Sunday, November 23, 2014

The New Segregation 

 
 Fifty-four years ago, Ruby Bridges aged 6, marched into a white New Orleans Elementary school, flanked by US Marshals. Recently she returned to that school to assist in unveiling a monument to her courageous 6 year old former self. Yet, although the school, whose teachers resigned and whose students stayed home when she first entered it, today has erected a statue in her honor, her assessment of race relations in the US is very gloomy. Schools are progressively more segregated, she points out, often reflecting sharp segregation in housing.
The racial situation has changed in the last 50 years. But the condition of the majority of Blacks in the U.S. has not improved. As I wrote in an earlier blog, many black students attend schools with a seriously inadequate curriculum—there are no classes in Algebra II or Chemistry. In many of these schools up to 60% of the teachers are not officially licensed, and a large percentage of teachers are inexperienced because they are in their first years of teaching.
But today's segregation of blacks in urban ghettos with failing schools does not only have to do with skin color but with economics: Twice as many African-Americans and Hispanics are poor compared to Whites. Of Whites about 12% of the population are poor; the rate of poverty for African-Americans and Hispanics is double that.
Poverty is self-perpetuating across the generations. Whites used to ascribe that to a mythical “culture” of poverty, of generations of welfare recipients who hand down from one generation to the next an inclination to be passive, lazy, content to live on the dole.
But that was only a myth that blamed the victims. We now know how poverty persists in the real world. Careful studies show how white and black children enter first grade equally ready to learn mathematical skills. But the poor children soon fall behind. Their lives are too hard; often even their nutrition is inadequate. Their performance in school suffers. If they finish school at all, few of them are ready to go on to college. They will be as poor as their parents.
Their poverty accounts at least in part for their social isolation. White families choose schools for their children with fewer children of color. But white families also choose schools for their children with fewer children who are poor. The resegregation of housing and education seems to be significantly affected by black and Hispanic poverty. What was previously the result of racism is today, in part, a response to serious economic inequality.
Segregation is becoming an economic issue.
Of course, that was always true in some way. Old-fashioned racism was designed to hide the shame of slavery. But segregation today responds to very different economic facts. Foremost among those is the inability of our capitalist economic system to create enough jobs. A close second is the inability of this economic system to create jobs that pay a living wage.
The official unemployment rate in the entire country stands at 6.5. That is not counting the people who have become discouraged after failing to find a job, often for more than a year, and who have stopped looking. That rate is almost twice the official unemployment rate at 12.5. The economy cannot create jobs for a significant percentage of the population.
More than 5% of the labor force work more than one job. One job by itself simply does not pay enough to support a family. Only 35% of part-time workers who wanted more hours managed to get full time work. The remainder are forced to work less than they would like.
The result is massive poverty. Figures differ but about 15% percent of households in the US live in poverty as defined by the US government. Given centuries of racism in the US, a disproportionate number of the poor are African-American or Hispanic, Native American or Native Alaskan.
Poverty brings with it housing and educational segregation.
We are being told, daily, that our economic system allows everyone to make something of their life, while, in reality, the economic system is actually to blame for much of this poverty. It has failed 15% of us massively and more and more of us to a lesser degree. Instead of creating jobs, capitalism in the US first outsourced jobs elsewhere. Today that is no longer sufficient. So capitalists now have a new project, namely to replace human workers by robots. (The workforce in China is said to have already been reduced by 15% due to robots replacing human workers.) The system that creates unimaginable riches for some, creates massive misery for one in seven households in the “richest country in the world.”
Is it time for a change?

