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.