Home > Reflections, Safety, Social Justice > The New Jim Crow & the Nightmare River

The New Jim Crow & the Nightmare River

When I started reading The New Jim Crow a couple of years ago, I felt my world rippling. I don’t mean this allegorically. I felt the smoothness disturbed by something else clawing to be let in.

Before I picked up the book, I’d been floating along on the smooth, clear water of U.S. life. I assumed all was (mostly) good and well straight down to the river’s bottom.

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow‘s author, invited me to stop floating and actually dip a finger into the water. Beneath the thin veneer of calm, her recounting of recent American history informed me, I’d find turbulence and boiling water that was scalding people alive.

I dipped in one finger and discovered she was right. Horrified, I returned my hands to the surface. I set Alexander’s book aside and enjoyed my onward drift.

Over the summer, little burning bubbles began emerging from the water around me. They were uncommon and only a little painful, so I ignored them at first. Why would I go seek out more pain?

But then I saw bigger bubbles roiling below the surface and understood: the U.S. is a world in which only a few are allowed to float at the surface. Others are forced down, trapped in the murky, hot water beneath and struggling to reach the surface for even a moment’s gasping breath.

I understood: they suffer so that I might stay comfortably afloat. “Oh, shit!” I started shouting to those floating near enough to hear me. “People are drowning below us! We have to see the whole river beneath us, not just the sparkles up top, or they’re going to keep on drowning!”

Alone, I saw, I could pull very, very few people up to the surface. If I could enlist other surface-floaters to reach down, though, I knew we could together evacuate this nightmare river and seek out one with cleaner, genuinely smooth waters where all were equally able to experience the river in its fullness.

“Shhh, you’re disturbing our ride,” fellow floaters admonished in return. 

“If you want us to hear, use better words,” others said through grimaces.

“You’re saying it’s the words I’m using and not the fact they’re drowning that’s the problem?” I screamed at the sky while thrashing for some kind of rope, any kind of line, that I could alone cast beneath the surface and use to start dragging people up.

I was able to float on the nightmare river’s smooth surface only because others were being forcibly deprived it.

How the hell do I even explain this? I wondered today as I drove back from the grocery store. How do I explain that surface-floaters are choosing not to hear? That they’re ignoring the ripples, as I once did when I set down The New Jim Crow and chose to continue indulging myself?

An image leapt to mind. Soon after I began this blog six years ago, I wrote that the fact we perceive ourselves as weak and frail doesn’t mean we actually are weak and frail. The fact we see that simply means we’re susceptible to confusing our perceptions with reality.

I loved stick figure drawings then, so I drew this with stick figures:


When I drew this, I didn’t understand how much else I might be misperceiving. I looked at myself reflected and saw in the foreground my self full of faults, flaws, and wobbles. In the background, the world behind me was smooth, tidy, and kindly.

Except … it wasn’t. It only looked that way because I was focused on myself.

Once I stopped staring at my reflection and started peering into the world beyond it, I was aghast at what I saw. Beyond, a cruel and scathing darkness roiled.

In the river as in the mirror, the darkness isn’t far away at all.

Today I’m floating on the river’s surface, but I’m no longer comfortable. I feel scalding screams rising up in bubbles around me and I am stricken (to the point of self destruction, as my husband’s told me for months). I try to steel myself against the sound of millions of people screaming for safety and justice, which steeling I’m learning to do for practical reasons. I’m no good to myself, my family, or those trapped below the surface in this nightmare U.S. river if I struggle so hard I have nothing left over for building.

I set aside The New Jim Crow because I wasn’t ready to see the world as it is. I wanted to keep seeing the world as it’s been carefully crafted for me, a white, professional law school graduate who once shed poverty and promptly stopped trying to see it.

I’ve only barely touched the darkness below the surface, but I’m trying to reach a little deeper every day.

Maybe if I reach deeper and find just the right professional white woman words to share with my fellow surface-floaters, I’ll find some willing to upend the nightmare river for the benefit of all.

I’m not responsible for making anyone else look into the deep, murderous waters below them. Mine is a tiny voice compared to the roars that have been emanating from the deeper waters for decades. Still, I’ll keep searching. I’ll keep trying.

At heart, the key to a just country–a just river–isn’t a few comparatively powerful people speaking the right words. The key is the willingness of surface-floaters to hear awful truths, no matter which words are used to speak them. I can speak, point others to those who speak better and truer, and listen for myself to that which helps me speak clearer, but I cannot do anyone else’s seeking, listening, or introspecting for them.


I recently chose to avert my eyes from suffering so deep I couldn’t begin to fathom it. I’ll avert them no more, understanding that life continues as is in the nightmare river when surface-floaters like me keep our ears plugged and our eyes steadily turned away from the suffering below … turning them instead toward the glimmering sun, whose sparkles keep dancing all across the gentle surface of the river.

justlook 2-b


  1. February 12, 2017 at 11:17 am

    Powerful, powerful words and imagery.

  2. February 13, 2017 at 4:28 pm

    this is amazing. i love it.

  3. February 16, 2017 at 11:26 am

    Whew! Deb, this is so powerful. Thank you for posting.

  4. February 17, 2017 at 2:34 pm

    I love your writing. I know just what you mean. I feel the same. Have you found something that you can actually DO? Are we surface floaters just observers, or are there avenues that we can take that are (not obnoxiously) able to help?

    • February 17, 2017 at 2:40 pm

      This might sound funny, but talking with each other is actually the best thing we can do. Once upon a not-so-distant time, we all used to be involved in all kinds of organizations, together; now, we’re distant and disconnected. So, talking and listening (which I’m getting better at, now that I’ve surmounted the hurdle of rage at finally getting some of what’s going on) is one of the best things that can be done, as is viewing social media news with a skeptical eye.

      Apart from that, I’m just figuring out the “what to do” part. I’ve started attending DSA meetings to take local action; the meetings connect me with people, but also with more opportunities (marches, protests, etc.) for action. More and more, I believe these local actions ripple upward, whereas we’ve been taught to expect change (et al) must flow downward from so-called “experts.”

    • February 17, 2017 at 2:44 pm

      Here’s one blogger’s most recent posts on starting to act:

      It includes a few links to suggestions. 🙂 There are so many possibilities!

  5. February 19, 2017 at 5:05 pm

    Well written article, it is a good read. I am going to reblog this one for you.

  6. July 25, 2017 at 6:43 pm

    I can’t wait to read it. Have you read Just Mercy, written by Bryan Stevenson, the guy who started the Equal Justice Initiative?

    • July 25, 2017 at 7:10 pm

      I have! I read it after Rache quoted this from it: “the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” The quote still give me chills, and I recommend the book to anyone willing to talk books face-to-face with me. So much good he and his initiative are doing, bit by loving bit.

  1. February 22, 2017 at 7:31 am
  2. April 2, 2017 at 10:10 am

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