By Michelle McCleary
Lisa McGirr’s ‘The War on Alcohol’ is the kind of book that stays with its reader. I think this is especially true for a sensitive, long-time political and community activist like me who has spent decades anxiously hoping for and working toward the time when our world, simultaneously beautiful and cruel, will change.
Although I often experience the writings of historians as entirely too preachy and wordy, I found myself wanting to read every word of Ms. McGirr’s book. In the book’s chapter ‘Selective Enforcement’ I was impressed by the author’s courage in exploring the un-equal treatment of wealthy (mostly white) Americans vs. poor white and poor black people. Although black people in America have a particular and brutal history, I have never believed that the color of one’s skin is the only indicator of one’s suffering. No heat and no food in the refrigerator equals cold, sleepless nights and empty stomachs whether the person has blue eyes and blond hair or dark hair and brown or black skin. Poverty and race in America far too often equals a life of everyday experiences that are harsh and unfair. To add insult to injury, the message is always clear that these experiences should be shouldered alone. If I had a dollar for the number of times that my middle-class, white peers have told me that they don’t want to hear about my everyday experiences, or insinuated that I was to blame for those experiences, I would be a millionaire.
Lisa McGirr did a wonderful job of opening my eyes to the short but deeply impactful Prohibition Era in America. Prior to reading “The War on Alcohol” my knowledge of this piece of American history was nearly non-existent. I vaguely remember a scene or two in movies where smiling, imperially slim, white men and women danced their hearts out at glamorous parties during the fun, ‘Roaring Twenties.’ Meanwhile, in back alleys ‘shady’ characters exchanged money for boxes of liquor. I think Brad Pitt had blown dried, blond hair in one of these scenes! In her chapter “Selective Enforcement” the ‘movie’ scenes that the author created were far from glamorous. In painstaking detail, Ms. McGirr told the history of the enforcement of Prohibition. I found myself needing to take breaks from reading the vicious details of the uneven ways that Prohibition was enforced: white, wealthy and able to pay off enforcement agents equaled little to no penalty; poor white, black, female or Mexican equaled fines, imprisonment and sometime death for possessing even the tiniest quantities of liquor.
Although I wasn’t surprised, I was struck by how history repeats itself over and over again. I found myself cringing when I read about Bradley Bowling, a poor, white, unarmed man in an Appalachian town, who was shot and killed by a Federal agent over a half gallon of whiskey, because he ‘put his hand in his pocket.’ While I read this, the faces of unarmed black men and women who have been shot by the police moved through my mind. Ms. McGirr posits that whites’ experience of unfair and unlawful over-reaches by police during the prohibition era helps to explain why there was strong and popular push back against Prohibition. As per Ms. McGirr, black people had YEARS of experience of abuse and coercion by police and other agents but this treatment was largely ignored as were the public lynchings of black men and women.
The white pushback against the abuses of prohibition agents reminds me of America 2016. News channels are filled with pundits nearly scratching their heads as they try to explain the tidal wave of white, working class voters who are clearly angry and fed up with the corrupt political system and its impact on their pursuit of the American Dream. Real talk, the American Dream died a long time ago. Black people have been aware of this fact due to double digit unemployment, brutal and dismissive treatment by the police and shabby treatment by healthcare professionals. I have no doubt in my mind that poor white people have had and continue to have similar experiences, but sadly seem to be holding out hope that their white skin will come through for them. They could learn a lot from Lisa McGirr.
Michelle McCleary is a long-time independent political activist and the President of the Metro NY Chapter of the National Black MBA Association.
Reminder: P4P Conference Call
with Lisa McGirr
Sunday, April 3rd at 7 pm EST
Call in number (641) 715-3605
Access code 767775#