Thursday, September 22, 2016

Who are our enemies?

Many disasters beset us. Some of them receive a great deal of public attention, such as terrorist attacks or floods, droughts, or earthquakes that are at least, in part, due to environmental degradation.

Other disasters are less familiar. Among them are the many different ways in which employers maltreat and defraud their employees, at times treating them quite inhumanely. Immigrants are particularly targeted, particularly those whose immigration status is uncertain. Often they earn very low wages--wages way below the legal minimum. Often the wages are not paid regularly, and sometimes the employees are not paid at all.

Frequently immigrants work in the building trades where they do jobs that are not only hard but also dangerous. They work on roofs, they climb ladders carrying heavy loads. They are constantly under pressure to work faster. Here accidents happen: workers fall off the roof, they fall off ladders. They injure themselves trying to work fast. Some employers will provide none or very inadequate medical care for young men injured on the job. The victims face a long struggle to get their injuries seen to properly.

But immigrants, whether documented on not, are not the only victims of their employers’ callous pursuit of greater profits.

Briefly in the news was the story of a gas station attendant who was pregnant and close giving birth. Her employers refused to give her a chair to sit on while she  sold drinks and candy and collected money for gas. They refused to assign her lighter duties or to allow her to take some extra breaks.

These  stories are usually treated as exceptions. Observers start talking about "bad apples." Most business people, they say, would of course be supportive of a pregnant woman in her last trimester.

But that is sheer fantasy. 

A Massachusetts legislator heard about the plight of this woman and introduced a "Pregnant Workers Fairness Act" which would have required employers to treat their pregnant employees with ordinary decency. The legislature wanted to make it a legal requirement that pregnant women be treated with modest humanity.

What happened next is truly astonishing. The lobbying arm of Massachusetts businesses, The Associated Industries of Massachusets (AIM), whose members are many large corporations with global reach as well as small, local enterprises, went to the legislature and put pressure on the Speaker of the House. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act was bottled up in committee and never even reached the floor of the House.

Inhumane treatment of employees is not just a problem of a few bad apples. The business community of Massachusetts has gone on record that they don't favor humane treatment of pregnant women. We have not heard anything from the same association of Massachusetts businesses condemning the practices of contractors who hire immigrants and maltreat them. Many contractors, no doubt, do the right thing and hire union construction workers. But their association has not pressured the legislature for laws to forbid the exploitation of immigrant labor.

Business is highly respected in America. Many persons have well-meaning and decent  employers. But business as an institution, as a major social force in our country, has a very poor record when it comes to fair and decent treatment of the people who actually do the work and bring in the money.

Regardless of kind employers, regardless of a lot of public relations on the part of employers, the fundamental fact is clear and needs to be remembered: the relationship between employer and employee is an antagonistic one. The employer gets rich by paying his employees as little as possible, by providing as little health insurance as possible, by paying as little as they can for retirement. Employers’ profits come in part out of the employees’ pocket. For the employer workers are fair game.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Labor day

It is Labor Day once again, the day chosen to honor American labor. Most American workers have an extra day off. Locally and nationally we hold celebrations where politicians address the people to thank American labor for the prosperity of our country.

This is pretty much the story told by the official historian of the US Department of Labor. In 1882 when labor unions were first being organized, some labor activists held the first Labor Day celebration in New York City. Twelve years later, Pres. Grover Cleveland signed a law that the first Monday of September should be a national holiday to celebrate American labor.

But this story is incomplete. It overlooks the fact that the organization of unions has always been controversial. It has always been faced with the bitter opposition of employers and employer groups. The owners of the factories and businesses where workers worked have been unqualifiedly hostile to labor organizations and to labor. In 1894 President Cleveland turned Labor Day into a national holiday after National Guard troops and private security guards had fired on workers in the Pullman strike.

This hostility continues unabated to this day. The national celebration of Labor Day is one more public relations exercise to pretend that we are all in the same corner, that we are unified. Look at the facts and you see that that is mere pretense.

America used to acknowledge that it had a sizable working class. But today we are ashamed of calling ourselves workers or working-class. The rhetoric of politicians from the president on down constantly speaks of the “middle class.”   


There are no workers below the middle class, only the desperately poor.

Workers have not had a significant raise in close to 50 years. Since the early 1970s wages in the US have been stagnant. While large companies and their stockholders, as well as their management, have gotten rich, the men and women who produced all this wealth received pretty much the same wages and, taking inflation into account, actually earn less than they did 50 years ago. Workers are being exploited.

