America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion since the 1960s, by Elizabeth Kai Hinton. Liveright, 2021. 408p index, 9781631498909 $29.95, 9781631498916
Ed. Note: Choice considers racial justice a cornerstone of its mandate to support academic study. Accordingly, Choice is highlighting select racial justice titles through the creation of long-form reviews such as the one featured here. Though the scope of these reviews will be broader than those applied to our standard 190-word reviews, many of the guidelines regarding what to focus on will remain the same, with additional consideration for how the text under review sheds light on racist systems and racial inequities or proposes means of dismantling them. Our intent is to feature important works on racial justice that will be of use to undergraduates and faculty researching racism and racial inequalities from new perspectives.
In 1619, twenty Africans were sold in Jamestown, Virginia Colony, beginning two hundred and forty-six years of slavery in the British colonies that became the United States. Following the Civil War, the Reconstruction Amendments (the 13th ended slavery, the 14th guaranteed newly freed African Americans citizenship and the rights pertaining thereto, and the 15th extended the right to vote to Black males) failed to improve their situation as segregation and lynching replaced slavery to continue the oppression of Black people. The civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s resulted in a flurry of laws and the 24th amendment, which dismantled the legal underpinnings of segregation. Little changed for the better, however, as mass incarceration became the third iteration of oppression to dehumanize and marginalize Black Americans.
Exploring this despicable situation, Hinton (history and African American studies, Yale Univ.) examines Black rebellions incited by the nation’s continuing refusal to renounce systemic racism. Hinton, who previously taught at Harvard University and the University of Michigan, is a leading expert on criminalization and policing—her research focuses on the persistence of Black poverty, racial inequality, and urban violence. She has written on these topics for the Atlantic, the Nation, the Boston Review, and Timemagazine and for the Journal of American History and the Journal of Urban History. As Imani Perry noted in her 2016 review for The New York Times Book Review, Hinton’s first book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (CH, Oct’16, 54-0975), examines how in the 1960s, young Black males were increasingly labeled deviant and in need of control. Instead of addressing societal failures, a law-and-order focus led to the militarization of the police and the expansion of the prison system, emphasizing punishment over rehabilitation. Black housing projects and slum neighborhoods came under constant surveillance, which laid the groundwork for the police violence that catalyzed the Black Lives Matter movement.
America on Fire (a reference to James Baldwin’s 1963 The Fire Next Time), continues this examination of blaming victims as opposed to fixing the system. The book is organized into two parts. Part one examines smaller city rebellions mainly during the period 1968–1972, which did not capture national attention; part two centers on mass racial violence over the last 40 years. Rather than use the generally accepted term riot, which Merriam-Webster defines as “violent and uncontrolled public behavior by a group of people” and which historically has been used to discredit Black people’s justified anger against oppressive structures, Hinton instead uses rebellion (“opposition to one in authority or dominance”) to better characterize resistance to violence and inequality. Participants in these rebellions sought equal rights and equal justice, as promised in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Hinton posits that, beginning in the 1960s, police violence precipitated community actions in multiple cities, large and small, across the US. In fact, she contends, “between 1964 and 1972 … the United States endured internal violence on a scale not seen since the Civil War” (p. 2). However, the government’s subsequent wars on crime and drugs failed to confront the institutional practices that pushed Black Americans to rebellion, and they instead responded with more violence, further entrenching the issue.
As someone who grew up in the very white neighborhood of Queens Village, in New York City, this reviewer’s youthful memory of the beat officer is as someone friendly, similar to Clancy the cop in Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, who called for officers to stop traffic for the scared ducklings trying to cross a busy street. However, that reality is not only long gone but also a world away from the experience of policing that Black Americans have contended with throughout American history. Though at some points overpowering with detail, Hinton’s book importantly describes the dehumanizing realities of policing that disadvantaged Black Americans suffer daily, a reality that those of us who are white and middle class must confront. In one example, Hinton recounts how, in 1969, a bad-tempered white police officer in Alexandria, VA, broke up an evening football game, an action that resulted in two “colored” boys, ages fifteen and seventeen, being badly injured and arrested along with two others. After the incident, the town held a benefit—for the officer. As Hinton makes abundantly clear through many more examples, government action to get tough on crime has militarized the cop on the beat with SWAT training and surplus military equipment, including armored vehicles, helicopters, and assault rifles.
