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Bookmonger: Pair of Northwest books explore social activism

“Mea Culpa” by Steven W. Bender and “Talking Back,” edited by Nellie Wong.

Consider the past year of #BlackLivesMatter, the movement that sprang from the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael J. Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., a year ago, and that made national headlines this summer when Black Lives Matter activists seized the microphone from presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a Seattle rally.

Let’s explore the arguments of current social activism in two new books with Northwest connections.

“Mea Culpa,” by Seattle University law professor Steven W. Bender, discusses lessons we can draw from some of the regrettable laws and policies the United States historically has enforced.

Test your own knowledge of some of America’s historical blunders – what comes to mind? Black slavery and then Jim Crow laws; the subjugation of Native Americans and U.S. failure to honor treaty promises; the denial of equal rights for women; the incarceration of West Coast Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II – we’re aware of these in hindsight.

Bender catalogs these and other instances where American laws and policies dismally failed to uphold the unalienable rights set forth in our Declaration of Independence. Then he analyzes America’s eventual confrontations and reversals of these abuses in statehouses, Congress and courts of law.

From these cases he develops a blueprint that readers might apply to issues facing us today – immigration, the war on terror, same-sex marriage, mass incarceration – you can probably think of others to add to this list.

Bender argues that when fears and prejudices prevail in lawmaking, instead of defending our highest ideals, we allow systematized dehumanization. Is that the legacy we want our generation to create?

Published by NYU Press, the bracing ideas of “Mea Culpa” are presented in a professorial and occasionally turgid style. Look beyond this, and you will find much of value in this book.

If “Mea Culpa” tends to focus on the halls of power, “Talking Back: Voices of Color” is a report from the streets and campuses and workplaces of America. This collection of essays, published by Seattle’s Red Letter Press, includes perspectives from black, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern and gay activists.

These writers have been directly afflicted by the inequitable laws and policies Bender addresses in his book. Most of the contributors hail from California and New York, but there are a few contributors from Washington state.

An interview with Israeli-born, retired UW professor Raya Fidel talks about anti-Palestinian war hysteria and the United States’ role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

An article by Seattle social services provider Annaliza Torres gives a nuanced perspective on the value of – and the challenges to – racial diversity in public schools.

While I found Bender’s book to veer into pedantry, I’d say the opposite is true of “Talking Back” – as the title suggests, these entries are often contentious in tone – the approach is assertive more than it is persuasive.

It’s interesting to read these voices of opposition, but I wish that editor Nellie Wong had provided introductory context for each piece.

The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. For more entertainment, go to BellinghamHerald.com/entertainment.

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