Tuesday, September 1, 2020

 

White Supremacy: Who Controls the News?

Long before the Coronavirus Pandemic and the national uproar over racism in the US our local schools came under fire for disproportionate punishment, suspension and expulsion of children of color. The superintendent of schools replied to all these criticisms by asserting that her School Department had no problem of racism.

It is now a year later and Black groups in our town have been complaining about racist and unequal police practices. Following the shining example of the superintendent of schools, the police chief insists that there are not and never have been racist practices in our Police Department.

Members of the Black and Brown community complained about unjust and racist treatment of their children in the schools; members of the same Black community are complaining about racist behavior on the part of police officers. The leaders of the schools and the police deny that any such thing is true.


The town's leadership, the mayor, the city manager and the City Council could have responded in a variety of ways to this controversy.

They could have proposed an inquiry where each party to the controversy was given a chance to tell their side of the story and make some effort to find what is most likely closest to the truth.

They could've appointed an independent citizens committee to try to find out how we should think about fairness in the schools and in policing.

They could have encouraged public or private conversations between the leadership of the schools and the police and representatives of the people of color.

They could have appointed a group of religious leaders to encourage and manage such conversations.

There are many different ways in which the city leadership could have given every party to this disagreement the chance to tell their story and to make an effort to bring to light what is actually happening in our town. All of these would have been different ways of opening up important conversations about issues of race. They would have been genuine contributions to peace among all citizens.

Instead the leadership of the town chose to do nothing whatsoever. The complaints of people of color in our town have been rejected as baseless by the leaders of the town – the Chief of Police and the Superintendent of Schools two of the most powerful persons running the town, both of them white. The Mayor, City Manager and City Council implied that the spokesperson for the Community of Color are malcontents, persons who exaggerated or even misrepresented actual events. They took it for granted that the stories told by White members of the city leadership were more reliable than any of the critics. No attempt was necessary at finding out whose story was correct. Of course the White story was the true one.

Here is one more example of systemic racism and of White supremacy: wherever there is disagreement about facts, White leadership will put their full confidence in narratives provided by Whites. The story of people of color has intrinsically less credibility.

Whites reassert their power by controlling the news. Their view of the world is the correct one. Their message is clear: "We are still in power. We do not need to listen to your complaints. We may pretend to do so, but we do not need to take them seriously."

Nothing convicts officials more decisively of being racist than their denial that racism exists in their organization.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Systemic Racism

In the last two weeks we have witnessed the astonishing phenomenon of one very large, very rich corporation after the other announcing their commitment of millions and millions of dollars to an effort to combat systemic racism. In their statements the leaders of these corporations suggest that they have been enemies of systemic racism forever but I think we are allowed to be somewhat skeptical of that claim.

This sudden commitment to antiracism is surprising and, we should of course add, welcome. Also surprising is the commitment to oppose systemic racism. This is a relatively new term and it is worth a bit of time trying to figure out what it means.

What makes racism systemic?

The phrase suggests that the injuries black Americans complain of are not inflicted by individuals but by systems – social, economic and other systems. That sounds as if racist injuries are not perpetrated by individual persons, by you and me, but by this whole other kind of entity, a system. If that is true I do not have to feel guilty about racism because I am not responsible. It's the system, stupid.

But what are these systems?

Perhaps if we look at a concrete example, we can figure this out. In the town where I live, sociologists at a state college studied the rates at which children of different backgrounds are punished and are sent home from school. They found that black children and Latinx children were suspended at a much higher rate relative to their numbers in this school population, than the white children.

Clearly the suspensions were imposed on specific students by specific teachers. So far the racist situation – that children of color were suspended much more frequently than white children – was brought about through the action of individual teachers. We have not found the system yet.

We encounter the systemic nature of this racist situation only when we look at the entire school department, the popularly elected school committee and their reaction to this crisis. It turns out that both the school administration and the elected school committee are not troubled by the uneven rates of suspension of children of color and white children. They accept this as perfectly normal.

The standards for punishment and specifically for suspension from school applied to different groups of children are different for children of color than for white children. The educational system – the School Department and the elected School Committee – accepts racial inequities as fair and normal. Racist disadvantages are built in to the educational system in our town. The actions of individual teachers in applying these unequal standards are simply executing the disadvantages the educational system imposes on children of color.

