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What to Read Next: Anti-Racism and Abolition

Since my last post on recommended books on racism, more Black Americans have been killed by and within racist institutions: Rayshard Brooks, Riah Milton, Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells, and Robert Fuller, among others, should be alive today. I am a firm believer that white people should educate ourselves and reach out to educate other white Americans, and in that spirit I have been sharing what I have learned from books authored by Black writers. I encourage you to purchase the books from Black-owned bookstores and to not simply stop at reading the books, but to allow the books to compel you to action within your spheres of influence.

This week, I am recommending books on abolition. To be clear, I have not read books that specifically address defunding the police, but once the phrase came across my social media feed, I began to think back on what I’ve read about abolition, as well as sought out a few titles from my to-read shelf in order to think through this current moment.

I am seeking to educate myself on what it would take to attain an “abolition democracy,” the term W.E.B. Du Bois coined during America’s Reconstruction Era to argue that slavery would not truly be eradicated in the U.S. until institutions were put in place to genuinely incorporate Black Americans into the nation’s conception of democracy. I credit Angela Y. Davis with articulating this notion, and several of her books are described below. State, local, and federal funding must be invested in community solutions that address racism and other social ills (homophobia, transphobia, sexism, classism, and so on), and our current system of overfunding systems designed for punishment must change. I have arrived at this belief because of the books and resources listed below.

My first introduction to abolition was that of the death penalty. Capital punishment, as has been argued by many scholars and activists, cannot exist within a true democracy. Not only does the death penalty disproportionately apply to incarcerated Black people, it negates a true belief in life. Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is an accessible and moving introduction to this notion, and I especially appreciate Stevenson’s humanitarian approach to the topic:

“We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible. But simply punishing the broken—walking away from them or hiding them from sight—only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”

Read the book, then watch the movie, which should convict every reader and viewer that we cannot go on with capital punishment in a truly free society. Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative also offers plenty of other resources.

I had previously read several of Angela Y. Davis‘s texts on prison abolition, but I jumped back in this last week with The Meaning of FreedomAnd Other Difficult Dialogues. Gathering speeches from 1994 to 2009, this collection highlights Davis’s central arguments throughout her work, in particular the notion that prisons will never rehabilitate people and must be replaced with a host of creative alternatives. The problem, Davis notes, is that “dangerous limits have been placed on the very possibility of imagining alternatives. These ideological limits have to be contested. We have to begin to think in different ways. Our future is at stake.”

I identify Davis’s solutions as threefold: we must take seriously the role of imagination in identifying alternatives to incarceration and the prison-industrial complex at large; we must develop an authentic historical consciousness within individuals and communities to recognize and resist racism; and, we must never settle for the victories of yesterday when today demands more from us. I immediately followed it with Abolition Democracy, which expands on the ideas in The Meaning of Freedom in book-length interviews. Davis defines an abolition democracy as “not only, or not even primarily, about abolition as a negative process of tearing down, but it is also about building up, about creating new institutions.” This, to me, is where we begin to imagine a different future and to understand some of the ideas about defunding that might alarm us: we should not shut down at simple phrases that we disagree with, but to engage the complexities contained within them.

“How can we produce a sense of belonging to communities in struggle that is not evaporated by the onslaught of everyday routines?” (from Abolition Democracy)

My introduction to Davis’s work was Are Prisons Obsolete? In this slim volume, Davis notes that prisons are both present and absent in our lives, as they make us feel a semblance of safety while literally being kept from our consciousness, making it difficult to “face the realities they produce.” We take prisons for granted as a fact of society rather than a condition of a people who are unwilling to face the socioeconomic problems afflicting the people who are incarcerated. Even as crime falls, more money is put into prisons, as if they are the reason crime falls. But Davis resists this easy leap of logic, instead arguing that punishment more often does not follow crime. Tracing the history of prisons as rooted in the continuation of slavery, Davis describes how this system is particularly rooted in anti-Blackness.

Prisons persist, as Davis argues, because they are profitable: for the corporations that own them, the corporations that employ incarcerated people for labor, and for the politicians and everyday people who support them. Treating the imprisoned as “refuse” who we no longer have to face as humans deserving rights, we turn away from this institution and forget we are complicit in it. But an “abolitionist approach,” Davis states, “would require us to imagine a constellation of alternative strategies and institutions, with the ultimate aim of removing the prison from the social and ideological landscapes of our society.” This is a foundational text for understanding the modern-day abolitionist movement.

After reading Are Prisons Obsolete?, Ava DuVernay‘s Netflix documentary 13th is an essential watch which will elaborate on how the 13th amendment abolished slavery for everyone except the people who are incarcerated. Simply, slavery has never been abolished in the U.S. DuVernay followed 13th with the powerful, wrenching series When They See Us, which follows the wrongfully accused “Central Park Five” as they are incarcerated between six and thirteen years for a crime they did not commit.

After these difficult and necessary viewings, I think the book that first pulled the veil from my eyes about prisons was Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. This is often the book that people say they intend to read but never get around to because of its length and density. I was the same way for years, but when I finally read it, Alexander illuminated the ways in which language changes to justify oppression, in that the 13th amendment and the prison-industrial complex as a whole function to create an “undercaste” in society that relegates incarcerated people to life-terms of capture. Even after being released from prison, Alexander notes, incarceration becomes a life cycle that one is never truly free from, so that your rights are permanently stripped and your punishment is never truly over.

How is it possible for us to believe in punishment as a path to reformation if the punished are never truly freed from their term? Alexander explains that the people we label as “criminal” are the one class of people we can openly hate, especially as this translates to a racially coded term for Black men in the public imagination, a term that has been perpetuated and evolved to disguise its racist language. Like Davis, who argues that victory is never foreclosed and historical consciousness is necessary for forward motion, Alexander argues that “in the absence of a fundamental shift in public consciousness, the system as a whole will remain intact. To the extent that major changes are achieved without a complete shift, the system will rebound.” Still, Alexander believes that we have a higher self, a capacity for transcendence.” The New Jim Crow is fundamental reading for believing in abolition.

“We cannot be expected any longer to march and have our heads broken in order to say to whites: Come on, you’re nice guys. For you are not nice guys. We have found you out.”

A few years ago I started reading the various texts written by members of the Black Power Movement and Black Panther Party, and Stokely Carmichael Speaks stood out to me. For racism to die,” Carmichael says, “a totally different America must be born.” I include this book in my section on abolition because Carmichael’s views articulate why well-intentioned white people often miss the radical point of protest and resistance. Addressing critiques of the Black Panthers, he states, We cannot have the oppressors telling the oppressed how to rid themselves of the oppressor.” This is an especially good book for white readers because Carmichael implores us to work within our own communities to educate each other, to stop trying to be white saviors “helping” (by our terms) and start trying to free each other from our limited perspectives. 

As I mentioned at the beginning, I have not read explicit book-length texts on policing, but Verso Books is currently offering three free ebooks on their site, only asking that you donate the cost of the books to funds for Black lives. I have downloaded them and am committing to read them so that I can continue articulating the need for radical solutions to persistent problems.

A few fictional takes on policing and incarceration that I recommend include: James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, Ann Petry’s The Street, and Richard Wright’s Native Son.

I hope that you read the above books so that you can have better conversations within your spheres of influence, so that you can use your vote, your money, your time, and your other resources to put action behind the belief that Black lives matter.

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