Saturday, November 15, 2014


After the election


We have a pretty good idea of what will happen now that the Republicans are more powerful than ever: more tax benefits for the rich, more hardship for the poor, and more saber rattling and war-making in foreign policy. The voters wanted a change. I am not sure they are going to like the changes they get.
But this is the time to look at what will not change whoever gets elected. A political scientist at Tufts University, Michael Glennon, has recently argued that significant portions of the federal government are in no way under control of elected officials. Leadership in these shadowy agencies is handed down from one person to the other without consultation with the voters or elected members of the executive branch. Their policies are made by officials not elected and most of the time are shrouded in deep secrecy. Voters not only have no control over the national security apparatus and its allies in the military, but most of the time they do not know what policies are being made and executed.
Glennon makes this point impressively. He reminds us that before Obama was elected president in 2008 he promised to close Guantanamo Bay. He opposed the Patriot Act and government spying on civilians. He was a champion of civil liberties. He was an opponent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But once he was elected Guantanamo Bay remained open. Obama conducted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His administration has continued the surveillance of civilians begun during the previous administration and has been harsh in prosecuting government whistleblowers. This administration has consistently supported government secrecy. It has been hostile to the press and press freedom.
That is not the Barack Obama who campaigned in 2008 and whom we elected. Glennon explains this sudden reversal by arguing that the security apparatus of such agencies as the National Security Administration and the Central Intelligence Agency operate mostly in secrecy. What they do sometimes comes out after it is all done. But elected officials and the voters have no control over their projects – one more bizarre and sinister than the next. Hence Obama's government failed to do what he had promised the voters.
A long time ago Bill Moyers presented a Public Broadcasting Special about this secretive and undemocratic security apparatus. It was created he said when Harry Truman signed the National Security Act in 1947 that created both the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency. Very soon these new agencies proved to be a major liability to the U.S.
In 1952 the Iranian people electorate Mohammed Mossadegh to be their Prime Minister. Our government had liked him until he decided that Iranian oil should not be owned by British interests and nationalized the Iranian oil industry. Such a move was anathema to all the capitalists and anti-communists in the United States. The CIA cooked up a plot to have Mossadegh toppled by a popular uprising and the Iranian military. The Shah of Iran returned and began a reign of terror. The CIA helped him to set up his secret police force that arrested people without trial, tortured and killed them.
CIA complicity in the events in Iran were not known at the time. They could not be discussed in our political arena. 60 years later we harvest the bitter fruits of this insane CIA project. That was the beginning of a series of secret interventions in the Middle East that have made us the most unpopular government in that part of the world. The men and women who died in Iraq and Afghanistan did not, as we often say, fight for our freedoms. Rather, they harvested the bitter fruits of the CIA intervention in Iran and many other secret manipulations of Middle Eastern policies—policies not motivated by concern for our freedoms or those of peoples in the Mid-East but designed to maintain corporate profits.
Two wars are now winding down. Another one in Syria and Iraq is just beginning. We owe those wars to the secret projects not controlled by our elected government. Voting has become a lot less effective because large portions of foreign policy are made we don't know by nameless “security” planners.
The effects of those secret projects by agencies not elected by us or supervised by our elected representatives, are felt not only in foreign policy but in the price all of us pay for the wars we fight, the losses many families sustain, the returning veterans seriously affected by their service, the moneys blown on weapons and warfare, that are not available to provide needed services to returning veterans, to build new schools, to hire more teachers, to repair roads and bridges and ameliorate the lives of the poorest, the elderly and disabled.
If we want to restore our democracy and peoples' control of the government, we need to dismantle the secretive national security apparatus, including the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency and replace it by agencies solidly under democratic control.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Voter Apathy?