These individual teachers are, of course, responsible for following the racist rules set by the educational system. They cannot deny their responsibility. They are responsible for not seeing the injustices they perpetrate, for not speaking up, and resisting. But they are only partially responsible. They say "I don't make the rules--I just work here."

In order to address the systemic racism, the rules of the system need to be addressed and changed. Most likely the process by which the rules are produced also needs to come under scrutiny and be improved.

But where do these systems come from? We have schools, we have businesses. Cities must be run and for each of those there are administrative systems. What makes them racist? Why are there so few teachers of color in our schools? Why is City Hall lily white? Why do our businesses have so few leaders of color?

Why are rules applied more harshly to children of color than to white children? Why are black children perceived as threatening where the same behaviors of white children are not? White teachers and administrators read black children differently from how they interpret stances and attitudes of children of color. Whites share a subtle and complex method of interpretation specific to children of color which they often are not fully aware of.

Our present situation is remarkable because white people – some white people – are beginning to be willing to give a frank answer to all these questions: it is because white people believe that they are superior, that they are entitled to privileges that most persons of color do not deserve. Because white people are superior, they should have the leadership positions, they should have the jobs you can do from home, and people of color should have the hands-on jobs and should be the people who are ordered around by white supervisors. Given their beliefs in their superiority, white people – all white people – support racist rules in their different institutional systems.

The members of each of these systems need to reflect carefully about the ways in which they have supported in the past and still support rules that are clearly unjust and that do not acknowledge the full equality of all citizens regardless of the color of their skin or their origin from different parts of the globe.

From the very beginning of our history, we have been officially committed to the equality of all persons. At the same time we have treated persons with dark skin as inferior. They have with admirable tenacity gained a certain amount of recognition for their full humanity. White people have been persuaded to see the justice of their cause. We need to continue the work to make real our guiding principle that "all men [and women] are created equal."

In the last two weeks we have witnessed the astonishing phenomenon of one very large, very rich corporation after the other announcing their commitment of millions and millions of dollars to an effort to combat systemic racism. In their statements the leaders of these corporations suggest that they have been enemies of systemic racism forever but I think we are allowed to be somewhat skeptical of that claim.

This sudden commitment to antiracism is surprising and, we should of course add, welcome. Also surprising is the commitment to oppose systemic racism. This is a relatively new term and it is worth a bit of time trying to figure out what it means.

What makes racism systemic?

The phrase suggests that the injuries black Americans complain of are not inflicted by individuals but by systems – social, economic and other systems. That sounds as if racist injuries are not perpetrated by individual persons, by you and me, but by this whole other kind of entity, a system. If that is true I do not have to feel guilty about racism because I am not responsible. It's the system, stupid.

But what are these systems?

Perhaps if we look at a concrete example, we can figure this out. In the town where I live, sociologists at a state college studied the rates at which children of different backgrounds are punished and are sent home from school. They found that black children and Latinx children were suspended at a much higher rate relative to their numbers in this school population, than the white children.

Clearly the suspensions were imposed on specific students by specific teachers. So far the racist situation – that children of color were suspended much more frequently than white children – was brought about through the action of individual teachers. We have not found the system yet.

We encounter the systemic nature of this racist situation only when we look at the entire school department, the popularly elected school committee and their reaction to this crisis. It turns out that both the school administration and the elected school committee are not troubled by the uneven rates of suspension of children of color and white children. They accept this as perfectly normal.

The standards for punishment and specifically for suspension from school applied to different groups of children are different for children of color than for white children. The educational system – the School Department and the elected School Committee – accepts racial inequities as fair and normal. Racist disadvantages are built in to the educational system in our town. The actions of individual teachers in applying these unequal standards are simply executing the disadvantages the educational system imposes on children of color.

These individual teachers are, of course, responsible for following the racist rules set by the educational system. They cannot deny their responsibility. They are responsible for not seeing the injustices they perpetrate, for not speaking up, and resisting. But they are only partially responsible. They say "I don't make the rules--I just work here."

