The shadows of racism

The Thinker by Rodin

If you had to pick one word almost guaranteed to raise people’s dander here in the United States, I would pick “reparations”. Almost everyone acknowledges that bad and misguided policies in our past caused the oppression, enslavement, relocation if not deaths of millions of Native and African Americans. However, almost every white person today feels that while these things happened long ago, they didn’t cause them so they should be held harmless. In addition, since discrimination by race is now illegal, the problem of racism is solved! Discussion over!

Arizona is attempting to deal with illegal immigration through essentially legislating ethnic profiling, which of course is just legislated racism. Just imagine the ruckus if roles were reversed and whites were judged likely of not being a citizen because they were white. That this is happening in Arizona of all places is more than a little ironic. Whites settled states like Arizona largely by pushing Native Americans and Hispanics off the land where they were the natives. Moreover, the vast majority of Hispanics living in Arizona are legal residents, and native born. But since Hispanics coming from Mexico illegally are considered a pervasive problem, sure, just write a law saying it’s okay to ethnically profile all Hispanics in Arizona!

They say the victors write the history books, and this is true particularly here in the United States. Here our history books give short shrift to issues like the forced relocation of Native Americans but plenty of puffing up how special and blessed our republic is. While Americans certainly enjoy an extraordinary amount of freedom compared with most countries, our history books and our history teachers have omitted a whole lot of pertinent facts that would present a more balanced picture of our history. While I was aware of the general problem, I did not understand the full extent of the problem until I started reading Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen, a historian, sociologist, professor and scholar.

Loewen’s in depth research is both fascinating and depressing. Most students studying history have little idea of our real history because, like in the old Soviet Union, so much of it has been airbrushed away. For example, few know that Christopher Columbus and the policies of the colonial Spanish government exterminated the natives of Haiti. Most of us have no idea that more than ninety five percent of the Native Americans living in what is now the United States died from diseases we brought over from Europe.

It’s all there and more, and it’s a sad, sorry but interesting story. For the most part, we know that Patrick Henry would accept only liberty or death, but don’t know that Patrick Henry was also a slaveholder and believed that negroes were intellectually inferior, a common view among whites at the time. We may have heard that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder as well. Yet, the handfuls of slaves that he freed upon death were related to him by blood. He actually increased the number of slaves in his household as he aged. His father owned slaves too, which accounted for his relative wealth, but Jefferson’s wealth, his fabulous Monticello estate (which I visited recently), not to mention his huge collection of books, most of which went to the University of Virginia that he founded came from wealth generated by human beings that he enslaved.

Nor are we aware that the first settled colony in what is now the United States was not Jamestown, but one populated by rebellious slaves in what is now South Carolina, slaves who were aided and assisted by inclusive Native Americans. I had no idea that many whites that came to this country joined Native American tribes, finding with them a much freer and inclusive life than was available in their colonies, where they were often oppressed or indentured. I had no idea that in 1864 at Democratic Party rallies people gleefully sang (to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) the “Nigger Doodle Dandy” with lyrics like:

Yankee Doodle is no more,
Sunk his name and station;
Nigger Doodle takes his place,
And favors amalgamation.

The sad truth is that we were a largely segregated society because the whites would have it no other way. For much of our history, the United States emulated South Africa under Apartheid. The Civil War solved the issue of slavery, but it did not change that many hearts. Hearts change slowly, over many generations, and racism never seems to die out completely.

In my last post, I mentioned my recent trip to Richmond, Virginia and the proud, almost obnoxious way it clings to its Confederate past. Our governor Bob McDonnell made the national news recently by proclaiming Confederate History Month in Virginia. In his proclamation he left out any reference to the evils of slavery, an omission, he says that was entirely accidental. Umm, right. If it weren’t for the discord between North and South on slavery, there would have been no Civil War. Curiously, only recent Republican governors bother to proclaim Confederate History Month. Democratic governors seem to realize that the Confederacy was a terrible mistake and slavery, the animus that started the Civil War, was a great wrong.

The truth is that even in the 21st century we are still at best only beginning to emerge into a post racial society. Professor Loewen though does an exquisitely professional job of documenting just how pervasive the racism was, why and how it still exists today. It exists due in part to the victors writing the history books. Moreover, selective rewriting our textbooks to fit our current political state of mind is still going on. Perhaps you read about misguided efforts by the Texas Education Board to rewrite history by discounting the role of Thomas Jefferson in the founding of our Republic. Perhaps Texas could start by telling the truth about its own history. White ranchers who craved the land held for generations by Hispanics who inconveniently lived there already formed the short lived Republic of Texas. Not surprisingly, they also considered the Hispanics to be intellectually inferior. The Battle of the Alamo in what is now San Antonio (and which I expect to visit in a few weeks) was a pivotal event in this lost cause. It was one of the reasons Texas decided to join the United States. There was strength in numbers and the United States was acknowledged as a white people’s country.

