Sunday, May 24, 2015


Will no one talk about Native Americans?


This is a season of commemorations. It is 100 years since Turks massacred over 1 million Armenians during World War I. 70 years ago American soldiers liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Our leaders take these occasions as opportunities to castigate the Turks for not admitting their responsibility in the slaughter of Armenians and to point the finger once again at Germans for the Holocaust. It is, for our leaders, one more opportunity for boasting about our freedom loving nature.
It is also a season in which Americans once again confront their history of racism and its continuation to the present day.
In all of this, Native Americans are strangely absent. When urging the Turks to admit their guilt, when, once again, criticizing the Germans for their Nazi past, not a word is ever said about the fate of Native Americans on this continent. Nor are Native Americans mentioned in discussions of American racism and of slavery.
To be sure, a very few respectable scholars write books about the "American Holocaust." Others tell us that Adolf Hitler borrowed techniques for exterminating Jews, Gays and Gypsies in large numbers by studying the history of US persecution of Native Americans. The degree of similarity between the German Holocaust, the Turkish genocide, and the suffering imposed on the Native American population of the United States is open to argument. But it seems clear that citizens of the United States have their own burden of guilt and responsibility for the harsh treatment and large-scale killing of other peoples.
When whites first arrived on this continent, they survived only with the help of indigenous populations. But for several centuries warlike relations have predominated as whites increased in population and expanded their hunger for land and control. The history of these wars records great cruelty on both sides. But the outcome is clear. The white immigrants have taken away the land from the Native Americans. They have been pretty unscrupulous in the process.
Today there upwards of 2 million native Americans in the United States. Estimates of native American population in North America when whites first immigrated from England in the 1500s range from 1 to 18 million people. What we do know more precisely is that in the early years, Native American tribes who had no immunity to European diseases were decimated by various epidemics. It is still a matter of debate whether these disease epidemics resulted from accident or were, at least in some cases, brought about intentionally.
In the 1830s the US government forcibly moved Native American tribes from North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee to what was then the Oklahoma territory west of the Mississippi. Thousands died on what came to be known as the "Trail of Tears." These forcible migrations were repeated whenever white Americans wanted the lands then inhabited by Native Americans, for farming, for mining, or other forms of exploitation. Native Americans, moved to barren lands they did not know and did not know how to farm, died of starvation.
Pretty much until World War I – 400 years since the arrival of the first white settlers – Native Americans were at war with white immigrants. Mainly confined to reservations, their tribal structures weak, their languages and religious customs forgotten, native Americans live in poverty at about the same rate as African-American and Hispanic citizens. The methodical displacement of Native Americans, the planned destruction of their culture by forcing Indian children to grow up in English language boarding schools away from their tribes and families, the careless impoverishment of whole peoples because they occupied lands desired by whites, is one more terrible blot on the history of the United States and its people. We need to be more forthright in acknowledging our responsibilities when we remonstrate with other nations to take responsibility for their past brutalities.
From every side we currently hear calls for "conversations about race." These calls for conversations must seem disingenuous as long as a large portion of American racism is being completely overlooked and remains concealed. Such conversations may salve the conscience of some, but will not really accomplish greater mutual understanding because they are not intended to confront the full extent of white responsibility for continued aggressions towards persons of color – including Native Americans.
It is high time that the fate of Native Americans be included in our national reflection about our past and present racisms.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Missing Left Agenda.