In order to address the systemic racism, the rules of the system need to be addressed and changed. Most likely the process by which the rules are produced also needs to come under scrutiny and be improved.

But where do these systems come from? We have schools, we have businesses. Cities must be run and for each of those there are administrative systems. What makes them racist? Why are there so few teachers of color in our schools? Why is City Hall lily white? Why do our businesses have so few leaders of color?

Why are rules applied more harshly to children of color than to white children? Why are black children perceived as threatening where the same behaviors of white children are not? White teachers and administrators read black children differently from how they interpret stances and attitudes of children of color. Whites share a subtle and complex method of interpretation specific to children of color which they often are not fully aware of.

Our present situation is remarkable because white people – some white people – are beginning to be willing to give a frank answer to all these questions: it is because white people believe that they are superior, that they are entitled to privileges that most persons of color do not deserve. Because white people are superior, they should have the leadership positions, they should have the jobs you can do from home, and people of color should have the hands-on jobs and should be the people who are ordered around by white supervisors. Given their beliefs in their superiority, white people – all white people – support racist rules in their different institutional systems.

The members of each of these systems need to reflect carefully about the ways in which they have supported in the past and still support rules that are clearly unjust and that do not acknowledge the full equality of all citizens regardless of the color of their skin or their origin from different parts of the globe.

From the very beginning of our history, we have been officially committed to the equality of all persons. At the same time we have treated persons with dark skin as inferior. They have with admirable tenacity gained a certain amount of recognition for their full humanity. White people have been persuaded to see the justice of their cause. We need to continue the work to make real our guiding principle that "all men [and women] are created equal."

Tuesday, January 21, 2020



                                                                             The Pot calling the Kettle black
In the north of China live the Uighurs, an ethnic minority different from the dominant Han. Uighurs speak their own language; unlike the rest of the Chinese population, they are Muslim. Since 2016 the Chinese government has retained large numbers of Uighurs in re-education camps. Inmates are said to be forced to speak Mandarin instead of their native Uighur language. They are being indoctrinated into Chinese Communist ideology to replace their own traditional beliefs and religious commitments. It appears that the Chinese government has mounted a brutal campaign to eradicate one of the minority cultures in their country.
Western media criticism has been loud. Interestingly, media in the Middle East Muslim countries as well as in Turkey have noticed the internment but have not condemned it. Muslim countries do not seem to perceive the treatment of the Uighurs as a frontal attack on Islam. Perhaps Western media exaggerate to score propaganda points; perhaps Chinese influence in Muslim countries is more powerful than we had thought.
The well-being of the Uighurs seems to be seriously threatened. US media such as the New York Times are very critical of China for their treatment of the Uighurs. The Times regularly runs articles about the efforts of the Chinese government to destroy the Uighur language and culture and to produce instead a nation of committed adherents to the official Communist culture. Western media consider this campaign barbarous, violating human rights to the culture one is born into. In the background of the articles about the Chinese internment camps one can hear the boast that in the West such re-education campaigns are recognized for what they are: inhumane treatments of minority groups. Western government would not inflict such brutality on its minority groups.