Much of the animus behind The Tea Party comes from largely unacknowledged racism. The party is overwhelmingly white, Republican and a majority believes crazy things like President Obama was born in Kenya.

What would real reparations look like? It is hard for me to really envision, but it would be justice if all profits earned at the Monticello estates went to scholarships for African Americans. That might make some small amends for Jefferson’s racism and enslavement of over two hundred human beings. It would be a start. In truth, we’ve got a long road ahead of us if we want to be post racial in fact, as well as in law.

A Nation Built on Smuggling

The Thinker by Rodin

It can be dangerous to read history books. You learn things you don’t necessarily want to know. I am currently reading To Rule the Waves by Arthur Herman. It is the story of how the British Royal Navy shaped what we now know as our modern world. It’s an excellent read and hard to put down. As you read it you feel the mistiness of centuries past recede and you discern the often crude realities of those times. They were times that were certainly harsher than most of us can now imagine. While it often seems that today we are still a bunch of savages, reading a book like one this can make you realize we’ve still come a long way.

You learn that very famous people were not necessarily very nice people. Take for example Sir Francis Drake, the first man to circumnavigate the world. Clearly it was an incredible accomplishment but Drake was no humanitarian. Humanitarians were few and far between in the 1500s. Life was hard and brutish. But in addition Drake was no gentleman. He sailed with his good friend Thomas Doughty. But it wasn’t long after his ships passed the equator that their relationship broke down. Drake would tolerate no dissent. He interpreted some of Doughty’s words to be mutinous. On the coast of South America he convicted him for mutiny in a show trial and then had him beheaded him on the deck of his ship. Glad I wasn’t there.

I also learned that most of our founding fathers were, to put it bluntly, smugglers. Herman writes, “Virtually every wealthy American merchant involved in the rum trade, the wine trade, or even the tea trade, was to one degree or another, a smuggler. For decades, fast-running New England schooners, sleek two-masted fishing boats with fore-and-aft sails for quick handling, allowed the lawless Americans to thumb their noses at an overextended Customs Service.”

After Great Britain’s war with France, the overwhelming presence and numbers of Royal Navy ships off our coasts made it possible to effectively enforce trade laws in their colonies for the first time. Needless to say this seriously disrupted the lifestyles and incomes of the colonists. It turned out that smuggling in untaxed sugar from South America and the West Indies for other commodities like codfish and timber, and trading with countries with whom Great Britain was technically at war with, was much more profitable than trying to clear land and earn a living by farming. Much of the anger that fed the Revolutionary War was a direct result of the difficulty Americans were having maintaining our fine smuggling tradition. In short many of our forefathers were lawbreakers. And their standard of living was in jeopardy.

Naturally they did not see themselves this way. As we know the cry was about “taxation without representation”, a feeling that would doubtless be familiar to the citizens in our modern colonies like Washington D.C. But it matters not. If judged by the standards of our current administration our forefathers would be scummy lawbreakers. They would be unprincipled men for whom the ends justified the means and simply unwilling to abide by the law of the time. That Great Britain ultimately failed and that the United States won its war of independence was mostly due to the British Empire being vastly overextended. With no friendly ports on the east coast supplies for a war with America had to be imported from Great Britain itself, a ruinously expensive endeavor.

New England in particularly excelled at turning sugar from the Caribbean into high quality rum. In 1763 Massachusetts alone had 63 distilleries. Arguably rum profits were the primary source of colonial wealth, and those profits allowed a textile trade to begin in America. But Great Britain needed the money imposed on the colonies as a result of the Stamp Act to pay its massive war debts. However the Americans wanted nothing to do with paying for the costs of Great Britain’s wars, although they enjoyed the benefits of its protection.

This “have my cake and eat it too” spirit is clearly alive and well in America today. We still find taxes to be evil. We still want the benefits of free trade without any of the costs. Of course we think it is fine for us to impose tariffs on foreign goods when it is in our interests, but not okay for other countries to do the same to our products.

Maybe I was being naïve, but I was hoping that our founding fathers had higher ethical standards. But they must not have been complete scallywags. While they knew how to be pragmatic when it came to business, they were also deeply in touch with the base reality of human nature. As a result our constitution, instead of assuming the best from human beings, assumes the worst. “Trust no one” seems to be its guiding philosophy. We have branches of government continually checking and balancing the other branches. When one branch gets too much power it is usually in the vested interest of the others to figuratively whack the uppity branch on its head and tow it back into line.

Our forefathers may have been white-collar criminals and scallywags. But at least they were proud members of the reality-based community.