In the United States today the right has a more or less coherent political program: the centerpiece is the call for small government which includes abolishing Obama care, lowering taxes especially on the rich, abolishing legal support for labor unions. The other part of the right wing program consists of various culture-war issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
Compared to that, the left has no program. This is illustrated dramatically in the current debates occasioned by the demonstration and riots in Baltimore. Public discussions come up with the same old tired and pretty pointless recommendations: 1. education, 2. conversations about race, 3. Resolve the economic problems of inner-city neighborhoods.
Education. The idea is that poor young men and women should be encouraged to get a college education or at least a job training certificate from a two year college so that they can then find work. But several hundreds thousands of college graduates are already earning no more than $7.50 an hour. Expanding the educational access for the poor is not a promising plan.
More important is the question why there are not enough jobs—never mind decent jobs that support a family—to go around. Everyone insists that unemployment in the poorer parts of town is excessive and we need to create more jobs. The Right is going to do that by cutting taxes on the rich. The Left is going to do that . . . . how?
The closest anyone on the left comes to having a sensible thought about the lack of jobs goes roughly as follows: We need to raise taxes on the very rich, we need to make sure that the large international corporations pay the taxes they owe—rather than not paying any taxes at all as some of the global oil companies and others have been doing. In addition we need to cut the military budget severely.
These three measures would raise significant amounts of money which could then be invested in fixing roads and bridges, replacing old school buildings, training more teachers and retraining the teachers already working.
We are doing very poorly by our veterans as we have seen documented in the last year in the scandals at the Veterans Administration. Atul Gewande, in Being Mortal, documents how facilities for the elderly are mostly quite inadequate. It would take significant investments to provide cheerful final years for all the old people in the US.
These investments would create significant numbers of new jobs.
The thought behind this proposal is very clear. Private enterprise is not interested in services that are not money makers. For-profit education is on the whole a failure except for schools for the children of the very rich. Witness the recent collapse of the Corinthian Colleges. Care for the old, except when they have plenty of money, is not a money maker. Home Care, visiting nurses, child care facilities are of not interest to capitalists because they only yield modest profits. Public roads and bridges do not produce profits, neither do public parks, public art museums, symphony orchestras and other cultural institutions.
Large areas of a good life for all citizens are of no interest to the businesses whose main goal is to make as much money as possible. But America has forever placed its faith, and continues to do so, in private enterprise. As a result our public infrastructures, our educational system, our ways of taking care of young and old, who need help leading a decent life, are in deplorable shape. Many of our cities are ugly, public transportation does not function.
A minimal goal for the left is to acknowledge the serious limits of private enterprise and the incapacity of the much praised “free market” to provide a good life for all. There is a place for private business, but that place is actually quite limited. We need to focus on all those areas of social and economic life that have been neglected because our leaders believe with Calvin Coolidge that “America's business is business.”
It is quite clear that the opposite is the case. Consider only the environmental crisis, brought about and daily aggravated by energy companies, automobile producers and other large companies. They cause environmental disaster. They do not reduce it.
America will continue to descend into progressively more serious domestic crises until we are ready to say boldly that business practices need serious regulation. Businesses, and those who profit from them, must pay fair taxes so that the rest of us can have the jobs and the amenities that business does not provide.
American politics will be a powerless side show unless we have a serious Left. We cannot have a serious Left without admitting publicly that large businesses are not the benefactors, but the ruin of America.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Restorative Justice



