Meet the Politicians Trying to Bury America’s Past

Published on The Nation (
Patricia J. Williams | March 4, 2015

The planet is aflame with the killing of messengers. We can barely keep score of the assaults on memory: from Mosul to Moscow to Dresden to Dhaka, the destruction proceeds apace—of ancient monuments, scientific archives and schools, of journalists as well as journalism itself. We, the witnesses, expend a great deal of breath and ink promising to “never forget.” Yet both globally and locally, in ways large and small, there is huge resistance to even the smallest reminders of injury: no one wants to talk about trauma or privilege as the invisible distributors of public costs and private benefits today. No one wants to bring it home.

In the United States, there has emerged an alarming trend of officially sanctioned oblivion. The most jaw-dropping example was Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempted removal of the words “search for truth” from the 100-year-old mission statement of the state university system. Walker also made news when a BBC moderator asked him if he believed in evolution. “I’ll punt on that one,” he said. “I am going to leave that up to you.” Leaving it “up to you” is also what Rand Paul would do with public-health programs like measles vaccinations: “Parents own the children,” he un-reasoned. The board of governors of the University of North Carolina recently eliminated the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity; the Center for Biodiversity; and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change. (Also targeted, but hanging on for now, are the Carolina Women’s Center, the UNC Center for Civil Rights and the UNC Institute on Aging.) Legislators in Arizona have actually banned outright Latin American studies from public-school curriculums. And the Kansas Board of Regents has “reserved the right” to fire any employee in the system, including tenured professors, if they publish anything on social media that is “improper,” “impairs harmony….among co-workers” or is “contrary to the best interests of the employer.” In Oklahoma, State Representative Dan Fisher pushed a bill through the legislature to slash public funding for Advanced Placement history classes, fearing that they are neither “positive” nor Christian enough. His objection was not that the curriculum was inaccurate, but that the facts were such a drag. (He wants AP history to be inspiring—all about American exceptionalism! And the Ten Commandments! Or, as Rudolph Giuliani instructed President Obama: “I’m happy for him to give a speech where he talks about what’s good about America and doesn’t include all the criticism.”)

Recently, the Equal Justice Initiative issued a real downer of a report. The EJI has documented lynchings around the country from 1877 through the 1950s, revealing a higher number of these murders (nearly 4,000) than have been counted before now, even with the study limited to only twelve states. (The study focused on the Deep South, in other words, and did not extend to areas like Arizona, Ohio, New Mexico, Michigan and California, where African-Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, Jews and Indians were also lynched without consequence.)

The EJI accompanied the publication of its report with a call to affix memorial markers at the spots where lynchings took place, ritualizing what political philosopher Nancy Fraser has called a “politics of recognition.” Perhaps we might think of it as a project akin to German artist Gunter Demnig’s placement of Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones.” Demnig has laid over 27,000 small stones into sidewalks around Europe, each inscribed with the words “Here lived…” and the name of someone murdered during World War II because of that person’s religion, politics, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Demnig says he began the project after encountering a woman living near his home in Cologne who insisted that there had been no Roma in that area: “She just didn’t know that they had been her neighbors.” Demnig decided to bring the names of those dead home. His efforts to fulfill what the French call the “duty of memory” represent a small, powerfully transformative linkage of the horrors of the Holocaust to presently lurking potentialities, as new waves of fascism and neo-Nazism erupt across Europe.

At home in the United States, there is similar forgetfulness about important aspects of our own history. Despite current popular conceptions, for example, most lynchings did not involve anonymous perpetrators and anonymous victims melting into the “Southern Gothic” obscurity of moonless midnight swamps. As the EJI report reminds us, lynchings were more often horrific spectacles—extralegal yet entirely public—with photographers, refreshment vendors and children drinking lemonade, with illustrated postcards made and sent openly in the mail and triumphal distributions to the onlookers of ears, penises and other charred body parts. (My 99-year-old father still feels the terror that shook him when his parents read the newspapers aloud. “There was one almost every week,” he recalls.) Our American stumbling stones might well be labeled “Here died…” to remind us that this history is real, is part of us, whether we’re white, black, a recent immigrant or indigenous. It lives among our families and in our neighborhoods; we will be haunted by its shape until we stop to name it, see it and bring it home at last.

