Monday, July 31, 2017

What's a citizen to do?

The daily paper reads more and more like the Hollywood gossip magazines I pass at the grocery store checkout counter every day. It is all about personalities. No day passes without another mouthwatering story about the president contradicting what he just said yesterday or rudely attacking another media personality. I wake up asking myself: what has he done today?
But that is an interesting question for fan magazines or gossip columns but it is not relevant when citizens make their political decisions.
You may love Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama, or Bernie Sanders, or any of a number of other large-scale celebrities in the political world. Maybe you prefer Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. Maybe you have given your loyalty to a white supremacist or still mourn the passing of Dr. Spock.
But that's an altogether personal decision for you and has nothing to do with the choices you make as a citizen.
Let me explain.
Your neighborhood mechanic has been taking care of a series of cars of yours over a long time. You have become friends. You welcome a mechanical problem because it provides an opportunity for visiting with your friend and exchanging stories about each other's lives, about his and your children and family.
The latest car you bought is a hybrid. Your friend tries to make needed repairs but has to confess, after a while, that he does not understand enough of this new kind of engine to restore it to working order. Your friendship is not affected by that. You do not like each other any less for the fact that his mechanical skills are limited. You still stop off from time to time to enjoy each other's company briefly even though you now entrust car repairs to someone else who has the necessary specialized training to repair hybrid engines.
Your deep affection for this man does not commit you to trusting all of his opinions. Friends are no less beloved for being sometimes unreliable or ill-informed.
As citizens we are in an analogous situation. You may feel very strongly that Donald Trump, with his mischievous, assertive little -boy refusal to be a serious politician is a breath of fresh air in the uptight, hypocritical and deceptive Washington DC. Trump tells you what he thinks. He tells you what he likes and does not like and he is not ashamed to change his mind when he receives new information. You like that a lot. And all anyone should say: good for you; go with your feelings.
But the fact that you like Donald Trump has little to do with whether his policies are good for America, anymore than that my friendship with my mechanic commits me to believing everything he says or insisting that his professional opinions are infallible.
There is an important difference between loving someone and thinking that they can do whatever needs to be done. I love my son but I would hesitate to accept his offer to correct a plumbing problem in the house or to repair of the electrical system when it malfunctions.
The same is true in politics. Your loyalty to Trump has little to do with the policies he is recommending. A great deal of factual information needs to be accumulated to assess a political choice of policy. Whether global warming is a hoax or a serious threat is a question of fact. If, indeed the indications are that global temperatures are rising, and if there is reason to believe that this rise in temperature is due to greenhouse gases, then we must act on this information and reject the policies of those who don't take this problem seriously, how ever much we may love them.
"I like him, therefore I believe everything he says" is the motto of the lazy.
The daily gossipy information about the president’s latest tweets or naughtiness is not relevant to deciding about government or national policy. They should be relegated to the back pages of the newspaper where we learn about the private lives of celebrities. The front pages of the newspaper and the top items in the news must be information about issues that affect all of us deeply. The decisions citizens need to make should not be affected by whom they like and whom they don't like, it should be based on the relevant available information.
You can like Trump all you want. He is sort of cute sometimes. But don't believe what he says just because you like him. You don't pick your mechanic because he is a friend. You choose him for his mechanical skills and knowledge and you do the same when you need the services of a plumber or an electrician as well as of different kinds of medical experts. You pick them by their qualifications and by the recommendations of persons whom have reasons to trust.
Political choices should be no different.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Being dense – one form of white privilege.

The expression "white privilege" is becoming more familiar. More whites are beginning to understand that the price they pay for living in this society and benefiting where the system works well is very different from the price paid by persons of color. Here are some obvious examples: no one locks their car when they see me coming up the sidewalk. I am not very likely to be stopped by police and interrogated about who I am or what I am doing here when I walk down the street to say hello to a neighbor. For me, the police are likely to offer support and protection. A black man walking down the sidewalk will often hear of the lock click in the car occupied by whites. The police will stop them and want to know who they are and what they are doing here in their own neighborhood. If they were walking down the street in my neighborhood, which is mostly white, it is even more likely that they be stopped. A large majority of victims of police shootings are black, the majority young black men.

In these and many other ways whites are privileged in this society. They do not bear the burdens borne by persons of color. One form of white privilege that does not receive enough attention is the privilege of not knowing what it is like to live in the United States as a black person and, another large privilege, not having to think about that.

This reminder was brought home to me by a story in the Sunday paper. For 50 years an organization called METCO has bussed students, exclusively students of color, from Boston to some of these suburban schools in towns like Sudbury or Swampscott. The newspaper article detailed how some of the black students are victims of open racist attacks. What is worse for them, there are hardly any black teachers or other role models in these suburban schools. The people from whom they are to receive the exceptional education not available for them where they live are all white. It is difficult for them to learn to think of themselves as knowledgeable and exceptionally capable young black men and women when the only capable people they meet in school are largely white.