 
There has been a rash of killings of young black men by white police. They have drawn attention to the persistence of white anti-black racism in the United States.
A recent victim of the police is Freddy Gray, a 25-year-old black man in Baltimore. He was raised in public housing and he and his sister were found to have excessively high lead levels when they were children. Later he had several run-ins with the law and went to prison for drugs. Arrested recently, apparently without very good reason, he was injured in the course of the arrest and died 10 days later of a damaged spine.
The arresting policemen were white, but the mayor and police chief of Baltimore as well as half the police officers are African-Americans. The racial situation is not as clear and horrific as in Ferguson. It teaches us that simply looking at racism of white policeman is not sufficient to understand the epidemic of young black men dying at the hands of police.
It is difficult to find much of a biography of Freddy Gray. But it looks as if he was a young man who did not pursue the American dream in the ways laid out by endless advertisements. He was not well-educated, he did not, it looks like, have a steady job, he was into drugs and he wore his pants as low as they could go without falling down.
You don't have to be a racist to dislike people like Freddy Gray. Many Americans regardless of their origins or skin color have no time for young men like him. They believe in hard work, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and being responsible. It does not look as if Freddy Gray fit that mold. If he was a victim of prejudice it was not only prejudice against people who have dark skin like his, but also against people who do not conform to standard American expectations.
But Freddy Gray was also a victim of our punitive culture. He appeared – what ever may have been the truth about him – not to be up to much. He apparently looked like a deviant. And in America we all too often resort to punishment when young people don't seem to grow up to be the sort of people we want them to be.
To be sure there are many dedicated men and women who work in programs to help people, who were born behind the eight ball, to emerge into a full and productive life. But we also have an enormous structure of police, of courts, of many, many prisons – which we, in massive irony, often refer to as correctional institutions.
Police are armed, – sometimes heavily – they are aimed at violent criminals that need to be apprehended. They are not equipped, nor are they meant to be the people who would assist youngsters to construct a good life for themselves when society is making that very difficult.
In the background of these punitive institutions is a certain mindset that classifies people either as good citizens or as criminals – persons deserving to be punished. It is a mindset only too quick to blame someone. Whoever gets blamed for some youngster not doing right, it is not us, the good upstanding citizens who go to work and pay our taxes and keep our white picket fences in good repair. Since it cannot possibly be our fault, it must be somebody else's, most likely the young men or women themselves and so they must be punished for their transgression.
It is surely obvious that this is a truly inhumane way of thinking about our fellow citizens and thinking about the ways in which our society does not function well. It is also a gross refusal of responsibility on the part of most citizens toward what happens in the poorer parts of town, where jobs are scarce, and a happy life is really hard to come by.
But there is a very different way of thinking about people who act badly. One can think of them as members of a community. They are disturbing the community, for instance by selling drugs, by not taking responsibility for their children, by not making an honest living. And if they continue to do that they will have to make restitution, they will have to repair the damage they have done. Punishing people is being vengeful. It neither deters crime nor does it correct the criminal. The community has to come together and decide with the person who is acting badly how he or she can make up for the injuries they have done. This approach to bad actors is often called "Restorative Justice." The goal is not to punish. The goal is to restore peace and harmony in the community.

But at the same time, the community must examine itself and ask where it may have gone wrong. Whatever ways some people do not manage to grow up into responsible adults, the responsibility for that is not theirs alone. It is all of us that bear some responsibility for the sufferings of young parents and the harms suffered by their children.
The mania for building more prisons, for having more three-strike rules, for having mandatory sentences and incarcerating more and more people is a cowardly way of evading the responsibility of all of us for young men and women like Freddy Gray.
It is not only racism alone that killed this young man but a society that is merciless in pursuing vengeance against young men and women for whose lives we refuse responsibility.

Friday, April 24, 2015

American Progress? 
We are falling behind

In my last blog I asked why there was no mention in the 20 or more presidential campaigns now underway of the results of the “Social Progress Imperative.” This public interest research program sets out to measure the accomplishments of different countries not by the amount of money they earn annually (GDP) but by outcomes, by what these countries accomplish on different dimensions. A summary of the scorecard for the US in 2015 is dismal: in health and wellness we rank 68th of all countries in the world. In personal safety we rank 30th, with respect to access to basic knowledge –which refers to primary and secondary education-- our rank is 45th (although we do much better in higher education), in ecosystem sustainability our rank is 74th. These are our scores in spite of spending more money, for instance, on health care than all other countries.
If we were third, or even fifth I would not give it a second thought, but 68th in health and wellness--that is really troubling. In 68 countries, most of them a lot smaller and not as rich as we are, citizens get better health and wellness care. That does not seem acceptable.
What will we have to do if we are to improve our health and wellness services, our primary and secondary education, our security and our treatment of our environment? Obviously the answer to that question will be complicated and in different categories different remedies will be needed. The problems of health care are different from those in trying to educate our children, and both of those need different remedies than our environmental heedlessness.
But there are also common themes in those different dimensions of our failures. Consider the issue of health care. Many countries have a publicly owned and run system of health insurance for all citizens. Our system is cobbled together with many different private health insurers. Our laws forbid the government expressly to bargain with pharmaceutical countries for lower prices. Dealing with many private insurers and suppliers makes our system excessively complicated and more prone to failures. The more complex a system the more likely that some patients will not receive the care they need.
In addition our health care system is designed to yield profits--large profits in some cases--for private companies. It should not surprise anyone that we spend more money with less impressive results because what we pay for is not merely an essential service but also healthy profits for private investors.
It is tempting, at this point, to complain about the greed of business men in the different branches of the health care industry. In the last few years this has become a very common reaction. But that would be unfair and dishonest because large numbers of ordinary Americans are convinced that services performed by privately owned, for-profit institutions will be cheaper and more effective than similar services offered by a government bureaucracy. Distrust of government has a long history in the US. As a consequence there is widespread support for farming out what should be government services to private enterprises. Ordinary citizens often only have themselves to blame for their unthinking support of privatization of public services.
The failures on the different international scales of social process are an eloquent demonstration of the foolishness of this mania for privatization. There may be services which would be better performed by private companies. Health care does not seem to be one of them. The many experiments in privately owned, for-profit education are largely failures and often fraudulent, taking money from veterans and people with limited resources without providing training that is at all useful. Different experiments that apply free market mechanisms to reduce global warming have, so far, not shown themselves to be effective. There exists a great deal of evidence to suggest that in many cases privatization does not have good results.
There are, of course, counterexamples. The failure of a number of regional VA hospitals--a government organized, run and financed health care system-- to provide timely care to veterans is a real scandal. But even there a private solutions was tried. Two private physicians networks have been hired to provide medical care to veterans living at a distance from the nearest VA. So far this solution through calling in the assistance of private for-profit business has proven to be a failure.
But Americans, rich and poor, are so distrustful of government that they do not see the facts in front of their own eyes. We will not improve our standings on the social progress scales until we end this blind devotion to privatization of public services.

