A New Familiar Story

The hardships of the immigrant experience to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The isolation of life in the upper midwest. The lure, threat and promise of the big city. Patriarchy, misogyny, violence. Bigotry in World War I. Second and third generation immigrants families. These are recognizeable themes in American literature.

Familiar themes, though, do not have to limit a novel’s scope or imagination.

Michelle Hoover’s Bottomland is about the disappearance of two daughters from the German family homestead in rural Iowa in the early part of the twentieth century. Hoover tells the story in five chapters, each from a character’s perspective. She plays with time, with narrative veracity, and with the plot. It unfolds in bits and pieces. Hoover, though, is not interested in writing a thriller or mystery. Tension is used in service of broader themes, particularly those of interpersonal connection and agency. The prose is marked by an austere clarity – even when the picture is foggy and described by an unreliable narrator.bottomland

Bottomland is a thoughtful and well-written novel. It is also surprisingly relevant to contemporary life. Pick your immigrant group, imagination the perspective of one with little agency in a world with few or no guarantees, add a bit of cross-cultural tension – and it all rings as familiar. Hoover has crafted a clever and thoughtful book.

I wonder if novelists will be looking at Somalian immigrants in Minnesota or Syrian immigrants in Michigan twenty years hence. If they do – and do it well as Bottomland – I will read and learn.

David Potash

Emigration & Immigration: Mexico and the United States

mexico-and-its-diasporaAlexandra Delano, a professor at the New School, grounds her book Mexico and Its Diaspora in the United States: Policies of Emigration Since 1848 in history, foreign policy and the domestic politics of both nations. What sets this book apart, though, is that Delano assigns primacy to the Mexican government in analyzing the flow of Mexicans to the United States. Delano has a strong command of a wide range of scholarship and methodologies. In her hands, policy analysis and foreign policy is a surprisingly helpful lens with which to study emigration and immigration. The result is a comprehensive, compelling, and an insightful overview to a complicated international dynamic.

This is not a book for those new to immigration or Mexican-American history. It moves quickly over a lot of material, information and arguments. Delano writes to those have some understanding of the terrain and seek deeper and more sophisticated awareness of policy shifts and turns. Her underlying thesis examines the implications of the gradual transformation of Mexico into a more active and intentional player with United States. Delano is fully cognizant of the asymmetrical relationship. She notes, though, that Mexico’s willingness to engage – particularly from the 1990s and NAFTA – have had profound consequences on US-Mexico relations.

I found her investigation of IME (Institute for Mexicans Abroad) and the Matricula Consular – a card issued by Mexican consulates to Mexicans living in the US – to be especially informative. These policy efforts by the Mexican government to protect citizens’ rights, no matter where they live, to have an important role in understanding the immigrant experience. Emigration and immigration policies are critical. They have political ramifications, too, for both countries.

Mexico and Its Diaspora in the United States is a welcome addition to the studies of Mexican American relations and the flow of people across the border.

David Potash

The Wilds of Western Massachusetts

No one accidentally finds their way to MASS MoCA. A sprawling massive complex dedicated to contemporary art, MASS MoCA is in North Adams, Massachusetts, on the Hoosic River valley in western Berkshire County. North Adams has the smallest population of any city in Massachusetts. If 2,000 people leave, it becomes a town. North Adams is just over an hour’s drive from Albany and nearly three hours from Boston. In five minutes you can be in Vermont. North Adams was originally a mill town and in the twentieth century, Sprague Electric was the area’s largest employer. After it shuttered, a collaborative effort and much politicking led to the creation of MASS MoCA on its former site. It is a museum of great scale. It sits alone in a city that hopes to capture tourists and their dollars.mass-moca

My trips to Mass Moca usually start from Boston, driving north and then west on Route 2.  The land is hilly and by the tiny hamlet of Florida, MA, we’re in the Hoosic range. It is eastern mountains and the flora shifts accordingly. The woods are denser and colder. Steven King knows these woods, not Henry David Thoreau. After ascending the Whitcomb Summit – and there’s a nice spot to pull over and take a photo – route 2 heads downhill in a series of swoops, curves, and cutbacks. A true hairpin curve slows the traffic to a crawl. Over the shoulder you can make out North Adams, which stands out defiantly amid the hills and woods.

