Notes from an editor: Great books aren’t written, they’re re-written

—Ilene Kalish

All editors love books. At some point in our lives we fell in love with words, sentences, and stories. It happened early for me. In elementary school I never wanted to leave the library; I hid between the stacks. If you don’t like to think about the wellchosen word or the lyrical power of language, then you probably wouldn’t make a good editor.

And that’s okay. But as a scholar looking to write a book, you should take a moment to think about the craft of writing. For here is a secret that editors know: great books aren’t written, they’re re-written. Many authors have done impressive research and spent years (even decades) interviewing, transcribing, and culling data. But if that scholarship is going to make an impact, then there is more work to do. You have to transform your findings into a well-told narrative. You have to draw your reader in.

You must be inventive, creative, and lively with your prose. Introduce us to new ideas, new phrases, new ways of thinking. This is what great writers do. This is what you, the author, must do.

Professors are expected to research, teach, and write. The writing may be last on the list, and there may not be any love for it. Great writing is hard. Great writers make reading easy. The words sing, the sentences flow, the pages turn. That’s hard work. Most great writers are talented, but the process of creating a worthwhile book is laborious. Words can be elusive, awkward, tripped over, clunky, monotonous, pedantic, and clichéd. To paraphrase, words don’t bore people, writers bore people.

Revision, editing, and re-writing must happen in order for a great book to get written. This is what editors do. We poke, we pick, we pluck. We move the words around in the sentence. We move the sentences around in the paragraph. We move the chapters around in the book. We re-phrase, we ask for more, for less, for a different direction. There is an art to editing. I like to think that as the years have passed and hundreds of manuscripts have now crossed my desk (or gone through my computer), I have gotten pretty good at editing. I have never seen a case where a manuscript has not been improved through editing—either from my comments or from the academic reviewers kind enough to take a publisher’s modest sum in exchange for their priceless feedback. A thoughtful and challenging review can transform a book.

I suppose I can be tough on authors sometimes. I still edit by hand, on paper with a pencil. I know that receiving these marked up pages with words circled, crossed out, and underlined, with the margins full of questions and comments like, “say more,” “slow down,” and “repeating,” is perhaps not always the most pleasant experience. But it does make for a better book.

Most of the authors I publish say the same thing, “I want to reach a wide audience with my book.” This is often quickly followed up by, “How can I do that?” The answer is easy: Write. Edit. Revise. Re-write.

Here are a few tips: Start with a good title. Pick one that is intriguing, short, and clear—as opposed to vague, long, and complicated. For example, “Parenting Out of Control,” instead of “The Complexities of Family Dynamics in Risk Culture.” Guess which gets a higher Amazon ranking? The same goes for your chapter titles. Always use deliberate, compelling phrasing. Avoid jargon. Accessibility is not the enemy of complexity; in fact, I would argue that easily read prose is more difficult to produce and more likely to convey meaning accurately. Next, pull your reader in from the start by using vivid chapter-openers: begin with a story, an event, a counterintuitive fact, a staggering statistic. Describe. Do not begin a chapter with, “In this chapter I will show….” Please, don’t do that. Say something new and don’t be shy about highlighting your unique perspective. Be able to answer the question, “So what?” I sometimes ask this after a scholar has spent ten uninterrupted minutes earnestly explaining her project. “So what? Why should anyone care? Why is this important?” Map out the stakes for what or how or why your research is significant. Only you can tell us—that is, after all, why you are writing the book.

Just don’t forget to re-write it, too.

Ilene Kalish is Executive Editor for the Social Sciences at NYU Press. Read her bio here.

[This article appeared in the Summer 2013 edition of Contexts, a publication of the American Sociological Association.]

“What We Demand:” March on Washington, 50 years later

—Hasan Kwame Jeffries

The March on Washington had a very specific purpose – to present President Kennedy and Congress with a list of demands designed to secure basic civil and human rights for African Americans. The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, therefore, should not only be a time for sharing snippets of Dr. King’s most famous speech, but also an occasion to look back at the marchers’ demands. Assessing which demands have been met and which have yet to be met will provide a much more accurate picture of how far the nation has come in terms of providing equal opportunity for African Americans than all of the well–meaning recollections and recitations of “I Have A Dream” put together.

Leading the marchers’ list of demands was a call for meaningful civil rights laws. At the time, federal civil rights measures lacked teeth. Prosecutorial power was limited and punishments for racial discrimination were light, if they existed at all. In 1964, major civil rights legislation was passed in the form of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But many complained that it too lacked teeth, and were especially bothered by the absence of provisions to prosecute those who attacked civil rights workers. Today, it remains extremely difficult to bring to justice perpetrators of crimes where racial bias and discrimination were clearly at play. The failure to convict the murderer of young Trayvon Martin underscores the point.

The marchers’ demanded a massive federal work program. The economy was sputtering and hit African Americans especially hard. It was hoped that a New Deal-like jobs program would see the nation—and African Americans—through the downturn. But the federal government never invested in another work program. In fact, during subsequent economic downturns, including the Great Recession of recent years, it established a pattern of propping up large corporations and firing and laying off government employees, rather than expanding employment opportunities to the unemployed and underemployed.

