Books that Transformed my Views of Racism in the US Criminal Justice System

This is the third time I’ve started this post. I’ve been thinking about it in general for weeks, specifically for days, I’ve been bursting at the seams with all I want to say and yet I’m incapable of putting it effectively into words. My thought process is so complicated, so convoluted, that I feel unable to distill it in any meaningful way. So, I’m going to do what you all expect here at The Edifying Word and talk about some books. I’m going to mention three books that have been truly transformative in shaping how I think about this issue. These books, together with current events, have helped me come to some important conclusions. I’m uncomfortable with how long it has taken me to reach these conclusions, but I’m trying to focus on growth: life is a journey and as long as I’m still living I’ll still be learning, growing, and improving.

So, first conclusion: The criminal justice system in this country does not provide impartial justice, particularly to people of color. I should have known this, you say. I studied criminal justice at a top university, where I learned the following, among other things (thank you, my bestest friend and classmate for neatly summarizing this for me):

  1. The school to prison pipeline disproportionately affects minority inner city youths.
  2. Black men receive disproportionate prison sentences.
  3. The drug wars disproportionately affect/ed minorities.
  4. Poor, diverse communities are disproportionately affected by crime (broken windows theory).

There’s a lot of “disproportionate” in that list. By definition that cannot be justice. Knowing these things, it seems illogical that I could walk away from school with faith in this system. But I did.

And that faith remained until 2018 when I read two books: The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton, and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Before reading these books, I could delude myself into thinking that all of this “disproportion” was unfortunate but unintended, that the system was working from within to remedy these wrongs, actually seeking justice. Anthony Ray Hinton spent 30 years in prison–28 of those on death row–for a crime he did not commit. That the police and prosecutors instrumental in his conviction knew he did not commit. After reading his book, I moved on to Just Mercy, written by Bryan Stevenson, the attorney who ultimately helped Hinton win his freedom and who has dedicated his professional life to helping people like Hinton. Hinton and many others were intentionally targeted by the very people who were supposed to provide justice because of their race. It is incomprehensible to me, and sickening. I came away from both of those books with a sincere loss of faith in the criminal justice system in the United States. I saw it for the first time as truly broken.

This brings me to the second conclusion. The system is racist because our society is racist. It’s a hard pill to swallow. I viewed racism is an “other” kind of thing — a past thing, a very black and white “racists are bad people who hate,” without a recognition of the inherent sociological structures that perpetuate racism in the United States. (As a side note – it’s no wonder, because that’s really how things were taught to me as a kid – the Civil Rights Movement fixed us, right? Even today I read “I Am Rosa Parks” to my six year old and it presented inequality very clearly as a thing of the past. Segregation by law, sure; inequality, no.) Which brings me to the third book, A Drop of Midnight by Jason Diakite (which I previously wrote about here). Reading this book earlier this year is the first time I really saw societal racism. I’m not sure what it was about Diakite’s experiences, about his writing, that finally caused me to see what’s been in front of me my whole life, but I know after reading his book I lost the illusion of a free, just, equal America. Diakite’s memoir is about his search for identity as the Swedish-born-and-raised, half-white, half-black son of American parents. His portrayal of the United States as a racist society was eye-opening, compelling, and disheartening. I don’t think I’d ever considered before that a Black person not from the United States wouldn’t want to come here because of racism.

The first two books show overt racism. I needed to see this blatant hatred, this flagrant miscarriage of justice, to see finally understand the system is broken. But I needed to understand the structural racism, the biases and internal judgments that are often unintentional and not born of hatred, to see the true scope of the problem, and that’s what Diakite’s book provided for me.

There’s a lot more to be said about all of those books (Hinton’s book, incidentally, is what finally pushed me over the edge to be anti-death penalty, which, as a Catholic, is kind of embarrassing, but that needs a post all of its own). But for now, I think the above is enough. I’m grateful for my education, and I believe there are many, many very good, well-intentioned people in our country’s criminal justice system. I respect and support the police; just this weekend my parents brought dinner to my brother’s precinct to show their support and I respect and admire that. We need laws, police, the court system. But we have a long way to go before we have a system capable of achieving justice for all.

How do we get there? On a structural, practical reform level I can’t begin to say. On the most basic, human level it’s very clear to me: all humans are equal and derive their worth from being created children of God. Until we all recognize the inherent dignity of every human being and treat them accordingly, we will fail at implementing justice. And that, friends, is a spiritual battle.

Check out the books I mentioned, and give them a read. You won’t be disappointed.

The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

A Drop of Midnight by Jason Diakite

This Memorial Day, let’s remember

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, and Memorial Day seems like a fitting time. It’s one of those holidays that is so often celebrated so differently from its original intention; it’s no wonder, because it’s hard to do what the day asks us to do: remember those who have given their lives in service to our country. Someone too familiar with loss once said to me that Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day should be reversed — we’re supposed to remember those who died on Memorial Day, but instead we celebrate the beginning of summer; Veteran’s Day is to honor those who have served and have lived, but it comes as the weather is getting darker and colder. I think of this every year as each day approaches, and strive to remember and to appreciate what others have given for my benefit.