These shifts, from light to dark, from friendly to threatening, and from planned to dramatic, set the stage for my last visit Mass Moca and the powerful work of Alex Da Corte. His exhibit, Free Roses, closed in September. Now it only exists online, in print, and in the minds of those of us fortunate to see it in person. It lingers. Da Corte has the ability to take the known and make it strange, the humorous and make it unsettling – and to do it with style and a light touch.

Da Corte works with vibrant colors, familiar objects, humor and a strong taste of the Gothic. Free Roses contained new pieces and as-is-a-wet-hoagieolder workers. The overall installation took advantage of the tremendous space of the galleries. Da Corte was thoughtful about lighting, flooring, and how pieces were situated. Spanning multiple rooms, the exhibit a carnival of creepy, provocative and gaudy, if not cheerful. It collectively gave me a sense of other worldness.

He is young – born in 1980 – and prolific. Da Corte gets the appeal of pop. He uses it to catch the eye and then subvert. Take a look at the wet hoagie (John Bernardo/Courtesy of Luxembourg & Dayan Gallery, New York). It is monumental and ridiculous, tasty and ready for critical analysis. Da Corte exercises a strong sense of play in his pieces, challenging symbolism and formalism with a wink or a critique.

When playful, it made me smile. When more ominous – a large series of pieces based on the poet Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell – it was disturbing. Da Corte works with neon, video, and animatronics. The robotic dog walking in a circle and the toy swans swimming endlessly in a loop were just kitschy enough to draw me in and then bother. He photographs, paints and curates. His work is accessible – disarmingly so – and haunting. It brought me wonder and just enough unease to remind me that the exhibit sits, like MASS MoCA, in a special place protected against a much less friendly world.

David Potash

Immigration Dreamers

Eileen Truax’s Dreamers: An Immigrant Generation’s Fight For Their American Dream is a journalist’s account of life for undocumented people in the age of the Dream Act (DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Truax hails from Mexico and lives in the US. She is well-versed in the small and large challenges of living in two different countries with different cultures. Her aim in this book is to give human faces and stories to the young men and women affected directly by DACA. She humanizes, explains and contextualizes the stories of those who are struggling in challenging times.

dreamersConsciously avoiding statistics and policy analysis (and there are places in the text that call out for further explication), Truax gives ten narrative histories. She writes about young men and women, their homes, their families and their friends. Their communities are described as are their clothing and appearance. Sympathy and understanding drives the text. Truax wants us to see these people as people who are as “American” as any neighbor, classmate, co-worker or colleague.

It is an effective strategy to generate emotions and sympathy. There is much to like about these young men and women. The anchor of the stories are those who are open about their lack of documentation. These courageous souls have decided to make their cause public and be active to seek seeking legislative and executive support. Truax helps us to understand just how terrifying this must feel. The book’s cover says “Undocumented Unafraid” – but these people are afraid, and with good cause.

Emotions and sympathy can aid in understanding policy consequences but they are not necessarily the best way to create solutions or to craft better policy. Immigration is notoriously complicated to reform.  Politics, history, economics, national security, and race are woven throughout any discussion of policy. Not acknowledging the harder complicating forces does little to advance the discussion. There were ample places in the histories, too, where Truax could have provided anchors to the stories and given the reader themes and direction. The role of education, for example, or how the experience was both empowering and demeaning. Much more could have been done with the material.

Truax’s book gives voice to those that may not be comfortable coming forward. It is here that I think her contribution is most effective. Policy and laws have real impacts on real lives. The consequences of ill-considered policy can be devastating. To earn and maintain our trust, our government and our laws must be fair, equitable and just. Humanizing our immigration policy and practice, as Truax does in this volume, helps to set a high bar for meaningful reform. One hopes that it is not just a dream.

David Potash

Surprised Stranger in a Strange Land

One of my favorite movie scenes is from the 1939 Alfred Hitchcock thriller, The 39 Steps. Our hero, Richard Hannay (ably played by a dashing Robert Donat), is fleeing from police and spies. He darts into an auditorium, where he is mistaken for the featured speaker and led to the dais. Hundreds of eyes are upon him and the crowd grows restless. Without knowing the topic or the audience, Hannay launches into an impassioned speech, stringing together platitudes and general observations. He senses what the crowd wants and they are charmed. Hannay wins their support, just as he is whisked away by the police.

I thought of Hannay-Donat often while reading Rachel Dewoskin’s memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing. It is a very entertaining book, well-told, with a most improbable story line. Dewoskin plays a role – American woman in Beijing – in her daily life and on television. She is committed to the role, but at the same time she knows that she is living a performance.