Along with the demand for a massive federal work program, the marchers called for full and fair employment. African Americans were always the last hired and first fired. The only way to break this cycle was to insist on full employment for everyone. Fifty years after the march, America hasn’t come close to full or fair employment. Worse, a large percentage of the nation’s workforce, and disproportionately high numbers of black workers, don’t even earn a livable wage. Meanwhile, debate rages in Congress about nickel and dime increases to the minimum wage.

A major issue for the marchers was decent housing. African Americans across the country were routinely discriminated against when it came to housing, forcing many to live in overpriced, overcrowded dwellings in segregated neighborhoods. Little has changed over the years. In fact, patterns of residential segregation have increased as suburbs have spread and gentrification has reclaimed select urban spaces as exclusive white spaces. And the recent collapse of the housing market has exposed the ongoing vulnerability of black middle class homeowners to discriminatory lending practices.

The right to vote was also a central concern for the marchers. No constitutional right is more fundamental than the vote, yet black southerners continued to be excluded from the ballot box. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, providing new protections for black voters. But in the new millennium, a wave of state voter ID laws, combined with the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of a key element of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, have put the vote of tens of thousands of African Americans at severe risk.

The marchers’ final demand was adequate integrated education. Nearly a decade after Brown, segregated schools remained the norm in the South and white southerners remained as determined as ever to keep it that way. And half a century later, a race-based dual education system persists. In much of the South, black children attend public schools and white children attend private white Christian academies. In most metropolitan areas with large black populations, the divide is between urban and suburban school districts.

A lot has changed since the March on Washington, and it is wonderful that so many people are taking the time to recognize this historic event. But the sobering reality is that half a century after the march, the marchers’ demands remain largely unmet.

Fifty years from now, at the centennial of the march, I hope these demands will have been fulfilled. But given the slow pace of progress, and the determination of reactionaries to roll back the clock, I’m much less hopeful than I was just a few years ago.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries is Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University, where he holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. He is the author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (NYU Press, 2010).

The men behind the March: Randolph and Rustin together again

Bayard Rustin (right) with A. Phillip Randolph on the cover of Life magazine, September 6, 1963—Cynthia Taylor

With the 50th anniversary of the1963 March on Washington demonstration in the media’s spotlight, and especially of its heavy emphasis on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, this light has also shined on the real strategic planners and originators of the actual 1963 March: A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Together, Randolph and Rustin made an indefatigable team of seasoned civil rights activists that enabled Dr. King’s now famous speech to be remembered so vividly fifty years later.

Through the media attention on this anniversary, it has been gratifying to once again see the cover of Life magazine (September 6, 1963) with Randolph and Rustin standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. At the time of the March, most Americans had viewed these two men as the real stars of the occasion. The 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom was actually the realization of their long-time “dream” to have a dramatic and peaceful demonstration that emphasized the need of all black Americans for economic opportunities and jobs, as well as the more elusive ideal of freedom.

At the time of Randolph’s death in 1979, Rustin described his relationship with Randolph in a variety of ways: father, uncle, adviser, and defender. Yet, Randolph’s and Rustin’s civil rights collaboration got off to a shaky start. As a leader in the youth division of the original March on Washington Movement, Rustin publicly criticized Randolph for calling off the first march scheduled for July 1, 1941. After the war, in 1948, Randolph and Rustin worked together again on a civil disobedience league called the “Committee to End ‘Jim Crow” in the Armed Services.”

When Randolph disbanded the league after President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 which eventually led to the desegregation of the services, Rustin recalled how “a number of ‘Young Turks’ and I decided to outflank Mr. Randolph,” denouncing him in the black press as “an Uncle Tom, a sellout, a reactionary, and an old fogey out of touch with the times.” Afraid that Randolph would not forgive his “treachery,” Rustin avoided Randolph for two years. When Rustin finally mustered the courage to visit Randolph in his New York office, he described the renewal of their friendship in this way:

As I was ushered in, there he was, distinguished and dapper as ever, with arms outstretched, waiting to greet me, the way he had done a decade ago.  Motioning me to sit down with that same sweep of his arm, he looked at me, and in a calm, even voice, said: ‘Bayard, where have you been? You know that I have needed you.’

From then on, Randolph and Rustin worked together as the key architects of the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1953, after an incident in Pasadena California when Rustin, an openly gay man, was busted on a morals charge of sexual misconduct, Randolph stood by him and without his friendship, support and considerable influence, Rustin might have been completely ostracized from the civil rights community. Randolph declared “if the fact is, he is homosexual, maybe we need more of them; he’s so talented.”

In 1956, Randolph and Rustin, along with Ella Baker and Stanley Levison, formed an organization called “In Friendship,” a fundraising group committed to providing “economic aid to victims of race terror in the South,” especially for supporters of the Montgomery bus boycott.  The group agreed that Rustin, with his extensive experience in nonviolent techniques, could best evaluate the situation in the early days of the boycott. In his brief time there, Rustin worked effectively with the young and inexperienced boycott leader, Martin Luther King. Behind the scenes, Rustin advised Dr. King with his speeches and sat in on many of the boycott’s strategy meetings. Both Randolph and Rustin threw their considerable influence behind King’s emergent leadership of the newest phase of civil rights activity, as Rustin believed “from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, for the next two years following to May 1957, [the three year anniversary of the Brown decision] the center of gravity and the center of activity for the whole civil rights movement was the church people and ministers of the south.”