No doubt these mass internment projects are deplorable, but Western governments have not hesitated to use similar techniques in order to destroy indigenous oppositional cultures. The public criticisms of Chinese maltreatment of the Uighurs are hypocritical. They are only reflections of techniques used by the US government and military in the 19th and 20th century to try to assimilate American Indians to the dominant White Anglo-Saxon culture of the US, attempting to make distinct indigenous cultures disappear.
In the 1830s, General Jackson, later to be elected president, moved American Indians from fertile lands to what were then remote areas on the United States. Thus the Cherokees were forced to walk from North Carolina to what today is Oklahoma but was then an unknown wilderness. Fifty years later, by 1879, wild land not desired by any Whites had disappeared, but the American Indians were still here and continued to be in the way. The government and military invented a new technique for making the Indians disappear. Children were forced to attend boarding schools, often a thousand miles away from where their parents lived. Fathers who refused to give up children to these Indian schools were deprived of government distributed rations. Families who resisted were punished in other ways. They were forced to surrender their kids.
The first of the schools was established in Carlisle, PA by Col. Richard Pratt who is reputed to have described the schools mission as “kill the Indian in him and save the man.” To that end children arriving at one of the many Indian schools immediately had their hair cut, a shameful experience for many youngsters from different tribes. They were forbidden to use their own or any other Indian language. Failure to use English was punished severely. Children were taught that their parents and other members of their tribe were “savages” and the Americans “civilized” notwithstanding the inhumane treatment the children received including abuse, sexual, psychological and physical and the frequently filthy conditions in the schools. Children died of ill treatment and disease. The Carlisle school operated between 1879 and 1918–39 years. 200 children died in those years; their remains were shuttled from one place to another by various administrators so as not to be buried in the vicinity of Whites, until some of them finally found a resting place near their families.
By 1978, the last Indian schools closed but the policy of destroying tribal cultures and Indian families did not end. In fact, it is still continuing. But the techniques used today were not those invented by Col. Pratt. Today Indian children are given out to adoption by White families at a much higher rates than children of other ethnic groups in the United States.
Racially-based separation of children from their parents is still a problem. The Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged in 2016 that black and Native children were overrepresented in the child welfare services. Many more American Indian and African-American children, than children belonging to other groups, have been adopted by white families even where functioning families existed and were ready to take in the children.
Whites first took the land and then took the children.
US media must cease claiming that we respect human rights more seriously than the government of China. Both the US and China have not hesitated to try to rid themselves of populations they found inconvenient. If the US government wants to claim superiority over China, it must acknowledge its brutalization of American Indians, it must acknowledge its past and present inhumane practices and make belated efforts at reparations.



