Economics, History, Race, USA

Reparations for Racist Plunder: Addressing the Racial Economic Divide

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“When we think of white supremacy, we picture colored only signs, but we should picture pirate flags.” ­– Ta-Nehisi Coates

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There is no panacea for American racism—no single policy or protest or legislative proposal that can cure the ills of this deep-seated, multi-layered disease. The killing of George Floyd, and many others before him, has our national attention focused on the issue of police brutality.  Calls to defund the police are ringing out in cities across the country.

To this cause, I’m both sympathetic and skeptical.  I’m supportive of communities of color who wish to defund or dismantle an institution that has all too often done the opposite of “protect and serve” them, but I also question the ability of such an initiative to make progress towards true racial justice.

Everything is and should be on the table, and reforms to the way we do policing are undoubtedly worth considering.  But when it comes to appropriating our limited energy and resources, I think there is an issue that deserves a bigger slice of that pie—an issue that should seize centerstage in this moment of national urgency towards addressing racial injustice.  That issue is the enormous economic gulf that divides black and white America.

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Real solutions come from addressing root causes, and economic oppression is a root cause of a lot of problems in black communities, police brutality included.  Black people are nearly three times more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts, and while the caricature of the “black ghetto” is problematic, impoverished communities are more likely to experience crime, and therefore, more likely to experience encounters with police that have the potential to turn violent.

Economic inequality also helps respond to one of the favorite refrains of those who question the Black Lives Matter agenda, “Why are we so worried about blue-on-black crime when the real problem is black-on-black crime?”  There is no excuse for police brutality, but black-on-black crime is a problem that plagues many black communities, and makes policing those communities a difficult and dangerous job.  But, once again, it’s important to consider root causes.  Why are levels of black-on-black crime so disproportionately high?  Is it due to the fact that people born with black skin are innately more likely to exhibit violent behavior?  If you believe that, you are literally a “racist”.  But assuming you don’t, then there needs to be another explanation, something that stems less from biology and more from socialization.  That explanation lies within the impoverished communities that black people are more likely to be born into—communities in which socioeconomic conditions leave people more susceptible to participation in criminal activity.

And those conditions are 400 years in the making.

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The black poverty of today did not fall from the sky.  It’s a construction of American history that took centuries to build.  That history begins with slavery.

The enslavement of black people on American soil is older than the country itself, and it is the starting point for the black-white wealth gap that has never went away.  For nearly two-and-a-half centuries, black slaves occupied the unusual economic position of being mostly unable to accumulate wealth while simultaneously representing wealth as the property of their white owners.  They also generated enormous amounts of wealth through their labor, even though they didn’t share in any of the profits.  In the seven cotton producing states in the antebellum South, it is estimated that one third of all white income was derived from slavery.  By 1860, there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi River Valley than anywhere else in the country.  That wealth has been passed down through generations of white families, even though it was literally built on the backs of enslaved black people.

Following the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the brief period of Reconstruction offered a glimmer of hope to newly freed blacks that measures would be taken to reduce their economic deprivation. Forty acres and a mule was part of the initial promise made by the American government to help former slaves begin their new lives as free people.  It’s amazing to think where our country might be today if this promise had been fulfilled.  But it wasn’t.  Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency and rescinded the order, returning all the land set aside for freed slaves to the white southern planters who had owned it originally, and who had attempted to secede from the Union in order to preserve their “right” to force slaves to work it.

Black people remained free from state-sanctioned bondage, but their undesirable situation showed that freedom without economic security is no freedom at all.  They had lost their chains, but what did they have to start their new lives as free people?  Without money, without skills, without formal education, what was a free black man to do upon his release from the plantation in a country that, despite his legally recognized humanity, still saw him as something to be disdained?  Many ended up back on plantations working as sharecroppers for the same families who owned them in previous decades, and became a part of a system that many historians have referred to as “slavery by another name.”

When Reconstruction came to a close, the South rapidly returned to the project of constructing a society steeped in white supremacy.  Legalized segregation, voter suppression, and violent intimidation all collaborated to deny blacks political and economic opportunity. Even when black people were able to overcome all odds and achieve economic prosperity, incidents like the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 showed how quickly that wealth could be wiped away.

In an attempt to flee the horrors of the Jim Crow South, many blacks headed North in hopes of finding something better.  Unfortunately, better was still bad.  Discrimination in employment left blacks with few pathways to upward economic mobility.  Those able to succeed still found themselves unwelcomed in emerging wealthy, white suburbs.  Instead, black families with wealth were pushed towards poor, black neighborhoods where predatory mortgages torpedoed them back into poverty.  This practice, known as redlining, is one of the primary forces that led to the formation of the black ghettos we see across the urban North today.