Between 1957 and 1963, this newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), joined forces with the NAACP, and various labor and working-class groups linked to A. Philip Randolph and other labor leaders to make civil rights history, culminating in the spectacular success of the peaceful August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

By 1963, A. Philip Randolph was nearing the end of his long years of labor and civil rights activism. In his final tribute to Randolph, Rustin remembered their historic collaboration of that day in the following way:

As the assembly slowly dispersed from the Lincoln Memorial, Rustin saw the tired ‘old gentleman’ standing alone on the podium, looking out on the departing crowds.  As Rustin walked up to Randolph, he was surprised to find ‘tears streaming down his cheeks’ the first time he had even seen Randolph show his emotions.  Indeed, Randolph was so overcome with the power of that one-day event, in which the black community and the white liberal community came together in their demand for equal treatment under the law, that he ‘could not hold back his feelings.’

How great that the 50th anniversary of the March has brought two forgotten heroes behind the movement, back into public memory.

Cynthia Taylor teaches American history and religion in the school of Art, Humanities and Social Sciences at Dominican University of California. She is the author of A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Labor Leader (NYU Press, 2005).

Muhammad Yunus, in 22 Ideas to Fix the World

Today, we’re sharing the first chapter of 22 Ideas to Fix the World—featuring an interview with Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. In it, the founder of microfinance discusses his views on poverty, unemployment, and the role of social business.

Read the interview below, and let us know your thoughts in the comments section!

22 Ideas to Fix the World – Chapter 1 by NYU Press

Cory Booker’s primary win: The view from Newark

—Andra Gillespie

Cory Booker’s resounding victory in last week’s Democratic primary to replace the late Senator Frank Lautenberg was no surprise to most observers. Booker had been the overwhelming favorite in all of the polls leading up to the primary; he had the highest name recognition of all the candidates in the field; and he was able to raise more than twice as much money as his nearest competitor, despite having started the contest behind in fundraising. Indeed, Booker seems to represent the type of “new black politician,” whose race does not seem to hamper his ability to raise money and earn votes outside of the African American community.

In a book also titled The New Black Politician, I examined Cory Booker’s ascent to Newark’s mayoralty and its implications for African American politics. While Booker’s strong performance in a statewide contest was no surprise, his path to Newark’s mayoralty was a little bumpier. He lost his first mayoral bid to an incumbent who did not hesitate to play the race card against Booker in the African American community. While Booker was able to rebound and essentially push Sharpe James out of the 2006 race, questions of Booker’s racial authenticity and perceived instrumentality remained. At various points during Booker’s seven years as mayor of Newark, a vocal minority of mostly black residents has at various points questioned his political appointments, his policies, and even his very residence in Newark. For his part, Booker was publicly chastised early in his first term for telling stories about Newark residents that many Newarkers deemed insensitive to blacks and poor people. Perhaps most discouraging, Booker’s alliances with black members of Newark’s city council have frayed to the point that the black members of the council, all but one of whom were aligned with Booker in some way at one point in their professional lives, now routinely oppose his agenda.

While I never had any doubt that Booker would win this primary (or even that he would win in Newark), I was very curious about the dynamics that would undergird this vote. So, I traveled to Newark this summer to do some investigating. I wondered if Newarkers would support Booker as he sought higher office and if so, what motivated that support? I hypothesized that black Newarkers would support Booker in a senate campaign, but not for the most obvious reasons. I thought that race pride might undergird some of Booker’s support among Newark blacks, but I also expected to find a more complicated story. In particular, I prepared myself to learn that the aspects of Booker’s personality that were perceived as mayoral liabilities would be viewed as senatorial assets.

I first tested my hypotheses by asking questions and listening in on the scuttlebutt in June.  Sure enough, I found evidence to suggest that Booker would have no problem winning the votes of some of his most ardent opponents. I happened to run into a local community activist who actually helped lead a failed recall effort against Booker in 2007 one day in June. I asked her to handicap the race for me, and she made it very clear that she was supporting Booker.  As she explained it, the other opponents were okay, but not good enough, and she was confident that Booker would do a good job as senator.

I had a similar encounter in Newark on Election Night. I attended Booker’s victory party in Championship Plaza, where I ran into another ardent Booker opponent. He was beaming with pride at Booker’s success, bragging about how he’s known him since he was a young tenant organizer. As he continued to bask in the glow of Booker’s victory, he explained his change of heart. They may have fought tooth and nail over local issues, but this organizer had no doubt that he and Booker saw eye to eye on issues of national concern. And it was clear that he perceived some cachet in knowing the man who was poised to be senator.

The anecdotal evidence seemed to be pointing in the direction of Newarkers letting bygones be bygones. Yes, the vocal opposition had their issues with what they perceived to be Booker’s neoliberal, corparatist city policies that often limited their influence.  However, those issues seemed to have been of minimal concern in the senate contest.  The opposition seemed content to root for the “hometown boy,” even if some of them had their doubts about him as mayor.

