Wednesday, October 31, 2018


 
The Shootings in Pittsburgh
Coming on top of the murder of two black men at a grocery store in a Louisville Kentucky suburb, and the many packages with pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats, the murders in Pittsburgh raise terrible questions about what is going on in America. Some commentators I have heard on the radio take the easy way out and blame it all on Pres. Trump. But that is not helpful. Pres. Trump did not invent anti-black or anti-Hispanic racism; Pres. Trump did not invent anti-Semitism or the mass murder of Jews. The most one can say about him is that he is encouraging the open expression of different forms of hate.
Hate is everywhere. Conservatives hate liberals. They can't stand to listen to them. Their beliefs and arguments seem so transparently faulty that it is difficult to see how anybody with just a grain of intelligence could be a liberal. A lot of liberals hate positions they regard as extreme, for instance, the people on the political left who want to abolish capitalism and replace it with democratic socialism. They have equal disdain for people on the far right who want to reduce the role of government to that of the policeman who keeps the peace in the streets.
Red Sox fans genuinely hate supporters of the New York Yankees and Yankees fans feel the same about supporters of the Red Sox. But they do not go out and kill each other. Conservatives don't ambush liberals. Liberals do not murder leftists or extreme libertarians. But the hatred that comes to the surface in America today is murderous hatred. It is the hatred that animated both parties in the Civil War. It is the hatred that animated lynchings of Black Americans and progroms against Jews in 19th and early 20th century Eastern Europe. It is the hatred that wants to kill. It is not all hate that concerns us but the hate that needs to destroy or that applauds the destruction wrought by others.
Not all killing is motivated by hate. There is a great deal of killing in our world which does not particularly involve hatred. 17 years ago after 9/11 we "had" to invade Afghanistan in order to show that we were not weak and that we were going to punish the people somehow involved in the attack on the World Trade Center. I'm not sure we hated the Afghanis; we had no reason to hate the Iraqis. We had other reasons for killing them.
In lynchings, in progroms, in killings of black churchgoers or Jewish worshipers the victims somehow threaten the survival of their killers and their people. Whereever they have lived among Christian people, Jews have been felt to be a threat to these Christian communities. Whites often feel threatened in their identity as whites by the existence of black communities, especially by thriving black communities. The church and synagogue shootings were not perpetrated by white people just because they did not like black people but by people who thought their white identity required destroying black persons. Typically far right white supremacists talk about the white identity being under threat and needing to be defended. They talk about being the victims of "white genocide." The survival of whites requires that Blacks, and Jews, be killed.
If we are going to understand these shootings in churches and temples we need to understand the persons whose identities cannot coexist with other groups of people. The shooter did not only detest members of the group killed. He could not continue to be himself as long as they lived. His identity was under acute threat.
"Well," you say, "these people are more or less insane. The threats they feel are unreal. What we need is better mental health care for people like that."
That is a comforting thought and if there are only a few persons who go out and commit murder, who are motivated by some completely unrealistic fear for their existence, it would, of course, be very sad and upsetting, but it does not show that anything is amiss in our society, except that we let people out in the street who should be locked up.
But this morning's New York Times reports there were a sizeable variety of pages on Instagram with names such as "#jewsdid911" in "a torrent of anti-Semitic images and videos uploaded in the wake of Saturday's shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue."
The shooters may have gone over the edge and acted out their fears about their white identity but there are a significant number of people in the America today who feel under attack by the mere existence of people who are different. The mere presence of a group of may be 4000 impoverished and frightened central Americans 1000 miles away from our borders in Mexico causes them acute anxiety. These people are different. They make the Americans feel terribly insecure.
This is not just an odd fact. It is a display of a social disease, of a widely distributed personality disorder. The support for racist attacks and murders is not the only symptom of this widespread personality disorder. There are a number of reports that the counties that gave exceptional support to Donald Trump in the 2016 election are also counties with exceptionally high rates of drug use, drug overdoses and suicides. Groups that fear people who are different who feel their white identity is being threatened by people not classified as white feel extraordinary insecurity about their own identity and their own worth. Drug abuse and suicide may well be the result of those profound insecurities.
This is not an underhanded attempt to blame the President for wide-spread drug abuse or suicide. It is instead to point out that the president's supporters are frequently persons who hate persons different from themselves and feel mortally threatened by them. Their sense of themselves, their sense of their worth and the worth of people like them is feeble. They do not know who they are other than that they are different from people with brown skin, from people practicing a different religion from theirs.
There is a goodly number of such people in the US and when someone murders people by whom they feel threatened, they applaud.
The difficult question with which the murders in Pittsburgh, or in Louisville Kentucky confronts us has to do with the existence of significant numbers of Americans who are seriously afraid of people different from them so that they welcome when someone murders black people, Jews, Muslims. Our culture is seriously deficient because it does not allow everyone to grow up feeling secure in who they are so that they can tolerate differences.
We need to look at our national cultures to understand this problem, at what we teach young people about what makes life, their life, and their person worthwhile, at what we teach young people about what is really important in life.
The nation needs to ponder these questions in the wake of the latest mass murders.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018


