4 out of 4 stars
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The United States has witnessed massive upheavals in 2020 following incidents such as George Floyd's and Breonna Taylor's killings, but these are far from isolated events. It would be great to dismiss them as exceptions and believe that we have long surpassed the blatant discrimination and injustice from the past, but a quick historical examination reveals these conclusions to be naive at best and malicious at worst. Carol Mersch's Guilty When Black explores Oklahoma's judicial and law enforcement institutions, especially how they deal with minorities and marginalized groups, also serving as a starting point for understanding these topics on a national scale.
The book starts by following Miashah Moses, a black woman accused of second-degree murder after a fire killed her two nieces. We follow her and her family's tortuous journey through the trial, getting an intimate look at several systemic issues: how the poor cannot afford a proper defense, how personal and professional interests stand above duty, and how prisons crush any possibility of rehabilitation, among others.
Though Miashah Moses' case is a unifying thread tying various stories and themes together, it stands as a small part of broader social and historical phenomena. Throughout the book, especially during its second half, the author also examines the history and legacy of racial tensions (including the horrific Tulsa Race Riot of 1921), female incarceration, corruption scandals, and cases such as the shooting of Eric Harris in 2015.
As a nonfiction expert, Mersch uses her mastery of journalistic storytelling to craft an authentic and compelling piece based on five years of painstaking research and interviews. I particularly enjoyed the court battle at the end of Part 2, a series of climactic scenes that easily rival most legal thrillers. I also marveled at the author's ability to combine descriptive sentences with beautifully haunting prose: "Nearly a century later, the horror still runs silently through the streets of Tulsa and the halls of the Oklahoma judicial system. The nooses have long since left the trees, but their specters hang like ghosts in the halls of justice."
Guilty When Black is one of those rare pieces of nonfiction literature that feature powerful insights built upon meticulous research while still providing a rich, gripping narrative. Since the only negative aspects I could find were three minor errors, I rate the book 4 out of 4 stars. Anyone interested in the criminal justice system, structural discrimination, and the history of racial relations in the United States should give this book a try. Due to the author's focus on individual stories, readers interested in broader social research might want to look elsewhere for more analytical approaches. There are a few instances of profanities, racial slurs, and mentions of topics such as rape and domestic abuse, making the book more suitable for mature audiences.
Guilty When Black
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