Contrary to what many believe, Richard Rothstein states boldly at the start of his book, segregated neighborhoods in the United States didn’t result mostly from individual prejudices, personal choices, or the actions of such private institutions as banks and real estate agencies. They were instead largely a consequence of public policy—of purposeful, systematic, forceful government action. In The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Liveright, $27.95), Rothstein describes how laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal governments promoted discriminatory patterns and the development of racially homogenous neighborhoods. The measures included explicit racial zoning, officially segregated public housing, redlining of mortgages, and conditioning of Federal Housing Administration subsidies for builders on no homes being sold to African Americans. Rothstein argues that as a nation, we have an obligation to remedy the lasting effects of this segregation and have paid an enormous price in the form of wide income disparities and other inequalities by allowing this injustice to fester.
Manal al-Sharif’s journey in Saudi Arabia, as told in her memoir, Daring to Drive (Simon & Schuster, $26), is an extraordinary story of perseverance and transformation. Her book begins with al-Sharif’s arrest in the Saudi city of Khobar for driving while being a woman. As the events unfold, al-Sharif makes the danger she faced quite clear. A lone woman in the Saudi criminal justice system has few allies or resources, to say nothing of rights. She leaves us in suspense concerning the outcome of her trial in order to recount how she became a feminist activist. Al-Sharif endured poverty and abuse in Mecca. Over the years her burgeoning sense of self, especially as it was expressed through art and literature, was squashed under the heel of an ultra-conservative Saudi interpretation of Islam. Amazingly, all was not lost. Slowly al-Sharif became an opponent of oppression. She got an education. She learned the skills needed to obtain a highly technical job in Saudi Aramco, the nationalized oil company. She learned how to drive. She became independent in a culture that effectively forces women into isolation. Finally, when all she had achieved was again threatened by a man reminding her of her place in Saudi culture, she began to fight back. Through this incredible memoir, al-Sharif illustrates that change is possible or, as she puts it, “the rain begins with a single drop.” Even in the desert, the rain will come.
Masha Gessen’s breathtaking history of Russia from the end of communism to today is a detailed analysis of what initially looked like a revolution but that, in the end, only brought the country full circle. Chronicling the shifts from glasnost and Gorbachev through Yeltsin and on to Putin’s efforts to re-establish a Greater Russia, The Future is History (Riverhead, $28) doesn’t recount a story of the iron curtain being torn apart and rewoven as much as it charts the condition of a patient with “a recurrent infection.” The disease is totalitarianism. Its toxins include terror and ideology, secrecy and repression. Those it afflicts suffer a host of symptoms, including constant anxiety and depression, both economic and emotional. These combine to turn ordinary individuals into the hollow, traumatized Homo Sovieticus, a creature too insecure to make demands. While this species seemed to die off with the Soviet Union, Gessen shows that, like Soviet-style totalitarianism itself, Sovieticus has survived. Her analysis puts this survival into the contexts of both political theory and psychoanalysis, showing first how totalitarianism took hold and continues to hold on, and then describing exactly how this repression breaks a society. While she invokes leading theorists such as Orwell and Arendt, Gessen grounds her account in the stories of seven people and their families. If her focus on a psychologist, a sociologist, a pioneering gay academic, a philosopher, and a Pussy Riot activist emphasize the social sciences, this is no accident. One of Gessen’s most striking points about the Soviet system is that it deliberately erased sociology and related disciplines, thus robbing people of the tools they needed to see, define, and understand themselves.