One of the women interviewed by the EJI described her grandfather’s deathbed confession that he had been part of a mob that had lynched an innocent black man. “My grandfather carried this guilt all of his life…. Of course he never had to answer for what he did…. I wish I knew the name of that lynched man, if only so I could find out what happened to the family that he left behind. The ignorance among white people of my generation (I’m 48)…is near total. Nobody talks about it. Ever.” But knowing the traumatic landscape from which we arise does not make our polity weaker or less loved. To the contrary, reminding ourselves of collective sorrow is a gesture of respect. We pause for the blood spilled here… and here… and here. We account and ask forgiveness. We see.

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The Spectacular Incoherence of Race Goes Global

Patricia J. Williams January 28, 2015 | This article appeared in the February 16, 2015 edition of The Nation.

While anchoring the coverage of the terrorist attacks in Paris a few weeks ago, CNN’s Chris Cuomo made a revealing gaffe: “Three hostage-takers dead, [including] the two brothers who were taken out…and the African-American man who’d been pictured as a suspect in a separate shooting yesterday.” “Not American,” Anderson Cooper corrected. “The man of African descent.”

Amedy Coulibaly, the man in question, was in fact French. He was born and bred in France, if at the conceptual distance of the miserable banlieues to which the French have confined so many of their darker-skinned residents. While it is true in some general sense that Coulibaly was “African-descended,” that literally whitewashes the degree to which his murderousness seems to have erupted against a very particular colonial backdrop. Coulibaly’s parents were born in Mali (although the press widely referred to his background as “Senegalese”). His wife, Hayat Boumeddiene (seen by many in the United States as “white”), and his co-conspirators, the Kouachi brothers (honestly, I was waiting for someone to call them “Hispanic”), were all of Algerian descent. Coulibaly and the Kouachis spent some of their childhood in French orphanages or foster care. Therefore, it is probably a little bit useful to wonder if the attractions of ISIS for disaffected French youth lie not in perverse teachings about Islam alone, but in the blowback from France’s failed policies of racial and ethnic integration and the scars of its wars in Africa.

But Cuomo’s disturbing mistake reflected not just his own provincialism, but how sloppily race is thought of, both here and abroad. Many conservative bloggers labeled his slip as “political correctness,” musing that if Cuomo had just called Coulibaly “black,” he’d have somehow been “right” and thereby captured his essential being. Meanwhile, Brian Carey of—“Because that’s the direction of our freedoms”—ended his commentary on this note: “The beautiful white actress Charlize Theron is from South Africa but now lives in the United States. Technically, she’s African-American.” The malleable stereotyping of Coulibaly reflects an uneasy vision of “blacks” (as well as “Africans”) as noncitizens of any nation—and always the same wherever they are. We are so fond of using the broad brush when it comes to anyone with dark skin. Yet it’s also a world where, “technically,” African-Americans include Charlize Theron, because we are so committed to exactitude when it comes to “the beautiful white actress.”

Furthermore, racialized American policing strategies are increasingly global exports. In France, debates rage about whether to adopt a version of the USA Patriot Act. Technologies of surveillance now deploy algorithms based on American demographic taxonomies that are deeply contentious. Rudolph Giuliani, Bernard Kerik, William Bratton and Ray Kelly have made millions traveling the globe to dispense advice about controlling unruly populations, from London to Mexico City. The European Union surely has its own problems with race and immigration, but I fear they won’t be improved by having the morning lineup of Fox News as its security advisers.

In fact, one glimmer of hope in this messy moment was the pushback after Fox News’s “terrorism experts,” Steven Emerson and Nolan Peterson, asserted that the entire city of Birmingham, plus large parts of Paris and London, were “totally Muslim,” including “no-go” zones where even the police dare not visit. British Prime Minister David Cameron called Emerson an “idiot.” The mayor of Paris threatened to sue.