Recent newspaper stories document this shabby treatment of workers. The young men and women who graduated high school and went on to work in factories in the late 1970s were confidently looking forward to a solid and dependable work life and a decent income, decent health care and decent retirement. Now at the end of their work life their situation has changed dramatically. Many of their jobs have been exported to Asia or Latin America. Their financial situation is precarious. Their savings disappeared in the 2008 crash and they cannot afford to stop working. Disappointed and enraged some of these workers are now supporting Donald Trump.

For people still working the landscape has changed dramatically in recent years. Where their parents would work for the same company for many years and receive the benefits of labor legislation: compulsory overtime, government control of workplace safety, paid sick time and parenting leave, and other benefits, a larger and larger portion of the workforce have changed from being employees to being "independent contractors."

The hourly pay of independent contractors seems quite generous. Über drivers make $17 an hour and more in some localities. But unlike the employee who works in factories or offices provided by the employer, the independent contractor, for instance a driver, provides his own machinery. The Über driver provides his own car and must pay for gas and maintenance. Once that has all been paid for the hourly wage is considerably more modest. Independent contractors have no job security. They pay for their own health care and if they think about their retirement years they have to save for that also. They are not owed overtime pay. They are not entitled to paid parenting leave. They don't get paid sick days.

Transforming an employee into an independent contractor is clearly a bonanza for the employer. It aggravates the employee’s exploitation.

Once we look beyond the Labor Day speeches of grand unity between employers and employees, the stark reality is very different. Employers are continuing to squeeze employees, to reduce their income, to make them work hard for a smaller and smaller return.

The low esteem in which employers and, more generally, the leading strata of the society hold working people is exemplified most starkly in the experience of people who have stopped working. After many years of producing America's wealth, their bodies worn out, former workers who retire find themselves in serious straits. They are facing a serious reduction in their standard of living. In 2010 75% of the population ready to retire had $30,000 in savings to supplement what Social Security would provide for them. They could expect about $2000 a month from Social Security; the figure is lower for women. With $30,000 in savings they would very soon be living off Social Security and not much more. They would be living close to the poverty line. Retirees who had an unusual work history may expect even less from the government pension plan. Government health insurance – Medicare – is not adequate without supplementary insurance policies to pay for medical care and medications. Retirees living on Social Security will be hard put to pay for such additional medical insurance in the years when their healthcare costs are bound to go up.

The workers whom the speechifiers on Labor Day thank for their contributions face near poverty or actual poverty for the rest of the year. The gratitude expressed on Labor Day does not amount to much.

Once retired, the American workers can no longer be exploited, except for the many retirees who have a part-time job which, of course, has no benefits,no security, no overtime or sick leave. They earn very little, they produce little. That reduces their value to the society significantly. It reduces the society’s interest in assuring them a decent old age which they have so richly deserved.

These are the sad facts. They are not in any way mitigated by the public relations talk on Labor Day.