Men and their Manhood


Questions about what it means to be a man in America in the 21st century come up in the background of the Kavanaugh hearings debacle. But similar questions, complaints, outrages are at work all over our culture today. The federal government has just indicted four white supremacists for causing riots in Charlottesville, VA last year and in other places. These four men are members of what they call the Rise Above Movement. Their description of their movement speaks of "emasculated white men needing to reclaim their identities by learning to fight and engaging in purifying violence." Here male identity is the source of serious complaints. Men have been emasculated. They can reclaim their masculinity only through serious violence, including murder.
Male identity is the topic of a flood of books. In all of them masculinity is presented as problematic or endangered. Different authors regard the threats as more or less serious. Some see problems; others see masculinity destroyed.
Often the problems of men are blamed on women and more specifically on feminism. The feminist movement has focussed public discourse on the problems of women, on the ways in which women have been and still are disadvantaged by unfair practices on the part of men. But no one sees the problems of men. No one cares to help out when they need assistance.
Others attribute the erosion of masculinity to the absence of fathers in many families. With the divorce rate shooting up, more boys are raised by their mothers without a father in the house. With mass incarceration separating more men from their families male children are suffering the absence of a father.
Others cite economic causes: many well-paying manufacturing jobs have moved abroad, to China or to Mexico. With men earning less, their wives need to leave the home to earn a living and the traditional family with a male breadwinner and a stay-at-home mother and wife has become a rarity. His authority is undermined by the mother also working and often earning more than her husband. Men are no longer the deciders in the family. It is not uncommon for the father to stay home and to mind the house and the children while the mother goes out and earns a living for all. The traditional role of the father and head of household can no longer be maintained.
Men therefore have trouble understanding what it means to be a man. The traditional answers--that men support their families, that men are the ultimate decision-makers, that men are autonomous, strong, and can be depended on to defend their families-- are losing their plausibility. They no longer make sense. They no longer can reassure men that they are valuable and important.
As a consequence of all these changes, men feel adrift. They are unsure of who they are. They do not understand their social position or their positions in the family. They do not know how to meet their emotional and sexual needs or what role they are to play in relation to their children. So it is not surprising that some, at the extreme, for instance, members of the Rise Above Movement cited earlier, try to regain their previous male dominance through street fighting.
What are we poor men to do? How can we find new answers to the ancient question of what it means to be a man?
It is useful, for a moment, to look at the question and ask ourselves what we are looking for. For ever and ever men have defined themselves in contrast to women. The most devastating criticism of a man was, and is, that he is effeminate. He is too much like a woman and therefore is not a real man. The fundamental defining feature of men is that they are not women.
As a consequence men have for thousands of years restricted the range of women's activities. They have been confined to the house, they have been limited to having and bringing up children. They have been kept out of the public life outside the house. Men then could claim that dominating women and all public spheres was their appropriate role. Often men claimed even that God himself placed them in this powerful position. With women able to escape these limitations, men's roles have become unclear and they feel thoroughly threatened.
The remedy is to think differently about what it means to be a man. Defining manhood as being not a woman leads us into a complete dead-end. According to that way of thinking one can be a man only by dominating women. The existence of powerful men demands that women be unequal. Once we commit ourselves to the equality of all citizens regardless of their gender, we commit ourselves to minimizing the difference between men and women.
Yes men and women have different genitals and therefore play different roles in perpetuating the race. Once the child is born, men and women can play equal roles in rearing it and seeing that it grows up to be a productive citizen.
There are, today, other differences between men and women. Women are more emotional; they are better at maintaining relations to friends and relatives. But these are social differences, a consequence of the man's search for differences from women. Men can learn to recognize their own emotions and those of others and learn appropriate responses to them. Men can learn to maintain their own friendships and family relations without needing their wives or female partner to play the role of social secretary.
The crisis of manhood – that men no longer understand what their special role in society is – is made by men themselves. By defining themselves as different from women, they can only be real men at the expense of equality for women. Once the society commits itself to equality for women, the old male paradigm as the dominator in the family and in society at large is outdated and needs to be rejected.
Men can find an identity for themselves by recognizing that what they have in common with women is central and that being a man, rather than a woman, deservedly has lost all meaning. Men will find a proper identity when they learn to honor their feelings and those of others, and when they learn to foster and maintain their own relationships as carefully as they memorize statistics about their favorite team.
Women go into combat in the Marines. Soon a woman will be elected President. There is nothing men do that women are not showing they can also do. There are no biologically based differences between men and women besides those having to do with procreation. All men need to do is to acquire the skills they have refused to learn because they were thought to be skills of women—living their own emotions and caring about those of others, being open to others instead of hiding behind a jokey facade. They must learn to live in the world of feelings.

