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A Raisin in the Sun Revisited: Quarantine and jail | Jeffrey Hartman

Monday, May 11, 2020 @ 2:24 PM | By Jeffrey Hartman

Jeffrey Hartman %>
Jeffrey Hartman
I was recently asked the following question: if somebody says being shut in under quarantine is like being in jail, what should you tell them?

My answer is that the inquisitor should read A Raisin in the Sun.

Lorraine Hansberry’s play premiered on Broadway in March 1959. I read it in Sarnia in January 2020. The plot looks at a few days in the life of a poor black family as they await a $10,000 life insurance cheque. A sizable portion is swallowed by fraudulent investment while the remainder is used to buy a house in a white neighbourhood.

Prior to the move, the black family is visited by Karl Lindner, a white community representative. Sitting in the living room, Lindner proves himself fascinatingly insidious:

“I am sure you people must be aware of some of the incidents which have happened in various parts of the city when colored people have moved into certain areas … not only do we deplore that kind of thing — but we are trying to do something about it … we feel that most of the trouble in this world … exists because people just don’t sit down and talk to each other …   

“And that’s why I was elected to come here this afternoon and talk to you people. Friendly like, you know, the way people should talk to each other and see if we couldn’t find some way to work this thing out. As I say, the whole business is a matter of caring about the other fellow. … Today everybody knows what it means to be on the outside of something.

“A man, right or wrong, has the right to want to have the neighborhood he lives in a certain kind of way. And at the moment the overwhelming majority of our people out there feel that people get along better … when they share a common background. I want you to believe me when I tell you that race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it. It is a matter of the people [believing] that for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.”

Lindner then offers to buy the house and, as the black son tells him to leave, says “You just can’t force people to change their hearts, son.” 

Talking heads with platitudes for all occasions say a new normal is on the way. I think I heard that Vancouver might tear up the roads to widen the sidewalks. Commercial real estate on Bay Street is in for a shock as more companies “wfh.” The world is changing. It’s just as Neil Young said: “got fuel to burn, got roads to drive.”

I saw Doug Ford playing the role of Lindner the other day. He came into my living room to say Trudeau’s weapons ban will be ineffective and the solution is to get tough on crime. I guess there’s room for reasonable disagreement on the efficacy of a weapons ban, just as I guess it was reasonable enough for Lindner to imply that, in 1950s Chicago, some strategic dialogue was worthwhile.

But we know that getting tough on crime is about as efficacious, or should I say nefarious, as segregation. Yet there’s Ford/Lindner in my living room. And there’s Neil Young again: “we got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand.”

Quarantine is, on the one hand, like jail because everyone’s life is going to go on pretty much as it did before. Maybe Vancouver’s roads will be different and commercial leases will be a bit more affordable on Bay but, fundamentally, when this is over, you’ll emerge into the sunlight and carry on. Likewise, although to-date we’ve incarcerated a lot of people, we’re FINALLY (153 years after Confederation) getting tough on crime so the jail isn’t going anywhere.

But quarantine is not like jail because whereas the purpose of quarantine is to flatten the curve, i.e., solve the underlying problem, the Lindners of the world remain committed to exacerbating the problems underlying criminality.

Has anyone else noticed that getting tough on crime is like news channels that run breaking news segments regardless of whether anything happened that day?

Anyway, keep on rockin’ in the free world!

Jeffrey Hartman is a Toronto-based criminal lawyer at Hartman Lawwith a special focus on prison and police law. You can reach him at or call 416-316-2234.   

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