In many parts of the world, the Charlie Hebdo massacre has led to thoughtful discussions about freedom of expression, the power of caricature and the provocations of symbolic language. But we Americans tend to use the concept of freedom of expression as an excuse to say anything at all, no matter how false or threatening, even as we clamp down thoughtlessly (and mercilessly) when it suits us.

So, on the one hand, we have Pennsylvania’s recent “revictimization” law, which allows the prior restraint of speech if it might cause victims of personal-injury crimes to experience “continuing effects,” including temporary “mental anguish.” On the other hand, some have used the First Amendment to defend the actions of the North Miami Beach Police Department, whose sharpshooters were discovered using photos of black arrestees for target practice. A National Guardswoman visiting the range recognized her brother among the images; fifteen years ago, he’d been arrested for drag-racing. His photo had two bullet holes—one in the forehead, the other in the eye. The department responded that it has to train officers with pictures of real faces—and that it’s useful if they share similar characteristics. After a bit of reflection, the department apologized and added that the officers also take aim at mug shots of Anglos and Hispanics. Online commentary bubbled about whether it was a big deal or nothing at all. It was just a bunch of images, like the Danish cartoons! Don’t be so politically correct! No actual humans were harmed in the making of these bull’s-eyes.

What perverse iconography. How does this not break the heart, those head shots of real black men—whatever they have done—posed for figurative execution? In a very moving response, a largely white group of local clergy flooded the police with their own photos, launching a Twitter campaign, #UseMeInstead. The tag #BlackLivesMatter has resonance, from Ferguson to France, precisely because it has an ironic edge: lives designated as “black” too often don’t seem to matter at all. I hope that the simple, eloquent appeal of #UseMeInstead becomes an invitation to think about who is included or excluded in the deadly yet pliable ways that we mark the boundaries of citizenship and statelessness, of friend and foe, of human and other, of the unremittingly feared and the eternally forgiven.

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150 Years of The Nation Magazine…

A Yearlong Celebration of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary

By Jennifer Schuessler January 12, 2015 12:00 pm

The Nation, America’s oldest weekly magazine, will celebrate its 150th anniversary with a yearlong schedule of events including public discussions, a book release, new online projects and a documentary by the Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple, the magazine announced Monday.

The Nation was founded by abolitionists in 1865, shortly after the Civil War, in what the founding editors declared would be remembered “as one of the most famous years in history.” While the magazine’s contributions to American history will be commemorated, the emphasis will be on highlighting “the important work The Nation is doing today,” the magazine’s current editor and publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel, said in a statement.

Every month or so will highlight a different “Nation Ideal” that the progressive weekly has championed, including racial justice, gender equality, environmental sustainability and civil liberties. There will also be live events across the country featuring contributors like Noam Chomsky, Patricia Williams, Katha Pollitt and Sherman Alexie. A new history of the magazine by D.D. Guttenplan will be published in March, followed in April by a 200-page anniversary issue including archival and new articles by Hannah Arendt, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Naomi Klein, Michael Moore and others.

The Nation festivities are just the latest in a number of high-profile magazine anniversaries. The New York Review of Books turned 50 in 2013, with a yearlong celebration that included a new documentary by Martin Scorsese. The New Republic celebrated its 100th birthday in November with a black-tie gala in

A Yearlong Celebration of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary – 13/01/2015 13:22

Washington, a few weeks before its top editors and most of the staff abruptly resigned and the magazine temporarily suspended print publication.

Correction: January 12, 2015

An earlier version of this post referred incorrectly to the book being published by The Nation in conjunction with its anniversary. It is a history of the magazine by D.D. Guttenplan, not an anthology. The post also misstated where some new archival articles will appear, and when they will be published. They will be in the anniversary issue in April; not in an anthology.

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For ye who have not yet given….

This is a post I most certainly plan to update/adjust/expand/review over time, but for now, here’s my last-minute-of-the-year, off-the-top-of-my-head, please-please-please list of suggestions for worthy organizations to whom to donate something, large or small.  Pick one, or two, or three, or more! Feel redeemed!  Share the love! Change the world!

