Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Racism and Hate?

In the last two weeks lawn signs have sprung up all over our neighborhood condemning hate. The intent of those lawn signs is clear: they oppose racism.
But this identification of racism with hate is attracting well-deserved criticism. Racism in the form of slavery was not a matter of slave owners hating their slaves. They may have hated some who were particularly difficult and loved others. But slavery was an economic system that produced significant wealth for the slave owners who worked their plantations with slaves – a workforce that was owned and did not receive wages and was maintained at fairly minimal levels.
           Any business that produces goods – regardless of whether it is cotton or electronic appliances – thrives to the extent that it can sell its products for more than it costs to produce them. One source of wealth is keeping one's production costs down. Wages are one important part of production costs. Where labor earns little, a business has a chance to thrive. Slavery was attractive because its labor costs were low. Slavery was supported because it enriched an entire class of landowners, not because these owners hated black people.
The end of the Civil War put an end to the institution of slavery. Afterwards the super exploitation of black labor was arranged in different ways by means of a set of laws we now refer to as "Jim Crow." No longer were black workers the private property of white plantation owners but their exploitation was enforced by new laws and random violence such as lynching.
Racism remains an economic system. The majority of black Americans are there to take up the slack of an economic system that is unable to create decent jobs for all who want to work. Black Americans are the first to be unemployed when jobs disappear. When they do work, they often work for little to do menial jobs.
The same applies to racism against other persons of color. Mexicans and other immigrants from Central and South American play the same role in the labor market as African-Americans. Immigrants from China built significant portions of the railroads in the 19th century and worked in mines. But the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prevented further immigration from China and made it impossible to unite the families of men who had come here to work but had left their families back in China. Different laws restricted immigration from Asia until, during World War II, China and the US were allies in fighting Japan.
Racism has always played a political role. In the slave south not all whites were rich plantation owners. Many whites were also poor. Their farms were small, their land barren; they had to work hard to wring a poor living from the soil. But the rich white people reminded them that they were after all white people. They had something significant in common with the plantation owners who were wealthy and politically powerful. This served to conceal the fact that the poor whites had in fact a lot more in common with the poor black laborers and tenant-farmers.
The racial divisions in our society were and are not primarily a matter of everyone's feelings about each other. The racial divisions were maintained because they were in the economic and political interest of the most powerful families in the region. The interests of the rich and powerful to maintain racist exclusions can continue to be concealed because most white people know next to nothing about what it is like for persons of color to live in this society. They don't know about the experiments where applicants with "white" names and applicants with what sounded like "black" names both put in applications for jobs and the persons with what sounded like black names were a lot less likely to get any response from the employers advertising jobs. They don't know about the different ways in which black and white students are treated in public schools, or the various myths circulating about how most people on welfare are black and that they are on welfare only because they are too lazy to work.
They don't know the sad history of the G.I. Bill for black veterans at the end of World War II. The G.I. Bill gave substantial support to all veterans to get an education and to get mortgages to buy a house in the suburbs. But black veterans in the South could only attend segregated black colleges that offered a very limited education. Colleges and universities in the North would admit only small numbers of Blacks. Many white veterans managed to go to graduate school and end up being college professors. That possibility was only rarely open to black veterans. The G.I. Bill guarantees of mortgages were of no use to black veterans because banks did not issue mortgages in black neighborhoods and those were the only places where black veterans would have been able to buy a house. Realtors would not sell homes in white neighborhoods to Blacks.
And on and on.
            If we want to reduce the ravages of racism on our black fellow citizens we should stop talking about love and hate. Diagnosing racism as a form of hate misdirects our attention. It completely misdiagnoses the problems our society creates for person of color and why it does so. Accordingly well-meaning efforts to reduce the damages created by racism will miscarry because they address imaginary causes and conceal real ones. Talking about racism as a form of hate is not just an innocent error. It gets in the way of addressing racism.