To supplement my anecdotes, I fielded a short survey among likely voters the day before the election in Newark. I’m still analyzing the data, and the sample size is small (so my margins of error are larger than I’d like them to be). Despite these limitations, the unweighted data pretty clearly shows that Newarkers have a complicated relationship with Booker. In my poll, about 20% of respondents claimed to undecided (and not leaning towards any particular candidate) the day before the election. Booker ended up winning 64% of the vote in Newark, so I assume that most of those undecided voters ended up voting for him. Still, it was surprising to see so many people be so coy the day before an election. Then again, I personally knew people who admitted to agonizing over their primary vote choice.

In addition to tracking the primary vote, I also asked respondents a trait battery, where they had to say whether certain adjectives or phrases described Booker well or not. I tested a wide array of positive and negative descriptions of Booker to gain a comprehensive understanding of how Newarkers perceive him. The unweighted results were illuminating. Newarkers simultaneously hold positive and negative (though mostly positive) views of Booker. While significant majorities reported that they thought “cares only about his political career” describes Booker extremely or pretty well, significant majorities also thought that Booker “is genuinely concerned for the less fortunate,” “provides strong leadership,” and stands up for African Americans, New Jersey and Newark separately.  A significant majority also conceded that Booker would likely win the Democratic primary.

I am still at the beginning of my data analysis. Soon, I will delve into the econometric analysis of the weighted data. At a first glance, though, there seems to be credence to the idea that Newark voters, particularly black ones, are engaging in what my colleague Lorrie Frasure Yokley calls “Jekyll and Hyde politics.” That is, they have different expectations for how black politicians should behave at the local and statewide level. While the utility of being deracialized or neoliberal was hotly contested when Booker was a citywide candidate, Newarkers recognize that those strategies serve him well as a senator, and they are happy to support him.

Andra Gillespie is associate professor of political science at Emory University and author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2012).


Book giveaway! 22 Ideas to Fix the World

This week, we’re putting the spotlight on our book, 22 Ideas to Fix the World: Conversations with the World’s Foremost Thinkers, which releases on September 9.

In this unique volume from the World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations and the Social Science Research Council, some of the world’s greatest minds—from Nobel Prize winners to long-time activists—explore what the prolonged instability of the so-called Great Recession means for our traditional understanding of how governments can and should function. Through interviews that are sure to spark lively debate, 22 Ideas to Fix the World presents both analysis of past geopolitical events and possible solutions and predictions for the future.

Featuring interviews with:
Zygmunt Bauman, Shimshon Bichler & Jonathan Nitzan, Craig Calhoun, Ha-Joon Chang, Fred Dallmayr, Mike Davis, Bob Deacon, Kemal Dervis, Jiemian Yang, Peter J. Katzenstein, Ivan Krastev, Will Kymlicka, Manuel F. Montes, José Antonio Ocampo, Vladimir Popov, Jospeh Stiglitz, Olzhas Suleimenov, Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Immanuel Wallerstein, Paul Watson, Vladimir Yakunin, Muhammad Yunus

To celebrate the forthcoming publication, we’re giving away 2 *free* copies of the book! Enter today on Goodreads for a chance to win.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

22 Ideas to Fix the World by Piotr Dutkiewicz
22 Ideas to Fix the World
Edited by Piotr Dutkiewicz and Richard Sakwa

Giveaway ends September 09, 2013.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win


For more on the book, you can also read the introduction to 22 Ideas to Fix the World. And stay tuned to the blog—we’ll be offering a free chapter from the book later this week!

Bradley Manning’s revelations saved lives

Was the Bradley Manning verdict fair? Over at US News & World Report’s Debate Club, NYUP author Marjorie Cohn weighs in. Read her piece below, and then vote for it here!

This is a historic verdict. Judge Denise Lind correctly found Bradley Manning not guilty of aiding the enemy because the evidence failed to establish that Manning knew information he provided to WikiLeaks would reach al-Qaida. A conviction of aiding the enemy would have sent a chilling message to the news media that if they publish leaked classified information, their officers could face life in prison. That would deprive the public of crucial information.

The verdict finding Manning guilty of Espionage Act offenses, however, sends an ominous warning that could deter future whistle-blowers from exposing government wrongdoing. It’s important to keep in mind that Manning provided information indicating the U.S. had committed war crimes. Traditionally the Espionage Act has been used only against spies and traitors, not whistle-blowers. Yet President Obama has used the Espionage Act to prosecute more whistle-blowers than all prior administrations combined.

Manning’s revelations actually saved lives. After WikiLeaks published his documentation of Iraqi torture centers established by the United States, the Iraqi government refused Obama’s request to extend immunity to U.S. soldiers who commit criminal and civil offenses there. As a result, Obama had to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

The American public needed to know the information Manning provided. He revealed evidence of war crimes in the “Collateral Murder” video, which depicts a U.S. Apache attack helicopter crew killing 12 unarmed civilians and wounding two children in Baghdad in 2007. The crew then killed people attempting to rescue the wounded. A U.S. tank drove over one of the bodies, cutting it in half. Those actions constitute war crimes under the Geneva Conventions.