-Alliance for Justice:, or snail mail to AFJ Washington DC HQ, 11 Dupont Circle NW, 2nd Floor, Washington, DC 20036

-Center for Constitutional Rights:, or snail mail to Center for Constitutional Rights, Attention: Development Department, 666 Broadway, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10012

-Colorlines Magazine:

-Council for Responsible Genetics:, or snail mail to Council for Responsible Genetics, 30 Broad Street, 30th Fl., New York, NY 10004

-Homebase (Advancing Solutions to Homelessness):, or snail mail to HomeBase/The Center for Common Concerns, 870 Market Street, Suite 1228, San Francisco, CA 94102

-The Nation Magazine:, or snail mail to The Nation Builders, 66 Willow Ave. Staten Island, New York 10305

-National Alliance on Mental Illness:, or snail mail to NAMI, 3803 N. Fairfax Dr., Suite 100, Arlington, Va 22203

-The New Press:, or snail mail to The New Press, 120 Wall Street, 31st Floor, New York, NY 10005

-Pine Street Inn (Ending Homelessness):, or snail mail to Pine Street Inn, 444 Harrison Avenue, Boston, MA 02118

-Project Row Houses:, or snail mail to P.O. Box 1011 Houston, TX 77251

-Spence-Chapin Adoption Services:, or snail mail to Spence Chapin Services to Families and Children, 410 East 92nd Street, NY 10128

-Yeah! Youth Engagement, Advocacy and Housing:, or snail mail to Yeah!, 1744 University Ave, Berkeley, CA 94703

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Fighting Words…

Social Movements Didn’t Kill the NYPD Officers. A Man With Untreated Mental Illness and a Gun Did.

Patricia J. Williams | December 23, 2014

As I write, news comes that a man with a long psychiatric history has driven his car into several groups of pedestrians in Dijon, France, declaring himself to be “acting for the children of Palestine.” While the French prime minister mentioned “the ravages of propaganda on fragile minds,” no one has blamed the children of Palestine.

In the United States, news was still fresh that Ismaaiyl Brinsley, also a man with a long history of untreated mental disease, shot his ex-girlfriend in the stomach, then took a bus to New York and executed two police officers, declaring himself to be acting on behalf of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Here, however, there were torrents of blame. Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, announced that Mayor Bill de Blasio had “blood on his hands” for sympathizing with protesters against police misconduct. Former New York governor George Pataki called the killings the “predictable outcome of divisive, anti-cop rhetoric” by Attorney General Eric Holder. Former police commissioner Ray Kelly blamed “the reality” that stop-and-frisk policies had been an issue in the campaign, as though policing policy should never be a matter of electoral politics. Rudolph Giuliani, seeking higher moral ground, blamed President Obama. And within hours of the tragedy, Fox News was furiously blaming its usual lineup of villains: Al Sharpton, soft-hearted liberals, soft-headed academics, outside agitators, and anyone who’d joined in any protest anywhere in the United States since last August, when Brown was shot in Ferguson.

On TV, a commentator asked with great earnestness if Brinsley’s rampage was “connected to national events.” There are, of course, many crimes committed in the name of national events—or Jodie Foster, or Andy Warhol, or space aliens. Jared Lee Loughner shot a congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, whom he reportedly despised from afar. Aurora, Colorado, mass shooter James Holmes was a Batman fan and carried out his rampage at a screening of the latest Dark Knight film. And in Adam Lanza’s horrific school shooting at Sandy Hook, no motive was ever established. So before we lay responsibility at the feet of any more politicians or movements or hip-hop or the pope, let’s acknowledge what these particular incidents have in common: “untreated mental illness” in our land of guns aplenty.