Tuesday, December 24, 2019



Reconsidering Thanksgiving


               

Middle-aged, or older Americans remember their Thanksgiving celebrations in the early grades of grade school when some of the students dressed up as pilgrims, in pointed hats made of cardboard, and others dressed up as Indians with a feather or two in their headband and otherwise scanty clothes, enacted a peaceful and shared Thanksgiving dinner.. They often express surprise when they hear that seven and eight year olds in our schools today are subjected to the same pretend Thanksgiving rituals.
These celebrations were meant to convey a sense of our history, of the positive relations between the pilgrims and the American Indians living around Plymouth, MA. What happened in the years that followed between the inhabitants of the Eastern shores of this continent and the different tribes who had lived there for perhaps 12,000 or even 20,000 years was not discussed further. The meeting of the cardboard pilgrims with two-feather Indians in second grade often is the only mention of Indians in American history taught in our schools until the Indians reappear as they attack innocent whites trekking across the prairie in their covered wagons. No one asks what those wagons were doing there in the first place.
The colonists coming over from England regarded American Indians as primitive savages for no other reason than that they did not speak or read and write English, that they preferred to live in tents rather than in houses, that their understanding of ownership and possessions differed from that of the English (and perhaps that they were not Protestants). Ownership for the English meant that you had the right to dispose of, for instance, a piece of land as you pleased. You could farm a piece of land or let it lie fallow; you could sell it, burn everything that grew on it or turn it into a formal garden – what ever you chose. After all it was yours. For the Wampanoags land could not be owned in that sense. Some family or band of families occupied a particular piece of land for a time. They had possession of it--that excluded use by others without permission--they farmed it, fished its rivers, or ocean shores. But the land of course was not theirs, it was not anybody's because it was everybody's.
When colonists acquired ownership of a particular piece of land, often as a consequence of deceptive practices, all the Indians were giving away was possession, the ability to use a piece of land for a certain period to farm, to fish, to hunt, to do whatever was needed to sustain a group of people. This ownership lasted for a certain period presumably agreed on. It was certainly not permanent. The English, for their part, thought that they now were owners of this piece of land forever and had total control over it; they did not just possess it for a limited period. They could exclude all others—including American Indians from passing over, let alone make use of the land. Many bitter conflicts arose from these misunderstandings.
These profound cultural differences inevitably lead to terrible miscommunications however well-meaning the parties on both sides may have been. But both parties regarding the others as ignorant and incompetent – the Wampanoag did not possess a written language, the colonists would have starved during the long first winter (when many of them did die) if it had not been for the generous assistance of chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag. Both sides appeared to have reasons for looking down on the others; both sides were terribly mistaken.
After chief Massasoit died, about 55 years after the colonists first set foot on the New England shore, the son of Massasoit, Pumetacom, also known as King Philip, started a war against the English colonists which the American Indians lost. The colonists massacred several hundred Pequot Indians at the conclusion of that war. They cut off Pumetacom’s head and displayed it rotting away for twenty years outside the walls of Plymouth.
Whereas the first Thanksgiving celebration, so faithfully commemorated by our grade school children, did not start a tradition, it was not repeated; it was not significant, at the end of King Philip's war, in August 1677, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared a holiday of Thanksgiving for the colonists’ success in massacring the inhabitants of the area. From the American Indian perspective, this was the first Thanksgiving—a celebration by White Americans of their destruction of American Indian lives, peoples and cultures.
White Americans celebrate Thanksgiving as a family holiday and to give thanks for thriving on this continent. For American Indians Thanksgiving remains a lasting symbol of the widespread killing of original inhabitants of these lands that opened two centuries of having land stolen from them or taken by military expeditions that killed the people who had lived there long before we white people arrived.
For the last 50 years American Indians have gathered in Plymouth MA on Thanksgiving day as a Day of Mourning. White persons are allowed to attend this ceremony. But they are not allowed to speak. They are asked not to eat where there are American Indians who may be fasting on that day.
When white persons gather for Thanksgiving feasts in the coming year, we should also remember the intense grief and suffering our presence in America has brought to the people who have lived here for millenia. Even better, well-meaning whites should inform themselves about the history of American Indians on the American continent. We need to find out how ordinary American Indians live today. We should find the remaining Indian tribes where they live and try to arrange meetings to sincerely apologize and to explore ways in which white Americans can today try to repair at least a small part of the damage we have done over several centuries.