 

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s made some pretty historic progress towards racial equality, but few of those achievements were centered around economics.  Decisions like Brown v. Board of Education and laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 went a long way towards gaining black Americans political equality, but economic equality still remained elusive.  While most remember Martin Luther King as the guy with a “Dream” in 1963, not many are aware that, towards the end of his life, King had shifted his focus to much more “radical” causes, including economics.  It’s worth quoting from one of his last major interviews at length:

“White America must see that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil…America freed the slaves in 1863, through the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln, but gave the slaves no land, and nothing in reality…to get started on.   At the same time, America was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that there was a willingness to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base.  And yet it refused to give its black peasants from Africa, who came here involuntarily in chains and had worked free for two hundred and forty-four years, any kind of economic base.  And so, emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of Heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate, and therefore, was freedom and famine at the same time. And when white Americans tell the Negro to “lift himself by his own bootstraps”, they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And many Negroes by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression, and as a result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading.”

This is the reason that King was in Memphis in the Spring of 1968.  He was there to support striking sanitation workers who were staging a protest against unequal wages and working conditions.  King did not leave Memphis alive.

 

Fast-forward to today.  Millions of black Americans are still “bootless”.  The wage gap between blacks and whites has been widening in recent decades, and the gap in homeownership is as large as it was on the day King was assassinated. When it comes to net worth white households on average possess about ten times the wealth of black households, creating cradle-to-grave security or cradle-to-grave poverty depending on which side of those statistics you’re on.  These inequities are magnified during the current pandemic.  Black people make up 13% of the country’s total population but have made up 23% of Covid-19 deaths, a stat no doubt bolstered by the fact that black people are almost twice as likely to lack health insurance compared to whites.  At every turn, the lingering economic inequality that began the day the first African slave was imported to Jamestown is still hampering the crusade for racial justice dozens of generations later.

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So, what do we do about?

The most powerful piece that I read in preparing this essay was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations”—a must-read for any American that cares about racial justice and even more of a must-read for any American that doesn’t.  In the article, Coates outlines a thorough history on many of the historic injustices that I’ve more briefly discussed here, and his belief that black Americans today must be financially compensated for the wealth that was robbed from their ancestors, and by consequence, them.

There are many forms that these restorative payments could take.  They could be checks sent out to individual African-Americans who can demonstrate a legacy of slavery in their lineage.  They could be, as Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree suggests, targeted investments in things like job training and public works that operate under the mission of racial justice, but indirectly assist the poor of all races.

What makes the idea of reparations most attractive to me is that they are a systemic response to a systemic problem.  The racial economic divide that exists in present day America is not a naturally occurring phenomenon.  Americans carefully and intentionally created it.  They created it through slavery, segregation, violence, discrimination, Jim Crow, redlining, voter suppression, sharecropping, and the scientifically disprovable belief that skin color determines the superiority or inferiority of persons, or if they are even persons at all.  It’s an outcome created by a system, and it will take a system to destroy it.

Reparations are about “repairing”—repairing the economic damage done to black communities throughout the course of American history.  But they’re also more than that.  They’re also a step towards healing—healing an enormous wound in the flesh of racial harmony that’s led to so much mutual hatred and mistrust between the “races” that we’ve created.  As Coates puts it:

“What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal…Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”

Perhaps defunding the police could play a role.  Redirecting police department dollars towards an investment in a struggling community of color could be an important step both practically and symbolically.  But that’s not enough.  Not even close.

Reparations would be a colossal project, but one of the many lessons that the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is that if we deem a project to be sufficiently important, we’re willing to commit as many dollars as that project needs.  The federal government has already invested trillions of dollars in Covid-19 relief spending, and it’s possible that there are trillions more to come.  But as devastating as this pandemic has been for the American economy, it pales in comparison to the economic devastation wrought on black communities over centuries of subjugation.

Reparations don’t need to happen in one fell swoop, but it’s time for the economic divide to take center stage in the national dialogue on racial justice.  It’s time for H.R. 40—the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act—to receive serious consideration from our elected leaders.  The problem of American racism is much too complicated to be solved simply by throwing money at it, and certainly there is no amount of money that can truly “make up” for the gross injustices of the past.  But when racial inequities of all kinds are so deeply rooted in economics, and in a country where financial security is so closely linked to the experience of true freedom, money is a good start.

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History, Politics, USA

Sacrifice in the Time of Corona

Americans are no strangers to sacrifice.  We make sacrifices in our personal lives all the time—for friends, for family, for work—putting aside personal desires and ambitions in order to support the other people that frequent our existence.  We’ll surely be making many of those sacrifices in the weeks and months ahead, as we struggle to adjust to the life-altering circumstances imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.  But in addition to the personal sacrifices, there lies an opportunity, and perhaps a necessity, for our country to reacquaint itself with a type of sacrifice that we may have grown distant from—a larger, more collective sacrifice for the greater, national good.