Friday, August 19, 2016

“It is not my Responsibility”: 
White Americans refuse to take Racism Seriously

The Boston Globe reports that Mayor Marty Walsh has begun a series of discussions on race in the city. The meetings are private and by invitation only. Little information is available. But one Black participant reports that she has attended a number of “conversations about race” but that this is the first one where Whites participated as well as Blacks.
At this meeting, someone else reported, the conversation began with Black attendees speaking until someone asked whether the Whites in the room had nothing to contribute. One white man spoke up complaining that he was tired of conversations about race. “I did not own slaves, I did not participate in a lynching, or refused to hire African-Americans for jobs they were qualified to perform. It is not my responsibility.” In short, “It is not my problem. I am not interested. I do not want to talk about this.”
We do not know anything more about this speaker. Let us imagine that he is a solid citizen. He has to be to be invited to the Mayor’s private conversations about race. Let’s assume that he has been teaching history in High School for more than thirty years. He is also a successful soccer coach for the girls’ team. He is well respected by his colleagues and many of his students love him. Alumni remember him fondly and gratefully.
Our man is a practicing Catholic. He understands that his religion commits him to opposing injustice and to help where help is needed and deserved. He condemns overt racism and opposes politicians who seem to exploit the racist sentiments of voters. He is not a bad person. You would like him if he were your neighbor, the teacher of your children.
His complaint needs to be taken seriously.
We ask him about his home. He owns his free and clear. He bought it when he was fist married and had just embarked on his career as a High School teacher.
Teaching did not pay well then. It still is not a way of becoming rich. How could he afford the down payment? His in-laws helped out with the down payment, he admits. His wife’s grandfather, on his return from World War II, got a cheap government guaranteed mortgage through the GI Bill. Ever since the family had had a small but solid financial cushion through home ownership and their savings.
We ask him: “You are a history teacher. Did you know that the GI bill did not work the same way for Black veterans after World War II as it did for Whites? Banks refused to give mortgages to Blacks, regardless of the fact that they too had just returned from fighting in Europe and in the Pacific and were entitled by law to government backed mortgages? Did he know that?” No, he says, he did not know that.
He therefore also does not know that the median net worth of white families is about $265,000, while it is just $28,500 for Blacks. The average nest egg of White families is about 10 times that owned by Black families.
He admits that that is unjust but continues to insist that he did not run any banks after World War II--he was not even born--and therefore is not responsible for this discrepancy in White and Black ownership of assets.
We remind him that the Black families who were treated unjustly are Americans just as he and his family. They belong to the same nation, they work, pay taxes, and when necessary go to war. Can a good citizen, as he tries to be, ignore injustices done to other citizens? Do we not owe solidarity to other citizens?
We may well be right about this, he thinks.
We ask him another question: How did he choose where to buy his home? It happens to be in a lily white suburb. The school where he has been teaching for years has about 5% Black students.
He answers: his house is a few blocks away from that of his in-laws. His wife wanted to be close to her parents.
We ask: Why not live in a neighborhood of White and Black families? Our man is a decent person. He hesitates. He realizes that it would have been difficult for him to persuade his wife and his in-laws, who provided the down payment, to accept that choice. He admits, embarrassed, that he himself would have had to think very hard about that choice.
We tell him that social science research confirms that housing segregation is widespread in the US and that White preferences not to live with Black neighbors is one of the major causes of this continued racial segregation. When it comes to Black families being confined to Black ghettos, Whites cannot shrug off any responsibility.
He admits that he is no longer quite as sure that he has no responsibility at all for the plight of African-Americans. He leaves us, saying ” I need to think about what you said.”
And so do other White Americans who protest that racial inequities have nothing to do with them.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Guaranteed Basic Income

With more attention being paid to poverty, the suggestion that everyone should be entitled to a guaranteed basic income, has come to the fore again. Advocates imagine that this support for people with little or no income will be distributed in the form of a tax rebate. No grand new bureaucracy would have to be established.

There are actually two projects. One will make sure that every family has enough money for food, decent housing, education, and health care, for transportation and a reasonably agreeable life. The second one is focused on children. There are a large number of children in the United States living in severe poverty. 17% of our children live in poverty; 5% live in deep poverty--their families income is half of the poverty line, less than $10,000 a year. This project would give every family $2500 a year per child. That amount would lift these children out of poverty.

Both of these projects obviously run into the feeling of many people that since they had to work for their money, it would be grossly unfair for other people to receive a reasonable income without working. I will come back to that feeling below. For the moment we need to think about the fact that there are actually not enough jobs for everybody in the country. All politicians keep talking about creating jobs but have  no concrete proposals.

There are some obvious ways of creating jobs. If we reduce the normal work week from 40 hours to 35 hours a week, and employers will have to pay over time after a person has worked 35 hours, rather than paying more, employers would hire more persons and thus create new jobs.

If we decided to hand out money to people with children, according to current estimates, we would infuse 2 1/2 billion dollars into the economy. Families receiving that assistance, being poor, will spend that money and thus create jobs. An infusion of 2 1/2 billion dollars would make a significant difference to the economy.

While these are interesting considerations they will not persuade any opponent because what worries them is the unfairness of the whole thing. Why should I have to work and you have the whole day off and still have a decent income? What is more, why should I pay part of my hard-earned money in taxes to allow you to live comfortably without working? That seems grossly unfair.

If you replied that it seems grossly unfair that some people are superrich and some people live in abject poverty in this, the richest country in the world, opponents of guaranteed basic income would not be moved: “Let them get a job,” they would say or “Let them go to school and get job training.”

In order to get a sense of the underlying issue, let's make a thought experiment. Suppose everybody had a job they truly loved. There are very few days when they wish they could stay home. They think about their job at night before going to sleep because the job is full of challenges, it gives them a feeling of confidence, of competence. It somehow makes their life worth living. How much they earn in is not as important as growing as a person and as a person with special skills. For many people who have jobs that support them but barely and jobs that don't give them impressive social status, nevertheless work is fulfilling and the source of happiness. They are content.