We need, instead, to make sure that where we work or where we study black Americans are given the same chances as whites. That means that everyone is treated with equal respect. It means that each of us patrols their thoughts and behaviors motivated by derogatory mythologies about African-Americans and other people of color.
            Well-meaning whites are often eager to "help" African-Americans as if somehow their difficulties in getting ahead, in getting and keeping a decent job, in finding housing in secure communities, in securing a good education for their children are due to their inadequacies which we, the well-meaning whites, can help repair.
            But the disadvantages suffered by people of color in this white supremacist society are imposed by white people. If whites want to help, they need to learn what limitations we, the white people, impose on persons of color and try to remove those.
I do not think that persons of color in this society are aching to be loved by whites. They want to be given an equal chance to live agreeable and secure lives without being judged defective--morally and otherwise--by people who know no more about them than that this skin is dark.

Monday, October 23, 2017

In 1620 110 Pilgrims left Europe for the New World. Their first winter was disastrous. In Spring 1621 no more than 50 of the original immigrants survived. These too might well have died had it not been for two Native Americans, Samoset and Squanto, who assisted the English Pilgrims to adjust to the new country, its climate and soils. The native inhabitants were not Christians, they were not committed by their religion to help strangers in distress. Nevertheless they welcomed immigrants and eased their transition.
Quite a contrast with today's Americans who profess Christianity and a commitment to helping their neighbors!
This contrast challenges us to think more carefully about the plight of the people whom we call "illegal" or "undocumented." European immigrants who arrived on American soil until about 1890 had no papers. They were not documented or undocumented. They simply arrived, except for the African-Americans who were imported against their will and some whites who also came involuntarily--convicts or victims of kidnaps shipped to America to work. But the preponderance of whites chose to immigrate and did so without any bureaucratic permission.
Seven of the 39 men who signed the Constitution were immigrants. In fact, two of the three men most associated with its passage, Alexander Hamilton and James Wilson, were foreign-born. Hamilton was one of three men who wrote the Federalist Papers explaining and urging ratification of the Constitution. Hamilton had no citizenship or immigration papers. By today's standards he was "undocumented." By the mean-spirited standards dominating politics today, the 18th century equivalent of Homeland Security should have arrested these Founders of our country and sent them back to where they came from.
Persecution of immigrants is justified, in the minds of many, because after all this land is our land and we have every right to regulate who enters and who lives here and who will be excluded. The 50 states are ours and we may make laws to regulate who comes in and who stays.
Yes, but what makes it our land?
When the Pilgrims made landfall the land belonged to a variety of smaller and larger Native American tribes who lived, farmed, and perpetuated themselves and their cultures in these different places. How did it become our property. Yes, the Dutch bought Manhattan--or so we are told. But Native Americans did not have a concept of private property in land. Land was sacred. One could no buy or sell it. People used the land and it was against customs to try to take land where someone else had planted a garden or erected a dwelling. The so-called "sale" of Manhattan was most likely obtaining permission for hunting and farming the land in Manhattan. No white immigrant ever bought any American lands from its native inhabitants.
Yes we did buy Louisiana from France and Alaska from Russia. (How did France and Russia come to be able to sell land in the Americas?) But the land of the 50 states "belongs" to us because we took it by force in a long series of Indian wars. We took Texas, California and the Southwest --where keeping out the "undocumented" is a particularly incendiary issue--from Mexico in the Mexican American War in 1848. The ancestors of some of the "undocumented" lived in the states which now wants to exclude them.
We are not legitimate inhabitants of this land.
Many of the "undocumented" immigrants from Mexico and farther south are what they call "mestizos." Their ancestors include many indigenous persons--inhabitants of this hemisphere for thousands of years--and Spanish colonizers. They are likely to have a better claim to living in South and North America than the descendants of White Europeans by virtue of their ancestors who have cultivated this land for many centuries, who lived here long before Christopher Columbus and others ravaged the hemisphere and its inhabitants.
The white settlers, and their descendants, have no right to keep out the descendants of peoples who have lived here for many centuries. They stole the lands we now inhabit. But robbery cannot yield a legitimate property title. If someone steals your car, is it now his?