Around election time, pundits begin to worry about low voter turnout. So they write newspaper articles recommending all kinds of methods for simplifying the voting process: early voting, same day registration,voting by computer and other clever ways of streamlining the electoral process.
But that is, of course, barking up the wrong tree. The Founders were very explicit about the voting process and its functions. Citizens were to vote in order to select the best representatives: men and women who were best informed, persons of integrity devoted not to partisan interests but to the good of all the citizens. That is how James Madison described the electoral process in Paper 10 of The Federalist Papers. Today the voting process has become completely perverted. Our congressional leaders often have mediocre minds excelling only in their intense partisanship. They are not looking for what is good for all; they are focused on their private interests, namely getting reelected. Elections today are about winning, not about selecting the best leaders. Voters know this and therefore do not bother to vote.
Elected officials are supposed to represent the interests and thinking of voters in their districts. If that were their goal, they would need to spend a good deal of time conversing with those voters to become thoroughly acquainted with the citizens' beliefs and opinions about national and local affairs. But since getting elected is so very expensive, Congresspersons are instead most interested in attracting money from very rich donors. With very few exceptions your representative in Congress is interested in financial donors before they care about what the majority of us, the people with little money, think.
This is no secret. Is it a surprise that Joe Citizen and Jane Citizen are not interested in electing anyone because whoever wins, that representative will not be interested in what Joe and Jane think?
We often say that in our democracy citizens control the actions of the government by electing one representative rather than another. That makes it look as if in elections policy issues decide who is chosen to represent a district.
But with 30 second television ads being a major means of communicating with voters, do policy issues get discussed? If instead of candidate forums we had public conversations between voters and citizens in which people could speak openly about what they think, the candidate would get a better idea of what people—as opposed to billionaires financing the election—think about. The participants and audience for these public discussions would get a better view of different policy disagreements. Everyone would learn. From the existing televised candidate forum I learn who is good-looking and who is not, who is the quickest on the draw in a debate. I learn very little about the issues.
Why should I participate in a sporting event where winners and losers are not important to me, or in a quasi-TV quiz show when what actually really matters to me is what the government will do and whether it will be swayed by what I need, what I think, and what I hope for. But political candidates are not interested in that.
Finally why should I vote if the candidates treat me with open contempt? These days the mail brings a lot of campaign literature. Everyone knows that these mailings give a one- sided view of the problems the country faces. They are misleading and tend to misrepresent the positions of candidates as well as of their opponents. They are meant to manipulate voters. The writers of electioneering material make used care salesmen look like persons of exemplary integrity. They make no bones about not respecting voters. Why should I vote for people who look down on me?
What is the message here? Campaign literature is written by folks who believe that you can persuade voters of any nonsense as long as you repeat it often and loud enough. Campaign literature treats citizens as gullible fools. That is hardly designed to make them want to vote.
Having transformed political campaigns into something like a football or baseball game, our political leaders should not be surprised if many citizens show disinterest. Since elections have stopped being opportunities for citizens to debate difficult policy issues and to be heard by their elected representatives, why should they participate?
Many people will get hurt if the arch conservatives win many elections. Think of the future of gay rights, health care for the middle class and the poor, further measures to impoverish working people, or think about fighting global warming. However perverted, the outcome of the electoral process sometimes makes a difference. But it is very hard to predict when that will happen. Unfortunately being an apathetic voter makes a lot of sense, much of the time.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Who is to Blame?


The killings of young black men in Ferguson and, more recently, in Saint Louis and in many other places, as well as the recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union that in Boston black men are much more likely to be stopped, and interrogated by police than whites has once again drawn attention to racist practices by many police forces all over this country.
In their treatment of black men, especially young ones, many police forces are out of control.
Large scale, continuing protests by many Americans, black and white, show that many of us are appalled by this resurgence of anti-Black racism. Or, perhaps, it is not a resurgence at all. The racism has been there all along but lately it has been so dramatic that even we whites cannot overlook it any more.
Clearly serious changes have to be made. Racist police practices have to be stopped.
At the same time, as a white man, I worry that we will once again take the easy way out and point the finger at individual police officers and individual police chiefs and put all the blame on them.
Whites, liberals and leftists, do that to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the continuing racism that poisons our society. We blame the police, we blame “the government,” we may also blame mass media. Some are critical of the supposed Archie Bunkerism of the working class. But they do not understand that everyone, even white anti-racists, as members of this deeply racist culture, are implicated in its maintenance.
At the heart of racism is the belief that Black people are significantly different from whites, that, with very few exceptions, they share certain characteristics which are overwhelmingly negative. Black people are different, they share specific qualities, and those make them undesirable members of a white society.
The white anti-racist rejects that last belief: Blacks, anti-racists believe, are not inferior to whites. But what is very difficult for us white anti-racists to give up is the idea of a largely homogenous group--”Blacks” or “African-Americans”--which is significantly different from us whites. Growing up in racist America, white anti-racists are also imbued with this map of our society in which distinct and significantly different groups—Blacks and Whites—live together uneasily. Racist whites regard the others as inferior; we anti-racist whites regard them as equally as good as us, or sometimes as better, and at other times as victims of racism whom we, white anti-racists, need to assist in their struggle for liberation.
But that is of course a mental map that humiliates those regarded as different. There is great diversity among Black people, in bodily characteristics, in mental traits, in their emotional make-up, in abilities and interests. Lumping many, very different people under some common label manifests one's disinterest in knowing them for who they are. Not being interested in knowing a certain group of people is a way of showing contempt and disrespect. Approaching strangers and acting as if one knew them already—being prejudiced, pre-judging others—is profoundly insulting.
Some people respond to that difficulty by claiming to be “colorblind.” But ignoring the racial divisions that exist in housing, in education, in employment, in incarceration rates, and elsewhere is just another way of helping to maintain racist divisions. The evils you ignore can continue to exist without your opposition.
White anti-racists confront a serious dilemma. On the one hand we should treat each individual as the individual they are and not worry much about their group characteristics. On the other hand a racist society does lump people into groups and in so far as these distinctions are often unjust we cannot ignore them.
So our task is complex. We must resist the injustices done by racism and racists to a specific group of people. We must at the same time train ourselves not to think of these persons only as members of their group but take them individually as fully seriously as we want to be taken seriously ourselves. We must stop talking about “they”; we must learn not to notice their group membership as the outstanding characteristic of persons we meet. We demand from others that they see us for who we really are, and we hope to see others for the individual person they are, with their own history, and their own outlook on the world. We must learn ourselves, and teach others, not to allow group characteristics to come between us and the other person.
Racism will not disappear as long as we only see types and not unique human beings. Most of us find it quite difficult to get beyond the group traits through which our society defines us. We maintain the racial and gender and disabilities maps that are part of our culture. To that extent we are complicit in the racial injustices committed in this world, regardless of how hard and sincerely we are fighting them.

