Read any good books lately? I sure did – more than my usual share this summer. Two books stand out for the insightful context they bring to two of our most vexing issues: systemic racism and the government’s ability (or inability) to manage a crisis.
“The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson (2010)
Whenever we read “A Raisin in the Sun,” I teach my students about the Great Migration – the period between 1915 and 1970 in which six million Black Southerners left their homes for points north and west. Isabel Wilkerson vividly captures the true scope of the racism that accompanied the migration, thanks to exhaustive details about three individuals who made that journey.
“Ida Mae Gladney, Robert Foster, and George Starling each left different parts of the South during different decades for different reasons and with different outcomes,” writes Wilkerson. “The three of them would find some measure of happiness, not because their children had been perfect, their own lives without heartache, or because the North had been particularly welcoming. In fact, not a single one of those things had turned out to be true.”
Like the millions of other Blacks who abandoned the South, these three individuals had much “in common with the vast movements of refugees from famine, war, and genocide in other parts of the world, where oppressed people, whether fleeing twenty-first-century Darfur or nineteenth-century Ireland, go great distances, journey across rivers, deserts, and oceans or as far as it takes to reach safety with the hope that life will be better wherever they land.”
Wilkerson explains how Blacks are victims of a caste system, “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups.”
This caste system did not exist just in the South; Blacks who moved north and west were “sealed off in overcrowded colonies that would become the foundation for ghettos that would persist into the next century.” Restrictive covenants and redlining – common practices in Connecticut – along with “the highest rents for dilapidated housing” ensured that Blacks would remain second-class citizens even after escaping the Jim Crow South.
To anyone who denies the existence of systemic racism in America and the urgent need to eradicate it, I recommend Wilkerson’s book, a poignant and fact-based account of a prejudicial social structure based on skin color. And those in denial can follow it up by reading “Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents,” Wilkerson’s current book that expands this analysis.
“The Fifth Risk” by Michael Lewis (2018)
Michael Lewis breaks down complex topics by telling stories. Whether it’s the financial meltdown of 2008 (“The Big Short”) or the metrics revolutionizing professional baseball (“Moneyball”), Lewis focuses on the people behind the issues. So it is in “The Fifth Risk,” Lewis’ book about “program management” – how the federal government prepares for “the existential threat that you never really even imagine as a risk.”
The federal employees Lewis features in his book identify these top-four risks to America: a nuclear-weapons accident, North Korea, Iran, and the safety of the electric grid because “our electricity is supplied by a patchwork of not terribly innovative or imaginatively managed regional utilities.” (Sound familiar, Connecticut residents?)
The “fifth risk” from which Lewis derives his title is “the risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions.” In other words, it’s the very philosophy the Trump administration has applied to program management.
It was initiated on the Monday after Trump was elected when “dozens of civil servants sat all day waiting to deliver briefings [to Trump officials] that would, in the end, never be heard.” Unlike previous presidential transition teams, Trump’s was not interested in being briefed.
It continued with the purging of data: “Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior removed from their websites the links to climate change data. The USDA removed the inspection reports of businesses accused of animal abuse by the government. The new acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Mick Mulvaney, said he wanted to end public access to records of consumer complaints against financial institutions.”
Why the indifference – animosity, even – toward such information? Because “knowledge makes life messier,” writes Lewis. “It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview.”
Adds Lewis: “Here is where the Trump administration’s willful ignorance plays a role. If your ambition is to maximize short-term gain without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems.”
Unfortunately for Trump – and tragically for the American people – the crises did not magically disappear. The recent record-setting temperatures in Death Valley and the Arctic demonstrate the persistence of climate change. And need we even mention a global pandemic that has killed more than 176,000 Americans (and counting)? If Lewis’ book were written today, it certainly would highlight how the Trump administration ignored a 69-page pandemic-policy document prepared by Obama’s National Security Council.
Doomsayers claim a devious “deep state” has infiltrated the federal government with the aim of destroying it. “The Fifth Risk,” meanwhile, underscores the essential governmental role of making life as safe as possible by “imagining a crisis before it happens.” Judging by the abundance of crises right now, no “deep state” is required to destroy America – that process already has begun.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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