There are periods in our country’s history when a sense of national sacrifice was much more salient.  During the Second World War, Americans in every community showed up to support the “war effort”.  They planted victory gardens, and limited their consumption of meat, dairy, and gasoline.  They turned out their lights early, and collected and donated resources like rubber and aluminum.  They spent billions of dollars on government war bonds.  And while some of this sacrifice was a result of government mandate, most accounts suggest that an overwhelming majority of Americans supported the war effort not because they had to, but because they wanted to.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appealed to a national sense of collective sacrifice, and Americans willingly answered his call, becoming a vital component of the American military victory abroad.

Another president made a similar appeal a few decades later. John F. Kennedy ascended to the presidency during the formative years of the Cold War—a time when every aspect of American life seemed to be under imminent threat.  In his inaugural address, Kennedy famously challenged his fellow Americans to, “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”  This call to duty inspired a generation of Americans to seek careers in public service as teachers and soldiers and government officials, hoping to contribute to something larger than themselves.  The efforts of this generation were essential in the decades that followed as the United States pulled away from the Soviet Union in their various Cold War competitions, and became the world’s sole superpower, a designation it still holds today.

This sense of national sacrifice for a greater common good has not completely disappeared from the American ethos, but it has faded significantly.  Elected leaders today might be adept at making promises—most of which they can’t or won’t keep—but rare is the politician who will ask Americans for something in return (other than campaign donations).  It makes sense, in a way.  A call for sacrifice doesn’t win elections, so campaigns stopped making them, and as a result, Americans grew unaccustomed to hearing them.

But as positive tests for the coronavirus continue to multiply by the day, a call for sacrifice from our elected leaders is exactly what we need, not only to protect ourselves as individuals, but to do what’s best for the collective whole.

The importance of this last part cannot be overstated. If what we think we know about the disease is true, then the coronavirus does not pose a grave health risk to the majority of Americans.  As a relatively young person in relatively good health, it seems that even if I were to contract the virus, I’d probably be fine.  It might leave me feeling pretty crummy for several days, but in all likelihood, I’d survive.

BUT THIS IS NOT HOW I SHOULD BE THINKING.  Even if the coronavirus does not pose a lethal threat to me as an individual, it can still use me as a vehicle to inflict lethal damage on others.  I may be able to weather the disease, but if I infect others, who infect others, who infect others, eventually the virus will find a host that is much more vulnerable than I, and it may find several of them.

This speaks to the role that each of us must play in limiting the spread of this virus.  It’s why we need to wash our hands and avoid touching our face.  It’s why we need to work from home and practice social distancing. It’s why we need to reduce or eliminate our trips to the store, the bar, the mall, and the gym.  To put it shortly and bluntly, the more we are willing to make our own lives suck, the more likely it is that other lives won’t end.

To be sure, our government has to help us out, too.  The economic losses that will be experienced due to this virus can only be mitigated by a massive government stimulus—bailout-style payments to big businesses, small businesses, and individuals that will help to prevent further economic crisis.  Still, government will not be able to do its part if we don’t first do ours.

It is our national duty to not expose ourselves to the coronavirus, or if we do, to not expose ourselves to others. It is our national duty to protect the faceless fellow Americans whose lives will be saved by our actions, or lack thereof.  We must reawaken the sense of national sacrifice that inspired past generations of Americans to think beyond themselves in times of crisis, or just times in general.  We must do our part to not become a link in the chain.  We must do our part to help “flatten the curve”.

It’s hard to know what the coming weeks might hold. The last few days have been the most tumultuous days since, for most of us, ever.  And while things may not be great for much of the immediate future, most Americans can take solace in the fact that, if not for their sacrifices, things would be even worse.

We are all literally in this together.  This disease does not target Democrats over Republicans or Muslims over Christians or Americans over any other human being on the other side of some arbitrary border.  It’s a crisis that reminds us of our common humanity.  It’s us versus it.

We need to move forward with that collective mentality—one that places the greater, national good over selfish comforts or desires. And if we’re able to make those sacrifices, for ourselves and for each other, just like generations of Americans before us, we’ll win.

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History, Minnesota, Politics, Race, USA

The Walker Art Center and the “Scaffold” Controversy

Social justice-centered censorship is sweeping the nation, and this past week, Minneapolis became the temporary epicenter.  The controversy stems from a piece of art that was set to debut at the grand reopening of the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden later this month.  The piece known as Scaffold is intended to represent a commentary on the use and abuse of capital punishment throughout the history of the United States.  Part of that commentary includes a reconstruction of the gallows used in Mankato, Minnesota, during the 1862 hanging of the Dakota 38—the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

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The Scaffold structure has been met with massive resistance from both Native and non-Native peoples alike. That resistance came to a dramatic culmination on Wednesday afternoon with the joint decision to dismantle and burn the structure in a ceremony led by Dakota Spiritual Leaders and Elders. But while Scaffold’s run has ended before it ever really began, the conversation that is taking place in the Twin Cities and around the country is just getting started, and I personally am still trying to figure out where on these issues I stand.

