Some airplane reading for you

The following is an exchange with one of my favorite intellectual sparing partners whose emails never fail to disappoint. In order to respect the anonymity of this friend, references to identity have been redacted, but the overall banter remains intact. Here’s how a particularly thought-provoking email chain began… 

Oh and P.S., look for my sweet response to be posted here, tomorrow.


From: GUSMAN, Johanna
Sent: 16 December 2016 10:48
To: ——–
Subject: Some airplane reading for you


As promised, I have some articles for you. I have steered clear of the Trump-nomics bullshit and kept with the pieces that I have read this year that give me hope for this world. Let’s start first with articles from the usual suspects:

  • The New Yorker: The Legacy of Lynching, on Death Row by Jeffery Toobin. If I wasn’t an international human rights lawyer, I would hope to be doing something like this back in the States. That is if I could muster the emotional strength to do so. I met Stevenson during law school and was mesmerized. Definitely worth the read.
  • The Atlantic: My President Was Black by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Not only is this one of my favourite authors (if you have not read his book Between the World and Me or his other Atlantic pieces, especially The Case for Reparations, add those to your list as well), it is so beautifully done and puts into perspective the past eight years and really makes me mourn (even more than before) who will be replacing him…

Finally, I went to a screening at the Palais of a film called SOLD for the Global Migration Film Festival (how very UN-y, right?). It has won several film festival awards, but if you can manage a screening, you should most certainly see it. After visiting India for work and then a bit of play, it really made returning to the unreal world that is Geneva difficult, particularly when there is so much to be done elsewhere.

I really have to find a way to get back into the field…

Take care and Happy New Year,


From: —–
Sent: 16 December 2016 14:17
To: GUSMAN, Johanna
Subject: Some airplane reading for you

Hey Johanna,

Thanks so much for sharing these pieces! I’m a massive fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates and stayed up wayyyyy too late the other night reading his magisterial piece on blackness and the Obama presidency. What an amazing piece – incredibly astute, deeply sad, beautifully written. I find him especially fascinating as a writer because, as in both this piece and the reparations piece, he is able to combine sharp political and social commentary with almost frightening levels of personal vulnerability.

This is also one of the things I find most challenging about his work. At risk of sounding like an amateurish college Republican, one of the things that worries me about our current socio-political discourse is the growing orientation of the left towards identity politics in general and, in particular, a specific flavor of identity politics that places feelings – and in particular the feeling of grievance and victimhood – at the center of political discussion.

I am super sympathetic to the understandable grievances that Coates feels – about the horrendous legacy and continued trauma of racial oppression in the US, the seemingly willful eliding of it by the political class (including Obama!), and the woeful lack of ‘wokeness’ amongst huge swathes of the American population. We have so, so much more to do as a society to acknowledge and address these grievances – work that as Coates highlights so well we are not doing nearly enough of, a reflection of the continued legacy of racism of all kinds embedded in our culture, our institutions, etc.

But I guess I wonder where this heavy emphasis on the felt experience and desired redress of racial trauma takes us, and whether it offers a credible route to the sorts of relatively boring but concrete policy steps that would actually alleviate the massive disparities in present-day life outcomes of all sorts that face black people and non-white Americans in general. Or – heresy! – might it actually serve as a distraction from real improvements to the safety and material circumstances of the people who need them most?

One point of reference for me is the politics of progressive college campuses, which seem to have changed massively in [recent years]. I don’t think there’s much difference between the political outlook of my cohort and current students, in the sense that we were all pretty ‘woke’ and deeply committed to radical intellectual and spiritual exploration of the horrors of 21st century America – our racial dynamics and economic inequality at home, or neo-liberalism and violent oppression abroad, etc. […]

I guess what I sometimes feel reading Coates is an uncomfortable feeling that he – and a lot of the justifiably angry activists and others to whom he gives voice – have ended up in a place where the acknowledgement and redress of their pain and trauma by shitty white people and the ‘establishment’ has taken priority over the pursuit of justice in terms of real-world outcomes. I may be massively off the mark here, but it sort of feels like progressives on college campuses and in coastal cities are spending more effort making sure they aren’t triggered in class or victimized by microaggressions than they are doing the hard but critical work of building political power, creating broad constituencies for change, and hammering hard on all the shitty policies that have allowed racism to remain a key structural feature of US law and policy.

And in a sense I feel like Coates sometimes encourages this, suggesting explicitly or implicitly that this sort of work is basically futile against the weight of historical oppression, or possibly even counter-productive in that it keeps people busy tinkering around the edges and therefore preventing them from confronting head-on the juggernaut of 400 years of oppression. And while I totally sympathize with that, and in some ways agree, I also wonder if it does us a disservice by disillusioning people towards the idea of working to make political progress at the levels of laws and regulations and the enforcement thereof, imperfect and incomplete though these sorts of efforts may be.

I wonder if in the end this ends up fueling rather than alleviating despair, foreclosing real (if imperfect) avenues towards progress and ultimately disempowering people by suggesting that the only form of ‘real’ empowerment in the face of such hulking historical trauma is, on the one extreme, the massive collective confrontation of our horrible racial legacy or, on the other, the highly-individualistic sort of empowerment that takes the form of denying a speaker a platform on a campus, calling out a microaggression, censuring some peer for an ill-advised newspaper column, protesting professors who would rather teach than spend a full period dissecting everyone’s pronouns, etc.

Maybe he’s right that we can’t make any real progress until we do what Obama wouldn’t: collectively confront the legacy of racism in a clear-eyed way that places blame where it’s deserved, rejects the facile papering over (a la Obama) of the real racial malevolence of significant numbers of Americans, and perhaps uses reparations to concretely if imperfectly acknowledge and ‘account for’ the wrongs that have historically been done. But I wonder if the guy serving a ridiculous 1:100 crack sentence really wants to wait for that; if the tenant facing eviction in need of legal aid wants to wait for that; if the black kid in a shitty school should have to wait for that.

To be clear, I don’t think Coates wants any of them to wait for that either – he’s clear in the recent piece that we have to try to do all of these things at once, and that the long-term project of transforming race in America isn’t mutually exclusive to more narrow, more pragmatic, more targeted interventions to improve real-world outcomes. But I do wonder whether the style of his writing — powerfully confessional, deeply vulnerable, sometimes despondent, often outraged, dismissive of small steps — may also have some unintended consequences in terms of how his (now very large) audience assimilates his words and comes to form their own vision of what constitutes effective action, ‘real’ change, impactful engagement with these issues, and the like.

I didn’t set out to write a novel about this but – lucky you – you’re the first person I’ve ‘talked to’ about the piece and – unlucky me – the best way I know to get my head around my own thoughts is to try to write them up for someone else to read. Hopefully sometime soon we’ll be in the same place at the same time and can discuss, challenge, and reflect over a beer. But if you have thoughts or views in the meantime I’d of course be very up for hearing them!

Hope you’re doing well too, that you enjoy your time off, and that you have a great New Years and a fulfilling year ahead. What a year 2016 has been…not one that will be quickly forgotten.

All the best,



*The featured image is Poison Oasis by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

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