The Bush administration waged an illegal war in Iraq in which thousands of people were killed. It also established an interrogation program that led to the torture and abuse of people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and the CIA black sites. Yet it is Bradley Manning, not the Bush officials, who is being prosecuted.

Judge Lind has already reduced any sentence Manning may receive by 112 days because of his mistreatment during the first 11 months of his custody, when he was kept in solitary confinement and humiliated by being forced to stand naked for inspection. Hopefully the judge will take into account how Manning’s revelations benefit our society when she passes sentence. Manning is still facing 136 years in prison for his convictions on 19 of the 21 counts with which he was charged.

Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and former president of the National Lawyer’s Guild. Her books include The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse (NYU Press, 2011), Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law, and Cameras in the Courtroom: Television and the Pursuit of Justice.

African Americans and the duty to bear witness to racial violence

—Kidada E. Williams

[This piece originally appeared on the History News Network. Read it here.]

I am a historian who studies African Americans’ testimonies about experiencing racial violence. I have read hundreds of black people’s personal accounts of assault, rape, murder, whipping, lynching, riots, and massacre. I have also examined their supporters’ efforts to use the powers of the press and creative art to make all Americans bear witness to the physical, psychological, economic, and sociological pain this violence caused black people.

Last year, I wrote a post on Trayvon Martin’s killing in which I discussed the long history of extralegal racial violence. I ended that piece acknowledging that although the final history of the killing had not yet been written, one crucial chapter would be the story of the Fulton and Martin family and their supporters’ work to guarantee that the state filed legal charges against George Zimmerman. In light of the trial and a Florida jury’s decision to acquit Zimmerman, we have seen an outpouring of commentary, rallies, and even calls for a new social movement.

As I watch African Americans and their allies respond to the Martin-Zimmerman case, I see it through the historical lens of black people’s long tradition of testifying about and against racial violence and their efforts to turn their emotional energy into political action. Whether it was to end slavery, lynching, or Jim Crow, African Americans throughout history have successfully used the power of testimony and bearing witness to get justice and effect change in the nation’s racial and legal landscape.

African Americans who spoke and wrote about slavery launched the first crusade against racial violence. People like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Solomon Northrup, Henry Bibb, Harriet Tubman and others related their stories of slavery’s horrors for others to hear. They testified with the belief that if other people heard their stories of what slavery really entailed they would experience the horrors for themselves and be inspired to support campaigns to abolish the institution. Working with progressive white activists, they launched and helped to sustain the abolitionist movement, a key feature of which was making white Americans bear witness to enslaved people’s pain as a way to get them to join the cause.

Over the course of late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as the violence continued and gave way to lynching and race riots, African Americans continued to resist by testifying, reporting violence, and creating art in an effort to help people who had never experienced this violence to bear witness to the suffering it caused. The parents, children, spouses, and neighbors of victims wrote letters to news organizations, presidents, the Justice Department, and eventually civil rights organizations like the NAACP. Their testimonies about violence fueled the establishment of the anti-lynching campaigns led by people like T. Thomas Fortune, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Mary Talbert, and Walter F. White, whose work helped to vanquish lynch mobs by the 1940s.

Although there were fewer lynch mobs in the post-World War II period, some whites continued to use violence to maintain Jim Crow. In African Americans’ fight to eliminate racial segregation, disfranchisement, and violence, we can see that they recognized the power of black testimony for rallying people to support their cause. Survivors of violence testified at mass meetings and protest campaigns about being attacked for trying to register to vote or joining a boycott or march or having a loved one killed. Indeed, critical moments in the civil rights movement involved people like Mamie Till Bradley, Fannie Lou Hamer, Myrlie Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Meredith, Joan Little, and Stokely Carmichael bravely stepping forward to relate personal pain they endured or witnessed.

The historical record shows that listening to these stories empowered African Americans and their allies to continue fighting Jim Crow by protesting, mobilizing and organizing their communities, and voting to elect officials who would pass laws to protect them. The success of their work in securing passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and transforming the nation’s racial landscape inspired historian C. Vann Woodward to call the movement the “Second Reconstruction.”

Indeed, the significance of African Americans’ willingness to testify about racial violence is that it has the power to inspire people to take political action. Sybrina Fulton, Tracy Martin, Rachel Jeantel, and Jordan Davis’s father Ron Davis, President Barack Obama, and many others have stepped forward to share their experiences of racial violence and discrimination. They seem to be influenced by what the West Indian slave Mary Prince referred to as her “duty to relate.” In The History of Mary Prince she wrote of her belief in her need to share her story of slavery with the people of England. “I have been a slave,” she explained, “I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows.” Knowing what only other people who have lost loved ones to racial violence know, Trayvon Martin’s family and supporters seem to be driven by the same force.