Monday, September 24, 2018


Poverty in the United States


The Census Bureau reports that about 13% of the US population lived in poverty in 2017. The recovery from the 2008 recession has improved economic conditions for many Americans but has not touched the poor. There are as many poor people today as there were 10 years ago.
The White House denies this. They criticize the methodology used by the Census Bureau. The way they calculate poverty only 3% of Americans are poor. But most economists and statistician do not accept that conservative view of poverty.
Who are the poor? Conservatives try to tell us that people live in poverty because they are unwilling to work. Hence there is a big push to deny any kind of assistance to citizens who do not go to school or have a job. But this is sheer prejudice. 35% of the poor are children, 25% have jobs, often more than one. 10% are disabled, another 10% are senior citizens. 8% of the poor are caregivers – they cannot go out and work because they are needed to care for children, or a sick, or elderly, or disabled family member. 3% have taken early retirement, 7% are enrolled in school. There remain 3% who are not working. The other 97% are poor because they are prevented from working by their age, their occupation (such as caregivers), or their disabilities. A quarter of the poor do work, another 7% are students.
These official numbers, moreover, ignore some important additional categories. In the United States there are more than 2 million people in prison. They and often their families are unable to make a decent living. To that we must add a significant number of undocumented workers who earn less than the legal minimum wage. Their employers can pay them illegally low wages because the undocumented will not complain about their mistreatment.
It is worth noting that 25% of the poor are working but their wages are so low that they do not have enough money to pay for rent and food and other necessities. By some estimates, 25% of all workers in the US earn less than $10 an hour. Such low wages are clearly one important cause of the continued poverty of our fellow citizens.
Different sources will provide somewhat different numbersfor different categories of poverty but the general message is the same: poverty is very significant in our country and, even in a growing economy, the percentage of poor people remains the same, year in, year out.
These facts are clearly scandalous. Poverty in the United States is much more serious than in other developed countries. The United States is not only the richest country in the world but also the developed country with the highest poverty rate. It is also the poorest country among the Western capitalist countries.
It is not difficult to see what needs to be done to drastically lower the rate of poverty. The federal minimum wage needs to be raised to $15 or $20 an hour. We need to seriously reduce the number of prisoners and make sure that families of prisoners are taken care of. Welfare payments must become more generous. We must make sure that everyone, without exception, has enough food, a decent living space, and access to healthcare and education.
These are the initial steps that we must take but there is tremendous opposition against those not only in the White House but across all of America. The poor are the targets of harsh prejudice. They get blamed for their own poverty. They are said to be poor because they refuse to do a day’s work, because they are self indulgent, and lack basic skills. The poor are thought to be largely teenage (black) women who have children at 14 and 15 years of age. They are thought to be sexually licentious--an inclination inherited from the African ancestors of several hundred years ago.
Some of these accusations are clearly ridiculous and others, as we have already seen, false and unjust. The poverty rate of Black and Hispanic Americans is higher than that of Whites. But the white population in the US is much larger than the black and hispanic population. Almost 59 million Hispanics are poor, as are 42 million Black Americans. 195 million of Whites live in poverty-- more than twice the number of Hispanic and African-Americans poor. If you encounter a poor person the chance is one in two that you meet a White person.
Why do prejudices against continue to be so powerful? That question has different answers for different portions of our population.