I read this and think, yes that is a real problem. Maybe the school systems in Sudbury and Swampscott and other suburban towns must make a special effort to hire African-American teachers or counselors or someone who can present an image of African-American excellence to the students.

It took me quite a while before I realized that METCO and its project raise serious questions for the white parents in the suburbs and the politicians and leaders in Boston and the surrounding towns.

Once you think of them, the questions are obvious: why is it that African-American students in Boston – and the same is of course true of many white students in the city – need to be bused to get a decent education? Is not every child entitled to a high-class education and to the opportunity to learn as much as they are capable of learning?

How is it that the children in Sudbury and Swampscott get a good education that takes them on to good colleges and jobs that provide a good income and in many cases political power, while children in Boston proper may have to go to private schools at considerable expense to receive a comparable education?

Our very different, locally financed and run school systems are an important factor in stratifying the society of adults. By giving poor education to some children we set them up to do menial or manual work that pays modestly and leaves them in the shadows politically.

By being born in the suburbs of parents affluent enough to afford housing there, suburban children are selected when they enter preschool at 3 or 4 years old to get good educations, go to good colleges and become makers and shakers.

The life trajectories we map out for children have little to do with ability and everything to do with geography. They have everything to do with inequality which we not only tolerate but support actively by putting up with unequal educational opportunities for rich and poor, for white and black.

So much for equal opportunity.

A lesson whites have to learn from this example is that we are too ready to accept the inequalities that exist. We do not question why it is that a black student has a much harder time to get a good education than a white student.

We must learn to be much more alert to the inequalities that exist and are perpetuated virtually without criticism if we ever hope to create a society that seriously struggles against inequality. In our society our leaders mouthe condemnations of inequality and, having done that, continue to support the status quo.

The willingness of whites to overlook the daily inequalities of Blacks supports the unwillingness of the powerful to make change. In other words, white behavior, as usual, continues to support and maintain white privilege.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Frederick Douglass on the 4th July

In 1852, 10 years before the outbreak of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass then living in Rochester, New York, was asked by The Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society to address them on the 5th of July. In his speech he praised the Americans who 76 years earlier had declared their independence from England and had fought the Revolutionary War to make that independence a reality. They earned the gratitude of future generations of Americans for asserting that "all men are created equal" and making that principle the basis of their new government.
Douglass, was born a slave. While traveling in England in 1846, his British supporters bought his freedom from his owner in Maryland. Now free, self educated, he spent much of his life traveling through the United States, as well as England and Ireland, to speak in the cause of Abolitionism.
In his 4th of July speech, he reminds his audience that universal human equality did not extend to the slaves. They continued to be grievously oppressed. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which allowed Southern slave owners who kidnap runaway slaves anywhere in the United States, had only deepened the suffering of African-Americans.
In his speech Douglass does not mince words: "There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour… For revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival."
In recent years, many cities and towns have held public meetings to read this speech by Frederick Douglass. One such meeting was held where I live. It was a hot, sunny day, the sky blue with hardly a cloud, where a long line of volunteers, African-Americans, Whites, people of other origins lined up to each read one paragraph of this heart rending speech.
The audience was small but the readers conveyed their intense sorrow at the continuing injustices suffered by people of color in the United States.
Then the meeting was over. The organizer of the event, a local Black business man, ended the event with the words "God bless America."
God bless America, the nation on earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than those of any other nation? The final invocation of God's mercy seemed at odds with the uncompromising condemnation of America's racial practices we had just read in Frederick Douglass’ speech..
To be sure, even Douglass himself, as he comes to the end of his condemnation of slavery, ends on a hopeful note. He is confident that slavery will come to an end. Most comments on the Douglass speech draw attention to this final expression of confidence that America will finally live up to its own principles and extend equal rights to everyone, black or white.
And is that confidence not justified? We just had a black president. Slavery has come to an end. So has Jim Crow. Black Americans vote and run for office and sometimes get elected.
But wait. Slavery still exists. Our government holds more than 2 million persons in prison. Many must work in prison industries where workers get paid somewhere between $.23 to two dollars an hour. Prison workers have no benefits. They are not allowed to organize. They will be punished if they refuse to work for a pittance. Their condition is not unlike that of their slave ancestors.
The number of Black prison inmates is quite disproportionate to the number of black Americans in the population as a whole. One in three Black men are in prison or live under the supervision of parole officers. They come from black communities where the unemployment rate is close to 50%, where schools fail to teach elementary reading and arithmetic skills to children, and their parents, the working poor, have no time to supervise their children because they are too busy trying to earn a meager living.
The Black Lives Matter movement arose in response to unarmed black men and women being killed by police officers. To date very few of these police officers have had to face court and those that did, were most often acquitted. In the United States in 2017 all men and women are still not created equal.
    We should not invoke divine blessings for America. We should ask for blessings for the small Black children who braved angry mobs of white, racist adults to claim their right to an equal education--a right they still have not won. We should ask blessings for the generations of African-Americans who patiently demanded equality at great danger to themselves.
    We should see our present turmoils as troubles we brought on ourselves for what Douglass called our “revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy.”

