We are living in an age of inequality and injustice, made worse by an increasingly divisive political atmosphere. Politics aside, some injustices are so ingrained in our society that we are desensitized to them. If they don’t directly affect our lives, we may forget they exist. But, as a society, we should not allow ourselves to forget that injustice is a part of our world and that we cannot sit idly by and allow it to continue.
“[T]he character of our society … cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned. We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation.” — Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy”
Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer dedicated to representing those on death row and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He may be the best known advocate for compassion and reform within the American justice system. His book, “Just Mercy,” is a powerful examination of the injustice prevalent in our justice system. Stevenson humanizes prisoners, even those who have spent years on death row. He focuses on the case of Walter McMillan, a young black man on death row for a murder he did not commit. Stevenson relays, in heartbreaking detail, the obstacles and challenges in getting an innocent man off death row, a process that takes years. He reveals the biases that influence decisions and the convoluted workings of the courts which keep innocent people trapped in the system.
With “The Sun Does Shine,” Anthony Ray Hinton — one of Stevenson’s former clients — has written a memoir of the thirty years he spent on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Hinton was deliberately framed by those who prosecuted his case, and spent years trying to have his case reheard without success. Even once Bryan Stevenson agreed to represent him, it was years before his conviction was overturned. Hinton’s book focuses on his struggle to hold on to hope, release his anger and find peace during his time on death row.
Often when we think of poverty, we think of third world countries, but poverty affects millions in America, too. In “Evicted,” sociologist Matthew Desmond embeds himself in the lives of those living in poverty in Milwaukee and tells their stories. He takes us into the lives of families struggling to pay the rent on derelict apartments infested with roaches and people despairing of finding new places to live after being evicted. We also follow the landlords who profit off families who are trapped in a cycle of poverty and homelessness.
An often hidden injustice relates to mental health which has always had a stigma attached to it despite the fact that a significant portion of Americans deal with mental illness every day. Author Ron Powers examines society’s perception of mental illness in his deeply personal book “No One Cares About Crazy People.” Powers explores the tragic history of mental illness from lunatic asylums to the age of eugenics. He examines the myths surrounding mental illness and the policies that result from misconceptions and fears. Entwined with this historical and social look at mental illness is Powers own story about his sons’ struggles with schizophrenia. This book is a powerful look at where we are and an argument for how we can do more to destigmatize mental illness.
Phoebe Robinson brings humor to discussions of race and feminism with her book “You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain.” Without personal experience, it can be difficult to understand the prejudices and small offenses that women and people of color experience on a daily basis. Robinson tackles this subject with humor and pop culture references, detailing the little (and not so little) things that she has had to put up with, including racial profiling in stores, being “the black friend” and, of course, people who want to touch her hair.
Robin J. DiAngelo offers a different perspective on race in “White Fragility.” DiAngelo uses the term white fragility to refer to the defensiveness that often results in anger, fear and guilt, which white people frequently feel when charged with racism. DiAngelo examines how those who are white can become self-aware and address this fragility within them. By recognizing these signs, people with privilege can think critically and better engage in discussions about race.
Literary Links, compiled by library staff, appears monthly in the Ovation section of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Each article contains a short list of books on a timely topic.
Read more from Literary Links.