Although artist Sam Durant intended Scaffold to be an awareness generating piece about the historic plight of Native populations, I understand the concerns about the unintended messages that the piece may also convey.  Chief amongst these is the structure’s location in the Walker Sculpture Garden—a less than solemn place with frolicking couples and children, mini golf, and a giant rooster and a cherry.  As one write-up puts it, “context matters,” and the context of the Walker Sculpture Garden may contribute to the trivialization of one of our State’s gravest injustices.

Another concern is the neglect of Native voices in the retelling of a story that is particularly impactful to indigenous people in this part of the country.  Sam Durant is a white guy from L.A., and while he has collaborated with Native groups in the past, this project was completed without any attempts at outreach to the Dakota peoples who the project is about. What is more, while in negotiations to obtain Scaffold, the Walker Art Center never reached out to Dakota groups in the community, which in hindsight, should have been a no-brainer considering the gruesome nature of the project and its intimate ties to that tribe’s history.

But all that said, I also understand a lot of the resistance to the resistance of the soon-to-be-burned structure.  Scaffold is a lot of things, but I don’t think it’s an example of genocide opportunism. A reading of Sam Durant’s near instant apology can quickly punch holes in that accusation.  The project’s actual intention was “to speak against the continued marginalization of these stories and people, and to build awareness around their significance.”  Misguided methods? Perhaps. But after reading the letter in full, Durant hardly seems like the kind of a guy seeking to exploit tragedy for personal gain.  Even the highly criticized “jungle gym” component of the project stems from a thoughtful albeit questionable attempt to comment on the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon so prevalent in communities of color today.

I also have to say that I got some respect for a fellow white guy doing his darndest to challenge oppression and privilege in the world, especially when he doesn’t have to.  As a member of the most dominant group in almost every major demographic category, guys like Durant don’t need to tackle injustice, because on a systemic level, they probably don’t often face it.  I’m not trying to paint Durant as a hero, and that kind of observation may sound tone deaf considering the gravity of the issue at hand, but that doesn’t make it any less true.  Perhaps it’s also that ignorance to experienced oppression that leads to the blundering nature in which guys like Durant (and myself) try to address said oppression, no matter how pure his (my) intentions might be.  But while it’s not always the thought that counts, the thought still counts for something, and what Durant is doing is exactly what us white guys are supposed to do in fighting oppression and dismantling our own privilege—starting conversations in our communities, with our people, and trying to create change.

Cultural appropriation is often a term that gets tossed around to describe artists like Durant who try to tell stories that aren’t theirs to tell. But while misappropriation is certainly a thing, and perhaps applicable here, there also seems to have been a societal shift in what we define as tasteless or insensitive appropriation of someone else’s culture. Bob Dylan sang songs about both Emmett Till and Rubin Carter in the 60s and 70s, and I’ve yet to find an article that condemns him as a “racism opportunist.” On the contrary, Dylan is constantly recognized as an American civil rights hero who used his art to draw attention to repressed and silenced voices, even if the experiences of those voices were a far cry from his own.

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Sam Durant is no Bob Dylan. Even if he thought that he was, he knows differently now:

“I made Scaffold as a learning space for people like me, white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society and who may not consciously know that it exists …However, your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people.”

Hopefully Durant has learned from this experience as much as his statement seems to suggest.  Hopefully he remains encouraged, and continues to try use his position of power and influence to do good in the world. If there is any solace he can take from this catastrophe, it’s that his project still accomplished its intended goal—it started a conversation. It’s not exactly the conversation that he intended, but it’s an important conversation nonetheless, and no matter what side of the issue you’re on, or what your ethnic background is, or what your beliefs are regarding the myriad of –isms at play, there is understanding to be gained for those willing to listen and learn, especially considering the fact that no one in this conversation seems to disagree that injustice is something that we need to address.  If nothing else, Sam, thanks for that.

 

Recommended viewing to learn about the Dakota 38:

 

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History, Race, USA

The Autobiography of Malcolm X: A must read for Americans

“When I am dead—I say it that way because from the things I know, I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form—I want you to just watch and see if I’m not right in what I say: that the white man, in his press, is going to identify me with “hate.”

He will make use of me dead, as he has made use of me alive, as a convenient symbol of “hatred”—and that will help him to escape facing the truth that all I have been doing is holding up a mirror to reflect, to show, the history of unspeakable crimes that his race has committed against my race.”

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I just recently finished reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The book was published in 1965, the same year in which Malcolm X was violently gunned-down by his former allies. At times, the book feels like it was published yesterday.

That’s because over 50 years removed from its groundbreaking publication, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is still incredibly, and perhaps depressingly, relevant. Its discussion of race unveils some painful truths about what it means to be born black, and white, in the United States of America—truths that still hold true to this day.

Especially amongst white Americans, X is commonly remembered as the anti-King. King was a southern Baptist, while X was a Black Muslim. King said to “turn the other cheek,” while X said to “send him to the cemetery.” King had a dream, while X saw a delusion. King had white allies, while X only saw “white devils.”