We have an obligation to welcome migrants from South of our border and to ask them to allow us to share this land of theirs.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Environmentalism and White Privilege

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to attend an especially beautiful wedding. The experience was extraordinary for many reasons. But one of them was that during the ceremony, as well as in the toasts afterwards, no one only spoke about the couple and their future life together. Instead the two of them were always thought of as working together to preserve and enhance their environment. They were gardening, taking care of a stand of trees, raising chickens. Their future will be a future trying to protect and promote the well-being of their natural environment. The relationship we celebrated was not just the connection of two individuals but of two individuals whose future life together will be committed to enhancing the world in which they live.
These two young people did not think of themselves merely as two individuals striving for happiness together. They thought of themselves as responsible for their world and its protection and improvement. It made me think about patriotism – so much in the news lately. For many people patriotism consists of honoring our soldiers in many foreign wars – even in wars, like the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, which are generally considered terrible mistakes. Perhaps we should think of patriotism instead as actively caring for the part of the world in which we live rather than of honoring those who have destroyed large parts of the world belonging to total strangers – the people of Vietnam, Iraq and of Afghanistan.
Another thought that wedding brought up is the connection between this different kind of patriotism, of love of the land and of our obligation as its caretakers, and the racial differences that divide us. White people tend to assume that obligations to care for our natural environment are incumbent on all of us. All Americans who profess to love their country are to express that love in caring for our land. But white people rarely understand that for the last 150 years, ever since the end of Reconstruction in 1870 or so, we have used many different subterfuges to take land away from African-Americans, to make sure that they would be deprived of whatever land they were working hard to own, to prevent them from owning property and homes in most suburbs.
At the end of the Civil War, African Americans in the southern states flourished. They ran for elected office and won. They governed well. The South recovered from the ravages of the Civil War. Then, 10 years after the end of the war, federal troops were removed from the South and the whites instituted a regime of terror with beatings and lynchings. Black elected officials surrendered their offices. Black voters were intimidated and stayed away from the ballot box. Black farmers were deprived of their land. The local government would claim that they owed large amounts of taxes. The black farmers, often unable to read and write, without the assistance of an attorney were deprived of their land and turned into sharecroppers. When it came time to assess how much the sharecropper had produced, more chicanery kept the farmer in debt. They lost their land to unscrupulous whites. Stealing from blacks was an accepted practice.
When African Americans moved north, they encountered the same opposition to their acquiring a piece of land and a home of their own. As early as the period before World War I a silent campaigns of arson and vandalism kept African Americans out of "white" suburbs. Banks and real estate groups developed the practice of "redlining." Maps clearly indicated areas where black people could own homes and live. Realtors would not sell property to African-Americans outside those areas and banks refused mortgages.
Suburbs invented zoning ordinances which prevented black owners of building lots from building their houses. Needless to say, the ordinances applied scrupulously to African-Americans were not enforced against white homeowners. The federal government contributed to this concerted effort against blacks owning land and property. At the end of World War II Congress passed generous legislation that empowered the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) to give low cost mortgages to veterans for buying homes in the new suburbs springing up around the major cities. But these mortgages were for whites only. African Americans did not need to apply. If they did they were turned down. The fact that black Americans had fought as bravely as whites in World War II counted for nothing.
As a result black families today, even if they earn good wages, own a lot less property, have smaller savings and retirement funds than whites. The extended campaign to deprive African-Americans of the possibility of owning land and homes has been terribly successful. It has not only perpetuated a major injustice against black Americans. It has also contributed to the divisions among us. Even today few white Americans have black neighbors; few black Americans live next to whites.
One result of this geographic division of different parts of our nation is that whites know very little about the history of violence against Blacks, of the systematic theft of black property, and exploitation of black labor. When athletes protest this long and brutal history, whites do not understand because they have not seen it with their own eyes. Had they lived next door to each other, there would be fewer whites who are entirely clueless when it comes to the life of black Americans in our country.
