Just Us in 2021

I finished Claudia Rankine’s Just Us: An American Conversation yesterday (coincidentally on Martin Luther King Day). Just Us is once again a fascinating mix of poetry, art, criticism and (personal) essay on the current state of race and racism in the United States. The title is (probably) adapted from a Richard Pryor quote Rankine also uses as an epigraph: “You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find, just us.”

Even more so than Citizen, Just Us is interested in conversations between Rankine and white people, and attempts to get closer to an understanding of whiteness (and its implications for BIPOC) in the USA in 2020. Rankine talks with white men in airports about white privilege, asks Black women and white women about the benefits of blonde hair, and investigates the liminal spaces these kinds of conversations create. 

These conversations are sometimes uncomfortable, mostly challenging and always crucial for white readers like me. The book, but particularly the last passage, will guide me through 2021, from the beginning of the Biden administration to the German federal elections: 

“The murkiness as we exist alongside each other calls us forward. I  don’t want to forget that I am here; at any given moment we are, each of us, next to any other capable of both the best and the worst our democracy has to offer.”

Citizen: An American Lyric

“because white men can’t 

police their imagination

black men are dying”

I reread Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric recently. Published in 2014, this poetic, artistic snapshot of Black life in the US is stunning in its impact and intellectual heft. The book is decidedly not written for white men like me, and can, maybe should make white people uncomfortable. The combination of Rankine’s play with subject positions and the language’s poetic density makes me connect with the (narrative) voices. 

Citizen was The Stacks Podcast book of the month (part of the reason I reread it). I really recommend listening to the episode. Darnell Moore’s excellent critique of what is left invisible (queer, trans Black lives) and the strengths of indeterminacy really expanded my understanding of the book.

1000 Serpentinen Angst

I highly recommend the debut novel by Olivia Wenzel.

“Etwas, das damit einhergeht, eine neue, gesunde Angst in dein Leben zu lassen – eine Angst, tief, wärmer und zerreißender als jede Angst um dich selbst, dein Leben, deine identitären Beffindlichkeiten es je sein könnten: eine Angst, gebunden an eine Liebe, so stark wie alles, was du bisher kanntest, mal 1000.”

“Something that goes hand in hand with a new, healthy fear in your life – a fear that is deep, warmer and more tearing than any fear of yourself, your life, your identity sensitivities could ever be: a fear bound to a love, as strong as anything you knew before, times 1000.”

1000 Serpentinen Angst is the great first novel by Olivia Wenzel. While browsing a bookshop recently, a friend recommended the book to me, especially referring to the book’s treatment of racism experiences of a Black person in Germany. And the novel is about that – in part. It’s also about (Black) life, (Black) joy, (Black) insecurities and (Black) fear in Germany. I was most impressed by the passages on the main character’s struggle with anxiety and the impact the disorder had on her normal life, her friendships and love. I recognized some of it, but the experience of being a Black queer woman in Germany adds extra layers of fear and complexity to the illness. 

The story is told through constant dialogues between the main protagonist and a constantly shifting counterpart. The narrative form is fantastic, slightly experimental and really successful in transporting these complexities, more so than an omniscient narrator or inner monologues could. This narration of the protagonists life and her complex relationships, particularly to her loving yet racist grandmother and her ill and mostly absent mother, creates a tremendous pull. Fantastic.

The Oscars Love Racial Reconciliation Movies.

Wesley Morris sums up the problem with Oscar-winning movies like The Green Book for the New York Times:

The money is ostensibly for legitimate assistance, but it also seems to paper over all that’s potentially fraught about race. The relationship is entirely conscripted as service and bound by capitalism and the fantastically presumptive leap is, The money doesn’t matter because I like working for you. And if you’re the racist in the relationship: I can’t be horrible because we’re friends now. That’s why the hug Sandra Bullock gives Yomi Perry, the actor playing her maid, Maria, at the end of “Crash,” remains the single most disturbing gesture of its kind. It’s not friendship. Friendship is mutual. That hug is cannibalism.

“If I shut my eyes, I can still feel the fire from those days. And if I open my eyes, I still see the fires all around me. I didn’t like the way the world was, and I believe that there need to be some changes about the way the world is.”

John Carlos won bronze in the 200m dash in the 1968 Olympics and, along with 

with Tommie Smith,

protested against racism with a raised fist during the medal ceremony. That iconic protest moment happened this week 49 years ago. The quote is from his 2011 memoir.

Now, I can’t help but feel that the 52 percent of my fellow Ohioans who voted for Trump want my family and me out. I look at my neighborhood and this is all I can think. Because it’s predominantly white and upper-middle class, it likely leaned even more toward Trump. This is what that “silent majority,” which Trump named as his fan base, has been clamoring for: The right to screen and assess us. The right to deport us en masse. America has been yearning for a past that was as white as fresh snow before our muddy brown boots stomped through it. The country has been telling us this all along. We just didn’t want to hear it.