Monday, October 27, 2014


Inequality


In a recent blog I told the story of Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve Bank, who spoke about economic inequality without mentioning any of the problems in our economic system that produce and reinforce that inequality. There is a good deal of discussion of inequality these days but not many people are willing to look at the real causes of it.
A while ago, The Nation magazine reported some terribly distressing facts about one other source of economic inequality, the role that racism plays in the lives of children of color in this country.
The nation's report rested on government figures published by the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. Here are some highlights from that report:
"Black students accounted for 18% of the country's pre-K enrollment, but made up 48% of preschoolers with multiple out-of-school suspensions.
Black students were expelled at three times the rate of white students.
Black girls were suspended at higher rates than all other girls and most boys.
A quarter of the schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students did not offer Algebra II.
A third of these schools did not offer chemistry.
Less than half of American Indian and native Alaskans high school students had access to the full range of math and science courses.
Black, Latino and Native American students attended schools with higher concentrations of first-year teachers.
Black students were more than three times as likely to attend schools where fewer than 60% of teachers meet all state certifications and licensure requirements."
These stark facts help us understand the history of many young black men. In a recent book, On the Run, Alice Goffman reports that many of the young black men who are in serious difficulties with the law first ran afoul of the government when they were 10 or 11 or 12 years old. The fact that black children in preschool are already singled out for punishment and expulsion explains their early conflict with the police.
They clearly never had a chance.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


Don't believe everything they tell you.