Lately, I’ve been remembering by reading and learning. A couple of months ago I fell into a sort of self-study of World War II. I had read The War That Saved My Life with my daughter, which follows a young girl who is forced to leave London and live with another family in the country, safe from the bombs expected to come any day. It was engrossing, and I bought myself the sequel at the kids’ next school book fair. Around the same time, I spent a night on the USS Hornet, a WWII-era aircraft carrier, with my daughter and some other Cub Scouts and their parents. I learned all about the war in the Pacific Theater, to which I really hadn’t ever given much thought. I knew about the atomic bombs, of course, and I had some vague idea of American pilots dying over the ocean – my paternal grandmother lost her then-fiance in the Pacific Theater (more about that later).

Then COVID-19 happened and I spend a week in quarantine in my guest bedroom, during which I read a lot of books I’d been meaning to get to but hadn’t had time for. These included the aforementioned sequel, called The War I Finally Won, and Lee Richie’s Black Bones, Red Earth, which isn’t about the war at all but taught me about the struggles of Bristish WWII orphans shipped to new homes in Australia after the war. These books helped open my eyes to hidden parts of the war, things I’d never learned about or understood, and reminded me of the cascading effects of war on everyone. Every lost life affects multitudes of people around them.

My interest piqued, I next picked up Angela Petch’s The Tuscan Girl, which tells another unseen side of the war: the reality of the ground war in Italy and the lives of Italian POWs, who I had no idea spent a great deal of time in England, helping work the farms while British men were away fighting. It caught my eye because my maternal grandmother lived in Italy during WWII, though not in Tuscany, and I welcomed the opportunity to learn about what her life may have been like.

Continuing on the theme of learning about aspects of the war with which I was previously unfamiliar, I happened upon a Kindle deal for The Things Our Fathers Saw, Volume I, which is a compilation of personal accounts from soldiers and marines who fought in the Pacific Theater in WWII. I was shocked by the brutality of the fighting, the fierceness and ideology of the Japanese, and the astounding numbers of men killed on both sides. And I was humbled by the candor and the emotions of these men who lived through hell on earth, witnessed and participated in so much depravity, and then went home to live “normal” lives. Again, I thought of ripple effects. The scars these men carried home were physical and emotional, and surely impacted their wives, children, and grandchildren. In a way, all of our lives have been shaped and impacted by what feels like ancient history to today’s kids, who may not know anyone personally who lived through that time.

In that book, they kept mentioning Eugene Sledge, with whom a few of the men profiled had served, so I used a Great on Kindle credit to purchase his first book, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, which was one of the books used to make the HBO miniseries The Pacific. My husband and I then watched the ten-part series, which visually presented many of the battles I’d read about in The Things Our Fathers Saw. It’s an emotionally draining series to watch; in many cases the homefront episodes were worse in that way than the battle episodes. But for the first time, The Things Our Father Saw and The Pacific showed me what the Pacific Theater actually entailed. As a kid, it was equated for me with the black and white photo of Grandma’s fiance, Joey, who was shot down over the Pacific. My child-brain turned this into a neat, non-fiery plane crashing into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California; a sort of sanitized picture. For the first time, I understand that these men–people’s husbands, brothers, fiances, sons–were fighting brutal battles on tiny island specks thousands of miles away from home, against an enemy that preferred death to surrender. It is tragic, both the loss of life and the emotional burdens placed upon an entire generation of men who survived the brutality. Mixed up in these emotions, though, is this weird sense of gratefulness to Joey – for fighting, but also for dying. Had he not lost his life, I would not ever have been born. My grandmother would never have met my grandfather, who himself fought in the war in the US Navy in North Africa, and wouldn’t have had my dad, who wouldn’t have had me. Ripple effects.

So, my WWII reading list is still growing, of course. I just started reading Sledge’s book, which is apparently considered a military classic. I also have a scanned copy of my grandather’s journal, written as he crossed the Atlantic en route to Libya as a young Navy Lieutenant. This journal came into my family’s possession after my grandfather had passed, and I wish we had had the opportunity to talk to him about it. But, though intensely proud of his service, he rarely talked about the war, so perhaps it is better this way. I also have on my Kindle a book about US-Japanese relations, and how they’ve been shaped by the Pacific Campaign, which I happened upon via a chain of tweets that started with Japanese Literature. Switching back to the European theater, my husband and I are planning to watch Band of Brothers together, and he helped my six year old pick out a book for my birthday, Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile. I have to intersperse happier reading among all this war, but I am so grateful to have stumbled into this self-study. I am learning so much, about history but also about humanity and how WWII shaped not only The Greatest Generation, but those of us who have come after.

I realize my musings have been a mix of focusing on both those who have lived and those who have died, but really it all points to intense sacrifice. So, I hope you all have a Blessed Memorial Day, and take some time to reflect on the many, many men and women who have given their lives in service of our country, and on those they’ve left behind, who suffer the ripple effects of their deaths.

This post is written in thanks, particularly to Joey, whose death indirectly brought about my life, and to Sgt. Alessandro Carbonaro, USMC, whose death during Operation Iraqi Freedom will always cause me pain and has made it so I will never forget that each casualty number represents a human being.