A quick definitional primer may be in order, since so many recent shootings have involved either psychosis of some sort—mostly schizophrenia—or post-traumatic stress disorder. Schizophrenia is an incurable brain disease that, in its more paranoid manifestations, can cause delusions of persecution, distorted perceptions of reality, illusions of grandeur, magical thinking and auditory hallucinations (or “voices”). While it is not surprising that such confusion could occasionally lead to aggression, untreated schizophrenics are much more frequently the victims of violence. Often incapable of responding rationally to commands, they are disproportionately among those jailed or killed by police untrained to handle mental illness, as in the cases of Keith Vidal, Dontre Hamilton, Michelle Cusseaux and James Boyd, all schizophrenic civilians recently killed by police.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is occasioned by exposure to violence or an invasion so deep that it bypasses the capacity for language. Flashbacks are one symptom. Rarer is compulsive behavior that re-enacts some version of the original assault: perhaps promiscuity if one has been molested, or explosive or violent behavior if one has survived war. It is a suspected cause behind Iraq veteran Bradley William Stone’s recent murder of his ex-wife and five members of her family. Rates of PTSD are also disproportionately high among police and prison guards, indicating broad disrespect by policy-makers for the stresses of the job. If there is no funding for screening, counseling or treatment, or if police officers are underpaid or untrained or overworked, or if their higher-ups force on them unfair profiling practices that all but guarantee their presence will be resented on the street—this state of affairs endangers public space no less than common criminality.

I offer none of this as a definitive explanation for any act of violence. But given clear evidence that Ismaaiyl Brinsley had a history of psychiatric problems and hospitalization, it is remarkable that the media could assign direct cause-and-effect to the atmospherics of news. If Brinsley had tweeted that William Shakespeare made him do it, would Fox & Friends be blaming English teachers for troubling the waters?

It is its own kind of madness to blame, as Fox and others have done, these murders on those who do no more than debate the proper use of force by police. (As in, guns don’t kill people, public discourse and protestors without guns do…) This response chills freedom of expression, not least by using one psychotic individual as the stand-in for a national debate in desperate need of actual resolution. If Brinsley becomes the embodiment of “Black lives matter” or the Willie Horton–ized face of “Hands up, don’t shoot!”, then no use of force by the police can ever seem too excessive: No wonder we need stop-and-frisk—“they” are executioners!

Lest we lose sight of the issue: approximately 80 percent of African-American men between 16 and 24 have endured unsolicited stops by the New York Police Department. Only 10 percent of whites in the same age cohort have. This does not reflect inherent criminality, but rather a pattern of discrimination. To observe that much, to discuss it and to push to change it is not the equivalent of “stoking hatred.” By the same token, we can surely agree that any individual who commits unprovoked homicide in disregard of our laws must be restrained, either in well-maintained hospitals or prisons. And that goes for us all—unstable police officers no less than the Jared Loughners and Ismaaiyl Brinsleys of the world. One unjust killing does not rank in heinousness above another.

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The Value of Whiteness

A lawsuit is being waged against the “wrongful birth” of a black child.

Patricia J. Williams November 12, 2014 | This article appeared in the December 1-8, 2014 edition of The Nation.

In a recent encounter between Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart, the two men discussed “white privilege.” O’Reilly maintained that his accomplishments had nothing to do with race and everything to do with hard work. Stewart pointed out that O’Reilly had grown up in Levittown, New York, a planned community to which the federal and local governments transferred tremendous mortgage subsidies and other public benefits—while barring black people from living there—in the post–World War II period. O’Reilly thereby reaped the benefits of a massive, racially exclusive government wealth transfer. As legal scholar Cheryl Harris observed in a 1993 Harvard Law Review article, “the law has established and protected an actual property interest in whiteness”—its value dependent on the full faith and credit placed in it, ephemeral but with material consequences.

A recent lawsuit brought by Jennifer Cramblett pursues the stolen property of whiteness in unusually literal terms. Cramblett is suing an Ohio sperm bank for mistakenly inseminating her with the sperm of an African-American donor, “a fact that she said has made it difficult for her and her same-sex partner to raise their now 2-year-old daughter [Payton] in an all-white community,” according to the Chicago Tribune. Cramblett is suing for breach of warranty and negligence in mishandling the vials of sperm with which she was inseminated, as well as emotional and economic loss as a result of “wrongful birth,” which deprived her of the whiteness she thought she was purchasing.

The story was hot news for about twenty-four hours and included an interview with Cramblett on NBC. “We love her,” she said of Payton. “She’s made us the people that we are.” Cramblett then burst into tears. “But,” she continued through clenched teeth, “I’m not going to sit back and let this ever happen to anyone ever again.”