When young white couples marry, they can promise each other not only to cherish the other person but also to be good stewards of their land and the animals that live on it. But all of us whites should promise each other and the black members of our nation to do whatever they can to repair the injuries done to them by previous and present generations of whites.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

How to recognize racism when you see it

 After they got into a tiff with the president about demonstrations while the national anthem was being sung, the three large sports clubs in Boston got together to plan a series of actions against racism. There are plans for a some advertisements and other actions. So far the plans are pretty vague and that is an important part of my story today.
Interestingly enough, as they announced these plans with some fanfare they had an opportunity to act very concretely against racism.
Within the same fortnight Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico unbelievably. Communications are down; there is no power. Many roads are destroyed. People have no water and little food. Medicines are scare; the healthcare system not really functioning. The US government, the President, the military, FEMA, and other government agencies did not pay a whole lot of attention to the immense suffering of people on the island for about a week. It took them that long to send a general there to see what sort of military assistance would be needed.
When hurricanes had hit Texas and Florida help was on the way immediately. We might say that hurricane Maria was the third hurricane in a very short period and people were simply tired. But when Mexico City was hit by two major earthquakes we did not seem to show any interest. (Perhaps the President is still miffed by the Mexicans refusal to pay for the border wall.) It is hard to believe that if a catastrophic natural disaster hit Toronto or Montréal we would simply ignore that. Surely military planes and trucks and machinery would be on the way in no time at all.
But the people on the island of Puerto Rico are not Canadians. They are not white. Neither are Mexicans. The neglect of the tremendous suffering of Puerto Rico is not a result of battle fatigue; it is a clear manifestation of racism.
Here was a splendid opportunity for the athletes in Boston to show their opposition to racism by getting on the phone and calling the White House – President Trump is a personal friend of some of them – to urge immediate action. But nobody noticed the crisis.
There is a lot to be learned from this story. Puerto Rico was not neglected and left to suffer without help because the government “hates” Puerto Ricans. The Boston athletes did not overlook what was happening – or rather not happening-- in Puerto Rico because they hate Puerto Ricans. But white people don't pay as much attention to people of color as they do to their own kind (Unless they rape or murder). We take ourselves terribly seriously. We think we are terribly important and do not see people of color as quite as important. So what happened in Puerto Rico did not ring any loud alarm bells, it did not get the ambulances and fire trucks out, bells ringing and sirens blaring. Everybody deplored the suffering and then paid attention to something else – most likely something concerning white people.
You don't have to beat up on people of color to be a racist. You just need to not take them quite as seriously as we take ourselves.
But there is a second lesson. Racism is not a general thing which we can combat – well-meaning white folks that we are – any day in any way by showing videos and going to sensitivity workshops. Racism is like a chronic disease that flares up here and it flares up there perhaps with different symptoms. One way of being racist is not to notice what is happening. A more serious way of being racist is not noticing what you are doing.
If some persons of color in your nation are suffering grievously and you are not moved to action, if only to call your friend the president of the United States and tell him to go and do his job now, today, then you are being racist because you are not noticing what is happening and, if truth be told, you don't care.
The third lesson is this: what you can do to fight racism may not be the same thing that I can do. Each of us, as white people, are involved in the perpetuation of racism in different ways. Each of us has to find the places where he or she are contributing to maintaining present racist abuses and must then work hard to withdraw their complicity. There is no general prescription of what you can do. Advertising against racism has been tried for 50 years with little effect. Holding dialogues about race between city officials and leaders of the community is not only a waste of time but it does positive damage because it persuades white people that they are doing all they can to fight racism while, in fact, they're doing zilch.
Racism has little to do with hate. It has to do with not paying attention, with not being able to be bothered, with not taking seriously the misery of others just because their skin is darker than ours. Racism is systematic. White people work to maintain that system most often without explicitly meaning to. But not paying attention to how the system works (and doesn't), and what you and I do to promote it, is itself being racist however good your intentions might be.