Muslims Have No Place In Donald Trump’s America : Code Switch : NPR 

Beenish Ahmed on Trump’s victory and the legitimization of explicit racism and islamophobia.

100 Days of Bad Ideas

The smart people at NPR Politics went through Trump’s “Contract with the America Voter,” i.e. his first 100 days plan, to see how feasible is.
For example, here is their analysis of Trump’s plan to gut the Affordable Care Act:

The GOP Congress has already demonstrated its willingness to repeal the insurance tax subsidies and Medicaid expansion portions of the Affordable Care Act, along with the requirement that all Americans have health insurance, using a fast-track legislative maneuver known as “reconciliation” that prevents a Democratic filibuster. President Obama vetoed that measure, but President-elect Trump would presumably sign it. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that could strip health insurance coverage from more than 20 million people – although the change would most likely be phased in over a couple of years. Trump’s replacement plan is less clear. Health savings accounts would allow more people to buy insurance with pre-tax dollars, and selling insurance across state lines might increase competition and reduce prices. But coverage will very likely remain out of reach for many. The requirement that insurance companies provide coverage to people with pre-existing conditions cannot be repealed through reconciliation. But preserving that requirement without the individual mandate to purchase insurance could create a costly situation in which people wait until they’re sick to buy coverage.

Trump’s rejection of Obamacare without presenting a true alternative for those insured by the program alone shows that his plan only creates a government of, by and for some people.  

Donald Trump, Nativism, and Patterns in US History

In her opening segment last night, after Donald Trump’s horrifying anti-immigrant speech, Rachel Maddow put the rise of Donald Trump and the alt-right into political history context. She argues that when one of the two major parties in the US two party system collapses, and can no longer hold its own weight and position in the (flawed) system, the nasty, racist, anti-immigrant, nativists gain power. In the 18th century, after the collapse of the Whig party, it was the so-called Know-Nothing movement, viciously against the Other of that time, primarily Catholic and Chinese immigrants. Nativism means putting Americans, and only true-blooded Americans, first, above everyone else, and blaming every ill of society on immigrants. Maddow convincingly argues that is what Donald Trump is doing, and that this isn’t new but history repeating itself, and it’s equally scary. Must see TV.


There are some words that precede “Black Lives Matter,” and they go something like this: Because of the brutalizing and killing of black people at the hands of the police and the indifference of society in general and the criminal justice system in particular, it is important that we say that… “
This is, of course, far too long to fit on a t-shirt.

Law professor’s response to BLM shirt complaint.

 The law professor is Patricia Leary at Whittier Law School (I think it’s okay to share her name as this has been confirmed by the school to Inside Higher Ed.) The full correspondence can be found here, including the anonymous student complaint letter, and the full answer by Prof. Leary is worth a read.

“These Young People Are Dying to Belong.”

Walking back from the grocery store, I listened to the newest episode of the great NPR podcast Invisibilia. When I returned to my desk and skimmed through the news, I saw just how apropos the episode is. A young Afghan man, a kid really at 17 years, apparently attacked people on a train near Würzburg in Germany, injuring 4, with a knife. Police are investigating, and have found a hand-drawn “ISIS flag;” already the attack is treated

by the police, public, and media like an IS terror attack

The Invisibilia episode is about “flipping the script,” about what psychologists call non-complementary behavior. Our default reaction, our natural instinct if you will, is to respond to something in the same manner: If someone is cold, we are cold in return. If someone is hostile towards us, we respond with hostility. We respond to violence with violence. Non-complimentary behavior works against that default behavior and often leads to surprising, positive results. Non-complementary behavior is at work when it comes to non-violent protests. In the first story on the podcast, the empathetic reaction of a group attacked by a would-be mugger leads to a peaceful resolution of the situation. 

Here comes the connection between the podcast and the headline: The main story of the Invisibilia episode comes from Aarhus, Denmark, where the police and city responded to the ‘radicalization’ of young Muslims and their disappearance to Syria not with repression and stigmatization, but by reaching out to the Muslim community and by offering the young people, including those returning from Syria, a place (back) in society through mentoring, social services and a chat over coffee. They flipped the “tough” law and order script and got positive results. You can read more about the story and listen to the episode here: How A Danish Town Helped Young Muslims Turn Away From ISIS.

The ‘flip the script’ response in this case certainly isn’t perfect (nor is the Aarhus police department perfect, probably) but this solution attempt to me seems more feasible and  in line with our democratic values than war, building walls, and banning people. This method also takes the wind out of the sails of ISIS and similar groups, who are using the desperation of young Muslims (of color) and our societal rejection as a powerful recruiting and propaganda tool. After all, as one of the police officers in the story says: These young people are dying to belong.