Friday, November 29, 2019


Reparations 2: What are Reparations?


By some accounts the United States is the richest country in the world. But it's population clearly is not similarly the richest. The official US poverty rate for 2017 is 12.3% 1 out of roughly 8 Americans is poor. The homeless are not included in this number, neither are persons in the military or in prison. In 2014 more than 20% of children lived in poverty. For families headed by a woman the poverty rate was 33%. The rate for American Indians is sightly higher. More than half of the poor adults worked, often part-time because full-time work was hard to get; the work they did have paid really poorly.
Are these poor Americans whose poverty is the result of not obtaining full-time work and/or being paid properly called "poverty wages"entitled to reparations?
I raise the question in order to ascertain what we mean by the term "reparations."
Currently reparations are under discussion for African-Americans who have traditionally been and still are over represented among the poor in America. But reparations for African Americans are called for not just because they are often poor in spite of working, frequently more than one job, but because African-Americans were enslaved between the middle 1600s and the end of the Civil War. Being the property of white plantation owners, they could be bought and sold at the whites' will. Husbands were sold away from wives, wives from husbands; children lost their mothers and fathers when their owners sold them to a different plantation, often far away. Black family ties were not regarded as valid or important.
Slave children were not only not entitled to an education; it was illegal to teach them to read and write. When the wife of the owner of Frederick Douglass taught him his letters, she was breaking the law.
Legally liberated at the end of that war, African-Americans were subjected to the so-called Jim Crow regime. Southern states passed the properly named Black Codes – laws that applied only to African-Americans, that made them liable to be arrested for "vagrancy" if they were not working, or subject to arrest for not yielding the sidewalk to white persons, or for looking white persons in the eye. Convicted under any of these laws, they were imprisoned. Prisoners were rented out to white enterprises where once again they worked without getting paid – the condition of slaves. Other "freed" African-Americans worked as sharecroppers where they were regularly cheated out of the pay they had earned for a year's crop of cotton.
Why did African-Americans put up with these gross forms of maltreatment and disrespect? In the period after the end of the Civil War they were the targets of a concerted terrorist campaign. Random African-Americans were grabbed, tortured and hanged. A sizable white audience gaped at their killing; no one reached out to help. Sheriffs and police often were in the audience. No white person was prosecuted for murdering an African-American. This terror campaign has not ended to this day. The murderer of Trayvon Martin was prosecuted but acquitted.
Poor Americans deserve help. They deserve living wages, access to good housing, good healthcare and good schools for their children. After almost 365 years of being treated as barely human, African Americans deserve reparations, compensation for centuries of ill-treatment and insult.
But what form should these reparations take? There are different proposals: Some imagine that every qualified African-American would be paid a certain, probably substantial sum of money. Other projects involve affirmative-action measures which enable African-American students to enroll in good schools, even if they might not be well prepared or if they cannot afford the cost which it would be up to the (white) public to defray. African-Americans are much less likely than whites to own their own home, their wealth is a small fraction of the wealth of average white American families. Reparations might be used to remedy these stark differences. White supremacy that forces young black men and women into unemployment, educational underachievement and poverty makes it extremely difficult for them to develop proper self esteem. Reparations might mean programs to enable these young people to learn to value themselves as they deserve to be valued.
But all of these proposals miss the central requirement. As long as whites can construe reparation programs as white people-helping-African-Americans who are unable to succeed by their own efforts, such operations simply continue poisonous racist thinking. Reparations must repair relations between black and white. Repairing Black-White relations means that White people have to change. They must no longer think that being white means being inherently superior to persons whose skin was darker or who have been accepted as white when earlier their status was, at best, in doubt ( and the decision about their status was, of course in the hands of whites.) Reparations must involve the acknowledgment by whites of their brutality towards African-Americans for more than three centuries. If relations between whites and African-Americans are to be repaired, whites need to change. They must surrender all traces of white supremacy. That is the ultimate goal of reparations.
A five or 10 year program will not accomplish that. Racist thoughts and attitudes are deeply embedded in white consciousness even of those people who mean well, who try to inform themselves about the history and suffering of African-Americans and to try to remedy its effects. It will take generations of efforts to make the line of distinction between whites and African-Americans go away, fade and disappear.
In the meantime the House of Representatives needs to vote on House Resolution 40, offered for many years by Representative Conyers to set up a committee to study the question of reparations, to allow everyone to testify as to what reparations might look like. What would African Americans ask for? What would whites – well-meaning and/or racist – be willing to pay for? The process must begin with a public discussion of the question about the nature of reparations.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

I Never Owned Any Slaves”. Who owes reparations?