Think about that world for a minute and then suppose that in this country there are not enough of these wonderful jobs and the population decided a long time ago that no one should have a job they hated because it was repetitive, because even stupid people find it boring and people of ordinary intelligence suffered doing it, day in, day out. So in this country there are people who have no work and they are supported by the public by receiving guaranteed basic income payments.

Now comes the big question: do you think that in that country where work is a source of happiness and fulfillment people will resent the unemployed who live off government payments? Would you not rather think that the people who had work they liked would feel sorry for the people who just had money and no work that made their life feel worth living?

Work today, for most people, is trying. They have done it for a while. There is nothing interesting about it. They are oppressed by authoritarian management. They have no say over what they do, or what they produce. They are treated as if they were mentally defective. They frankly hate their job. In that situation it makes perfect sense to not want others to get money without going through the same suffering. The opposition to guaranteed basic income tells us something deep about Work in America. It tells us that for many Americans work makes life miserable.

That is not something that political candidates are talking about, that the majority of Americans enjoy only their leisure time because the eight or more hours a day they are at work are indifferent at best, and most likely positively unpleasant.

The misery of going to work does not tell us that employers are sadists, but it does tell us something about the economic calculations which govern how one runs a business. The employer's obligation is to keep costs low and thus have as many as possible unskilled workers, people who can be trained in an hour or two to do their job. For the skilled jobs it is cheaper to buy a robot or to outsource the work to low wage countries.

The quality of work-life, the extent to which workers enjoy working, does not figure in the employer's calculations. The most serious consideration is that unskilled work is cheaper to buy in the labor market and therefore preferable.

It is the economic system, that is not interested in the worker's life and fulfillment but only in keeping the wage bill small, that is really inhumane and needs to be changed. As long as people work under that system, they will oppose guaranteed basic income projects.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Deep State

"Deep State" is a phrase one runs into more and more frequently in recent political commentary. Several commentators have made it a popular expression, Mike Lofgren among them who spent many years as a Republican congressional aide. Spending many years in the Capitol and in Washington, DC, Lofgren knows a whole lot of people connected with government and knows a whole lot about them.

 "The deep state," argues Lofgren is "the red thread" linking the "ideological syndrome" of McMansions; DC's culture of careerist strivers; the financialization, deindustrialization and ultimate mutation of the US economy into "a casino with a tilted wheel"; the burgeoning of government secrecy even as individual privacy has been demolished; the consistency and persistence of unpopular policies regardless of which party wins elections; militarized foreign policy, "defense" and "security" establishments that thrive on failure and enjoy essentially unlimited funding whatever nostrums about the national debt and the necessity for austerity are being peddled for every other function of government; the prevalence of incompetence and ineptitude in government response to crises; unequal justice, including impunity for the wealthy and corporations, a corrupt Supreme Court and a strikingly punitive criminal legal system for ordinary people; legislative gridlock; perpetual war; political extremism and other ruinous epiphenomena.”(

The basic idea here is that government policy is not, as we usually believe, controlled by elected officials and, therefore, indirectly under the control of those who elect those officials. Instead there is an agglomeration of different groups inside and outside the government that actually determine US policy. The concept of a deep state is another iteration of the critique of democracy developed by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the 1840s. Democracy, as Marx said at one point, is a method by which citizens get a chance to periodically elect the people who will misrepresent them. Lenin, writing in 1917, as the Bolsheviks were taking power in Russia, formulated the same thought more harshly: democracy is a system which allows people to periodically select their oppressors. 

Defenders of democracy tell us that democracy allows ordinary citizens to participate in running their country. But that story is false. Important government policies are made by a more or less permanent establishment, by persons who are unelected and have no need to worry about popular demands and beliefs. Marx, Engels, and Lenin all identified this secret government as the capitalist class, the owners of large corporations, the owners of banks, the owners of significant amounts of capital.

The pundits who today talk about the deep state are not Marxists. Lofgren, in fact, is a Republican. They identify the personnel of the deep state in rather different ways. An important component of the deep state are a half a dozen or so top-secret government agencies.. They are not under popular control or even under control of Congress because no one knows what they are up to. Another important components are the Military, Wall Street, some powerful persons in the media and Silicone Valley, home of the companies that provide the technology with which the government keeps a close watch over all of us. Lofgren adds some other groups such as the culture of McMansions or Washington DC careerists to the point where his list seems to be simply enumerating all the people he hates.