Dewoskin is the daughter of a well-known American sinologist. She spent much of her childhood traveling in China, and after graduating from college, decided to take a job in Beijing working for an American public relations firm. She knew little about PR, but at age twenty-one, she wanted to see something new. China in the early 1990s, just as it was opening up new economic opportunities to the west, was an ideal opportunity for an American with Chinese language skills. Dewoskin started work, found a place to live, and began to explore and keep a journal.

She describes her day-to-day work existence with engaged bemusement and humor, particularly as she worked diligently in trying to figure things out. China can be a terrifically difficult culture to navigate, and at that period, she was a pioneer. Very little made sense. Every interaction, especially with friends and colleagues, was influenced by culture and protocol. Only through the benefit of time did she realize her errors and false assumptions. The language posed constant challenges. She notes often that she was never quite sure she understood what others were saying. Adding to it, just about everyone can be a bit of a fool in their early 20s.

Propelling an interesting journey into the absurd, a man she met at a party encouraged Dewoskin to audition for a role on Chinese television. Dewoskin had acted in college so thought of it as a bit of lark. Much to her surprise, she was cast as a lead in the soap opera “Foreign Babes in Beijing.” Playing the role of Jiexi, a sexy American who is able to snare a Chinese man, Dewoskin became a star and an unwitting vehicle by which Chinese culture worked through issues of western women. The soap was a multi-year smash. Overall viewership was more than 600 million.

After several years of acting, making friends and growing up, her adventures invariable come to an end. Dewoskin made her way back to the United States. Several years later, her notebooks became the source of this book. She is now a writer.

Dewoskin does not make grand sweeping arguments in Foreign Babes. Nor does she try to prove points about Chinese culture. Instead, she describes and recounts with a keen appreciation of people and detail. She is smart and thoughtful.  The result is a very interesting account of an intelligent and resourceful woman doing something unexpected in a foreign world that she struggles to understand. It’s an apt description of many immigrant stories – only this one is told from a different perspective.

David Potash

Detroit’s History

On a recent road trip I had the opportunity to drive through Detroit. It had been almost twenty years since I last visited the city. I found it impossible to explore the city without engaging critically. The poverty and depopulation were striking. What happened? Was it culture or policy? How much did deindustrialization play? Poor leadership? Where were the buildings, houses and people? My imagination couldn’t stop wondering about what used to inhabit the open spaces.

origins-urban-crisisThere are more than a few books and websites capturing images of Detroit’s ruins. Poverty tourism, though, is not the same thing as historical analysis. To understand Detroit, I strongly recommend Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. It is an outstanding work, thought-provoking and comprehensive, well-deserving of its many prizes.

More traditional accounts of Detroit’s decline focus on the 1960s, the city’s riots, and white flight. Sugrue persuasively argues that the origins of the city’s troubles were present much earlier. He makes clear that the cause was not an inevitable result of market forces or the result of the breakdown of urban families. Sugrue has no truck with blaming the poor for being poor. Instead, he outlines how urban inequality is facilitated by mapping racial inequality on the city’s geography. It is played out in housing, in education, in healthcare, in employment, in crime, and in opportunity. “To a great extent in postwar America, geography is destiny,” Sugrue writes.

The book is organized into three large sections. In “Arsenal,” the economics and politics of the immediate post-war years in described. Sugrue focuses on the battles over segregation and integration. The city is large and featured many single family homes. White citizens of Detroit fought in the courts and in the streets to protect all-white neighborhoods. Blacks were forced into smaller areas with inferior and expensive housing stocks. Federal redlining through the FHA exacerbated segregation and pressure. Local electoral politics made things even worse, as white conservative politicians ran on race. Middle-class and working-class support for New Deal democratic liberalism collapsed in an onslaught of racism.

“Rust,” the second section, examines the difference between black and white Americans sometimes working in the same factories but always living differently in very different parts of the city. The last section, “Fire,” tracks the neighborhood associations and organizations that actively worked against integration and the civil rights of blacks. When Detroit erupted in riots and flames in 1967, we have a clear sense of the causes.

Collectively, Sugrue spells out how race and racism ate away at the possibility of integration and shared class interests, as well as the development of a healthy city. These sped Detroit’s economic collapse, which added to white flight. Things went from bad to worse in the ensuing years, as the tax base for the city shrank and the needs of its poor inhabitants increased. It is an extremely depressing story.

Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013. The city has seen economic development in its downtown, but vast parts of the city are economic, educational, and socially depressed. Michigan’s unemployment rate in February, 2016 was 4.8% – in Detroit it is 11%. While there is money and hope in Detroit’s suburbs and the state as a whole, and a small movement in downtown, it is difficult to be optimistic about the city’s future. Racism casts a very long shadow.

David Potash

Countering Reading Reluctance

I have a confession. When told that I must read a book or see a movie, my instinct is often to go in the other direction. “Yes, yes,” I will probably say while inwardly compiling a list of all the other books and movies I simply have to get to first. It is irrational, I know, and is likely a reflection of stubbornness and a deeper character flaw – obstreperousness.

I do, however, I seek and savor the recommendations of others. I want to know what you have read and seen. What brings out my mule-like tendencies is special combination of  hype, popularity, and an unwelcome moral imperative. Are we bound to all see the same cultural production? The problem is worse with book-movie combinations, the full cultural tsunami.

Consequently, there are significant gaps in my familiarity with popular culture. I have never seen more than 6 minutes of the Game of Thrones. I don’t know why the Gone Girl isn’t there anymore. For a while it seemed if everyone was talking about Shades of Gray. I noticed many copies at the bookstore and the title on cable TV, but that’s about it. From reviews I know that it is about sex and bondage and is poorly written – and that is about it. Reading reviews usually gives me enough information to follow conversation and to make appropriate noises. Be warned, though – I have no real direct experience with any reality television.

Bearing all this in mind, I picked up Colm Toibin‘s Brooklyn with trepidation. It gathered prestigious literary awards and Toibin is a superb writer. Then the movie came out to critical acclaim. It seemed inescapable for a brief stretch of time. I have very fond memories of living in Brooklyn. Not in the 1950s, but still – more than a few folks mentioned the book in passing. I have yet to view the movie. So bearing full ownership of my irrational reluctance, I settled down to read the novel.Brooklyn

It is really, really good. Toibin writes sparingly and with care. The characters are well-developed. The plot is carefully paced. There are no tricks, no overt drama, no presumption of being more that it is. Its strength is within its focus. In many ways it is a novel with an older, more simpler style – but in no way is it old-fashioned or mannered. All in all, I was greatly impressed.

Who knows, I may enjoy the movie, too.

Perhaps it is not too late for me to learn a few new tricks.

David Potash

The Invisible Man Speaks

Making assumptions about gender, race and ethnicity is easy. The markers are visible and familiar. Citizenship and immigration status are different. There is no way to tell if the man next to you on the sidewalk has an expired or active tourist visa, whether the woman ahead you in line has a real or fraudulent social security card, or whether the child at the playground has dual citizenship or not. There are no tell-tale signs of documentation. Immigrants come in all shapes, sizes and ages. Each has a unique story.

Experts estimate about 11 million people live in the United States without proper documentation. What are their lives like? What does being undocumented feel like? Regardless of your politics on the issue of immigration, these are important questions. They are also are not easy questions to address. Providing an answer would bring attention, and with it, possible deportation. Out of caution, the undocumented are usually silent.

IllegalJose Angel N. lacks citizenship and legal status, but he has courage. His memoir, Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant, is a haunting first-person account of his life in two worlds. It not a book about policy, politics, or immigration reform. Nor is it grounded in the particulars of day-to-day living without status. Instead, it is a passionate and lyrical account, drawing heavily upon literature and philosophy, of the being of undocumented. Jose wants to share, to let us know what it is like to be illegal (he is frank about the term), and to for us to consider his status from different perspectives.

Jose entered America illegally in 1993, fleeing grinding poverty in Mexico. He was caught and deported. He regrouped and returned again, this time with more resolve, luck and purpose. Jose made his way to Chicago where he worked menial jobs, gathered the strength to take ESL classes (at a suburban community college), and then on to more college and better paying jobs. He has accomplished much. Were he to have entered the country legally, many would consider him to be an American success story. He did not, though, and is instead judged very differently.

