Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Until reading this book, I was cautiously supportive of at least some capital punishment. It seemed like a useful deterrent. However, after reading about the way the system sets up roadblocks to fair trials and to exoneration even when the evidence is clear, I’m not sure I can trust people’s lives in the hands of what is now often an unjust court system. This book is the personal account of an attorney who represents clients on death row. It is maddening and heartbreaking and courageous. It is not a particularly political book, more of a personal story about the toll that systems of injustice take on the poor and disenfranchised.
Supplemental Resources to Just Mercy
For podcast listeners, the podcast More Perfect has an episode (“Cruel and Unusual”) that discusses the constitutionality of lethal injection and other forms of execution. It is a useful and informative introduction to the issues surrounding the death penalty in America.
Evicted by Matthew Desmond
This is probably the saddest book I’ve ever read–and one of the most moral. This meticulously researched book (including data, statistics, fact-checking, footnoting, and the author’s prolonged experience embedded with both landlords and poor tenants in Milwaukee, Wisconsin) depicts the relentless forces of poverty that push poor people (both black and white) out of housing and keep them out, and it shows how eviction causes a further spiral down into ever-deeper poverty from which few have the ability to rise. Both systemic issues and the exploitation of slumlords to make a buck are depicted. It ends with some policy suggestions that may be of help, for, as the author says,
Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering–by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become (313).
Most shocking to me were the conditions that slumlords expect people to live in (clogged plumbing, landlord refusal to make repairs, unsanitary conditions) and the way they insist on collecting rent even from people in barely livable apartments by holding the threat of eviction over their heads. I was also shocked that calling the police–say, for a domestic violence complaint–could get a resident labeled a nuisance, leading to their eviction, thereby penalizing women and children in danger for seeking help. I was shocked to learn that being evicted, even for unjust reasons, made it harder to get an apartment the next time. I was shocked at what landlords would charge for apartments I wouldn’t let a dog occupy. I was shocked at the huge percentage of income that rent takes up for the poor, making it hard to catch up if even one thing goes wrong, or if the tenant has to, say, eat. The heavy barriers to overcoming poverty are depressing and exhausting but we need to know about them. Be aware: plenty of strong language in this book as well. I hope that will not keep people away. If Jesus could eat with prostitutes and tax collectors (who probably did their share of swearing), I guess we can take a little strong language too.
Supplemental Resources to Evicted
Podcast listeners can learn more about the forces that keep poor people out of affordable housing, particularly the force of gentrification in the podcast There Goes the Neighborhood from WNYC and The Nation. It discusses the way people are pushed out of their homes to make a buck on the real estate market. I could not believe the kinds of oppressive, manipulative behavior real estate owners engaged in against good, law-abiding people. I could not believe it. I can’t remember for sure, but I believe this podcast may have strong language as well.