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Is health care reform fair?

The proposed health care bills both in the house and the Senate will save a good deal of money but will also reduce the number of Americans with health insurance. If the current bills become law, 14 million people will lose their health insurance in the coming year and another 8 to 10 million will lose their insurance in the coming 10 years.
Who are these 14 million Americans?
The majority will be poorer Americans and older, retired persons. A disproportionate number of those will be persons of color. African-Americans are about 12% of the population but about 20% of the poor. About 11% Americans are Hispanic and 14% of them are poor.
Few voters are going to be moved by those numbers because they have bought into the mythology of the "welfare queen" first invented by Ronald Reagan. The story is about people of color who are too lazy to work and therefore live off government handouts. In Reagan’s story, a Chicago woman on welfare drove around in a Cadillac and carried Gucci bags. Reagan’s story was a fiction--a lie.
No doubt some welfare recipients are lazy and avoid working. But that is, of course, also true of some of the sons and daughters of the captains of industry who don't have to work and therefore don't and party instead. Think of Paris Hilton. But the made-up story about the welfare queens ignores the facts about the working poor. According to government census data 12% of people working make barely more than $15,000 for a couple. They can survive only with food stamps and other government assistance. A significantly larger number of working Americans still do not earn enough to put food on the table and to avoid being homeless.
Huffington Post gives us some examples of working poor families:
"Not so long ago, Kathleen Ann had a house, vacation time, spending money and everything else available to someone with a high-paying corporate job. Then she was discarded in a layoff, cast into a world where she could only find occasional part-time work. Ann now makes less than $20,000 a year, lives in an apartment and has been forced to accept that she is poor — a “Used-to-Have,” as she described it. “As a ‘Used-to-Have,’ I know exactly what Corporate America, lobbyists and politicians have taken away from me ,”she said.
Carla Shutak thought buying a house with her husband, who was gainfully employed as a civil engineer, would be a wise investment. When he was laid off in 2009, they couldn’t keep up with the mortgage payments and their home was foreclosed on. “My American Dream died,” she said. “Despite doing what we were taught was right by putting 20 percent down and asking for a fixed 30-year mortgage, we were now in our 40s and starting over with nothing.
Monica Simon, 24, works full time at an online advertising firm, earning $23,000 a year after taxes. She’s still paying off her student loans and often relies on credit cards to cover basic costs. “Sometimes I get paid and then I have, maybe, $150 left over for the two weeks,” she said. “I just feel I’m getting way behind where I want to be for my age. I feel I’m just starting my life and I’m already miles and miles behind.”
A significant portion of the poor who will lose their health insurance are actually working. It is just that their jobs pay little, and their hours are quite unsteady and unpredictable. The new proposed health care bills favor the young and those who earn more than $50,000 a year. It penalizes the poor, regardless of whether they work or not.
This is blatantly unfair.
What is fair? Everybody has their own idea of fairness.” Many people think that but they are quite wrong. When they take their children to baseball or football games they know when the umpire is unfair, when he or she does not apply the rules in the same way to both teams. There is no argument about fairness there. The same idea of fairness was involved in the Inflatagate scandal. It would not be fair if one team’s footballs were inflated to a different hardness than that of the other. The same idea of fairness forbids insider-trading. It is unfair for one person to have information not available to others. There are many more examples. Fairness means that prevailing rules are applied evenly to everyone.
Applying different rules about health insurance to the poor than to the remainder of the people is unfair.
But in American politics fairness does not seem to count for much. No one in Congress seems to worry much that the rules applying to the well-to-do do not apply to the poor.
At this point many people will try to blame the poor for their mistreatment. If they had done better in school, if they had gone to college, they would not be under-or-unemployed, they would not work at minimum wage jobs.
It may be true that if the people who are now among the working poor had managed to get more education, they would have a better income, although today some college graduates are selling cups of coffee at Dunkin' Donuts. But the fact remains that there are jobs that don't pay enough for people to live on their earnings and someone will do those jobs. Regardless of who gets an education and doesn't, 12% of American workers earn way below the poverty line and someone is going to do those jobs and be really poor in spite of working hard. These are the people who are going to lose their health insurance under the new proposed health care law.
There is no way of defending that uneven application of rules as fair.
Congress and the US government do not care about fairness. Our system is designed to favor the rich.