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History has definitely treated Martin King Luther more kindly. He is the face of the Civil Rights Movement and unanimously venerated today by black and white people alike as an America hero of the highest degree. I concur with that sentiment, but after reading X’s autobiography—the story of Malcolm X in his own words—part of me feels that the things that X was saying were more powerful and poignant than any speech that Martin Luther King ever made. King was a man of his time, but X was ahead of his, and perhaps 50 years from now, history will reflect that.

The Civil Rights Movement would not have happened with X as its leader.  King was palatable to the white American public in a way that X could never be. King not only shared the religion of the white masses, he was a minister. He used the very verses that white Christians knew so well to convince them that the just treatment of the black man was the Christian thing to do. His deeply held religious convictions also helped to inform his philosophy of non-violence—a philosophy that also had immense strategic wherewithal. Pictures of violent white cops brutalizing peaceful black protestors had an enormous impact on the white American psyche, and made the dehumanization of the latter much more difficult in the face of the actions of the former. What is more, King insisted on integration—on black people and white people living together peacefully, in harmony, as one. King’s timeless “I Have a Dream” speech is based on this very sentiment, and is credited with having helped to create a society where black and white people do indeed “work together, pray together, [and] struggle together,” at least up to a certain point.

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X, on the other hand, was a staunch segregationist. He had no desire to live next to the white man who had beaten and brutalized his people for hundreds of years—he just wanted an end to the beatings and the brutalization. He did not want to work with the white man either. He saw no sense or honorability in trying to convince the white man to bestow rights upon blacks. Respect and independence was something that the black man had to earn for himself, no matter what the white man had to say about it. In achieving those ends, X did not advocate for violence, but unlike King, he also did not advocate against it. “I don’t even call it violence when it’s in self-defense,” X once said, “I call it intelligence.”

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Even though X was, first and foremost, an advocate for black rights, he was also one of the most prominent critics of the Civil Rights Movement, at least the movement as we think of it today. He was highly skeptical of the methods and tactics used by the more prominent civil rights “leaders” (X’s quotations, not mine), and was even more skeptical of the movement’s so called achievements. To this day, Americans celebrate things like the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act as historic moments in the fight for racial equality—tangible political achievements that finally fulfilled the promised ideals of “all men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for every American regardless of race. But like Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, the language in said legislation often rang hollow. The words may have been pretty, but they failed to reflect themselves in a racial reality that never stopped being ugly. State sanctioned segregation may have come to an end, but that did little to increase the quality of black neighborhoods and black schools. Discriminatory voting laws may have been outlawed (sort of), but the legislators and legislation that followed have done little to address the plight of a lot of black Americans.

X didn’t need the hindsight that I am using to make the above observations—he used foresight. He knew that inspirational rhetoric and symbolic milestones would only go so far in creating meaningful change in the lives of black Americans. He may have thought King’s ends and means to be just and well-intentioned, but as X once said of his fellow civil rights advocate, “If you don’t think that he’s walking on the right road, I’m quite sure that you don’t agree that he’ll get to the right place.”

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I have tremendous respect for Malcolm X and tremendous regard for the worldview that he projected, but I also think that one of the most powerful aspects of this book is that X’s flaws were on full display. Even as someone who is enamored by history’s radical revolutionaries, there were plenty of things about X that I did not like, and plenty of things that X said that I did not agree with. But like this essay, this book is not an effort to martyrize or romanticize X the myth. It’s an honest, unapologetic portrayal of X the man.

In history, we often pretend that people don’t change. We assign them with static characteristics, as if they come into this world with certain inalterable traits that they consistently exhibit throughout their lives. The Autobiography of Malcolm X challenges this notion by showing us X’s evolution—not just from youth to adulthood, but the changes that took place in X, both personally and philosophically, in his never-ending quest to make sense of the world around him. In his final months, X had become more willing to work with the white man and more warm to the idea of an integrated society. He had recognized and admitted that some of his earlier views had some major flaws that failed to reflect the complexity of the larger world. He even broke with the Black Muslims with whom he had burst onto the national scene, and began his own pursuit of justice and truth in light of the new realities he had discovered.

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It goes without saying that X’s words should not be mistaken as the truth. I don’t think that there even is such a thing to find when surfing the subjective waves of race and history. That being said, I am confidant that everything that X expresses in those 400-plus pages is undoubtedly his truth. X always told it like he saw it, even though the way that he saw it changed over time. He was never one to sugarcoat anything, and never held anything back no matter how hurtful or offensive his words might be. The truth itself is oftentimes hurtful and offensive, and if X had to hurt you or offend you in order to tell you that truth, than that was just what had to be done.

In telling his truths, X oftentimes alters our own. Over 50 years removed from his departure from this world, X’s words still challenge many of the beliefs that we as a nation collectively hold about things like race and history and what it means to be an American. His words can be as discomforting as they are empowering, as demoralizing as they are inspiring, but regardless of message or tone, they are always radical, raw, and honest.

