Yes America, we have a race and class problem

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you missed it, Alvin Toffler died on June 27. The author, principally known for Future Shock (1970), warned us that our future was not going to be easy. The book was a warning that too much change happening too quickly would have predictable consequences. In 1970 change was everywhere. Bellbottoms have since disappeared but we’ve been racing toward the future since then, with economic (industrial to service economies), gender, sexual, class and racial changes occurring far more quickly than most of us can handle them. Future shock is still a thing but with his death at least Toffler doesn’t have to deal with it anymore.

Currently it’s manifested in our racial strife. The fatalities keep rolling in. It’s getting so that when I wake up and read the news I expect to feel a wave of nausea. Not even two days apart there were egregious murders of black men by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and St. Paul, Minnesota, at least partially recorded on smartphone cameras. It used to be that white people like me could sort of excuse these events as the act of a rogue cop or two, but that’s not the case anymore. Last night of course in Dallas, Texas following a protest on police shootings of blacks more than one sniper killed five police officers and wounded seven other officers, plus two civilians. At least one of the shooters was killed by “bomb robot”, something that sounds like it is from a Terminator movie but is apparently quite real.

Toffler would not be surprised by this reaction. It was neither a right nor a just thing to do, but it was entirely predictable as tone-deaf police departments and officers continue to disproportionately kill blacks in altercations that are at best minor. I mean, killing someone for having a taillight out? There’s little doubt in my mind that if I had been driving that car I would likely have gotten a friendly warning and I would have been on my way. But then my skin is white and that gives me privileges obviously not afforded to many blacks by police.

I once wrote optimistically about our post-racial society. As I look back on it, clearly I was widely off the mark. It’s truer to some extent for the latest generations that are at least growing up in a multicultural world. Post racial for them is the new normal. But it’s not quite as normal as we think. Americans are in general strictly self-segregating along racial and class lines. Having spent more than thirty years in the Washington D.C. area, its multiculturalism became the norm, which was surprising given that I grew up in an area almost exclusively white. Moving to a more white area in retirement seemed quite odd.

You have to wonder how this happened. I don’t think most police officers are overtly biased against blacks. Police officers though work in the real world. Crime tends to occur more often in poorer neighborhoods, which are usually minority and typically black. If I had to struggle to survive like a lot of these people I’d be more likely to commit crimes as well. It must not be hard for a police officer that constantly finds trouble in these parts of town to develop an unconscious bias against the poor and blacks. Their job is to keep society safe so naturally they are going to focus on those areas they perceive as less safe. When you have your wealth and status, there is little reason to cause trouble.

Policing though is a tough job. You deal with life’s nastiness everyday. It’s not for everyone. I suspect if I had been a police officer I too would eventually behave a lot like these rogue officers, simply because of the constant pressure of it all. Despite their training my bet is a lot of these officers are victims of PTSD simply from being officers. It comes with the territory. Clearly we should recruit officers that can keep an even keel, but in reality police officers come from a pool of people with aggressive and authoritarian tendencies. In addition, we don’t pay them nearly enough to deal with the stress they endure everyday.

And speaking of stress, when you are poor, black or really any minority in this country, your life is unlikely to be a bed of roses. You spend much of your life being ethnically profiled. Add to this the likelihood that you will be poorer and live a more challenging life. Unlike me you are unlikely to inherit tens of thousands of dollars when your father passes away. You will struggle for respect, for equal pay and simply to keep the floor under you.

The results are not too surprising. Police officers, many carrying around an unconscious or overt bias against people of color, hired for being aggressive and authoritarian, but also understanding that their place within society in on the lower part of the bell curve will tend to act out their anxieties. And since they literally have the power of life and death, it’s pretty hard to keep your feelings in check when you figure that black guy probably doesn’t like you and has a gun, and you want to make it home to dinner. Meanwhile the black guy, being an otherwise normal human, is sick to death of being pulled over and acting subservient to police officers and white people in general. It all feeds on itself.