That disjunctive, the “but” clause of her despair, was reiterated throughout Cramblett’s court papers. Despite being “beautiful,” Payton was “obviously mixed-race.” While Cramblett purportedly bonded “easily” with the little girl, she “lives each day with fears, anxieties and uncertainty.” Her community is “racially intolerant,” plus Cramblett suffers from “limited cultural competency relative to African Americans,” having never even met one till she got to college. Then there’s Cramblett’s “all white” family, who can barely stand that she is gay…and dear lord, now this? While Cramblett felt “compelled to repress” her sexual identity among family members, “Payton’s differences are irrepressible,” the lawsuit states. “Jennifer’s stress and anxiety intensify when she envisions Payton entering an all-white school.”

But the infant Payton did not make Cramblett and her partner “who we are.” They lived a confined and reprehensibly oppressive life before she was born, and it was only because of her birth that they were forced to confront it. The real question is why or how they could have been happy with their lives before.

When Cramblett asserted that her town was “all-white”—in a state, in a nation, in a world that is absolutely not—one has to wonder how on earth that can be. The sad history of housing segregation in the United States is not a long-ago tale. Bill O’Reilly’s Levittown was racially restrictive not only by the developer’s private choice; racial segregation was underwritten by federal banking policies and guidelines in the administration of the GI Bill. In the postwar era, not only Levittown but the entire United States became a land divided between “inner cities” and white suburbs because of loan practices that red-lined certain neighborhoods if blacks lived there. Ninety-eight percent of home loans issued under the GI Bill went to whites, and only 2 percent to people of color.

Levittown remains one of the best-documented examples of the long-term distortion that discriminatory mortgage underwriting had in configuring the wealth gap between blacks and whites. Black people became renters in a land of homeowners because of public policy that denied them access to the same opportunities to accumulate equity in real estate. And for those who were able to afford a home, the very fact of one’s skin color lowered its value by virtue of the big red line that would instantly pop up around it. Today, Levittown remains 89 percent white.

Cramblett has exhibited no more awareness of this political history than Bill O’Reilly. Imagine if she and her partner cared about the racism that pervades their environment, instead of suing for the cost of dealing with their “private” distress. Reframed as a civil rights agenda, it might help them to see that they face no more or less than what any black family faces in the United States. They might begin to consider their claim of individual economic damages more in terms of a civil rights claim for affirmative action and a pushback against racial stigma. Perhaps they’d find renewed community and succor by working for fair housing, or by joining the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, or by pushing for same-sex marriage laws in their home state of Ohio.

Instead, Cramblett seems engulfed by the same race panic that has put the bodies of other children at risk. Little Payton dispossesses her mother by being born, taking the space of a more qualified, more desired white candidate, erupting into the world as damaged goods—a neighborhood defiled as well as a family disappointed. “God’s punishment,” according to the online hate. “Mistake,” according to the court papers. That geography of mistrust confines us all, whether trapped inside carceral walls at one extreme or gated communities at the other. We are left with a segmented society that does not know itself as whole, our reflection lost in the narrowest shards of a broken mirror.

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Dangerous Children

Will Your Child Grow Up to Be Victim or Torturer?
While 90 percent of teens break the law, only some enter a violent system.

Patricia J. Williams October 15, 2014 | This article appeared in the November 3, 2014 edition of The Nation.

I took myself out for an early supper a few days ago. A little family-run Japanese restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, filled with neighborhood parents too tired to cook, kids with their homework spread out amid the platters of sushi.

Midway through my meal, the place was robbed. Two skinny kids, no more than 15 years old, had come in and, while the waitress’s back was turned, seized the cash box and fled, with five of the staff pounding after them, to no avail.

It was very quick, very unnerving. The speed with which it happened gave it a surreal quality, like a Disney cartoon where naughty boys steal pies while the baker chases in vain, throwing hot cross buns. Fists were shaken, but no weapons deployed. No one was injured. The police weren’t even called because, as the maître d’ explained with a shrug, there wasn’t a lot of cash; it’s a mostly credit-card business.