That’s what makes X’s voice so worthy of inclusion in the conversations that we are currently having. That’s what makes his words so insightful in our continued search to find solutions to the racial unrest that still plagues our nation. And that’s what makes his book such an important read for whites, and blacks, and anyone else who has skin in the game of race relations in the United States today. As I said before, I don’t think that X was right about everything, and surely there are some things that I think he was blatantly wrong about. But even though, at the end of the book, I remained unconvinced that the entirety of X’s upside down worldview was true, I still think that I’m a wiser person for at least taking the time to consider it.

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History, Race, USA

Systemic racism, or just racism?

“Systemic racism” means that the system is racist. It means that something in or about the system is systematically providing white people with advantages while consequently disadvantaging people of color. The intent of the system does not always seem or mean to be racist, but nevertheless, the results are.

Statistics on things like wealth distribution, employment, incarceration rates, and other social phenomena strongly suggest that systemic racism is indeed a problem in the United States. Yet, I often get the feeling that people don’t buy it—that they think that “systemic racism” is just a term invented by Black Lives Matter members to make excuses for their own failures and shortcomings.

But the statistics remain. The racial disparities are real. And if systemic racism is not the cause, then some other phenomenon must be.

I’m not saying that all systemic-racism skeptics are racists. However, I can’t think of any other way to rationally explain the statistics, the facts, surrounding America’s racial divide other than actual racism. You either need to believe in the existence of systemic racism, or you almost by default need to believe in some racist ideas.

Take student test scores for example—the racial disparity between black students and white students commonly referred to as the “achievement gap.” If you believe that black students and white students are born equally capable of succeeding in school, equally intelligent and talented, than you have to believe that there is something in the system, something in society that creates the results that we see. It could be due to inequitable funding between schools, or test questions that cater to a specific cultural group, but it certainly is not due to a lack of intelligence or capability in black children, unless you’re a racist, that is.

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How about incarceration, the fact that black people make up little more than 10% of the general population, but nearly 50% of the prisoner population. Is this because black people are inherently less moral? Inherently more violent? Inherently more susceptible to a life of crime? If you’re a racist, perhaps. But if you’re not, than you have to believe that something in the system created those results—racial profiling, the school-to-prison pipeline, unrectified historical injustices…something…

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And then there’s poverty. Black people live below the poverty line at more than twice the rate of white people. Black children are more than three times more likely to be living in poverty than are children who are white. Why? Is it because black people are incapable of performing the work demanded by higher paying jobs? Is it because black people are allergic to money and success? Or is it something systemic—some kind of hidden societal mechanism that borns blacks into poverty and works throughout their lives to keep them from getting out? Unless you’re a racist, the answer has to be the latter.

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We are now a half-century removed from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, a movement that saw black people finally gain access to many of the protections and liberties that they had been denied since their arrival on this continent. Yet, even Martin Luther King knew that political equality would be the easy part of the African American struggle. In the struggle for what he called “genuine equality,” King said that things like integrated lunch counters wouldn’t be enough. After all, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?” King was talking about the economics of systemic racism—the enslaved and oppressed history of the black race that entrenched its people in poverty, and the prevailing structures and attitudes that make it difficult for them to escape it. The Civil Rights Movements won many important battles, victories that deserve to be celebrated, but the struggle for genuine equality was not resolved then, and it remains unresolved now.

Systemic racism is a real thing. It’s the left overs and continuation of a racist past, the remnants of the racism that didn’t go away with the abolition of slavery and the desegregation of schools. It’s the cogs that continue to turn deep within the societal machine keeping black people in America underpaid, undereducated, and their lives undervalued—the pumping pistons that perpetuate the imprisonment of their people, or worse, leave them face down in the streets as victims of violence, violence that is all too often inflicted by the system itself. And if you’re willing to accept that the system is racist, that systemic racism is a real problem in United States that needs fixing, than you also have to accept that there is only one way to fix a systemic problem: change the system.

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Education, History, USA

Textbooks are not neutral

A few weeks back, there was a news story about a rogue world geography textbook with a couple of historical inconsistencies. The main point of contention involved the choice of language that the textbook used to describe the Atlantic Slave Trade of 16th-19th centuries, particularly its description of the unwilling participants in this system most commonly referred to as “slaves.” Instead, the textbook labels these owned and oppressed peoples with the title of “workers,” and furthermore, refers to the system of human-trafficking that they were forced to endure as if it were a form of “immigration.”

It’s easy to see why these semantical slip-ups created such a stir. On one level, it’s just bad history. It’s an inaccurate portrayal of what the past was, and begs people to arrive at false conclusions when trying to answer the what’s and why’s of history.

On another level, this historical re-write could have potentially dangerous consequences. While words like “workers” and “immigration” certainly sound friendlier than the horrible truths that they replace, they could reinforce some dangerous disbeliefs regarding racism in the United States that far too many Americans already hold today. How are we supposed to convince people that racism is still a problem in the United States if they are taught that it never was?   How are we supposed to address the racism that still exists if we don’t understand where that racism comes from?

