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Local Book Notes: The Road From Slave Patrols To New Trier High School

1. "My great-grandfather Vincenzo negotiated Prohibition by fermenting two barrels of wine a year," James Marone writes for the New York Times.

"It was perfectly legal, he insisted. Vincenzo was lucky to be a New Yorker. In her fine history of Prohibition, The War on Alcohol, Lisa McGirr, a professor of history at Harvard, shows us that a poor Italian in Illinois or a black man in Virginia might very well have been jailed, shot or sentenced to a chain gang.


"Chain gangs are a far cry from Prohibition's lore, which imagines puritans winning a ban on liquor that America flatly rejected. Magazines gleefully published "bartender's guides," directing the thirsty to the nearest whiskey. The law spawned crime, shootouts and a kind of gangster romance embodied by Jay Gatsby. Worse, drinking became hip. Young people ­sported flasks and haunted speakeasies. Eventually, inevitably, the whole mess ­collapsed.

In reality, outlawing alcohol had many supporters and inspired more fervor than any reform except abolishing slavery. An extraordinary coalition conquered liquor. Women fought for protection from abusive husbands. Southern leaders grasped for more control over black lives. Progressive reformers attacked the workers' saloons where machine politicians swapped favors for votes. Western populists hoped to tame the urban Gomorrahs. Methodists funded the Anti-Saloon League, which grew so formidable it inspired a new term of political art - the interest group. With congressional ratification of the Prohibition amendment in 1920, alcoholism plummeted; drinking levels did not rebound to pre-Prohibition levels for half a century. The "noble experiment," as McGirr shows, reflected a deep heartland yearning to protect American health and morals from the rising tide of foreigners, cities, social problems and jazz.

McGirr makes two major contributions to the historical record. First, she vividly shows how enforcers targeted immigrant and black communities.

How much of America was built on those very motives?


"During the 1910s, immigration reached its all-time high - 41 percent of New Yorkers had been born abroad - and, suddenly, there were more people in the cities than the countryside.

McGirr documents Prohibition's nativist spasm by zooming in on Herrin, Ill., where labor violence transformed into a war on Italian drinkers. Incredibly, national ­officials deputized the local Ku Klux Klan, which raided homes, rounded up violators and shot resisters.

See The Herrin Massacre.


"In the South, blacks faced impossible fines or hard time. McGirr has less to say about the racial tangle of segregation, lynching and Prohibition - still the untold story of the era.

"Second, McGirr tells us that Prohibition gave birth to big government - an argument that could have a major impact on how we read American political history. The audacious effort to remake drinking habits required unprecedented authority: Federal police powers grew, jail construction boomed and courts turned to plea ­bargaining and parole.

"The War on Alcohol might have delved more deeply into the judiciary, which, over hundreds of cases, rewrote Fourth Amendment law (on search and seizure) and built a legal regime later deployed by the war on drugs."

2. "Vanessa Westley is a 25-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department. She is also a single, black mother with an 18-year-old son," Nissa Rhee writes for the Christian Science Monitor.

And with the recent police shootings of young, black men like Laquan McDonald in Chicago and elsewhere, she worries about her son's day-to-day activities.

"Do I have to walk the same course as any other mother who has a black son? Yes, I do," Ms. Westley says. "And it's a little harder for me because I go to work in the same system that we're concerned about."

African-Americans make up about a quarter of the police force in Chicago. But many officers, like Westley, say that the badge does not make them immune to the type of incidents that have made headlines in recent months, most notably the fatal shooting of Laquan. They recall being pulled over without reason by white cops when they're off-duty and talk about walking the "different lanes" of black and blue.

I'd like to see an in-depth examination of how black Chicago police officers feel about recent events. Until that happens, we do have an instructive book to guide us.

African-American officers have been dealing with racism on the job for decades, says Kenneth Bolton, a professor of criminal justice at Southeastern Louisiana University. Professor Bolton researched the experiences of black police officers while writing his book, Black in Blue: African-American Police Officers and Racism, and he says that every black officer he interviewed "experienced multiple instances of racism." These instances varied from graffiti on lockers to alienating comments made by coworkers about the black officers' hair or taste in music.

While Bolton says he "found racism to be throughout the institution," he says that discrimination in the police department and by police officers does not exist in a vacuum. African-American officers face some of the same challenges of racial inequity while wearing a uniform as they do off-duty.

3. "One of the country's top public high schools will be celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a mandatory series of seminars focused on topics like white privilege, white guilt, and the 'oppression' inherent in Illinois' public school system," the Daily Caller notes disapprovingly.

"New Trier High School is one of the country's top public high schools, located in the extremely wealthy Chicago suburb of Winnetka. The school is over 90 percent white and Asian, but it has an extremely ambitious program scheduled for MLK Day. It's planning to hold over 60 different seminars on topics of racial identity. The seminars will be presented by a mix of teachers, student groups, and outside experts from the Chicago area."

Good. But don't read the comments.


"In addition to the many seminars, the MLK Seminar Day on Race will include a keynote address by Isabel Wilkerson, a journalist and the author of The Warmth of Other Suns, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Great Migration of black Americans from the South into cities such as Chicago."

Taught to the kids whose parents were part of a different migration pattern. New Trier: mandatory meta-white privilege to think it's part of the solution, not part of the problem.


Comments welcome.


Posted on January 14, 2016

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