Education resonated with Jose. He originally thought about going to school in terms of employment, but his status, surprisingly, forced him to explore what interested him intellectually. He was surprised to find a home in the humanities. Jose was drawn to philosophy. He wrestled with the ancient Greeks, and he writes about the power of Plato’s cave to explain his situation. He worked hard to gain fluency in English. Words matter in any language and Jose’s ear was closely attuned to shifts in meaning. His prose shows great skill. He is a smart man who has become an educated man. The book is an account of that journey, played out in an environment that cannot fully accept or validate who he is.

Challenges and threats are woven throughout Jose’s life, contrasting with his many triumphs. He describes the fear of talking with the police or anyone in a position of authority, from shop clerk to bartender. In fact, the structures that represent and reinforce an ordered society are themselves a threat to Jose’s existence in the United States. He cannot accept a promotion at work, apply to law school, or visit relatives in Mexico. Jose is acutely aware of his non-legal status. He lives with shame. Yet at the same time, Jose explains his desire to do learn, to make something of himself, to do good. He wants to leave a meaningful life. He cares about his friends and community. He works. He meets a woman, falls in love, and has a family.

An illegal alien, Jose is here and not here, engaged and disengaged, real and not real, visible and invisible. He lives in constant awareness and in perpetual conflict. Well read in W.E.B. DuBois, Jose’s conception of a “double consciousness” hovers throughout the book. Society and the law will not allow him to claim a unified self.

I think that Ralph Ellison’s classic, The Invisible Man offers an even better literary model for Jose’s memoir. The novel, which chronicles life of an African American man whose identity and status is rendered invisible by his race, explores a deep form of  alienation. This is, in many ways, what Jose is living.

Jose completed his associate’s degree at Moraine Valley Community College, a baccalaureate at UIC, and is now in a graduate program working on a PhD. His memoir has given him a public profile. In 2015, MVCC chose Illegal as the institution’s shared reading. He hopes for a change in his status but knows that there are no guarantees.

Jose Angel’s writing has a meditative quality. He poses hard questions that linger. If you are curious what it means to live in the United States as an undocumented alien, give his memoir your time.

David Potash

Brown in Chicago: A Different History

Popular culture can reduce race to a black-white issue. It is not. A thoughtful look makes clear that race in the US is complex with a complicated history. When I taught history and immigration, issues of race and racism were always part of the conversation. Students worked to identify similarities of experience across times and groups, but we tried to be vigilant noting importance of looking at the unique challenges and opportunities facing each grouping of people.

The history of Latinos/as calls out for special attention. Neither “black” nor “white,” the emerging Hispanic population in the United States has a unique history or, more properly, histories. For example, Mexican Americans were categorized as “white” through a nineteenth century treaty and only formally first identified through the Census bureau in 1980 with a question asking for “Spanish origin.” Inhabitants of Puerto Rico are citizens. The role of Latinos/as has not been stable and it has shifted through time and across areas.

Brown in the Windy CityLilia Fernandez, a professor at the Ohio State University, teaches this lesson very effectively in Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago. It is closely researched, well-written, and an essential work to understanding the city and its racial dynamics. It sits at the intersection of many vibrant areas of research: immigration, labor history, identity politics, neighborhood activism, race studies, gender history, and urban history. Every library on Chicago history should contain this book.

Windy City opens by explaining Latino/a immigration to Chicago from an economic perspective. Fernandez sketches out the reasons that people from Mexico and Puerto Rico made the journey, emphasizing that the issue of citizenship and status made for different opportunities and different challenges. Depending upon their skin color, connections, and local environment, these immigrants to the city faced a range of responses and racial attitudes. Jobs with state sponsorship and support made immigration attractive. Mexican immigrants were often in the US through the bracero program, which was developed to help address labor shortages. Similarly, the government of Puerto Rico worked to sponsor labor leaving the island for jobs on the mainland. Opportunities were plentiful in the years after World War II, but by the 1960s jobs were starting to leave Chicago. The drop was 13% from 1960 t0 1970 and continued in further decades. Massive numbers of jobs were instead created in Chicago’s suburbs. The most noticeable shift was in the steady decline of Chicago manufacturing. Many of the Latino/a immigrants worked, or tried to work, in these sectors.

The book, though, is less about economics than about place considered broadly. Fernandez wants to understand what physical places the immigrants moved to and why. She examines how they established individual and group identity through building community. She also cleverly pivots the concept to study what place in the social and political order of the city that the Latino/a immigrants took. The hub of Latino/a immigration in the 1940s and 1950s was the Near West Side. Hull House, Jane Addams’ famous Progressive Era settlement house, was at the center of this rapidly changing community.