“Immigrating workers” may create a more digestable story, but it does so at the expense of a truth that we need to hear in order to fix a problem that’s still very real. We need to hear the ugly truth, not the pretty lie.

This story was treated as an anomaly, a crazy ass-outliner that somehow slipped past the all-seeing auspices of textbook publishers and district curriculum boards. But while this error may have been particularly egregious, what was missing from this story was a larger discussion about the ways that textbooks, particularly history textbooks, shape and sometimes distort the ways that we learn about the world, despite their claims of neutrality.

All textbooks are biased. They are over-simplified mono-narratives that emphasize the stories and perspectives of all things white, male, and European at the expense of those things with more colorful, feminine, or indigenous flavors. Voices of the former take center-stage while those of the latter are relegated to supporting roles and side margins.

This is no accident. The aforementioned geography textbook from publishing giant McGraw-Hill was approved, like most textbooks in the field of social studies, by the Texas State Board of Education, a conservative body responsible for buying 48 million textbooks a year. Approval from this body is often viewed as a green light for publishers to begin marketing nationally. Hence, no matter what corner of the United States we may happen to live in, it shouldn’t surprise us when our textbooks seem to have been baked and barbecued in Texas conservatism.

That being said, you would need to be pretty well practiced in the detection of ethnocentrism to pick up on that conservative bias. That’s because these books are supposed to be neutral—objective presentations that strike an unbiased balance between liberal and conservative principles. And while it’s possible that these books do indeed have a conservative agenda, I think it’s probably much more likely that they are just written by people with conservative worldviews, and that those worldviews are reflected in their writing.

And that’s why their neutrality is bullshit.

To be neutral means to not favor one side over another. It means to give equal voice to all parties, no matter how many parties there may be. This is impossible for a textbook to do, no matter how many pages the authors decide to include.

Nor is neutrality even neutral. The goal of neutrality is to not choose sides, but neutral is a side. By staying out of the conflict, neutral leaves things the way that they are. By refusing to challenge anything, neutral automatically legitimizes all positions, with no consideration given to whether or not all positions are equally deserving of legitimization. By neglecting to ask questions, neutral teaches its readers to do exactly the same.

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This is what makes “neutral” textbooks so dangerous. They portray themselves as objective truths, when in reality they are not. All bias is not created equal, and there are certainly more biased accounts out there, but there is a key difference. Usually when reading accounts more traditionally thought of as “biased,” the reader is conscious of that bias. They will evaluate the information with the proverbial grain of salt, and carefully consider how that bias will affect their consideration of what it is they are reading.

With textbooks, it’s the opposite. Readers read the textbook as a neutral report of the topic at hand, all the while being unknowingly persuaded and influenced by the hidden values of the author written between each and every line of text.

Referring to slaves as “workers” is pretty bad, and it deserved every ounce of bad publicity that it recieved. What I would like to hear is more discussion of the larger problem, the one that this particular incident is only a symptom of.

Textbooks have a place in the classroom as a resource, a version, a voice…but never should they be presented as the objective truth. Textbooks are as biased as Howard Zinn and Bill O’Reilly, no matter what they pretend to be. If we don’t treat them that way, if we refuse to be critical of them and challenge their versions of history, our students will continue to grow up believing that early black Americans were migrant workers and that Christopher Columbus discovered America—that important women are the wives of important men and that people of color only exist in the margins.

Slaves were slaves, Columbus was a jackass, and the stories and perspectives of women and people of color have always been important, whether or not society recognized them as important at the time.

Textbooks are not neutral. They do there due diligence in cramming the entire history of a world and/or nation into a 974 page volume, but they are still only one version of the truth. To pretend otherwise is to lead our students down a perilous path where they will believe everything that they read and hear and be susceptible to the very indoctrination that we were hoping to avoid in selecting a “neutral” resource.

So at the end of the day, neutrality is not only something we shouldn’t strive for, it’s something we can’t achieve anyway. History is objective in the sense that it happened the way that it happened, but we still rely on humans to tell us about it. And once a human puts their fingerprints on something, be it history, geography, math, or science, that neutrality ceases to exist.  That is what needs to be recognized and acknowledge, be it textbooks or otherwise.

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History, Immigration, World

Historical Consciousness and the Global Immigration Crisis

In my world history class, one of the most important skills that I try to cultivate in my students is the skill of “historical consciousness.” I define historical consciousness as being able to see the present through the lenses of the past, to see today as a creation of yesterday. Current events, I tell them, do not fall from the sky. They are culminations and continuations of historical narratives. To understand those events currently happening, you need to know their stories. You need to use your historical consciousness.

Unfortunately, if you watch the news, I don’t think this is a skill that is modeled very well by the lame-stream media. News is framed in nothing but the now, and while the now is the most pertinent component of any news story, you cannot fully understand that now–where it came from or what to do with it–without some historical contextualization. To try and do otherwise leads to false conclusions about the problem at hand, and worse, flawed solutions proposed to fix it. Exhibit A: Immigration.