As the people who have testified about this recent violence in court, on television, or on social media make clear, African Americans take racial violence personally, and with good reason. We have a historical and intimate familiarity with this violence. We understand that Trayvon Martin was one of many people whose lives have been or might be cut short because of racial hatred. We know that, as the killings of men and boys like Martin and Jordan Davis and the prosecutions of women like Marissa Alexander and Cece McDonald reveal, such violence against black people is not only part of this nation’s history; it persists as part of our present. We speak out because we understand that if we don’t raise our voices, protest, make the nation and world bear witness, mobilize and organize our communities, run for office, and elect officials to protect our interests, this violence will also be a part of our future.

Khalil G. Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture and author of The Condemnation of Blackness, said on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show that the U.S. has reached a new nadir of race relations. He was referring to what the historian Rayford Logan described in The Betrayal of the Negro as the period following Reconstruction known for the tsunami-like rise of racial disfranchisement, segregation, and lynching that reduced African Americans to second-class citizens. The Supreme Court’s decisions on voting rights, voter suppression campaigns, the apparent sanctioned killing of unarmed black boys and men, defunding of schools, massive surveillance, and erosion of women’s rights combined with mass incarceration, racial hatred spewed across the public spheres, and continuing, and in some cases intensifying, sociological hardship for black people all inform the sense that we have indeed reached a new low point.

Muhammad suggested that, in order to push back against the denial of black people’s humanity and the circumscription of their rights, we are in need of another concerted and sustained political mobilization of our communities to achieve what he called a Third Reconstruction. The recent rallies and commentaries in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, civil disobedience campaigns in North Carolina and Texas, and recent discussions about the need for and point of protest suggest that we might be witnessing the emergence of a new movement. Whether or not that happens remains unclear, but if it does, then history shows us that the power of activists’ duty to relate what only they know about their experiences will surely be a precipitating factor.

Kidada E. Williams is the author of They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I (NYU Press, 2012). She is associate professor of African American and American history at Wayne State University.

We are all George Zimmerman: Trayvon Martin and the youth control complex

—Victor Rios

In ten years of studying inner city boys labeled at-risk by law enforcement and schools, I have found that poor Black Americans and Latinos are often deemed as culprits, lost causes, and menaces to society. One Black American boy in my study reported that on the day he was born nurses at the hospital commented in front of his mother, “Poor boy. He’s destined to become a dope dealer or drug addict just like his mother.”

In my observations at schools I witnessed a teacher tell a truant Latino eighth grade boy, “You have a prison cell waiting for when you turn eighteen.” On the streets I witnessed a police officer tell a seventeen year old Black American boy, “We want you to kill each other off, that way we don’t have to deal with locking you up.” These kinds of examples are countless in the lives of over 200 boys that I have interviewed and shadowed.

The reality is that poor urban boys grow up surrounded by a system of punitive social control that sees them as deficient students and criminal suspects that must be controlled and contained from young ages. School officials, law enforcement personnel, neighborhood watch volunteers, store clerks, jurors, and everyday citizens perceive and interact with these young people with fear, disdain, and circumspection. This youth control complex, a collective system of negative treatment based on racialized fears of young people of color, is responsible for the criminalization and systematic stripping of dignity that many young people like Trayvon Martin encounter on a day-to-day basis.

George Zimmerman is not just an outlying overzealous rogue vigilante that hunted down an innocent Black American boy. He very much represents mainstream America. We–schools, law enforcement, the media, intellectuals, politicians, and everyday citizens–are all involved in a system that creates and perpetuates fear and outcaste of a vulnerable, marginalized segment of our population. These young people grow up feeling hopeless, undignified, and failed by the system.

As Ronny, a seventeen year old Black American boy I followed for three years puts it, “It’s like I’m invisible, like I don’t exist, like people see me as good for nothing but to be in jail.” This youth control complex produces social death among many young people of color; they are alive but are not recognized as fellow human beings with the right to live productive lives. Instead we rely on surveillance, policing, prison bars, and stand your grounds laws to control, contain, incapacitate, and eliminate them.

The difference between George Zimmerman and the rest of us is that he pulled the trigger. We simply continue to mundanely mete out punitive treatment, stigma, and systematic stripping of dignity to young people of color, slowly killing their soul and their right to pursue happiness. By the time we sit in a courtroom to determine whether Trayvon Martin’s life is worth imposing a sanction on George Zimmerman, five white jurors have already been socialized and acculturated to criminalize young racialized bodies and to view the victim as a culprit.

Politicians and school and law enforcement administrators (including those that supervise neighborhood watch programs) must demand that individuals who interact with a diverse population be trained in understanding their cognitive biases and how these inform the treatment they impose on others. We must train ourselves to recognize and eliminate our inclinations to perceive and treat young people of color as suspects and instead treat them with the dignity they deserve. Listening to the voices of young people themselves who have lived a lifetime of encounters with the youth control complex might be a good first step.

Dr. Victor Rios is a  Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (NYU Press, 2011) and Street Life: Poverty, Gangs, and a Ph.D.

George Zimmerman, Not Guilty: Blood on the leaves

—Jelani Cobb

[This article originally appeared in The New Yorker.]

The not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial came down moments after I left a screening of “Fruitvale Station,” a film about the police-shooting death of Oscar Grant four years ago in Oakland. Much of the audience sat quietly sobbing as the closing credits rolled, moved by the narrative of a young black man, unarmed and senselessly gone. Words were not needed to express a common understanding: to Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, the seventeen-year-old he shot, fit the description; for black America, the circumstances of his death did.

