The geography of American incarceration

Satelite imagery of the nearly 5,000 U.S. prisons and jails.

And here is the creator, Josh Begley, on the purpose of this project:

The United States is the prison capital of the world. This is not news to most people. When discussing the idea of mass incarceration, we often trot out numbers and dates and charts to explain the growth of imprisonment as both a historical phenomenon and a present-day reality.

But what does the geography of incarceration in the US actually look like? Prison Map is my attempt to answer that question.

I spent a good chunk of my Monday night going through these photos, and I recommend you take a look too.

Slavery Wasn't Dying

I've wanted to write on Ed Baptist's new book The Half Has Never Been Told for a while. I haven't had the time and I probably won't, which is why I want to point you to this review from The Junto which covers the themes and the major ideas. In particular, they get at one of the most important ideas in the book; that at the time of the Civil War, slavery wasn't dying:

Specifically, Baptist argues that antebellum slavery worked. It was a highly (and increasingly) efficient labor system. As the source of America’s most important commodity, it stood at the center of American capitalism, both southern and northern. And as the central fact of American capitalism, it drove U.S. expansion into and beyond the Mississippi Valley.

Again and again, Baptist draws the reader’s attention to the figures for yearly southern cotton production. His crucial claim, spelled out in chapter four, is that increases in cotton productivity before the Civil War resulted not primarily from improved machinery or breeds of cotton, but rather from the refinement of the “pushing system” on southern plantations. Overseers, applying the logic of commodity capitalism to the labor of field hands, learned how to set escalating daily picking quotas, enforced by brutal punishment, for maximum efficiency. Baptist calls this labor system “the whipping machine,” after a torture device supposedly invented by one entrepreneurial Louisiana planter to extract labor from his slaves. Considering the place American cotton had in world manufacturing, Baptist argues, this means that “systematized torture was [crucial] to the industrial revolution”—and thus to capitalism itself.

There's no reason to think that these productivity gains would have slowed, or that Southern planters wouldn't have found new ways to use slave labor and integrate it into a modern economy. And there's no reason to think they wouldn't have support either. Slavery was so integral to the American economy—so key to global finance and manufacturing—that enslavers would had plenty of allies had the institution continued. (There's a reason the Confederacy worked hard to get recognition from Britain and France during the war.)

American slavery didn't end because the practice—which formed the bedrock of Southern society—was dying out. It ended because slaveholders overreached. They reached for too much power, and when they finally found a foe in the Republican Party, they left the nation and started a war which—after a few years—they couldn't win.

To borrow from historian Mark Noll, don't thank some moral awakening for the death of that peculiar institution, thank the Reverends Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.

The Varieties of Sign Language

This fascinating Washington Post story on African American sign language contains an interesting tidbit: American Sign Language has much more in common with its French counterpart than forms of signing in other English-speaking countries:

Another widely held but erroneous belief is that sign languages are direct visual translations of spoken languages, which would mean that American signers could communicate fairly freely with British or Australian ones but would have a hard time understanding an Argentinian or Armenian’s signs. Neither is true, explains J. Archer Miller, a Baltimore-based lawyer who specializes in disability rights and has many deaf clients. There are numerous signing systems, and American Sign Language is based on the French system that Gallaudet and his teacher, Laurent Clerc, imported to America in the early 19th century. “I find it easier to understand a French signer” than a British or Australian one, Miller says, “because of the shared history of the American and French systems.” In fact, experts say, ASL is about 60 percent the same as French, and unintelligible to users of British sign language.

The Partisan Presidency

Brendan Nyhan on why modern presidents can't bring the change you want to believe in:

The public and the news media still want someone who meets the mid-20th-century ideal for a modern president: a uniting figure who works across the aisle to build support for his agenda and commands public opinion from the bully pulpit. While this image was always mostly a myth — presidents typically struggle to move polls or legislators’ votes — the political realities of the time did allow presidents to build more diffuse coalitions in Congress and attract broad public support when the circumstances were favorable. However, the political system that helped enable this approach is disappearing. The mid-20th century was a historical anomaly — a low point in polarization that was made possible by the ugly history of race in this country, which enabled the rise of a group of conservative Southern Democrats who functioned almost as a third party. After the civil rights movement, the parties realigned on the issue of race, setting in motion a return to the historic norm of polarization that prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th century. This process, which is transforming all of our nation’s political institutions, has been supercharged by the way the parties have become more closely aligned with ideological movements than ever before.