Sunday, April 19, 2015


Misdirected Presidential Campaigns.


Hilary Clinton opened her Presidential campaign with a video showing images of happy people, two men walking, holding hands, some pretty babies, ducks, a happy couple expecting their child and more. Then there is Hilary herself, in front of an upper middle class home with white trim and a white picket fence (really!) and a flower garden in bloom telling us about growing inequality in the US and offering to be the champion of the majority that is losing out.
The message I hear is: Our America is in good shape. It would be even better if we could reduce economic inequality and she will, if elected President, fight for that. The message is designed to make us feel warm inside. It certainly did that for me.
But then I recalled the Social Progress Index produced annually by an organization that calls itself “Social Progress Imperative.” It sets out to measure the accomplishments of different countries not by the amount of money they have (GDP) but by outcomes, by what these countries accomplish on different dimensions. A summary of the scorecard for the US in 2015 is dismal: in health and wellness we rank 68th of all countries in the world. In personal safety we rank 30th, with respect to access to basic knowledge –which refers to primary and secondary education-- our rank is 45th (although we do much better in higher education), in ecosystem sustainability our rank is 74th. These are our scores in spite of spending more money, for instance, on health care than all other countries.
Before proceding I should say that the board of directors of the organization producing these rankings includes one professor from Harvard Business School, one professor from MIT and Oxford University each, an editor from the British business journal The Economist and the President of the Rockefeller Foundation. These are not socialists or communists, or flaming left-wing radicals. They are enlightened persons in the middle of the political spectrum. Their numbers and the implicit criticisms of existing conditions in the Unites States deserve to be taken very seriously.
Our country is seriously falling behind. At issue is not an international competition that ends in some sort of World Cup of health and welfare, or educational accomplishment. If we rank 68th in health and wellness there are 67 countries whose population is in better health and cared for more effectively when they fall ill than are citizens of the US, even though those countries spend less money on health care than we do. The ways in which these other countries organize their health delivery system, their preventive medicine programs, their medical and pharmacological research and delivery systems of medications and medical technology are more effective than ours. These other countries have figured out a lot of ways of doing things related to health and wellness that are better than what we do. All of that in spite of our justly world famous universities and research institutes.
We hear none of that in Hilary's opening campaign video. Nor is that anything the matter with Hilary Clinton. If you consult the opening videos of Republican candidates, our dismal performance in the Social Progress Index does not show up there either. None of the candidates for president so far has dared to tell us that we have mismanaged our country and our ample resources is disastrous ways. Many other countries, smaller, saddled with more problems, have managed to keep their citizens, healthier, better educated than we have. They have been less destructive of their environment than we have.
Why is that not a topic in the presidential campaign? The candidates who each in their own way assure us that America is well, healthy and thriving and just needs a small tune-up here or there are lying to their constituents. Our political campaigns are based on deception, misinformation, on making citizens feel good. They do not appeal to us as mature adults who can stand to face crisis situations. They do not exhort us to have our eyes open to struggle against the difficulties we are facing. They are trying, instead, to narcotize us with false feelings of security.
What is going on here? Ask any schoolchild what democracy is and they will tell you that in a democracy the people rule. That means they run things. Running things means recognizing problems and trying to fix them. If that is what American citizens were doing, our candidates for office would come to us with problems and their specific proposals for resolving this problem or that. Candidate and citizens would have to have detailed conversations about the precise nature of a problem and what different possible resolutions might look like. But that is not what we get. Hilary talks about economic inequality. Is that one problem or many? Whatever it is, Hilary will help us fix it. She does not tell us how. So we—the people who supposedly run things—have nothing to bite into. We can like Hilary because she makes us feel good. Her republican opponents promise to deal with the deficit. How will they do that? don't ask. They promise to repeal and replace Obamacare. Replace it with what? We are not told.
Candidates treat voters not as the people who run things, but as the gullible, unthinking audience to a political American Idol. The voters, infantilized by the candidates' public relations wizards, accept that role.
What a sad caricature of democracy!

