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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.  Read more…

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