Portrait of the Troll as an Adult Man

David Carr on the activities of Charles C. Johnson, internet pond scum:

In the frenzy to discredit her, he published a Facebook photo of someone he said was the same woman at a rally protesting an earlier rape. Oops. Different person. He did correct himself, but the damage, now to two different women, was done. Before that, his targets were two reporters for The New York Times who, he said, revealed the address of the police officer in the Ferguson, Mo., shooting. (They didn’t. They published the name of a street he once lived on, which had already been published in The Washington Post and other media outlets.) Before that, he attacked the victim of the shooting, Michael Brown. Before that, he attacked Senator Cory Booker, saying the lawmaker did not live in Newark when he was the city’s mayor; BuzzFeed wrote that Mr. Johnson not only was wrong, but had worked for a political action committee that opposed Mr. Booker. He also wrote a series of Twitter messages that suggested President Obama was gay. He offered money for photos of Senator Thad Cochran’s wife in her nursing home bed. Before that, well, it doesn’t really matter; you get the pattern.

The best explanation of "white privilege" I've read

As a disclaimer, I don't like the term "white privilege." It's too imprecise and too prone to misunderstanding. I'm also not a fan of the preoccupation with privilege-talk in some left-wing spaces; too often, people focus on the personal—who is privileged and what that means—as opposed to the institutional and the structural. And on the social media Left in particular, privilege-talk has more to do with status and social signaling—I'm more aware of my privilege than you are—than any program for action.

With that said, I don't think we should abandon "white privilege" as a term or an idea. Instead, it's worth trying to make it more precise, so that we know exactly what we mean when we say it. To that end, I think philosopher Charles Mills gives an exemplary definition in his book The Racial Contract. No, he doesn't use the term, but he all but describes it, and provides a large signpost for how we should use the term in our discussions. Here's Mills:

The requirements of “objective” cognition, factual and moral, in a racial polity are in a sense more demanding in that officially sanctioned reality is divergent from actual reality. So here, it could be said, one has an agreement to misinterpret the world. One has to learn to see the world wrongly, but with the assurance that this set of mistaken perceptions will be validated by white epistemic authority, whether religious or secular. Thus in effect, on matters related to race, the Racial Contract prescribes for its signatories an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance, a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.

Part of what it means to be constructed as “white” (the metamorphosis of the sociopolitical contract), part of what it requires to achieve Whiteness , successfully to become a white person (one imagines a ceremony with certificates attending the successful rite of passage: “Congratulations, you’re now an official white person !”), is a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social realities. To a significant extent, then, white signatories will live in an invented delusional world, a racial fantasyland, a “consensual hallucination,” to quote William Gibson’s famous characterization of cyberspace, though this particular hallucination is located in real space.

There will be white mythologies, invented Orients, invented Africas, invented Americas, with a correspondingly fabricated population, countries that never were, inhabited by people who never were— Calibans and Tontos, Man Fridays and Sambos— but who attain a virtual reality through their existence in travelers’ tales, folk myth , popular and highbrow fiction, colonial reports, scholarly theory, Hollywood cinema, living in the white imagination and determinedly imposed on their alarmed real-life counterparts.


Who is an American?

The events in Ferguson, argues Taiye Selasi, gives us a clue:

Some 10 years later, leaving Lana, I viewed the matter anew. My original question (who is Italian?) pointed to a more important one: Who belongs in Italy? What my Sicilian hosts were lamenting was the lie of national belonging: An Italian passport offers no guarantee of equal treatment in Italy. The same holds true worldwide. The day I traveled from Pantelleria to Lana, riots broke out in Missouri, where hundreds were protesting the killing of American teenagers by American police. Darren Wilson, the 28-year-old officer who killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, may not have perceived his victim as “a fellow American.” That we don’t hear of American-on-American violence as we hear of black-on-black crime suggests that the identity “American” does not, as advertised, imply a single community. Very simply, Michael Brown was not a member of the culture that is said to define American-ness. He was a national (and victim) of the state, but never fully viewed as “an American.”

How Watermelons Became a Racist Trope

William Black, writing for The Atlantic:

Southern whites saw their slaves’ enjoyment of watermelon as a sign of their own supposed benevolence. Slaves were usually careful to enjoy watermelon according to the code of behavior established by whites. When an Alabama overseer cut open watermelons for the slaves under his watch, he expected the children to run to get their slice. One boy, Henry Barnes, refused to run, and once he did get his piece he would run off to the slave quarters to eat out of the white people’s sight. His mother would then whip him, he remembered, “fo’ being so stubborn.” The whites wanted Barnes to play the part of the watermelon-craving, juice-dribbling pickaninny. His refusal undermined the tenuous relationship between master and slave.

