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A Launch For the Cosmos Falls Short.The total solar eclipse has come and gone, as has most of the fervor relating to it. I was amazed at the number of people flocking to my adopted home state—Wyoming—and paying outlandish sums for lodging and other staples, just to spend a few minutes gazing at the eclipse through paper glasses. But they were willing to pay just about anything for the privilege, and Wyomingites, who just don’t see such opportunities, were willing to charge it.

For most of the denizens of this small, blue planet, the eclipse was merely a fascinating cosmological event, a reminder that we did not establish the firmament, nor did we set into motion the planets and stars. We are merely sightseers of the wonders of creation, about which we know a disturbingly small amount.

However, some believe they know a great deal more than most. They know the true symbolism and significance of the eclipse, and presumably have unusual insight into the workings of the universe. Such a person is one Alice Ristroph of the Brooklyn Law School at Harvard. Her official bio introduces her:

Alice Ristoph

Alice Ristroph is a professor at Brooklyn Law School. She teaches and writes in criminal law and procedure, constitutional law, and political theory. Her recent work examines laws that regulate state violence, focusing especially on the law’s distribution of risks of physical harm. She has also been studying ways in which the law suppresses, tolerates, or even facilitates various forms of resistance to criminal justice institutions. Professor Ristroph received her J.D. and Ph.D. (political theory) from Harvard University, and she has served as a permanent or visiting faculty member at Seton Hall, Utah, Columbia, Georgetown, and Fordham law schools.

Let us, gentle readers, delve into the wisdom of the cosmos, as recently propounded in The Atlantic by Professor Ristroph:

Totality is everything, say those who chase solar eclipses. When the moon fully obscures the sun and casts its shadow on Earth, the result is like nothing you’ve seen before—not even a partial eclipse. A merely partial eclipse does not flip day to night, because the sun is bright enough to light our fields of vision with only a tiny fraction of its power. But when the sun and moon align just so, a little piece of Earth goes dark in the middle of the day. In this path of totality, night comes suddenly and one can see the shape of the moon as a circle darker than black, marked by the faint backlight of the sun’s corona.

On August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will arrive mid-morning on the coast of Oregon. The moon’s shadow will be about 70 miles wide, and it will race across the country faster than the speed of sound, exiting the eastern seaboard shortly before 3 p.m. local time. It has been dubbed the Great American Eclipse, and along most of its path, there live almost no black people.

“Almost no black people?” What, pray tell Professor, does that have to do with a solar eclipse?

Presumably, this is not explained by the implicit bias of the solar system. It is a matter of population density, and more specifically geographic variations in population density by race, for which the sun and the moon cannot be held responsible. Still, an eclipse chaser is always tempted to believe that the skies are relaying a message. At a moment of deep disagreement about the nation’s best path forward, here comes a giant round shadow, drawing a line either to cut the country in two or to unite it as one. Ancient peoples watched total eclipses with awe and often dread, seeing in the darkness omens of doom. The Great American Eclipse may or may not tell us anything about our future, but its peculiar path could remind us of something about our past—what it was we meant to be doing, and what we actually did along the way. And if it seems we need no reminding, consider this: We tend to backlight our history, and so run the risk of trying to recover a glory that never existed.

Uh, so above the line is white and below the line is black, or vice versa, and it’s all an omen we should behold with awe and dread, but there’s a message in there somewhere?

Oregon, where this begins, is almost entirely white. The 10 percent or so of state residents who do not identify as white are predominantly Latino, American Indian, Alaskan, or Asian. There are very few black Oregonians, and this is not an accident. The land that is now Oregon was not, of course, always inhabited by white people, but as a U.S. territory and then a state, Oregon sought to get and stay white.

Among several formal efforts at racial exclusion was a provision in the original state constitution of 1857 that prohibited any ‘free Negro or Mulatto’ from entering and residing in the state.

Uh, OK, but what does that have to do with an eclipse?

From Oregon, the Great American Eclipse will travel through Idaho and Wyoming. (It will catch a tiny unpopulated piece of Montana, too.) Percentage-wise, Idaho and Wyoming are even whiter than Oregon. And as in Oregon, but even more so, the few non-white residents of Idaho and Wyoming are not black—they are mostly Latino, American Indian, and Alaskan. The astronomers tell us where lies the path of totality; the census tells us where live the people and what colors they are. The census is detailed, and precise, but its very categories should bring unease. A census is not just a matter of counting; it involves assessing and classifying and evaluating. This is particularly true of the U.S. census, a window into this nation’s dreams of totality and its always dangerous compromises.

So the eclipse was all about race, and the census should make us uneasy because race?

Infamously, the Founders argued over whether slaves (who, of course, could not themselves vote or serve in office) should nonetheless be counted for purposes of allocating members of Congress, and infamously, the Founders settled the matter with the Three-Fifths Compromise. Each state’s power would be based upon a population tally that included both free persons and ‘three fifths of all other persons’ (with “Indians not taxed” excluded altogether). Thus the country was founded with the idea that the people had to be counted, and that each had to be classified before he was counted so that we could know exactly how much he counted.

Oh, so it’s about how evil America is right from the beginning?

We needed such precision in the post-war era of Jim Crow, when even one drop of African blood rendered a person legally black. With whiteness, there was no compromise. Totality was everything.

As a mere high school teacher of English, not an exalted Harvard Professor of Law, I would tend not to be overwhelmed by the brilliance and insight of the essay, but would rather be tempted to suggest the good Professor’s introduction does not well comport with her theme. It seems to make rather large leaps from a solar eclipse, the symbolism of a dividing line drawn by the path of the eclipse, the racial history of some of the states touched by that line with the contemporary nature of America. I’d probably write something like:

“This is not responsive to the assignment. It’s obvious you want to make a point about race, but the assignment was to write about your observations relating to the eclipse.”

Particularly interesting too is the observation that “along most of its path, there live almost no black people.” A substantial portion of the path of the eclipse traces the high desert, a region of America settled late, and sparsely at that. An early explorer, John Charles Freemont’s writings about the barren nature of that enormous portion of America, retarded exploration and settlement for many years. Circa 2016, Wyoming’s population is only slightly over half a million people. It’s not generally known that about a third of all cowboys were black, particularly after the Civil War. Prof. Ristroph would seem to suggest a dearth of black people in Wyoming, and contiguous states, has to do with racism, but in reality other factors are far more important, climate being only one.

And the eclipse reminds us we “run the risk of trying to recover a glory that never existed?” What glory this might be Prof. Ristroph never quite says. A nation of white supremacists? Perhaps that’s what President Trump means when he wants to Make America Great Again? Who, in referring to the eclipse, has made such suggestions? Who has so much as suggested there is past glory to be recovered thereby?

It would seem, gentle readers, we’ve seen what happens when a member of the academic elite tries to shoot an analogy into the cosmos, but ends up mired in race on Earth instead, as is all too common.