Over the Transom: Under the Radar and Worth a Read

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JOHN MCWHORTER SEPTEMBER 12, 2009

Over the Transom: Under the Radar and Worth a Read

I used to try to read every book that came over the transom. That didn’t last long, but there are always those amidst the flow that grab my attention, and among them, a few that really stick with me. Lately I have been struck by three.

Marcus LiBrizzi exhumes the story of the tiny Atusville community on the outskirts of a small town in Maine (Lost Atusville: A Black Settlement from the American Revolution). Atusville was a black district – but not one of the grand old bustling commercial black meccas that thrived in most large American cities until the fifties like Chicago’s Bronzeville. It consisted of a few dozen people from a small collection of families, with a surprising number of interracial marriages that seem not to have attracted particular notice, from the community’s founding couple in the 1700s to the parents of the last resident, after whose death in 1965 the community ceased to exist.

 

 

We often hear of how the broad pallette of black complexions is traceable to coercive plantation unions and latterly Strom Thurmond-style shenanigans, but less about more ordinary northern relationships like these. It was the kind of thing that was more likely when black populations had not reached a certain threshhold, after which in city after city, violent segregation tended to set in (Thomas Boyle’s Arc of Justice is excellent on this in Detroit).

 

Yet Atusville was never exactly a racial paradise. There was a tunnel likely used as part of the Underground Railroad (thought lost, except that a mysterious pit opened up in the lawn in front of a Verizon branch not long ago right where maps would place the old tunnel). Plus, “Atusville” is a modern coinage: to contemporaries it was called “Nigger-Town Crossing.”

 

LiBrizzi resurrects the old place as much as historical and modern evidence allow, and even leaves us with a surprise ending that I won’t spoil here.

 

Since 2005, it has been common among people seeking a fresh but “safe” view of Affirmative Action to read and recommend Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White. And with good reason: one should know, before objecting to racial preference policies that whites never got a leg up, that grand old New Deal legislation and the G.I. Bill were explicitly crafted to discourage equal assistance to blacks.

 

However, one book that I had somehow missed was Richard Kahlenberg’s The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action. It was published in 1996, but I am here breaking the unwritten rule that in spaces like this one announces only the brand new. That rule is somewhat arbitrary, after all, and Kahlenberg’s is a book all people interested in racial preferences should attend to – especially lately, when cases like the New Haven firefighter one are just the beginning of a long-term reassessment of “classic” conceptions of Affirmative Action based on race.

 

Kahlenberg’s argument is simply that “If Bill Cosby’s kids are given preferences in college admissions and employment opportunities while a coal miner’s kids are shut out, then something has gone very wrong.” He espouses basing preferences on class, whereupon black people will be helped disproportionately in any case because of the fact we all aware of, which is that more blacks are poor proportionally than whites. It’s a similar argument to the one NYU sociologist Dalton Conley has made of late, and should be aired more widely.

 

My impression is that this book is one of those that got lost. Many always will, and sometimes they deserve it (including at least a couple of mine!). But there is no principled reason that this book was read less than the more dramatically promoted and received The Shape of the River by William Bowen and Derek Bok. I suspect it would have gotten more press, in fact, if a black person had written it. Kahlenberg has not had the fortune to be black, but that doesn’t mean his book doesn’t deserve a look.

 

Finally, I immensely enjoyed a fierce little fascicle of articles against the War on Drugs, The New Prohibition: Voices of Dissent Challenge the Drug War. A nice stretch exercise before reading it would be to read Michael Lerner’s Dry Manhattan from a couple years ago, to see what an absurdity Prohibition was, and then try to think of ways in which today’s War on Drugs is any less misguided.

 

In The New Prohibition, smart people (including many with front-line experience in law enforcement) make clear that the War on Drugs perpetuates family destruction, widespread distrust of police forces, and an always tempting black market, all with no payoff – while Puritanism, short-sightedness and lack of interest keep our nation from really doing anything about it.

 

Policies focused on marijuana are just a beginning and largely beside the point, as is even decriminalization (i.e. of possession rather than sale). The illegality of certain drugs creates a mark-up in their price, making it logical to seek a living by selling them underground. Jack Cole, once an undercover narcotics officer and now the head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, puts it best in my favorite article in the book (“End Prohibition Now”):

 

"Making drugs free would completely remove any profit motive connected with the use of what had been illegal drugs. The government could supply a heroin addict with a $500-a-day habit for less than a dollar per day. No would be forced to steal of prostitute him- or herself to buy drugs. The day [this] was initiated will also be the last day a dealer or a terrorist will make a penny’s profit from drugs."

 

And remember, this not some scholar working out libertarian hypotheticals: this man spent years out on the streets. Plus he and the other authors address all of the typical objections, such as whether addiction would become more widespread (it wouldn’t; for one, treatment efforts would be key to the new order and easier to fund with the “War” no longer necessary).

 

I got this book from Nicolas Eyle, founder of the ReconsiDer drug policy forum. Obviously drug legalization is at least worth consideration. As Eyle notes, 75% of homicides, assaults, robberies and child abuse cases are related to today’s Prohibition. In closing, here’s something Eyle gives us to think about:

 

"Police officers have actually told me that after a major drug bust, they wait and see if it is followed by a series of murders. If it is, they consider this proof that they have indeed arrested the top dealers in that market and the smaller fish were fighting over who was to take over the business. So, while gun battles were raging in the streets, there were back-slapping and congratulations at the precinct house. The carnage among dealers proved they were doing their job!"

 

Should that really be business as usual? Incidentally, look this book up and it is credited as if Jesse Ventura were one of the editors! Don’t worry – he just does a foreword.

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posted in: john mcwhorter, books, entertainment, law, social issues, atusville, bronzeville, chicago, detroit, verizon, person career, ira katznelson, jack cole, marcus librizzi, richard kahlenberg, thomas boyle, maine, under the radar

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