Today’s New Yorker

The True Impediments to Racial Justice

Nicholas Lemann’s thesis, which ends his review of Walter Johnson’s book “The Broken Heart of America,” is a warning: we should expect only “partial victories” when it comes to racial justice in America, and we ought to beware the likes of Johnson, who insists on “deflating and deriding” past progress (Books, May 25th). To Lemann, Johnson errs insofar as he “discourages us from drawing much hope” from the election of an African-American President, the passage of civil-rights legislation, or the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. But Johnson’s contribution—like much of the recent scholarship on racial capitalism—reveals the poison at the heart of these and other celebrated steps forward. The Thirteenth Amendment, for example, contains, in its liberating language, the legal justification for convict labor and chain gangs, and amounts to an impetus for mass incarceration. White supremacy is indeed an adaptable and slippery monster, but the real hazards to forward motion are naïveté, white privilege, and a deficit of imagination and courage.

Bill Ayers
Chicago, Ill.

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