The familiarity dulled the sharp edges of the tragedy. The decision the six jurors reached on Saturday evening will inspire anger, frustration, and despair, but little surprise, and this is the most deeply saddening aspect of the entire affair. From the outset— throughout the forty-four days it took for there to be an arrest, and then in the sixteen months it took to for the case to come to trial—there was a nagging suspicion that it would culminate in disappointment. Call this historical profiling.

The most damning element here is not that George Zimmerman was found not guilty: it’s the bitter knowledge that Trayvon Martin was found guilty. During his cross examination of Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, the defense attorney Mark O’Mara asked if she was avoiding the idea that her son had done something to cause his own death. During closing arguments, the defense informed the jury that Martin was armed because he weaponized a sidewalk and used it to bludgeon Zimmerman. During his post-verdict press conference, O’Mara said that, were his client black, he would never have been charged. At the defense’s table, and in the precincts far beyond it where donors have stepped forward to contribute funds to underwrite their efforts, there is a sense that Zimmerman was the victim.

O’Mara’s statement echoed a criticism that began circulating long before Martin and Zimmerman encountered each other. Thousands of black boys die at the hands of other African Americans each year, but the black community, it holds, is concerned only when those deaths are caused by whites. It’s an appealing argument, and widespread, but it’s simplistic and obtuse. It’s a belief most easily held when you’ve not witnessed peace rallies and makeshift memorials, when you’ve turned a blind eye to grassroots organizations like the Interrupters in Chicago, who are working valiantly to stem the tide of violence in that city. It is the thinking of people who’ve never wondered why African Americans disproportionately support strict gun-control legislation. The added quotient of outrage in cases like this one stems not from the belief that a white murderer is somehow worse than a black one but from the knowledge that race determines whether fear, history, and public sentiment offer that killer a usable alibi.

The thousands who gathered last spring in New York, in St. Louis, in Philadelphia, in Miami, and in Washington, D.C., to demand Zimmerman’s arrest shared a narrative and an understanding of the past’s grip on the present. Long before the horrifying images of Martin lying prone and lifeless in the grass ever made their way to Gawker, he’d already begun inspiring references to the line about “blood on the leaves” from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Those crowds were the response of people who understand that history is interred in the shallowest of graves.

Yet the problem is not that this case marks a low point in this country’s racial history—it’s that, after two centuries of common history, we’re still obligated to chart high points and low ones. To be black at times like this is to see current events on a real-time ticker, a Dow Jones average measuring the quality of one’s citizenship. Trayvon Martin’s death is an American tragedy, but it will mainly be understood as an African-American one. That it occurred in a country that elected and reëlected a black President doesn’t diminish the despair this verdict inspires, it intensifies it. The fact that such a thing can happen at a moment of unparalleled political empowerment tells us that events like these are a hard, unchanging element of our landscape.

We can understand the verdict to mean validation for the idea that the actions Zimmerman took that night were those of a reasonable man, that the conclusions he drew were sound, and that a black teen-ager can be considered armed any time he is walking down a paved street. We can take from this trial the knowledge that a grieving family was capable of displaying inestimable reserves of grace. Following the verdict, Sybrina Fulton posted a benediction to Twitter: “Lord during my darkest hour I lean on you. You are all that I have. At the end of the day, GOD is still in control.” The Twitter account of Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, features an image of him holding Trayvon as a toddler, a birthday hat perched on the boy’s head. At the trial, they sat through a grim procession of autopsy photos and audio of the gunshot that ended their son’s life. No matter the verdict, their simple pursuit of justice meant amplifying the trauma of their loss by some unknowable exponent.

There’s fear that the verdict will embolden vigilantes, but that need not be the concern: history has already done that. You don’t have to recall specifics of everything that has transpired in Florida over the past two hundred years to recognize this. The details of Rosewood, the black town terrorized and burned to the ground in 1923, and of Groveland and the black men falsely accused of rape and murdered there in 1949, can remain obscure and retain sway over our present concerns. Names—like Claude Neal, lynched in 1934, and Harry and Harriette Moore, N.A.A.C.P. organizers in Mims County, killed by a firebomb in 1951—can be overlooked. What cannot be forgotten, however, is that there were no consequences for those actions.

Perhaps history does not repeat itself exactly, but it is certainly prone to extended paraphrases. Long before the jury announced its decision, many people had seen what the outcome would be, had known that it would be a strange echo of the words Zimmerman uttered that rainy night in central Florida: they always get away.

Jelani Cobb is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Institute of African American Studies at the University of Connecticut, and the author of To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic (NYU Press, 2007). Read more of Cobb’s coverage of the Zimmerman trial via The New Yorker here.

Altar-ed Expectations

—Suzanna Danuta Walters

So the verdict is in and the celebrations have begun. Striking down the odious Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and allowing the challenge to Prop 8 to stand so Californians can get married, is simply the right thing to do. As I listen to the coverage, I can’t help but be caught up in the excitement, even as my feminist resistance to the marriage mania remains unassailable. As a lesbian who came out in another era, I couldn’t have imagined it happening and, more importantly, I couldn’t imagine the more generalized shift in public attitudes towards gays.