Emancipation, of course, destroyed that relationship. Black people grew, ate, and sold watermelons during slavery, but now when they did so it was a threat to the racial order. To whites, it seemed now as if blacks were flaunting their newfound freedom, living off their own land, selling watermelons in the market, and—worst of all—enjoying watermelon together in the public square. One white family in Houston was devastated when their nanny Clara left their household shortly after her emancipation in 1865. Henry Evans, a young white boy to whom Clara had likely been a second mother, cried for days after she left. But when he bumped into her on the street one day, he rejected her attempt to make peace. When Clara offered him some watermelon, Henry told her that “he would not eat what free negroes ate.


Last week, I gave you my Aeropress recipe. This week, I want to share my technique for Chemex coffee. Unlike an Aeropress, a Chemex is pour-over—which pretty means what it says—and pretty straightforward. Your pour the water over grounds for a few minutes, it filters into the carafe, and boom—you have coffee. This recipe is for an eight-cup (40 oz) Chemex which makes enough coffee for two to three people at a time, depending on how much each person drinks.

I'll say that the appeal of pour-over—and the Chemex in particular—is part aesthetics (these are beautiful devices), part taste (you get a much smoother and flavorful cup from pour-over than most other methods), and part control. Everything is up to you: the size of the grind, the temperature of the water, the flow of the pour, and the pace of the extraction. Everything. For those of you who like a bit of ritual in your mornings, pour-over devices are an ideal addition.


This is a variation on a standard Chemex recipe. I adjusted the grind a bit and upped the amount of coffee. It's nothing special, but it works for me, and I wanted to share.


First: Bring about four cups of water (32 ounces or 940 grams) to 205 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, weigh out 50 grams of coffee beans.


On a Baratza Encore grinder, grind at the 18 setting. (A little coarser than kosher salt.)


Put the filter in the Chemex—with the double-folded portion on the spout—and rinse the filter with a cup of hot water.


Pour out the hot water, place the grounds in the filter, and set the whole thing on your scale (You should really own a scale, by the way). Zero out the scale.


Add 100 grams of water, circling outwards. Set time to 4 minutes and allow coffee to blome for 45 seconds.


At the 3:15 mark, begin to pour 300 grams of water—again, circling outwards—and let sit until you get to the 2:15 mark. Repeat at the 1:15 mark and let all the water drain out.


When you're finished, you'll have about this much coffee. Remove the used filter and grounds, and serve.

"It’s prana energy because they still breathe through their stomach."

This interview with Willow and Jaden (children of Will and Jada Pinkett) Smith is so delightfully bizarre. Here's a taste:

You mentioned breathing earlier, and it’s also an idea that recurs in your songs.

WILLOW: Breathing is meditation; life is a meditation. You have to breathe in order to live, so breathing is how you get in touch with the sacred space of your heart.

JADEN: When babies are born, their soft spots bump: It has, like, a heartbeat in it. That’s because energy is coming through their body, up and down.

WILLOW: Prana energy.

JADEN: It’s prana energy because they still breathe through their stomach. They remember. Babies remember.

WILLOW: When they’re in the stomach, they’re so aware, putting all their bones together, putting all their ligaments together. But they’re shocked by this harsh world.

JADEN: By the chemicals and things, and then slowly…

WILLOW: As they grow up, they start losing.

JADEN: You know, they become just like us.

Political philosophy and "white flight"

A fascinating interview with philosopher Charles Mills on race and political theory:

G.Y.: So, would it be fair to say that contemporary political philosophy, as engaged by many white philosophers, is a species of white racism?

C.M.: That would be too strong, though I certainly wouldn’t want to discount the ongoing influence of personal racism (now more likely to be culturalist than biological — that’s another aspect of the postwar shift), especially given the alarming recent findings of cognitive psychology about the pervasiveness of implicit bias. But racialized causality can work more indirectly and structurally. You have a historically white discipline — in the United States, about 97 percent white demographically (and it’s worse in Europe), with no or hardly any people of color to raise awkward questions; you have a disciplinary bent towards abstraction, which in conjunction with the unrepresentative demographic base facilitates idealizing abstractions that abstract away from racial and other subordinations (this is Onora O’Neill’s insight from many years ago); you have a Western social justice tradition that for more than 90 percent of its history has excluded the majority of the population from equal consideration (see my former colleague Samuel Fleischacker’s “A Short History of Distributive Justice,” which demonstrates how recent the concept actually is); and of course you have norms of professional socialization that school the aspirant philosopher in what is supposed to be the appropriate way of approaching political philosophy, which over the past 40 years has been overwhelmingly shaped by Rawlsian “ideal theory,” the theory of a perfectly just society.