Our leaders, from the White House on down, believe, like most Americans, that a good life is a successful life. Success they define as making lots of money. By those standards, the poor are complete failures and are therefore deserving of nothing more than contempt. The chief policymakers in America, accordingly, look down on the poor and never hesitate to disparage them.
But the people in charge not only have no respect for the poor they actively hate them. Congress is constantly considering legislation to tear the social safety net, to put stricter limits on who is eligible for food or rent aid. Elected representatives compete with each other for proposing further inroads in the already limited support for the poor.
Conservatives keep talking about the blessings of capitalism, of the so-called "free market." They believe that the economy should not be regulated by the government. This amounts to saying that unfettered capitalism without any regulations to protect consumers or workers would be to everybody's advantage. The fact is, however, that even a regulated capitalism, as we have it, leaves more than 10% of the population living in poverty. Capitalism is not in everybody's interest. It leaves significant number of citizens in dire poverty. The existence of large numbers of poor people in what we like to call "the richest country in the world"show that capitalism is not the boon our richest fellow Americans believe it is. The poor in America stand as an indisputable proof of the inadequacies of capitalism.
Rich capitalists, like Donald Trump, hate the poor for that reason: they constitute a living refutation of the quasi-religion of the free market.
The hatred of the poor has a large component of racism. Different sections of the population have different reasons for perpetuating it. Middle-class Americans have failed to get rich; they just get by. Given the prevailing idea that getting rich is the mark of success, the middle class is not successful. They can console themselves over that failure by distinguishing their own work ethic from the, actually mythical, laziness of the poor.
The lower middle class, a section on the population always in danger of descending into actual poverty, can reassure itself that it will not end up genuinely poor by trotting out the myth of the lazy poor. They, the lower middle class, work hard. They faithfully go to the job every day whbere they are underpaid. They are virtuous, they are not like the poor, lazy and without skills. So they don't, they think, have to worry about being really poor-- until the next recession when they face real, grinding poverty.
Different sections of the population have different reasons for subscribing to the mythology of the poor as indolent, unable to control themselves, lacking basic skills. They all share the same set of values that wealth is the sign of success. One has lived one's life well if one has accumulated lots of money and property.
That is the ethic that goes with capitalism. The goal in life should be making more money than the next guy. Little value is placed on integrity, on being a loyal life partner or friend, on being a good parent or child to those parents. Public service, loyalty to one's country is given lip service but do not really count. Its all about being rich, owning a bigger house, a vacation home at the shore, a big cabin cruiser, etc.
America's relationship to its poor not only shows that capitalism is a failure as an economic system but, even more importantly, it is a failure as the basis of our national ethic and our ideas of what makes human lives good lives and lives worth living.


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

                                                                 Labor Day 2018

  
 Labor day was instituted as a national holiday in the 1880s. It was meant to celebrate American workers who were building a country of exceptional wealth and, as it would turn out, exceptional international power. But hundred and forty years later, Labor Day is not a celebration of much of anything. It is a long weekend, the beginning of a new school year and one more occasion to go to the mall and spend money. Labor is not doing well; wages have remained stagnant even in an economy daily celebrated as suprisingly productive. The country is thriving if you look at it from the perspective of those who are daily getting richer. It is not thriving in other ways.

