Pandemic Reads 15–17

I’ve delayed this post for a long time because Separate and my next Supreme Court read are each over 500 pages. I need to set goals for daily reading. What works for you?

Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation (Steve Luxenberg, 2019)

You may remember Plessy v. Ferguson as the “separate but equal” case which was overturned by Brown v. Board of Education (and years of work by Black activists, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964). But I knew nothing about Plessy the person, where he came from, when the ruling happened, and how the Supreme Court case played out. There was a lot of context that I was missing, which meant I was surprised when the book opened not in the South, but in Massachusetts, 1838.

As the excerpt in the Washington Post describes, the rail line between Boston and Salem became a prominent example when Frederick Douglass and another abolitionist were dragged out of a white-only railcar. Protests continued and the railroad even closed its station in Lynn to avoid picking up Douglass.
As a kid growing up in New Hampshire, I didn’t know this history (or the history of busing in Boston). But there were many cases brought by freedmen across the North: Michigan, Philadelphia, Nantucket ferries, etc., and Separate has found these lost segregation cases.
Massachusetts would change their law, but other states typically ruled that private transit companies could do what they liked, and interstate transit was federal business, and then Dred Scott made it easy to dismiss cases.

wait a little longer for equality — excerpt from “Separate”

The author then shifts to follow the Supreme Court justices who would one day write the majority and dissenting opinions in Plessy. We come back to them, a lawyer, and New Orleans as a fourth character, as they teeter on the edge of war, make it through the war, respond to the 13th-15th Amendments and first attempt at a civil rights act, and gain political influence during Reconstruction.

Halfway through the book I felt like it was more of a biography? Maybe it could have been framed differently, because there are genuine surprises: Justice John Harlan grew up in a family that enslaved people, ran for Congress on a pro-slavery platform, opposed the 13th and 14th Amendments, but switches parties and ultimately wrote the opinion favoring equal rights in Plessy. But without that framing the sections are jarring: there’s this guy considering law, he meets a girl from Ohio, he got burnt badly in an accident, he gets asked to run for office… I wasn’t prepared for such a deep dive.

After Justice Ginsburg’s death, activists recalled her arguments to the Supreme Court on gender equity, particularly the strategy to bring men’s cases of discrimination. These examples were rare by comparison, but they disarmed the dismissive attitudes and precedents of the time.
The Plessy case was also carefully designed —the Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law picked Plessy, who was “one-eighth African,” as their man to board a train and sit in a white car to challenge Louisiana’s in-state travel law in a sympathetic, diverse New Orleans. The railroad company also supported the test, to stop providing additional cars. Together they ensured that a passenger and conductor would challenge Plessy specifically under the Louisiana law, and not company policy or rules about disturbing the peace.
Despite this careful work, the Plessy case was not seen as newsworthy at the time. Earlier cases had tried and failed, with this case’s new argument hinged on discrimination as a mark of bondage, and so a violation of the 13th Amendment.

Predict and Surveil (Dr. Sarah Brayne, 2021)

A sociologist goes inside the LAPD and studies the world of big data and predictive policing. Through interviews and ride-alongs over five years, Brayne explores police experiences in the field, in management, and in the civilian analyst sections of the LAPD. Predictive policing and LASER are placed into context with other philosophies and political changes in policing (especially militarization, adoption of counterterrorism strategies).
The technology sections are already familiar if you know about Palantir or have been to a GIS conference. I can’t judge how well the descriptions illustrate them to a non-technical audience.

An open discussion question for this book is, can you observe the LAPD while relying on their organization for those observations? Brayne walks this line by frequently referring back to concerns about civil rights, oversight, and militarization. She directly asks an analyst, what happens to someone in the Palantir search results if they’re innocent. A lengthy section covers potential constitutional challenges to over-surveillance, or searching based on algorithmic suspicions.
At the same time, police-centric narratives get repeated as facts:

  • coordinated surveillance can benefit its targets (parolees no longer get searched multiple times a day by different agencies)
  • crime is already low, so police overreach / over-attention / surveillance come from police efforts to reduce crime even further
  • helicopter over-flights need to happen multiple times per day to have any impact on community safety
  • tracking officer behavior and vehicle locations is also obtrusive and unfairly gets brought into supervisors’ evaluations

Because the research predates 2020, this book never says “George Floyd” and Black Lives Matter appears only twice. I can’t help wondering how the book may have changed in editing. Brayne has published an op-ed How to shrink the LAPD’s budget? in July 2020, which serves as an update/addendum.

Data and surveillance technologies are largely missing from today’s urgent conversations about how to defund, shrink, reform or abolish the police. In this moment of national reckoning, as reformers consider the future of American policing, they cannot continue to ignore the many costs of invasive yet largely invisible big-data policing.

The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda (Ishmael Reed, 2020)

This rebuttal to Hamilton is A Christmas Carol with Lin-Manuel Miranda being visited by enslaved people, Native Americans, and Hamilton himself to set the historical record straight. Later on, Miranda is visited by Harriet Tubman (as a more deserving historical character). Then post-vision Miranda confronts Ron Chernow (author of the 2004 biography), rejects a Columbus project and an award, and promises to donate his profits.

I am not a musical theater person, so I haven’t seen Hamilton and am not the target audience.
Reed picks specific examples in Hamilton’s life where he participated in, benefited from, or never objected to the slave trade. Native Americans describe their role as the true founders of America and federalism, as “merciless Indian Savages” in the Declaration of Independence, and descriptions of brutality from George Washington’s forces. So the villain isn’t only Alexander Hamilton.
Some weaker points were an indentured servant ghost, a dig at duels, and an argument between the Native and Black characters. The preface and post-vision scenes criticize how the Hamilton play has become spoon-fed to children as history. This in particular seems to have motivated Reed to correct the record so publicly.

Update on a previous read

Check out the “Temporary” podcast by The Guardian and the Kaldor Centre for International Law, for stories directly from several refugees who arrived in Australia by boat. There are also illustrated posts if you aren’t a podcast person. The stories that I’ve listened to so far are from refugees who were selected to wait in communities continental Australia, but were forbidden from working or studying. Elaheh explains how her story was complicated by giving birth in Australia:

They would take me to this room, and I will have to just sit there with my son for, I don’t know, 20 minutes, half an hour, and then they bring some documents and I sign them and they would give my son’s visa. And when I asked why, they said…
In order to get this visa, you need to have been in detention. So he needs to be here, “technically [detained]”, so we can give him a visa.’



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