The Federal Reserve Bank held a conference recently in Boston on economic opportunity and inequality. Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve Rank, addressed the meeting.
She frankly admitted that inequality has been increasing rapidly in recent years. Between 1989 and 2013 the income of the top 5% of households increased 38%. The incomes of the remaining 95% of households increased by 10% or less.
What to do? Yellen had all sorts of ideas to even out the increasing inequalities in our nation. Specifically she had three suggestions: "early childhood education, affordable higher education, and increased business ownership."
Most of these are all sensible suggestions. There exists a good deal of evidence that children's school trajectories are affected by their learning in the very first few years of life. More Head Start programs might produce a better educated workforce.
College education has become terribly expensive and is prohibitive for some people. Many other students need to work, some of them full-time, in order to afford college. If students have a full-time job and go to school full-time, the odds are that they are not going to learn a lot. There is not time or energy enough to assimilate what they read or hear in class.
I am less certain about the third suggestion that more people should go into business for themselves. That takes some money doesn't it?
But I was really struck by what chairman Yellen did not talk about. Her suggestions seem peripheral. She did not address the economic problems responsible for the growing inequality.
There is still a good deal of unemployment; many people are working part-time who would prefer to work full time.
Significant numbers of people work minimum wage jobs that do not bring in enough for people to live comfortably, let alone send their kids to college.
Since the early 1970s, working-class wages have been pretty stagnant. Employers have outsourced jobs to very low wage countries, thus setting up competition between American workers and those in different Asian countries with a much lower standard of living than ours. More and more people are not regarded as employees of the firms where they work; instead, they are 'independent contractors' or they work for subcontractors. Their employment is uncertain and intermittent. Their wages are held down by competition between subcontractors.
Continuing unemployment gives employers the upper hand when it comes to negotiating wages.
All of these assaults on working-class incomes were made possible by the concerted effort of business during the Reagan administration and thereafter to destroy the powers of labor unions. Fewer and fewer workers are represented by unions. Partly as a consequence of the unions' very precarious position, they can only offer limited protection to their members.
If we look at the society as it is, it is clear that there are some more central remedies for inequality than expanded Head Start programs: raise the minimum wage, abolish Right-to- work laws (anti-– union laws), encourage unionization, and put limits on temporary employment, subcontracting and other ways of increasing business profit and impoverishing working people.
All of this is well known. Janet Yellen, of course, knows all this a lot better than I do. Why did she not say so?
There are a number of possible reasons. If she were taking the side of the workers in the struggle between workers and employers, she would be in deep trouble with the people who have most of the power. People on the right of the political spectrum, rich corporate types, would make sure that she would soon be out of a job.
On the other hand, she does not want to agree with people on the left that so many working people are suffering because the economic system is skewed against them. As the head of an important federal agency, part of her job is to tell citizens that things are really alright and that the problems you have are open to easy fixes: combat inequality by expanding Head Start.
That is of course also what people on the right want her to do: tell everyone that it is not the fault of employers if workers's wages and incomes deteriorate every year. Our actually very serious economic problems are made to look benign if they can be fixed by expanding Head Start programs.
Here then is today's lesson: don't believe what high level bureaucrats tell you about the state of the economy and of our world. They are not to be trusted.
Don't let your employers exploit you and then tell you that it is all a problem of early childhood education.

Friday, October 3, 2014


Bombing ISIL: defense of or attack on democracy?


In a democracy citizens share equal power in determining government policy and/or who is going to be in the government.
Now ISIL a group we did not know about three months ago, rampages thought Iraq and parts of Syria, killing innocents, beheading hostages. President Obama decides to start bombing them.
The President refuses to consult Congrees because he says, they are only bombing, there are no soldiers involved in the fighting. So it is not a war. In actual fact we are sending soldiers to Iraq to train the Iraqi army. “Well,” the White House says. “They are not shooting at anyone.” Suppose they get shot at? And anyway is training soldiers not participating in a war?
The White House is not only threatening democracy by not asking citizens, it is treating us a utter idiots. And, yes, if citizens are idiots then democracy may not be such a good idea.
You'd have to be a lawyer to take the claim that we are not starting another war seriously. Can you imagine the people on the ground saying, as the bombs rain down on them, “Thank God, this is not a war”?
The President starts an air war unilaterally. His legal staff assures him that he does not have to consult Congress.
But that is surely an insult to our democracy. It says that the President can get us involved in one more war and the people are not to be consulted, neither are their representatives.
Congress is not doing much better. Leaders of both parties have suggested Congress not talk about this latest war before the elections. Their first priority is to win the upcoming elections. But why are they so eager to get elected or reelected? They are not eager to formulate national policy on this all important issue of war or peace. They are certainly not interested in representing voters. Many people are concerned about this new war. But Congress says: “let's not talk about it.” That is hardly the ideal choice of those who want to be the peoples' representatives.
Being in Congress must be a nice job even if you don't do what people elect you for.
With the November elections looming, I get frequent messages from my Congressman asking me for money. I have not heard any questions about the new air war. The congressman wants me to help him get reelected so that he can represent me. While he is running for reelection, he cannot interest himself in what I and other constituents think on this terribly important question of war and peace. He is an exceptional Congressman and I support him gladly. But it reflects on the terrible distortions of our democracy that election campaigns are ever longer—look at Hilary running for President—and are all consuming so that our representatives cannot do the job we elect them for.
What a sorry state of affairs! This new war shows clearly the extent to which ordinary citizens have been disenfranchised.