These days everyone focuses on the President but that, of course, is just being lazy. There are thousands in positions of leadership in the military, in government, in universities and foundations who daily put one foot in front of the other and do not ever ask themselves where we are going. The country has lost any sense of direction. There are no clear goals. It is every man and every woman for him or herself and those that do not thrive and prosper are forgotten or, worse, blamed for their failure to enrich themselves in the brutal free-for-all.


Here are just two examples of our nation being completely lost, drifting no one knows where and not many people caring.


The current commanding officer in Afghanistan retired on Labor Day. The war, he reminded his audience in his farewell speech, has been going on for 17 years [SEVENTEEN years!!]. A war that began as punishment for Afghanistan's harboring Al-Quaeda is now a war against the Taliban and is, if the retiring commander is to be believed, a war we are slowly losing. But the commanding general in Afghanistan has not once spoken with the President, the Commander in Chief. The President seems not interested in the daily sacrifices of human lives and the enormous losses of weapons and other equipment paid for by American taxpayers. The military leadership seems content to stumble ahead blindly. Elected legislators in Congress are too busy with their war against the previous administration to consider what should be done with this endless war. In the current electoral campaigns I have not heard of any candidate who speaks out against continuing this bloody engagement. 


What shall we think about a country that continues to fight a war simply because no one wants to think about it? What shall we think of a country whose foreign policy rests on public relations slogans. The war in Afghanistan is referred to as "Operation Enduring Freedom." But this war has nothing to do with our freedom because a nation that conducts its affairs without any clear goals, without questioning the usefulness, let alone morality, of its policies can hardly consider itself free. Free citizens and free nations make clear eyed choices. We have not made any choices about the Afghanistan war in a very long time.


Here is one more news item from Labor Day that illustrates the total disarray of our nation. A year after hurricane Harvey flooded and devastated Houston Texas, many of the victims still are unable to live in their houses devastated by the storm. The government agency tasked with assisting the victims of natural disasters, FEMA, has provided some aid but left the reconstruction efforts woefully incomplete. A year later many people still cannot live in their houses and have to live with friends or relatives. These facts are not controversial; their interpretation is. We frequently hear that the continued homelessness of poor folks is not surprising. Their lack of minimal sources is to blame. The poor are poor because they are poor.We blame the poor for still having houses no one can live in. We are saying: "I do not want to think about this. Its their own stupid fault."


During tropical storm Florence in North Carolina, many, particularly elderly and poor people did not evacuate. They too get blamed for that--another thoughtless refusal to be informed and think seriously about our fellow citizens. Many elderly people lack automobiles. Had they left their homes where would they have gone. They had no money for hotels; the shelters were full. Many could not leave their pets which play central roles in their lives. Did anyone who blames them for not evacuating offer spacer in their homes?

As a country, we are content to allow people – significant numbers of people, especially children – to live in poverty, to not have enough food at the end of a pay period, to lack reliable transportation to get to work and home again, not to have access to excellent healthcare or education.


These facts alone are shameful but they are testimony to our widespread thoughtlessness. Americans like to brag about how great America is but they don't think about their fellow citizens who lack of work that pays a living wage, who, because they are the wrong color, because they have some infirmity or another, cannot make a decent living-- often only because their employer refuses to pay a decent wage. But we see no great uprising of outrage about how some of our fellow Americans have to live in extended periods of poverty. In the current political campaigns economic inequality is a theme. But I have yet to hear a candidate who has a concrete plan for assuring everyAmerican, everyone who lives in this country, a life of sufficiency without having to suffer anxiety about feeding their children or making sure that they get the medical care and the education they not only need but are entitled to.
Instead we go on going on stumbling forward or perhaps backward or sideways. No one knows where. No one thinks about it.