Immigration is the “A” news topic in the world right now. The horrendous stories coming out of Europe are rightfully receiving the majority of the media’s attention, but immigration on our own southern border has been a hot topic at both of the Republican presidential debates, and our own border crisis ain’t over either.

Voices on the issues vary widely on both sides of the Atlantic. There are those who are sympathetic to the plight of the refugees and those who see them as unwanted intruders. There are those who want to build the refugees a pathway to citizenship and those who want to build walls. But within this chorus of voices, one voice that I personally have had difficulty hearing is the voice of history. What are the historic roots of the sectarian wars in Syria in Iraq?  Of the political and economic disaster that is large parts of Africa?  Of the violence and corruption that defines so much of Latin American governance?  If you read the history books, a large part of the answer is us.

You cannot talk about the immigration crises around the world today without talking about the imperial and colonial legacy from which these crises stem. The dramatic differences that define quality of life between the world of white Europeans and the world of black and brown Latinos, Africans, and Middle Easterners did not come to be by accident–they came to be under a relationship of dominance, the former dominating the latter. It is this relationship that helped to create the political and economic instability the latter group is currently suffering, and the poverty, oppression, and war that they are currently fleeing.

What is more, the relative wealth and comfort experienced by so many living in Europe and the U.S. today is not just the result of living in a country that has never been colonized–it is the direct result of that country’s historic role as colonizer.

Europe and the States were built on the backs of slave labor, both at home and abroad. They were built with the resources of the “third world”–their gold, their silver, their rubber, their copper.   Sometimes these resources were funneled through corrupt dictatorships that the colonizers helped to install. Sometimes they were just stolen outright. And while colonization has come to an end, colonizer countries continue to benefit from the exploitation of their old empires today. Look no further than the “Made in ________” marking on your sneakers and electronic goods for proof of this discomforting reality. The comfort and luxury in what has come to be known as the “developed” world has always and still continues to depend on the “developing” world’s exploitation and misery.

When talking about immigration, I like the way that one writer puts it: “The empires are striking back.” They are fleeing what colonialism and imperialism created, and seeking to take back that which was taken from them generations ago. But increased compassion and understanding of the refugee plight does not reduce the complexity of the problem.

I was listening to NPR a few days ago when a French official said something to the tune of, “To close our doors is to watch migrants literally die on our doorstep, but to leave our doors wide open is to ignore reality.” And reality is real. To open the gates to everyone is not a solution that will help anyone. The settling of said refugees needs to be organized and evenly distributed so that both the refugees and those taking them not only simply survive, but prosper. That said, I have no idea how the fuck to make that happen.

This is a mess, and there are no easy solutions. All the refugees can’t and won’t be saved. The 2,500+ whom have already perished trying to cross the Mediterranean will surely be joined by more of their Afghani, Syrian, Somali and Nigerian brethren before the calendar year expires. The death count at the world’s second deadliest border will continue to pile up as well, along with the countless others who will die from the very conditions that drive people northwards in the first place.

There are commendations to be made. European countries like Germany and Sweden should be commended for the numbers they are taking in. Those in the United States pushing for amnesty and easier pathways to citizenship should be commended for the battles they are fighting. Perhaps most importantly of all, any genuine form of humanitarian and/or economic aid that is delivered to these countries in crisis in hopes of helping to make them not such horrible places to live should be commended, as this is perhaps the one true action that addresses the root of the problem. However, what need not be forgotten is that, while these actions are often framed as altruistic deeds of the benevolent, they could just as easily be framed as the fulfillment of a moral duty–a responsibility to rectify the inequality that exists between those who benefit from a colonial legacy and those who suffer from it.

And I think that is the most important thing to keep in mind. When talking about the conundrum that is the global immigration crisis, we need to think about where this crisis comes from–the historical factors that helped to create the dreadful situations experienced by those seeking refuge. Using our historical consciousness to think about immigration may not necessarily generate solutions to some of those toughest questions, but it can help us to avoid some of the horrible solutions proposed by the people who aren’t using theirs.

“Go back home,” doesn’t solve anything. The huge-concentration of Mexican-Americans living in states like Arizona and New Mexico actually are living in what historically was the home of Mexican people up until 150 years ago when the States took it from them in the dubious Mexican-American war. I’m sure Iraqis and Libyans would love to go back home. Maybe if it wasn’t for the non-stop cycle of violence and political chaos, largely perpetrated by foreign invaders, they would have never left.

At the end of the day, this is just a sad, sad situation. I don’t think that even the staunchest conservative blowhard lacks sympathy for the situation of these international refugees. When they say things like, “We’d love to help everybody. We just can’t,” I really think that they are right. We can’t help everybody. That’s just true. However, in light of history, I don’t think that that reality absolves us of our responsibility to try.

Recommend reading and viewing on the topic:

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