Demographic changes did not take place without human influence and intervention. The Latino/a communities were part of a larger racial redistribution of the city. City leaders were very conscious of who lived where. The Near West Side was in play in a larger game of power. Despite local neighborhood activism, the area was destroyed and redeveloped through highway construction, the siting of the University of Illinois Chicago, and local incentives for business and housing. Residents had to move. The impact of those decisions is evident today.

The Puerto Rican community resettled mostly to the Near North Side, then to West Town and Humboldt Park. From that context and history, it is easier to understand the evolution of the Young Lords Organization. Fernandez covers this well-known history of non-violent street gang to neighborhood activism very well. She also details the Mexican community movement to Pilsen, the area around 18th Street and then beyond. From these two intercity migrations the Puerto Rican community learned grassroots activism and gained political power, particularly through decades of strife with abusive police. In Pilsen, the Mexican community grew in tandem with a larger Chicano movement.

Fernandez provides some very interesting information on pan-Latino/a organization, with special attention to gender. Her work on women’s activism and the founding of Mujeres Latinas en Accion (Latina women in action) is fascinating.

Fernandez observes that some Latinos/as tried to address their role in the city through the lens of ethnicity, not race. It was a strategy that ultimately was not successful and did not have political clout. Latino/a neighborhoods were situated in buffer spaces between blacks and whites. This was an open secret in Chicago politics. Groups needed to organize in order to compete for resources. Once group identity was asserted – through voting, marches, and activism, the established power structure took notice. It is a pattern seen again and again in Chicago.

A political theorist might argue that in a pluralistic power structure, survival depends upon effective mobilization. The larger question, and one that Fernandez does not raise, is why Chicago’s default organizational pattern is pluralistic. Missing from her narrative as well as much of Chicago’s history is a sense of the shared or common good. I hope that greater understanding of the challenges that different groups face may help with that more idealistic goal.

David Potash

Shining a Light on Ghettoside

America’s criminal justice system is most challenged – and most ineffective – in African-American communities in high-crime, high-poverty areas. Once a culture of violence begetting violence takes hold in these neighborhoods, crimes go unpunished and justice become an abstraction. The costs for those who live and die in these areas is horrific. Sadly, broader society often turns a blind eye – and often has for centuries.Ghettoside

Jill Leovy, a Los Angeles Times reporter, investigates this and more in Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. Its focus is one murder, the shooting of Bryant Tennelle, a sweet 18 year old African-American male with a future ahead of him. From that crime, though, a window opens on another world – a world that needs our collective attention. The victim’s father is Wallace Tennelle, an African-American detective with LAPD who lived with his family in South Central LA. A well-respected cop and father, Tennelle brought up his children in a way that we can all connect with: good children, good values, and high hopes. You want these people to succeed. You root for them, even though we know that the odds are not positive.

Leovy maps the neighborhood, its history, its residents, and the police who try to bring some sense of order and justice to what is, in essence a war zone. She writes with patience, understanding and compassion. She is deeply interested in understanding why the cycle of crime is happening and what it means to those around it. The killing is senseless, like almost all murders. In a culture of honor, poverty, no real order and easy violence, however, it becomes easier to understand why it happened.

We hear the voices of the community: the people who live in city and the police who patrol it. It is an unforgiving environment. Leovy does not romanticize. However, Ghettoside has a protagonist detective, John Skaggs, who is outstanding at his job. He represents order, or the possibility of an ordered society. Skaggs is tireless and very much believes in the pursuit of justice. Brilliant at what he does – and Leovy shows us how he thinks and operates – Skaggs unearths the killers and what led to the crime. There is justice, in the sense that the murderers were convicted, but the lessons learned are neither cathartic nor transformational.

The argument Leovy makes is that areas like South Central need a criminal justice system that stops the crime and provides reliable and prompt justice. She is aware that our current system is racist and that far too many people of color are caught up in it. She references The New Jim Crow and related works. That said, Leovy believes that what the community is hungry for is real justice and stability. People have to be able to believe that a successful life untouched by violence is possible. For the residents in her study, it is not.

Leovy thinks that a robust effort aimed at preventing violence, rooting out the causes of violence, and providing economic opportunity could break the dysfunctional cycle of crime. It is not glamorous and it does not demonize. Her argument is compelling – and one that few political leaders seem willing to take up.

David Potash