So we should separate three ideas: 1. The claim that our government is run directly or indirectly by the people is clearly false. It is propaganda. 2. A complex group, largely hidden, is actually running the government. They are only slightly affected by electoral events. 3. Democracy with its elections, conventions and election campaigns is theatre. It simply serves the purpose of concealing the functioning of this "deep state."

Is there a deep state? We are about to elect a new president and the newspapers and other media are indefatigable in impressing on us the importance of these contests. But now imagine you are elected the new president. On Inauguration Day you move into the White House and bring your personal laptop into the Oval Office. For several weeks you will have one meeting after another with all the leaders of different parts of the executive, with top generals, the leaders of the CIA, FBI, NSA. You will meet the people who run agriculture, who are in charge of transportation. Sooner or later you will have an interview with the postmaster general. You will also meet a lot of people who are not elected officials such as the heads of the major banks, the heads of different trade associations. In addition there will be representatives of foreign governments who will want foreign aid from you or have come to tell you how to run your business.

These people are very familiar with their small corner of government. The new President is not. Often their projects are shrouded in deep secrecy. They go about their business pretty much as they please regardless of who is in the Oval Office. That person occupies the presidency for a limited period. Bureaucrats may hold jobs of considerable power for many more years than anyone is allowed to be president.

There are other excessively familiar reasons for accepting talk about the deep state. In so far as public policy is made by elected officials, money talks very loudly and competent lobbyists with deep pockets can get anything done they want. The opinions and desires of the likes of you and me as simple voters count for very little. The opinions and desires of large businesses, domestic and foreign, carry a great deal of weight. Government policy is significantly shaped by persons who are not elected and who are not responsible to ordinary citizens.

The existence of the deep state is not really controversial. The more challenging and more interesting question is who belongs to the deep state, who actually makes policy. If we accept the idea of the deep state, we commit ourselves to paying fairly little attention to elections. The activities of elected officials are no more than a show designed to confuse us. But then who does have the power?

The deep state is largely hidden. Most of us who are not intimately familiar with what goes on in Washington DC and in many other secret sites are in no position to guess who actually governs our lives. The whole idea here is that we are not supposed to know who governs. The deep state expends considerable energy in concealing itself. We have good reasons to distrust commentators who claim to be familiar with its workings and with its leaders. We do not know who is actually running our lives. Very few people do.

Anyone who “reveals” to us the workings of the deep state is probably making it up. But the general point of talk about the deep state is important: if we consider government policy since the days of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, we see some very consistent themes regardless of whether the President is a Democrat or a Republican. Government policy has consistently favored large business and its rich owners. Republicans and Democrats have agreed to make life harder for the poor and easier for the rich. Republicans and Democrats have gone to war and have mercilessly killed people all over the globe. We have lived under a bloodsoaked capitalism for more than 35 years regardless of who we voted for.

The deep state is terribly real.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


I was recently fortunate to be with a group of young transgender persons who were explaining to a sympathetic audience how they thought about their position in the world.

Most often we think of transgender as persons who were born male or female and decided at some point to change over to the  “other sex.” The background assumption is, of course, that all human beings--all mammals, in fact--are either male or female. Yes, there are some whose sexual identity is unclear. But all “normal” mammals are thought to  have a clear sexual identity and it is either female or male.

The trans persons I listened to want to challenge that assumption. They point to the scientific discussions of what is called “intersex”--human bodies whose sexual characteristics are not unambiguously male or female. Intersex refers to a range of bodily conditions in which genitals are not clearly male or female, the result of uncommon genes, and other variations. The estimate is that one in a thousand births have such intersex characteristics.

We can think of this in two ways. We can say that 1 out of a thousand births display “abnormal” characteristics. But clearly the numbers do not justify this value judgment that only male and female sexual traits are normal, especially when we consider the wide variations of sexual characteristics, such as women with much body hair or men with breasts. Add to that the individuals who choose to leave their sexual identities indeterminate.
Why not say that there are more than two kinds of sexual identities?

“That would be weird” you say. The trans persons want to challenge that kneejerk reaction. They want you to ask yourself why it would be weird to recognize many variations on sexual difference.

And, indeed, why would that be weird? 

We take it for granted that there are only two “normal” sexual configurations. When a baby is born, the doctor, nurse or midwife who catches the baby looks between the newborn’s legs and pronounces “boy” or “girl” assuming that that is all there is. The sexual identity is imposed. It is a societal imposition.