Saturday, April 11, 2015


Conversations about Race 

 
In the present situation of great upset about racial killings, racial inequities, overt displays of anti-black racism, we hear a great deal about the need for conversation. A good example is a recent story in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a publication read by college and university administrators and faculty. The story reported a meeting where 300 diversity officers discussed the racial climate on campus. The suggestion was made repeatedly that campuses needed to organize opportunities for white students to have conversations where they could learn what it was like to be black in the United States today.
This seems reasonable. Until some black friends explained to me the condition of African-Americans in the United States, I did not really understand the gravity of our racial situation. White people often just don't know.
At the same time, one must understand that passing on information in conversations will not be enough to improve racial justice in our country. Giving information to people who do not want to learn is useless. Every teacher knows that. You can put important facts before students and many of them will not learn anything because they don't want to learn. History suggests some reasons for white Americans being so reluctant to apprehend the facts about racism in America.
The Founders, men like Jefferson and Washington, who determined that a Black slave was not to count for more than 3/5 of the most abject white human being knew perfectly well what they were doing. They both owned slaves. Neither of them thought that owning slaves was morally acceptable. They knew that they were compromising their high political principles. They did, in fact, talk and correspond a good deal about the moral failure of owning slaves, but did not change their behavior. Their economic interest pushed them to go against their moral principles. Slaves provided cheap labor. In a time when all work was done by hand, refusing to have slaves meant that one had to pay people to work on the farm or in the house. Paid help was more expensive than slave help. Without slaves, one would have fewer servants and thus a more cramped style of living. Economic interest was a strong support for the institution of slavery.
But it was not the only support for racism. There are other reasons why Whites refuse to grasp the ravages of racism. Once again history helps us to understand that.
The first black men and women arrived in Virginia in 1609 – just about 400 years ago. Until the 1670s both black and white servants were indentured. In order to work off the cost of their voyage to the new world, they were committed to be servants for a set period. Their indenture at an end, they would be given a piece of land and supplies, including a gun, regardless of whether they were black or white. More often than not, the land they received was marginal.
Racism was widespread among the English immigrants; slavery was not unknown. From the middle of the 17th century on, some blacks were enslaved. But that process of converting the temporary indentured servant status of Blacks to the permanent status of slaves accelerated after 1676. In that year, in Bacon's Rebellion, former indentured servants, both black and white together, rose up in Virginia to protest their land being in the foothills, and less fertile than the land of their previous masters. The rebellion was put down but afterwards the white masters encouraged the institution of slavery to drive a wedge between white and black pioneer farmers. Political rather than purely economic motives supported the development of slavery and the anti-black racism that accompanied it.
330 years later racism has become very much part of the flesh and bone of the American. Whites who are not wealthy and of high status have learned to reconcile themselves to their low condition by glorying in their whiteness, in the fact that they are not black. Racism serves a political purpose to keep large numbers of less favored Whites content. But our society, having changed a great deal in the last 330 years, now has an economy that is unable to provide jobs for everyone in the country. Racism that incarcerates large number of young black men and some black women restricts the number of job seekers and thereby serves an economic function. It reduces the opposition to prevailing economic practices.
White men and women may get a job that also has black applicants simply because they are white. That gives whites a serious economic advantage, especially when jobs are scarce. The racism that supports those practices is not going to be extinguished by having conversations about race.
As long as it is to someone's advantage to be racist, that blot on our national identity will remain. Conversations about racism will have very limited effect because Whites derive advantages—economic, political and psychological—from racism. Ours will remain a country plagued by racism until we have changed our economy to provide enough good work for everyone. Until everyone has work and lives, that they can be justly proud of, whites will bolster their self-esteem by oppressing blacks and other groups—Hispanics, immigrants, homosexuals.