In recent months there has been a good deal of talk about reparations owed to African-Americans and, perhaps and to Native Americans. Advocates point to reparations paid to Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II and to had to sell their land and businesses, homes and belongings at bargain basement prices as they were hustled into the internment camps. Reparations, advocates point out, are not an unheard of event.
But many Americans regard the idea of reparations as completely ridiculous. They cannot understand how anybody in their right mind would ask white Americans to provide reparations to anyone. Last June Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader, was quoted as saying: "none of us currently living are responsible" for what he called America's "original sin." Slavery he said ended 150 years ago. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African American president.” 
At the same time various news outlets reported that genealogical research showed two of McConnell's grandfathers to have been slave owners who owned 14 slaves, primarily women. That suggests that the family wealth of the McConnell clan derives in part from the unpaid labor of these 14 slaves. If that is the case, if McConnell's family has not in the meantime squandered the wealth derived from these slaves' labor, it is hard to see how McConnell can disclaim any responsibility for the suffering of slaves.
            This story is instructive because it points us in the direction of looking at historical responsibilities. There are many Americans who want to claim innocence of slavery whose property and wealth, and the accompanying well-being, does in part derive from the slaves their ancestors owned.
What is more, many American families who did in fact not own slaves nevertheless profited from the institution. Slaves were mainly employed in the cotton fields. Cotton was a precious product that needed to be transported and traded, that required cleaning and transformation into cotton thread to be then woven into cotton material and tailored into shirts and dresses, sheets and curtains, and many other products. Slaves produced the raw material for a large and complex textile industry. The work of slaves created industries that gave employment and a living to many Americans.
The textile industry was founded in England and grew rapidly thanks to a number of industrial inventions that made it possible to transform cotton into cloth in large factories. Around 1800 some of these techniques were brought to the United States and very soon textiles were the largest industry in the United States. A significant number of whites found work and sometimes became very wealthy thanks to the unpaid labor of black slaves in the southern states. Not having owned slaves does not get any families in the United States or in Great Britain for that matter off the hook as far as responsibility for the exploitation of slaves goes.
What happened to African-Americans once the Civil War Amendments to the Constitution were passed? Many Americans do not know the answer to that question. The older among them experienced the civil rights movement. Younger ones are most likely growing up in cities and towns that have a Martin Luther King Blvd. somewhere or some other commemoration of Martin Luther King. But why were they demonstrating and exposing themselves to the violence of southern Sheriff's and attacks by racist gangs?
The answer to that question is complex. Here are some of the pieces. The 13th Amendment outlaws slavery "except as punishment for crime." The Civil War and Reconstruction were barely over when former slave owners used this exception to the 13th amendment. They passed a number of laws, most of which applied only to black Americans. These laws required, for instance, that all African-American men had to have a job. If they were not employed they could be convicted of vagrancy. According to these laws, black persons could not assemble without a white person present. Preaching or speaking to groups of people was not allowed. African-Americans needed to be employed by a white person or "a former owner"; they were not allowed to rent a home in the town where they worked. It went on and on. It gave the sheriff plenty of leeway for arresting and imprisoning black persons. Black prisoners once again were made to work for nothing. Frequently states rented out groups of prisoners to private companies- a practice that still continues in prisons today. Once once again black people were virtual slaves.
In the years after the Civil War thousands and thousands of African-Americans were tortured by white mobs and then lynched. The local sheriff or police looked on and perhaps participated. No one was ever arrested for what was clearly brutal murder. Whites conducted a deliberate campaign of intimidating black persons.
Only against the background of this deliberate campaign of terrorism – because that is what it was – an intentional process of putting the fear into the hearts and minds of persons of color – can one understand what happened to the black sharecroppers. They worked their land all year and at the end of the year they brought the bales of cotton that they produced to the proprietor of the land, of course a white man. They might have brought in six bales and the proprietor counted only four and paid them a small price for them. Year-by-year white people stole from the black farmers and they were too scared of being lynched or their family harmed to object. Once again black labor was not compensated.
White people became well to-do by consistently stealing from persons of color. Those practices did not end until the 1900s. Many white people are comfortably off today because their grandparents cheated sharecroppers or rented black convicts from the local jail. Thoroughly fed up, millions of African-Americans fled the South to move to Northern cities in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Life up north was still very difficult and remains so to this day. I will cite two brief examples.
            At the end of World War II a grateful nation passed legislation which promised low cost mortgages to veterans and offered to pay the cost of the education. When black veterans took their offer of a government backed mortgage to the new suburbs and Levittowns, they were turned down. No one was going to sell them a house in a white suburb and black suburbs did not exist. Banks would not lend to black applicants; real estate agents would sell houses to Blacks only in specific, mostly urban and decaying neighborhoods-- a practice known as “red-lining.” When black veterans applied to college, southern colleges and universities would refuse to admit them. Schools that would have them mostly lacked any advanced engineering or doctoral programs.
             Their unpaid labor built the Capitol in Washington DC. It built a thriving industrial nation. But they were excluded from sharing the wealth they produced. This Civil War did not bring them freedom or citizenship. The struggle for black liberation still remains to be won.
There are no white Americans who are not complicit in the oppression of African-Americans.