So life continued, shaken but not substantially stirred. People returned to their meals, children settled back to their homework, and the place resumed its soft murmured conversations amid the tinkling of spoons, glassware, crockery.

Still, there was a restless current of adrenaline that lingered for a while. An understandably distressed mother at the table next to mine described the thieves to her son as “those horrible people.” But as she went on, her indictment of “those people” became an infinitely expanding universe of horribleness, extending far beyond the two who ran off with the till.

Her handsome boy of only 5 or 6 began to muse aloud about what he’d do if he ever caught a robber. His piping little-kid voice carried well as he cheerfully imagined the pain he’d inflict. He’d clearly thought this through, and when he mused about boiling entrails and how you have to drain the blood before you put the severed head on a pike, I was impressed. The detail seemed delivered across centuries, evoking the great English jurist William Blackstone’s eloquence upon the punishment for high treason:

“(1) That the offender be drawn to the gallows, and not be carried or walk…. (2) That he be hanged by the neck, and then cut down alive. (3) That his entrails be taken out, and burned, while he is yet alive. (4) That his head be cut off. (5) That his body be divided into four parts. (6) That his head and quarters be at the king’s disposal.”

As much as the robbery itself, it was the little boy’s gothic soliloquy, delivered in the present tense, that unsettled me.

The unease stayed with me while I finished my soup, then paid for my meal, then walked a few blocks north to drop in on a book party.

The affair was to mark the publication of Nell Bernstein’s Burning Down the House, a comprehensive examination of juvenile detention in the United States. The lack of drawing and quartering notwithstanding, the little boy in the restaurant had been otherwise spot-on about the sort of violence visited on juvenile wards by adult guards and staffers.

Forty-two out of fifty states have extensive, documented records of systemwide maltreatment of minors. From New York to Mississippi to California to Illinois, kids are not just beaten up, not just chained or hog-tied or strip-searched, but subjected to bizarre tortures: in Mississippi, forced to eat their own vomit; in California, to kneel for two weeks, hands cuffed behind their backs without toilet breaks and with only three of every twenty-four hours allotted for sleeping and eating. All over the country, children spend weeks and months in solitary confinement. They suffer concussions at the hands of staff, broken bones, ruptured organs, burst eardrums. And they die—as when a 300-pound guard in Florida decided to sit on a sixty-five-pound child. One in ten incarcerated minors will be sexually assaulted by a staff member.

Up to 90 percent of teens admit to doing something that’s against the law, whether smoking a joint or being truant from school. But only certain kinds of kids are punished. In New York City, 94 percent of children in state custody are kids of color. The majority of these children are behind bars for nonviolent behavior, like running away or drinking alcohol. Yet this disparity remains nearly invisible to those who haven’t experienced it. Fifty-one percent of whites believe that white and black citizens are treated with equal fairness by law enforcement, while 70 percent of blacks sincerely beg to differ.

So there I sat at the party, listening to Nell Bernstein show that the little boy’s plottings in the restaurant were less fanciful than they sounded. Who are “those people” in Bernstein’s account? Sometimes the children involved have been shunted among too many foster homes or have emotional problems. They include abandoned and abused kids, or kids who have been raped and trafficked. Sometimes they haven’t done much of anything wrong, but come from high-crime areas where the police have concentrated their stop-and-frisk superpowers on small “quality of life” infractions. They might have unpaid warrants, issued for riding their bike on the sidewalk or having a dusting of marijuana on their person. Sometimes they are just… nothing more than children, whose scuffles and back talk led not to being scolded or benched from the team, but to being punched in the face by public servants.

There is a vast gap between the dangerous white child, whose lawyerly loquacity elaborates the violent punishment he would mete out to “those people,” and the dangerous black child for whom there is no sufficient language with which to make a claim for his existence. Back at the book party, an astonished guest asked, “Isn’t this illegal?” Bernstein responded, “Of course. And when those kids who are in for having a joint get beaten and raped by their keepers, they learn that it isn’t about what they’ve done. It is all about who they are.”

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