Monday, April 6, 2015


The Hidden Injuries of Class.


A few weeks ago, This American Life, told a story about young persons of color who had attended public school and not learned a whole lot. They were then given the opportunity to study at a good, predominantly white college. Most of them flunked out. They were overwhelmed by the alien environment. They felt themselves to be utterly incompetent. They were much too ashamed to talk to anyone to ask for help. They lacked the most elementary self esteem they would have needed to survive in a mainly white, middle-class, intellectual environment which felt utterly strange and incomprehensible to them.
The students I teach at a State college are overwhelmingly white. They are there because tuition is a lot lower than it is at all the private colleges in the area or even at the State University. They belong to what is now referred to as the middle-class but they definitely belong to the lower strata of that middle-class. They have limited financial resources. They are not well prepared for college. Many of them do not write a decent paragraph in English. Many of them have difficulty reading academic texts because their vocabulary is very limited. They know a good deal about popular culture, but few of them are readers of books. Not too many of them are familiar with current affairs, or with the outlines of the history of our country and our world.
A lot of them are bright people who, given half a chance, could do good work of some kind. Not all of them will have that chance.
But their greatest handicap lies in the rarely considered class distinctions in contemporary American society. To illustrate that, here is the story of Timothy.
Just before spring break I assigned a midterm paper. It had to be all of two pages long and discussed issues, some of which we had been talking about in class – the problems of having a functioning democracy when large portions of the electorate are ill-informed about political matters and are not in a position to make reasonable choices between candidates.
The papers were to be submitted in the last class before Spring Break. Timothy did not give me a paper. When asked, he told me he would send it to me that afternoon by email. I sent him a message when I did not receive this paper, but did not hear any more from him.
After class at the end of spring break I asked him what had happened. It turned out that the paper he promised to send me had never been written. Then he went off to spring break somewhere warm. He saw my question on his email when he returned, but felt I had sent it too long ago. He could not respond. It was certainly embarrassing to confess that he had never written his paper. He could not really talk to me about it and so he did nothing at all.
Not writing an assigned paper does not strike me as such a terrible thing that it should have been impossible for him to ask me for an extension, or even to make up some family tragedy to excuse himself. But from Timothy's perspective the distance between him and me is so enormous, that it did not seem possible for him to talk about the whole matter.
I am almost four times as old as he is and that makes a difference. But the age difference is not the only thing that makes it hard for him to take an active part in his own education. He is clearly finding himself in an alien environment where he does not seem to have much agency. I do not think that his situation is as dire as that of the students of color mentioned in the beginning of this blog. But his problems are not unlike theirs. He is not oppressed by racial prejudice – he is white. But the class differences between him and his teachers, and the administrators in the college are serious enough for him to not be able to take charge of his education, to ask questions when he is confused, or to ask for an extension if he cannot get his work done.
But how is he going to learn anything if he can't ask any questions of his teachers, if having questions appears to be so terribly embarrassing that he can't let on? How can he make useful educational choices if the entire project seems so strange and in some way incomprehensible?
Timothy's class problem is, of course, also an element in the failure of the students mentioned at the beginning of this blog. It is not just their skin color, and all the restrictions and limitations attached to that, but also the deep divide between classes in the US today that makes attending college terribly difficult or perhaps impossible for them.
It is high time that we should admit and carefully consider the class problem we have.