It is important to repeat that focusing on the vagaries of the existing President is clearly a way of dodging the larger issues which have been with us for a long time. We have refused and are still refusing to ask ourselves the important questions about why we conduct our affairs as we do, what our goals are, what it would mean for America to be great.


What are we trying to achieve it Afghanistan? Why are we allowing the poor to suffer disproportionately? As long as no one asks these and similar questions we will continue to wander around in our fog of indifference. We will remain a nation lost.

Saturday, September 8, 2018


Our Democracy



A friend was recently deploring the state of our political landscape. She was troubled not only by the measures the government was taking and the utter chaos created by the president in his fairly random and unpredictable tweets, but also by the ordinary citizen’s sense of impotence. We can complain, she said, but there is really nothing we can do. We as ordinary citizens are without any power whatsoever to affect the conduct of this government. We have no power at all to moderate its hostility towards our friends or the support we are giving to brutal dictators all around the globe from North Korea to the Philippines to Israel or Russia.
She merely repeated what many other people have been saying: in our democracy citizens seem to be unable to affect legislative decisions or the apparently random policy choices of the executive.
But this time I stopped and asked a question: how can it be a democracy if citizens are unable to affect government decisions? Don't we always say that in a democracy the people rule? But how can the people rule if they have no power over the actions of their government?
We encounter here one of the contradictions in popular thinking about democracy. On the one hand, we consider a country a democracy if the citizens at large rule, that is, if they determine government policy perhaps not in intricate details but at least in broad outline. But on the other hand we think of democracies as systems where periodically the citizens cast ballots in favor of one representative instead of another and, sometimes, in favor or against a policy. In this way voters in different states, for instance, have decided to legalize the use of marijuana. On this view a reasonably well functioning electoral system is all a country needs to be considered a democracy.
But we can learn from our current condition, that casting ballots for representatives and the president does not give us the power to run our own lives in ways we choose. When the government takes small children away from their immigrant parents we can be totally outraged but whether that outrage affects government policy is up to the president and the people he chose to police our borders. If they do not respond to us, we are powerless to change their behavior.
The lesson to be learned from our present condition is that holding periodic elections, even if those elections are a squeaky clean, does not make us into a democracy. Only where the people rule can they claim to live in a democracy, where they have power to change government policy in specific instances, such as taking children away from their parents and detaining the parents under utterly deplorable conditions without proper bedding, clean water, and decent food.
As our government system is set up now, we, the voters, do not have the power to affect government policy. What kinds of changes would we need to restore the power that rightfully belongs to us?
It is interesting and distressing that this question is not being raised very often in America today. There is a great deal of discussion about different voting schemes, but there is no discussion, that I know of, of ways of restoring the power to the people.
But there are of course ideas that bear on this question. The most common example are discussions in different cities about citizens' review boards over police behavior. Here is a suggestion that the actions of a government agency, the police, should be regularly supervised by citizens who are not part of the police but are, instead, expected to represent the interests and concerns of citizens. In many places police behavior, especially towards African-Americans and Hispanic citizens, is often violent and demonstrably unjust. Citizens; review boards would possibly restore the citizens ability to exercise at least some control over police conduct.
Police in different localities have been quite successful in agitating against the institution of such review boards. Typically this particular government agency is quite unwilling to subject itself to the supervision by citizens. The same, of course, is true of many if not most government agencies. They may talk volubly about our democracy but they are really opposed to measures that might make our country more democratic.
We can hope to make our government more genuinely democratic by subjecting specific branches of the executive to citizens' supervision, for instance, by setting up police review boards. Electing school boards is another familiar technique. Citizen control over schools has been enhanced in some large cities by establishing local school boards to supervise the running of local schools by neighborhood groups. In other cities committees of patients at local health centers have been enlisted to mobilize neighborhoods in support of better health care and better health practices.
We actually know how to strengthen our democracy by instituting citizens participation in and supervision of government agencies. But the lack of citizen initiatives and the concerted resistance of government agencies has, so far, stymied many efforts. How can your neighborhood strengthen its ability to supervise government activities where you live?

