suggests redefined and expanded criminal prohibitions on bribery and enforcement thereof; also there is no alternative to civic education and continued activism.
E. Charlotte Stevens, Fanvids: Television, Women, and Home Media Re-Use: An overview of where vidding has been and its place in the “archive” of our relations to TV. I didn’t learn a lot but it was a useful collection of scholarship and also has some nice close readings, including of vids by giandujakiss and dualbunny .
Anjali Vats, The Color of Creatorship: Intellectual Property, Race, and the Making of Americans: A provocative book more compelling in its arguments about the racialization of copyright and patent law than about trademark. Makes an excellent case, with really awful examples, that creativity and invention were constructed as things for white people, which led to rights for white people and expropriation for nonwhites, as with much popular music. Also: Black victories in fair use cases “ghettoized Black creatorship by protecting only the most exceptional artists and relegating all others to the category of copyright thugs.” And: black innovators in music who sampled were dangerous, but white innovators in internet services whose services led to widescale copying were geniuses; who gets to “move fast and break things” without going to jail is heavily racialized. But the evidence for racialization in trademark law was much less persuasive; trademark disadvantage seems to stem from lack of access to capital and courts rather than biases within the doctrine itself. I also found some tension in her discussion of Simon Tam (who took a case to the Supreme Court to gain the right to register The Slants as a trademark for his band) as essentially an unwitting tool of white capitalism versus Prince and Marshawn Lynch as problematic but still powerful examples of resistance even if they couldn’t overcome larger structures of racial capitalism.