Rawls himself said in the opening pages of “A Theory of Justice” that we had to start with ideal theory because it was necessary for properly doing the really important thing: non-ideal theory, including the “pressing and urgent matter” of remedying injustice. But what was originally supposed to have been merely a tool has become an end in itself; the presumed antechamber to the real hall of debate is now its main site. Effectively, then, within the geography of the normative, ideal theory functions as a form of white flight. You don’t want to deal with the problems of race and the legacy of white supremacy, so, metaphorically, within the discourse of justice, you retreat from any spaces worryingly close to the inner cities and move instead to the safe and comfortable white spaces, the gated moral communities, of the segregated suburbs, from which they become normatively invisible.

Watching a marathon in Richmond

This weekend, I watched my girlfriend's father run—and finish—his first marathon. Well, I saw him a few times at different points on the course. During most of the race, I took pictures. Here are the ones I like.


These were the first runners to reach the 17 mile mark. They were...intense, to say the least.


Another early runner.


One of the larger "packs" of runners, also by the 17 mile mark.


Kids unenthusiastically handing out dry towels.


Looking for a very particular runner.


Not fooled by my attempt to take a candid.


Approaching the finish line.

"Too Many Qualms"

Count me as 100% on board with Drew Magary's critique of internet culture:

Now 90 percent of all internet thinkpieces are dedicated to explaining why you should have a problem with something you originally had no problem with. OPEN YOUR EYES, SHEEPLE. Don't you see that keyboard cat is a way of enforcing traditional heteronormative privilege in America today? The cat is wearing a house robe, which means that it he/she is clearly being forced into a domesticated, subservient role against his/her free will. NOT FUNNY. NOT ON MY WATCH. There's a whole black hole of the internet that spends all day up its own ass, endlessly worried about approving of pop culture rather than actually fucking enjoying it.

This is shitty, pointless writing. You think something is racist or sexist? Say it's racist or sexist. Don't hem and haw and say you something "bugs" you like it's some kind of yet-to-be-revealed magical revelation.


On Twitter a little while ago, I mentioned I got my Aeropress recipe right. For those unaware, the Aeropress is a manual coffee brewer that relies on pressure to get its results. It's cheap, straightforward, and a solid introduction to the world of manual methods. I recommend it.

For those of you who have an Aeropress, here is my recipe. It makes a great cup—or at least, one suited to my tastes—every time. As far as the beans are concerned, I used the latest release from Blue Bottle Coffee, an Ethiopian variety called Yirgacheffes. (As an aside, this recipe only works if you have a burr grinder. If you like coffee and you don't own one, you should get one. Here's a cheap manual version if you don't want to spend the cash for an electric one.)

First, you'll want to bring your water to 200 degrees fahrenheit. If you don't have an electric kettle that reads temperature, the next best thing is to bring water to a boil, and let it rest for around 30 seconds.

As your water is getting hot, weigh out 18 grams of coffee, roughly a decent scoopfull.

Grind to around the consistency of kosher salt, which—on a Baratza Encore grinder—is about a 12.

Now, you want to rinse out the filter with the hot water to remove any of the paper taste and warm up the mug. After rinsing, dump the water.

We're doing the inverted method, so at this point, place the grounds in the Aeropress like so.

Add water until you get to the "3" mark, gently stir, and let sit for 30 seconds, so the coffee can develop flavor.

After 30 seconds, add water until you get just past the "1" mark and let sit for 1 minute. Give the grounds 10 vigorous stirs—the Aeropress comes with a handy paddle—then press into your mug.

Top off your mug with hot water—the Aeropress makes something of a coffee concentrate—and enjoy!


Apropos of this Washington Post story on "nigger," I think the best statement on the word—at least in the last decade—is this Dave Chappelle skit, circa 2003:

By making the word a surname, Chappelle shows every possible use of the word, its assorted contexts, and its different meanings. And it does so without the judgment or sanctimony of most conversations on the word, which tend to cover the same territory, ad nauseam. You should watch it, though—obvious warning—it's not safe for work.