Monday, November 4, 2019


PTSD




Human beings are capable of unspeakable brutality to one another. The survivors of combat, of sexual and other assault carry the scars of these experiences for the rest of their lives. In our time, there are victims of ethnic cleansing, of racial and ethnic prejudices. Innocent bystanders to incurable hostilities between groups flee the violence. As refugees they live for years in camps, often under barely sustainable conditions.
Ineradicable scars are borne by persons caught up in natural disasters--the victims of wildfires in California and elsewhere, those affected by earthquakes or floods, and now the terrible effects of climate change.
Many of them never quite recover from their dreadful experience. They never quite believe that they are safe. In dreams and in waking the memories of their past fright, of barely escaping when family or friends died – killed, starved to death, succumbing to a disease that could have been cured. They are difficult to live with because part of their horrifying experience is always present; the unspeakable is always happening. They are always sad, they are often self-destructive, some talk about suicide, some actually attempt it. For their family or friends or lovers whose lives have been less burdened they remain incomprehensible and not reachable. Their pain disturbs not only them but their families and friends.
My father who served in World War I only once talked to me about being terribly frightened under fire. But he was depressed, sad, uncommunicative for most of the time. There was then, when I was a young person, no name for his condition. It was just who he was. People either avoided him or put up with how he was.
Today there is a name for his condition and the condition of very many people whose experiences exceeded human tolerance. They are said to suffer from PTSD (Post – Traumatic Stress Disorder). It is regarded as an illness. Persons displaying symptoms of the illness are told to talk to a medical person. They should talk to the doctor. It is worth thinking about the implications of classifying the suffering of the bystanders or survivors as a medical illness.
If PTSD were not classified as an illness, the sufferers of PTSD might instead be regarded as odd and more or less annoying individuals who were best ignored and avoided. Or one might subject them to criticism saying: "Look at these young men and women, they returned from the war, the concentration camp, the ethnic cleansing or what have you and they seem to be perfectly okay, they have families, they have work. Why can't you be like them and stop fussing about the past? Everyone has problems, everyone goes through hard times, we are tired of hearing about yours." We could call them self-indulgent, weak and expose them to general scorn.
Instead we treat them as persons suffering from a serious disease. We express sympathy for their continued pain and we try to help them lead as good a life as they can. That seems to be a definite victory for humanity. We avoid the temptation to be incomprehending, judgmental and cruel and, instead, we extend ourselves with kindness and resources to try to help to make up for the brutality of our fellow humans and often ourselves.
It is important to pay attention to these last words. A good deal of the suffering that afflicts participants with PTSD, that leaves fellow citizens of ours suffering gravely is caused by us. It was our government who sent our soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq and still leaves them there after many years of utterly futile and unjustifiable warfare. It was our government that sent our soldiers to Vietnam to die in a humiliating defeat. It was our government that sent Native American children to schools where they were supposed to forget their own culture, their language, their families and their people. It was our government that overthrew properly elected governments in many Latin American countries, in Iran and elsewhere, replacing them with often murderous dictatorships. It was our government who refused to destroy the train tracks that led to the extermination camps of the Holocaust.
These are important facts to remember but treating the suffering that the survivors of these actions still bear every day as a disease tends to make us overlook our own complicity in these events. We do not ask about the people responsible for people contracting a disease. If I come down with a tick-borne illness no one is going to blame me for dealing with the leaves in the fall where the ticks wait to attach themselves to my skin. Whose fault it is is rarely asked when we talk about the illnesses people come down with every day. This person has high blood pressure, that person walks with a limp, another has cataracts or is hard of hearing. People have colds, the flu, and many other illnesses and no one asks why do you have that?
But in the case of some illnesses that question is important. Why do children in Flint Michigan have an elevated lead content in their blood? Why are many children in poor parts of our towns obese? Why is the suicide rate among veterans higher than among the population in general?
And with that question and the realization that the veterans suicide rate in the United States in recent years has been twice that of the population as a whole we return to our question about the causes of PTSD and who is responsible for it.
There are persons who are directly responsible for the incredible pain suffered in the aftermath of experiences that the human nervous system cannot sustain. Immediately they are our leaders – presidents, generals, industries that profit from wars, from incarceration, from climate change, the persons who sent soldiers off to war or the persons who agitated for a war from which they profited. In the end each of us is responsible if we voted, or perhaps did not vote for these leaders or did not oppose with sufficient force their election and selection as leaders.
Everyone knows that we are all connected and here is one more way in which the life of each of us is affected by everyone else. Everyone is responsible in more or less indirect ways for the lives and experiences of everyone else, as they are responsible for ours. We need to step with incredible care through our lives and consider the effects we have on persons often far away, of persons we will never know. We need, where we can, to remedy the harmful effects of our choices or our inaction. Passivity, inaction, excuses are not permitted. It is immoral to witness the suffering of fellow citizens and to turn our backs claiming that we are not responsible.