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Reviewing the Reviews

A look at the local (and not) book reviews.

Race Wars
"A few years ago, an American lady showed up late at an exclusive Parisian store and was turned away. The outraged shopper was Oprah Winfrey, who charged racial bias; a companion said it was 'one of the most humiliating moments of her life,'" Orlando Patterson writes in his review of Richard Thompson Ford's The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse.

"Oprah may have been denied a prerogative of elite status in our new gilded age - being waited on in luxury stores after hours - but had she been the victim of racism?"

Good question - and just one of many raised in a book that sounds absolutely fascinating and valuable.

Perhaps most interesting is Ford's discussion of "racism without racists," because I thought racism always existed without racists.

What I mean by that is that I was taught that racism is institutional; an effect not necessarily the result of a bigoted cause. Bigotry, I was taught, was personal prejudice. Racism was a result intended or not.

For example, look at how William Grimes, who reviewed Ford's book earlier in the week for the Times, opened his piece:

"A black man stands on a street corner in Manhattan and waves for a taxi, and the driver speeds by. Is this racism? The actor Danny Glover thought so, and he took his case to the public and city regulators, resulting in a citywide crackdown on wary cabbies in the late 1990s. But what if he got it wrong?"

Grimes later writes that "Disproportionately, and because of past racism, black Americans live in dangerous neighborhoods, which nonracist cabdrivers might reasonably wish to avoid."

Now let us return to Patterson's review and what he says about Hurricane Katrina.

"The fact that blacks lived in the most vulnerable areas of New Orleans resulted from the apartheid racism of the city's earlier history, a situation exacerbated by the government's inept response to the crisis," Patterson writes. "But to accuse President Bush and the Federal Emergency Management Agency of racism, Ford suggests, is to play the race card and is counterproductive, alienating those in a position to help while blinding us to the true nature of these racial injustices and the policies needed to redress them."

I don't completely agree; if Simi Valley had been wiped out (or even threatened with a natural disaster), I think Bush would have acted more swiftly, if not out of bigotry, out of a lack of connection to the plight of poor black people.

Still, the point stands that we have to understand just what we're talking about when we use the term "racism."

Perhaps more importantly, Ford's position is not the popular reactionary notion that, starting now, we should just be colorblind, nor does he argue that "racism" doesn't exist. To the contrary, Ford is an adamant supporter of affirmative action exactly because racism exists. In fact, it exists even without racists, which strikes me as the central insight to this work. The response to Katrina and the plight of the black man seeking a cab both represent racism, but of the most insidious kind because of almost-invisible actors. And that makes us all guilty, and all responsible.

Race Bores
"I've never heard a black person question Obama's blackness," Jill Nelson writes elsewhere in the Times.

Perhaps Nelson has been living under a rock.

"Call me cynical, but I suspect this nonissue was manufactured by a rival campaign."

Do you suppose Nelson is referring to Bobby Rush?

Or has Hillary Clinton suddenly become a bigot? Someone should call on Nelson to resign from whatever it is she does.

But then, Nelson doesn't make much sense anywhere in her review of books by Randall Kennedy and Shelby Steele; maybe that's because it's more about her than them.

"Clearly, the black Americans who receive most-favored status are those who can be relied upon to mimimize white racism," she writes, noting without irony that Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey and Obama are "bargainers" not "challengers" who risk alienating white folk if they force them to confront race too much.

Richard Thompson Ford might say the result is a "racism without racists" because the central facts of life in America get side-stepped. Others might suggest this is just what is meant when Obama & Co.'s "blackness" is questioned.

Nelson goes on to write that "Black Americans' slow embrace of Obama's candidacy was strategic and pragmatic. We know Obama is black, and know he knows it, too. What we also know is that to embrace him too enthusiastically risks making whites uncomfortable with him and then we all lose."

I don't think so. Whites haven't grown more uncomfortable with Obama as his black support has grown. Instead, Obama is meeting black officials and civil rights leaders and their followers for the first time; he's the one with something to prove as the Clintons have been there all along. I'm guessing that has something to do with the slow embrace.

Brown's Town
California kingmaker Willie Brown observes something in his new memoir that the Obama campaign seems to have forgotten: That it wasn't the Clintons who were divisive and polarizing in the 90s (after all, they pioneered the Third Way bi- and post-partisanship that Obama now claims). "[H]e describes how the invasion of conservative ideologues, along with the advent of term limits, displaced the old-boy sensibility of the Legislature in favor of pettiness and hyperpartisanship."

The same thing happened nationally. There was a right-wing project to destroy the Clintons, and then there was Newt Gingrich's short-lived revolution.

There are plenty of reasons to disagree with the Clintons, but let's not make the propaganda of polarization one of them.

The Truth About Prozac
As a depression sufferer and Peter Kramer fan, I recommend this exchange. Kramer is right, and I highly recommend his work.

Traveling Jeans
"How can you tell where your jeans were made?" Kathryn Masterson asks in her Tribune review of Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade.

"If you think the answer is as simple as looking at a label in the waistband, then journalist Rachel Louise Snyder has much to teach you about the origins of your pants."

As we've already learned about cars and electronics and other products, jeans carry "the handprints from a multitude of nations," Snyder says.

"'Made in Peru' might have cotton from Texas, weaving from North Carolina, cutting and sewing from Lima, washing and finishing from Mexico City, and distribution from Los Angeles."

Mob Games
"An NBA ref. The mob. An FBI investigation. Sounds like the life and times of disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy," Roman Modrowski writes in the Sun-Times.

"But Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob isn't about a crooked ref. It's about Bob Delaney, an NBA referee and former New Jersey state trooper, who infiltrated the mob under the name of Bobby Covert as part of a joint task force in the 1980s. Delaney only pretended to be mobbed up, and he did it well enough to help put dozens of organized-crime figures behind bars."


Posted on February 11, 2008

MUSIC - Chief Keef Changed The Industry.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


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