The Cost of Indoctrination

The Thinker by Rodin

I went to public school in Florida in the early 1970s. As part of a requirement for graduation all students were required by the state to take a course called “Americanism vs. Communism”. As I recall it lasted a quarter and was part of what would otherwise pass for a history credit.

The course purported to clearly distinguish between the American way of life and the totalitarian/fascist nature of communist governments. In it I learned more than I ever expected to about communist theories and leaders. Our class even had a guest speaker who had lived behind the Iron Curtain. She provided a first hand account of what it was like to live in a totalitarian state. I confess after completing the “course” I had no desire to become a communist. But I had none before the course either.

Yet the course has bothered me to this day. And this was because it was not really learning. It was indoctrination, courtesy of the Florida state legislature. While it certainly had its educational aspects, it was neither fair nor balanced. No communists were invited to counterpoint. No mention was made that Communism was a direct result of the brutal oppression of the Russian people. Nor was the very real exploitation of the workers at the time (both in Europe and here in the United States) and the fact that laborers lived lives in poverty with no hope of a better future given any mention as the conditions that bred communism. The course was really about the evils of communism as perceived through the lenses of a nation twenty years or so into The Cold War. It did not provide a genuine understanding of communism. It did not provide context. It was not really education.

At the time this was an isolated example. Today though students have to pass more and more “courses” that are really just indoctrination. In some cases the courses are worse than indoctrination. Why? Because they present themselves as unbiased when they clearly are not.

The best example that I can think of is the modern sex education course taught in our public schools. In many school districts abstinence is openly preferred. Indeed this is Bush Administration policy. Any suggestion that sexual curiosity between boys and girls of that age might be natural is rebuffed. Homosexuality is often not discussed, and when discussed is discussed in a tightly scripted way so that the size and scope of homosexuality is difficult for the student to understand. In many school districts masturbation is not discussed. Even discussing birth control is off limits for many students. Instead of discussing sexuality in context, sex education has become a discussion of the potential horrors of premarital sex. It does little to give a student any idea how to actually cope with their feelings. Sex education has become indoctrination. It usually fails to present the balanced set of information needed by students to make informed choices.

In Cobb County, Georgia school officials require a sticker on biology textbooks indicating that the Theory of Evolution is simply a theory, and not a fact. The educators in that school district are apparently not sufficiently advanced to understand there are multiple definitions for theory. The first definition is “A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena” not “An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture”, which is the least used definition. Nor apparently could they be bothered to find out from scientists which definition applies to the Theory of Evolution. Hint: it’s not the second. Another school district in Pennsylvania wants to require students to also learn about so-called “Intelligent Design Theory”. And you can be certain that if this theory is discussed no mention that it falls into the “assumption” category of theories will be made. It’s much easier to talk about theories in general and let every crackpot theory in than to limit discussion to theories with actual merit.

Let’s be clear what is going on here. Increasingly we are sending this message to our children: we don’t want you to have the best-known information. We will tell you what the truth is. But our version of the truth is based on our faith and prejudices, not on an impartial assessment of the facts. We think it is better to ignore certain facts, present facts selectively, and provide alternative viewpoints with no basis in reasoned analysis than to present the modern understanding of the current world put together by academics with no axe to grind. The message is pretty much this: it’s okay for us to lie to you. It’s for your own good.

So what is the purpose of education then? How does a student handle the real world without a clear understanding of it? Increasingly our children cannot. Perhaps this is why although global warming is as much a theory as is the Theory of Evolution we’d rather live in denial. Those pesky, abstract, non-biased scientists can be really annoying telling us things we don’t want to hear.

Imagine if driver’s education course included no mention of what to do if you see a stop sign. Most of us would be appalled to put our children in the driver’s seat without this basic understanding. But for many of us parents we would rather pamper our prejudices than do what is best for our kids: just give them the best-known facts. Life will be complicated enough for them in the 21st century. Why make it needlessly difficult?

Where is our sort of brave new world thinking also happening? I bet you can find it resurgent throughout the Muslim world. It’s been going on in the Vatican for millennium. Spanish bishops are still scared to admit that condoms prevent sexually transmitted diseases. I bet you won’t find this sort of wishy washy learning happening in most of today’s emerging high tech economies. I bet in India “Intelligent Design” is not taught along with the Theory of Evolution. Guess which society is going to be better prepared to move and adapt to the future?

There is a cost to ignorance. There is a cost to selectively presenting the facts. There is a cost to lying. For a country that claims to worship freedom, it’s odd that we won’t give our children the freedom to learn free from our own petty biases. Let’s give our students the freedom to see the clearest picture of the universe, as we know it. We do them no favor by placing them in a world where they must always engage with one arm tied behind their backs.