Such societal impositions are familar. I met a woman who said she came from Poland, from a city called Gdansk. She considered hersself Polish. Until 1945, the end of World War I, that city was called Danzig  and it was a German city. The ancestors of the Polish woman may well have been Germans. Her national identity changes with the changes in global politics. What she thinks and feels about her identity, has nothing to do with it. Her national identity is socially imposed.

Male/female are external impositions, the trans person want to say. They remind us of the many little boys who want to play with dolls until adults wean them off that in order to make sure that they grow up to be “real” boys. They remind us of the many little girls who want to climb trees and fight and play with trucks but who are made to wear pink dresses and play with Barbies so that they can grow up to be “real” women.

A friend, a woman lawyer, who is exceptionally tall at 6’ 2” confesses that she enjoys playing male roles in her work and acting more in ways that men are expected to act than  playing a ferminine role. Many adults like to cross over in this manner.

It would seem natural to acknowledge that the sex/gender roles we play are often ambiguous, often flaunt the basic assumption that only being plainly male or female is “normal.” Is it then not rather “abnormal” to maintain that fiction of the two sexes in words and action forcing children and adults to hide parts of who they are or would like to be?

The plea of trans persons for tolerance of different sexual identities and by implication different of sexual practices is hard to hear for many persons. But that is what transgender persons are asking for. They are asking that their sexuality not be denigrated as "abnormal" but that they be allowed to be who they are.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

And Liberty and Justice for All

It is the first week of July and once again time to congratulate ourselves on our love of freedom, on our democracy and dedication to equality. Reminding ourselves of our wealth and power, our preeminent position in the world, we can fill all our hearts with genuine satisfaction.

It is also a good time to reread Ta-Nehisi Coates' article in the Atlantic Magazine of June 2014, "A Case for Reparations." (You can easily find it on the Internet.) By telling the stories of a few African-Americans who succeeded in buying and holding on to their houses in spite of being all their lives exposed to fraud and robbery by whites, Coates reminds us that American dedication to liberty and equality has some large exceptions. It only very intermittently applies to African Americans.

Coates stresses the pain caused African-Americans, especially young ones, when they themselves are insulted and denigrated or when they see others treated without respect. It is extremely difficult to grow up with a healthy sense of your own capabilities and merit, if you find yourself, your family, your friends consistently treated shabbily and the society as a whole refusing to acknowledge that.

This psychological damage of racism reminds those of us whites who are trying genuinely not to participate or support anti-black racism, that the damages will continue to be done regardless of our resistance to our own racism. As long as American society accepts the denigration of African-Americans by some of its members and by its government, the best and most well-meaning efforts of some of us will not be enough to achieve genuine justice and equality.

You may point to the passage of civil rights legislation, you may point to a black president, but the second class status of African-Americans has not changed. If you have any doubt about that, read the stories told by Coates. 

If you have any doubt consider the consistent denial by white people that there is any problem for African-Americans, which is not of their own making. The diagnoses change over time: African-Americans suffer because they do not manage to form families in the same way as white middle-class Americans. They do not do well in school. They get involved with drugs. Black Americans are disproportionately imprisoned or under the supervision of the parole system. None of that, many whites insist, is our fault.

In his article, Coates documents impressively how housing segregation is the result of government regulations of the home mortgage market and the work of white real estate speculators. White home buyers cooperate, for instance, by buying repossessed houses cheap in this process of segregating where people live by race. Lanie Guinier offers example after example of municipalities, counties and states manipulating the rules governing elections so as to make quite sure that black voters will never elect a black representative. Amy Goffman and  Michelle Alexander demonstrate how the criminal justice system is set up to catch and absorb young black men, often when they are barely in their teens.  But whites keep denying their complicity. What else do lawsuits over affirmative action say but "the second-class status of African-Americans is not my responsibility. I have nothing to do with that." 

But we should know better.

To confront that consistent denial, Coates asks for reparations. By that he does not primarily mean that someone, most likely the government, should pay money to African-Americans, or support them in buying houses, or help them get a college education, or in other ways distribute money to them they have not earned by working. Instead the demand for reparations is intended primarily as an opportunity for all Americans to reconsider the history of African-Americans on this continent from their first arrival in 1609 to today. Asking for reparations is asking for white people to consider seriously whether they are in fact as innocent as they claim to be of the second-rate status of African-Americans.

Next year, on 4 July, we could perhaps dedicate the day to considering seriously whether white people, who deny that the condition of African-Americans has anything to do with them, are speaking the truth or are not rather implicitly admitting their guilt by protesting their innocence too much.

It is high time that we reconsider what it means to be generally dedicated to equality and what we need to do if we are to take equality really seriously.