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Structural racism
 

One of the welcome, but unexpected effects of the Black Lives Matter movement is that more White people want to know what it is like to be Black in the United States today. Whites are beginning to listen and some of us are trying to learn the effects of anti-Black racism on Black lives.
The Lancet is one of the most prestigious medical journals in the English-speaking world and beyond. It recently contained a long article that showed that in any state of the US where police shot and killed a young, unarmed black man, large numbers of Black citizens suffered in their mental health. ( The Lancet, Volume 392, July 28 – August 3, 2018,) They were more depressed, anxious, fearful. Their sense of themselves, their self-esteem suffered. They felt more uncertain about their position in their social world.
The article showed the mental health effects of the murders of unarmed, young Black men and women on Black people. The murder of unarmed, young Black men and women, the article showed, did not have the same effects on White people. The murder of unarmed, young Blacks by police had a very specific, deleterious mental health effects on the victims of structural racism. It was felt particularly vividly by Black mothers, and by Black women expecting a child.
The article made use of what is now a familiar concept, the concept of "structural racism." Racism, this term implies, should not be understood primarily as the prejudiced thoughts and feelings and behavior of individual Americans. When we talk about racism in America we are not just talking about this or that person who has mistaken beliefs about Black people – beliefs that ascribe defects to Black people that they have no more than any other group in our nation.
Instead we are supposed to think of racism as consisting of social systems, of structures, instead of as the prejudices of individual persons.
This is an important insight, but it must be understood correctly. Structural racism is often understood as saying "racism does not consist of the beliefs or actions of individual White people. Racism is perpetrated and perpetuated by the system or the social structure."
Many White people like to talk about structural racism because they understand it in that sense that individual White people are not responsible for the existence of racism, for the murder by police of unarmed, young Black persons, for the inequality in opportunities for jobs or education between Whites and Blacks, etc. So I as a White person do not have to feel responsible. I should not feel guilty because it is not what I do or say that injures Blacks. It is the system.
But that is, of course, a complete misinterpretation. Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri was killed by a specific policeman. It was a specific grand jury that decided not to indict that policeman. Police who shot Black persons, if they were indicted, were absolved by specific juries. Racist acts are committed by specific White persons.
Black persons recounting their experiences over and over again experience the same indignities and assaults from different White persons. Talk about structural racism rejects the notion that there are just a few White people who are racist – "a few bad apples" – the startling and destructive fact is that different, totally unconnected White people will denigrate Black persons in the same ways as other White people. ( Austin Channing Brown, I'm Still Here, Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness [New York: Convergent, 2018] This is a book White people need to read.) More or less all White people will at times act in racist ways towards African-Americans – and of course against other persons of color, against other people who are not really White or whose whiteness is somewhat marginal as for instance Jews or, in Europe, the Roma, or Native Americans in our country.
That is what makes racism structural. It isn't just this or that person being mean or perhaps just ignorant and self-involved. It is all White people, all the time, with very few exceptions. Some of these White people are trying really hard not to be racist but even those of us who try hard, fail much more often than we like to admit.
One of the astonishing facts about structural racism is how it pops up in the most unexpected places. Several years ago A TIME Magazine reporter looked at the calls of umpires in different sports and found that in different sports White umpires tended to make calls against Black athletes more often than against Whites. (Katie Rooney, “Are Baseball Umpires Racist?”TIME August 13, 2007)
Structural racism plays out even in sports and it plays out in two ways. It plays out in the acts of White umpires and it plays out in the silence of the White public that does not protest these injustices.
In part they fail to protest because they don't know what is going on. But more and more White people are learning about the structural – that means ubiquitous, inescapable-- injustices done to members of Black communities but they refuse to do anything. They do not protest.
White people stick together and protect each other even when their racism is illegal or blatantly immoral. That racism is structural not only because it is everywhere but because it consists of an unspoken White solidarity against the suffering of Blacks. White police who killed Blacks can feel pretty safe because of the Whites who will protect them.
It is like Catholic priests who abuse children can feel assured that their bishop will protect them. It is like men in commercial or political organizations who sexually harass women. Until very recently they could be sure that other men would protect them also.
Structural racism means that all of us, Whites, regardless how well we mean, are responsible for the maltreatment for the injustices done daily to African-Americans because we commit overt racist acts, that we may not even recognize, or we refuse to protest those done by others.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Value of Life