But some of the language of the pundits and celebrants reminds me of why I’ve been so frustrated at the centrality of marriage to the gay rights movement. We are being told this decision makes us “more equal,” and our families “more legitimate.” That this is the culmination of the long march of progress and we just need to get those other states to kick in and we’ll live in a happy rainbow world of official homolove.

But love is not more legitimate or good or valuable if the state makes it official, and garnering a basic victory is not the same as making the world a more genuinely amenable place for sexual difference. Girlfriend, listen up: this is a simple civil right that we shouldn’t even have to fight for, a right to enter a kinda problematic institution that was historically rooted in ownership and gender inequity. Put that on your wedding cake.

Marriage rights are not synonymous with full citizenship or true belonging. So as I listen to the victory speeches I have a smile on my face, but I also hear the voices of my friends who have pledged that we will not take part in this rush to the altar. I hear the voices of the poor, the disenfranchised, the gays of color for whom marriage is hardly the golden egg or prized victory.

I am sickened—again and again—by the wedding industry that bilks billions out of those who need these resources for health care and housing and everyday life. I shudder at the resources (both of the movement and of individuals getting married) that go into this industry, while HIV/AIDS remains a national crisis. I am reminded, again, of the vexed history of this institution and its stubbornly gendered and racialized parameters. And coming as this does on the heels of the despicable gutting of the Voting Rights Act, well, that makes this victory more than a little bittersweet. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll drink some champagne even if I won’t rush to the altar. But let’s not imagine that this is all we can imagine.

Suzanna Danuta Walters is the Director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University and the author of All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America and the forthcoming The Tolerance Trap: Moving Gay Rights Beyond Acceptance (forthcoming from NYU Press, 2014).

‘Women programmers’ and the gender bias in science

—Sue V. Rosser

After reading the recent opinion piece “How to Be a ‘Woman Programmer’” by Ellen Ullman in the New York Times Sunday Review, I had two primary thoughts and reactions. Particularly as I neared the end of the article, where the barriers faced by women in technology were discussed, I was reminded of the interviews I had conducted in Silicon Valley and the metro New York area that reinforced exactly what Ullman said about why women patented at vastly lower rates than men. The percentage of women granted patents ranks significantly lower than that of their male peers in all disciplines, countries and sectors; it also ranks very low relative to the percentage of women in a specific scientific or technical field.

Ullman’s description of the encounters with sexist, clueless, or resistant men bosses brought to mind my interview with Rick Foot*. Rick Foot currently serves as president and founder of a very successful IT innovation company. In the past he has headed several research and development operations. Friendly and generous with his time for the interview, he began by explaining the patenting process.

He told me that he didn’t think there was a gender gap in patenting in the industry but that it must result from the persistently low numbers of women in the industry. When I explained the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) study and the data showing that women patented at much lower rates than their participation in the IT workforce, he challenged the data with other questions about sector, publication rates, incentives, and age.

When he finally accepted that the data for the gender gap might be solid, he said, “I’m pretty sure that the women in R&D in my company patent at the same rate as their many male counterparts.” He did admit though, that he had never thought about gender or checked the data for his company which now he was intrigued to examine. Rick Foot was quite convinced that his view of the world—that there could not be a gender gap in patenting or if a gap did exist, it was proportional to the low number of women in IT—was absolutely true.

In contrast to the men I interviewed, all of the women knew what I meant right away when I raised the issue of the gender gap in patenting. They also understood how the gap served as a deterrent for women’s career advancement. Software engineer Joan Jetma* expressed the impact particularly well.

Joan works at a very large global IT company that prides itself on innovation and rewards its employees for patenting innovative discoveries. She had observed that very few women in the company where she worked obtained patents. When she did some research to determine whether her observations were correct, she discovered that about 10 percent of the women obtained patents at her company. When her own patent came up for review, she realized that all of the reviewers were men.

Because of the impact that obtaining patents have on women’s careers, some interviewees described the positive steps they had taken to enhance opportunities for women to patent in their company. One woman I interviewed, after observing the gender gap in her own company, started a support community for women. She sent an e-mail to about twenty women in the company and received immediate responses. In two years, the community has grown to 600 women who represent all sectors and all countries where the company is located.

This positive approach reflects the other major reaction I had to the article by Ullman. Despite all of the obstacles she had faced and the clear recognition that many other women might not wish to remain in technology, Ellen Ullman showed a clear passion for technology.  Her love of software engineering made her lash back, tough it out or change jobs to be able to pursue programming, no matter what.

During the last thirty years my studies of women in STEM have enabled me to interview more than 450 women scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians. As shown in Breaking into the Lab, the overwhelming finding that emerges from these interviews is the love and passion most women have for their work. They love science and technology and will do whatever it takes to pursue their passion. Just imagine how much more productive and creative they could be if the barriers were removed.

Sue V. Rosser is Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Women and Gender Studies and Sociology at San Francisco State University. She is the author of Breaking into the Lab:  Engineering Progress for Women in Science (NYU Press, 2012).

* Names have been changed.