Thursday, May 17, 2018

Arming Teachers

In reaction to the Parkland school shooting President Trump suggested that schoolteachers should come to class carrying pistols. Instead of using their free time to improve their command of their subjects or improving their skills as teachers, they should go to the shooting range to improve their aim. This proposal has proved to be quite popular in North America. 
But there is also significant opposition. Particularly teachers themselves have been very critical of this proposal. A number of mishaps involving guns in schools have shown that students are not safer in their classrooms, when their teachers or school police officers come to work armed. In Virginia a school police officer accidentally discharged his weapon sending a bullet into the adjacent middle school classroom. A California teacher demonstrating gun safety in his classroom accidentally put a bullet in the ceiling. Falling debris injured some of the students. A Michigan Sheriff left his loaded weapon in a locker room where a sixth grade student found it.

Since 2014, the Associated Press reported more than thirty mishaps involving weapons brought into schools by sheriffs or teachers. Thirty events endangering the lives of students in school.

The lesson is clear. Guns are dangerous. Bringing them into schools endangers students and teachers. Arming teachers may well decrease safety in schools rather than increasing it.
These are serious reasons for being distrustful of the President's recommendations to deal with school shootings. But there are other reasons behind the groundswell of opposition, especially among schoolteachers, against arming educators. This opposition has been immediate and emotional. It is not clear from what we hear why so many teachers refuse to consider bringing loaded weapons into classrooms.

The reason is, I suspect, that to the teachers carrying loaded weapons is a way of normalizing gun violence. While teaching algebra or history or English grammar, the teacher also conveys another lesson, namely that gun violence is a component of ordinary, normal daily life. You need to be prepared to respond to shooters bursting into your classroom. It is a part of ordinary everyday life that people pull guns on each other. Everyone must be prepared to defend themselves against such violent aggression.

Many Americans, many schoolteachers, want to resist this Wild West picture of normal life. They refuse to accept this narrative of life in civilized society being one of personal violence, of lethal aggression against which everyone needs to be ready to defend themselves. Social life where blazing guns are part of everyday life may describe accurately what it is like to live in Sudan or Somalia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but ours, many Americans insist, is a civilized country. Gun violence is the exception not the rule. We have police officers specialized to deal with those exceptional situations. Ordinary citizens talk to one another. They may get exasperated and raise their voices. There may be fistfights at times. But gun violence is not normal; it is not acceptable. It should not be encouraged by arming more people to start shooting when they think their life is in danger.
Obviously Americans disagree about this. Different states have different rules about carrying guns, openly or concealed.

There are two very different pictures of what life in America is and should be like. There are those who believe that in public life violence is the exception and that means that only the police should be armed. Others think that gun violence is a daily occurrence. It is a normal part of life in this society and all must be ready to defend themselves.

The disagreement is fundamental. It is our heritage of centuries of violence against the native inhabitants of the continent. In the past, daily life could always erupt into violence, public forces to keep the peace were weak or nonexistent, and every citizen needed to be prepared to defend him or herself. The ubiquity of firearms, the streak of violence pervading our public life, a threat to pious Christians as much as to children in schools, is a part of this inheritance from previous generations. It is the price we pay for taking away the land from its previous inhabitants.

It is time to distance ourselves from this shameful past. A major element of this distancing would be to make an honorable peace with the descendants of those whose land we took. Another part of this distancing is to put an end to the culture of private violence, to ban weapons designed to kill human beings and to confiscate them from their owners. Our gun culture is profoundly uncivilized. It gives the lie to our claims to be a great nation that others should emulate.

Monday, May 7, 2018

    Presenting and Misrepresenting 
African-American History


    I spent the week in Washington DC being a tourist. One of the main goals of the expedition was to visit the National Museum of African Americans History and Culture. Admission is free but it is best to apply for a ticket ahead of time because the demand to visit is so great. The day I was there, there were a people of all ages and all colors, Americans and foreigners, but the preponderance were larger and smaller school groups with the majority being white students.

    The museum is quite wonderful. Instead of the many diorama's of old there was music, there were short and longer videos everywhere, there were some interactive displays. The history seemed fairly reliable. There was little attempt to whitewash the brutality of slavery. The presentation was quite explicit in attributing to white landowners the responsibility for embodying the difference between whites and Blacks in legislation at the end of the 17th century. Before then, white and black servants worked side-by-side, socialized and intermarried without any difficulty. By 1700, intermarriage was prohibited, Blacks were no longer allowed to vote, Blacks were not allowed to defend themselves against physical attacks by whites.

    The same can be said about 19th century history, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the long hundred years of Jim Crow where racial divisions were enforced by lynchings. Few whites protested.  There seemed to be few attempts to moderate the horror of that history.

    In the 20th century there is elaborate coverage of the civil rights movement. But now the account begins to leave out important facts. For instance: when veterans came home from World War II a grateful nation passed the G.I. Bill which provided free higher education to all veterans and low-cost mortgages for veterans to buy bungalows in the new suburbs being built in large numbers. Black veterans, however, were excluded. The best universities and colleges refused to accept black students. Real estate agents refused to sell houses in the suburbs to black buyers. Only very small percentages of black veterans were able to take advantage of the benefits all veterans were in principle entitled to.

    Here was surely one of the sources of current inequalities. But this source was not mentioned because the museum is pretty silent about current inequalities. The killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his murderer are there. But any extensive description of the disabilities under which black citizens suffer is missing.

    Here are some of the facts the museum does not mention:

    • In absolute terms, the median white household has, in recent years, $111,000  in wealth holdings compared to $7000 for the median black household. That includes homes, cars and savings.
    • 73% of white households owned their home as compared to 43% of black families
    • Unemployment among Blacks is twice the rate of unemployment among Whites
    • The poverty rate among Whites is less than 10% versus 27% among Blacks
    • Cancer is the second leading cause of death for both non-Hispanic Blacks and non-Hispanic Whites. In 2001 the incidence for 100,000 persons was substantially higher for poor Black females than for White females for certain cancers. All in all health for Blacks is significantly worse than for Whites.
    • Infant mortality rates in the US in 2013 was five per thousand births for white women and more than 11 per thousand for black women.
    • Five times as many black people are incarcerated as whites.

    The list of inequalities between Black and White is much longer. In the vast majority of comparisons Blacks are at a disadvantage.

    These omissions are not surprising once we look at the lists of large donors of the Museum. General Motors gave more than $1 million as did Goldman Sachs. The pillars of the current power structure will not want ordinary citizens to know the extent of the racial crisis. They don't want American schoolchildren to leave the museum wondering why the government and the very rich are content to allow these major injustices to continue.

    The relative honesty with which the early history of race relations in this country are treated makes the public trust all of the presentations and thus citizens go home thinking that police brutality towards young black men and women is the last remaining problem that Black people face.

    Downtown Washington DC is one tremendous propaganda effort. The National Museum of African-American History and Culture makes a significant contribution to that propaganda effort.

Surprise, surprise.