The post-civil-rights-era events described here are similar to those that led the English colonists to rebel against the British government in the 1770s. In both periods, grievances being ignored forced people to drastic action. In April 1770, British troops fired into a Boston crowd of protesters who threatened them, resulting in the Boston Massacre. Five years later, the British army marched from Boston to confiscate patriot weapons stored in Concord. Though thought of as a defensive move, it sparked another deadly confrontation between patriots and British soldiers, precipitating the American War for Independence.
Two centuries later, Lyndon Johnson’s war on crime, along with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., pushed over-policed Black Americans to rebel. Rather than maintain the peace, the police brought harm and disruption to Black communities. Dozens if not hundreds, of rebellions broke out as news of King’s murder spread. Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was in a Black neighborhood of Indianapolis for a rally when both his advisors and the police urged him to leave. Instead, Kennedy spoke to a crowd of thousands, reminding them that he personally knew the tragedy of such a loss. That heartfelt understanding spared the city racial violence that night.
Black Americans see the police applying a double standard based on melanin. In communities across the United States, this holds true. Similar to the situations Hinton describes, the former director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Ashland University, where this reviewer teaches, spoke to the twenty-plus white students in a recent American history course (taught by this reviewer) of his experiences as a Black man in the United States. He told them that his parents had “the talk” with him as he grew older, that he has to be extremely careful and polite if engaging with the police, and that he is regularly stopped when driving, often for no apparent reason, prompting his decision to drive a nondescript car to avoid additional unwanted attention. The students, like many white Americans had no point of reference for such concerns nor for the myriad examples Hinton offers, which makes these discussions, and this book, so necessary.
The continuous police repression Hinton factually details results in Black rebellion becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, exacerbating police paranoia. Unlike Officer Derek Chauvin, who kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck while he was handcuffed and lying on the ground for an agonizingly long time, patrol officers are frequently forced to make split-second decisions that often result in death. This is not meant to absolve the officer from miscalculation but rather to suggest that better ways of handling such situations must be found, acknowledgment of which undergirds the call to defund the police. Without doing so, American society will remain unable to focus on the root of the cause and instead continually rely on the simplistic “blame the victim” mentality. It is not lawlessness on the part of Black Americans as much as it is white people who see “no reason to end the domination of political and economic systems that systematically [lock] Black people out of jobs, decent housing, and educational opportunities” (p. 88). Perhaps most chilling in Hinton’s book is the photograph of Mayor John L. Snyder dressed in suit and tie, walking a K-9 Corps German shepherd through downtown York, PA, in the late 1960s (p. 70). “Mayor Snyder, who openly referred to Black people as ‘darkies,’” did this specifically to intimidate Black townspeople (p. 79). Similarly, on an ABC news segment in November 1970, after 20 months of warfare in Cairo, IL, Mayor Peter Thomas stated, “If we have to kill them [Black people] we’ll have to kill them” (p. 92).
Overall, this book is gripping and difficult to put down. The detailed analysis of the US failure to address systemic racism is a must read for everyone. Best-selling author Jill Lepore, Pulitzer Prize–winner Heather Ann Thompson, and nationally respected professor and public intellectual Henry Louis Gates Jr., along with many others, see Hinton’s America on Fire as an essential, long-overdue, insightful response to the crisis in the American justice system. Researchers, public policy analysts, law enforcement and government officials, faculty, students, and the general public all need to understand that the problem will continue to fester until Americans accept the Pledge of Allegiance and guarantee “liberty and justice for all.”
Summing Up: Essential. General readers through faculty; professionals. Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – History, Geography & Area Studies – North America
Duncan R. Jamieson is professor of history at Ashland University. He has a PhD in American intellectual history from Michigan State University