 
Today I have a lot of questions and very few answers, but the questions are very important and are not always considered as clearly and carefully as they ought to be.
The question is deceptively simple: what makes life valuable?
The question arose in connection with a minor natural crisis. Earlier this year we found our trees infested with thousands and thousands of caterpillars. Standing under the trees one could hear these multitudes of small jaws chomping on the leaves. Chewed-up leaves would rain around you and cover the ground. All the while a gentle rain of black balls, caterpillar feces, was falling. After about a week many tall trees had no leaves left and we feared for them.
Then as suddenly as they had come, the caterpillars disappeared to be replaced by thousands of moths, little unattractive brown fluttering things. They were everywhere and came in the house every time the screen door was opened.
Now they have laid their eggs and they are gone. The trees fortunately are growing new leaves.
The whole episode was an astonishing demonstration of nature's struggle to preserve life, to continue life, to enhance and increase life. Nature regards all life, even the life of caterpillars and moths, as overwhelmingly important.
But – and here is the important thought – we do not. Some human beings regard animal life as valuable and therefore refuse to eat meat. They are vegetarians. Others go further and refused to eat eggs and milk and milk products such as cheese or butter. They are vegans.
But no one I know believes that plant life is valuable life. No one refuses their spinach on principle. No one I know hesitates to enjoy artichokes or avocadoes because they are living beings.
We do not, unlike nature, believe that life in all its different forms is valuable. So if we declare some lives, for instance our own, to have great value and that, therefore, our lives should be protected and cherished, we need to be able to explain how our life, human life, is different from that of the caterpillar or the tomatoes we do not hesitate to enjoy in the summer.
That question leads us directly into questions about abortion, into questions about the death penalty, into questions about wars – sending soldiers to their death, randomly killing civilians by bombing their cities. These are questions about the value of human lives. They are questions about the value of potential human lives. They are questions about what makes us human.
Many Americans believe fervently that the fertilized human egg deserves the protection of full-fledged human beings for its potential of becoming such human beings. Many of these Americans also accept the death penalty. We must ask them whether rapists and murderers do not still have the potential to become good human beings? And, on the other hand, does the fertilized egg not have the potential to become a rapist and murderer who, many Americans believe, deserves to be put to death, often in great pain.
The important insight is this: life itself, whether it be the life of humans or of caterpillars, is not valuable. We believed that human life is valuable because it is human. But what that human quality is that makes our life valuable is not at all obvious. The defenders of abortion as well as it's foes need to say more than that life is valuable. Caterpillars are more complex creatures than the recently fertilized human egg but that does not make their life valuable in the ways human lives are. They need to explain what makes a human life valuable. So must the defenders of the death penalty explain to us how the lives of human beings forfeit their value.
Why do our lives deserve protections not extended to grass and trees or to caterpillars?
Some people have better lives than others. Some need to work three jobs; they are always working and are not doing terribly interesting or fulfilling work. Cleaning offices and bathrooms is not that enjoyable. It probably does not give you a sense of pride in your accomplishment. Such lives are in some way impaired compared to the lives of people who have a job they love and are remunerated generously.
How do we decide who deserves the rich life – rich in satisfactions, rich in accomplishments – and who does not?
There is no obvious answer to the question what makes human life valuable. There is also no obvious answer to the question what makes some human lives more valuable than that of others. Why do some people deserve fulfilling lives and others not? Why do some people deserve to live and others not?
Brian Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy, who has spent a lifetime as an attorney for prisoners on death row, tells us that no human being is merely his bad acts. The thief is more than a thief and so is the murderer or rapist. All human beings have the potential of being loving parents, faithful partners and generous friends. It is the potential for being good human beings that gives value to our lives. It is the potential for redemption, for seeing the error of our ways.
Caterpillars and moths do not lead good or bad lives. Human beings do and that gives value to their lives.