But feeding it all are those on top: the politicians and basically those with money, projecting their class and racial biases on those who enforce the law, and tacitly looking the other way so often when incidents like these occur. It’s a rare cop whose behavior will be judged criminal when they happen.

How do we stop this? In reality it is a very complex and multidimensional issue. Getting cops some cultural sensitivity training and making them wear body cameras isn’t enough. A real solution requires a lot of lowering of shields, community discussion and transgressing not just our racial prejudices but our class prejudices as well.

Certainly those we are hiring as cops aren’t getting the right training for a 21st century America. We are in general picking the wrong people for these jobs and not paying them commensurate with their difficult jobs, much like teachers. The overarching issue is really our staggering level of income inequality, if not the downright cruelty of society in general. Recently the Arizona legislature decided it hadn’t made the poor miserable enough yet. Now it’s limiting TANF benefits to the poor from two years total to one year, as if people are only allowed to be poor once. Otherwise, let ‘em eat cake, which in their case may be Twinkies. There is no compassion here, simply on overwhelming disgust from those in power toward those that have none.

In short, it’s going to take a lot of time but mostly it’s going to take a lot of white people like me to stand up and say “Enough!” This is because apparently we’re the only ones the power brokers listen to. Besides posting essays like this, I’m pondering the best way that a white male like me can move the needle on this issue. Suggestions are welcome.

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.

Beguiling Northern Arizona

The Thinker by Rodin

It is good to combine business and pleasure when you can. Business is taking me this week to Flagstaff, Arizona, which is three time zones away from home and 6910 feet in altitude. Its altitude likely makes it one of the highest cities in the nation, if not the world. I could have arrived here this evening and attended just the business portion of the trip. It is a much better idea though to invite my wife to travel with me and arrive a few days early. We arrived last Friday, spend a dutiful Saturday with my wife’s mother and step father in Chandler (a city outside of Phoenix) then drive up to Flagstaff on Saturday night. With the Columbus Day Holiday I was able to turn a three day business trip into a weeklong trip west, with four days of vacation. Moreover, my employer paid for my airline fares. The Residence Inn here in Flagstaff was also gracious enough to extend our low business travel rate to my leisure days too. In short, this is something of a bargain mini-vacation.

Flagstaff in October was much different from Flagstaff in August 2001, which was the last time I was here. Actually, in 2001, we never quite made it into Flagstaff proper, so this was my first real encounter with the city. It is quite a change from its big sister city Phoenix two and a half hours by car to its south. We arrived to subzero temperatures and blustery winds. Apparently the management of the hotel turns sprinklers on at night even when the weather dips below freezing. Sunday morning thus revealed well-manicured lawns and sidewalks covered with ice.

The wind has not stopped blowing since we arrived. We are told that the temperature is well below normal too. Thankfully, we had the foresight to check the extended forecasts before we left. I was glad that I packed a jacket, a sweater, gloves and a winter cap. There was a hint of snow on the upper slopes of the nearby San Francisco Mountains, but it is unlikely we will see any precipitation this week.

Sunday we ventured south into Sedona. It is in the news because one of John McCain’s many homes, and arguably his principle residence, is located in Sedona. Sedona is about thirty miles south of Flagstaff. While in the mountains, it is considerably lower in altitude than Flagstaff. To get to Sedona from Flagstaff, you must drive down AZ-89A, which takes you via many twists and turns through the spectacular Oak Creek Canyon. Sedona itself seems an odd location for John McCain to call home. It feels more like Berkeley, California since it is hard to turn around without running into a shop selling New Age merchandise. It also resembles Georgetown, in Washington, D.C. because it seems impossible to find a parking space. While I am sure there are natives who live there, the local economy is all about marketing to the many tourists who pass through the valley. John McCain’s ranch must be far outside the city limits because the mountains are so close and so vertical that it is hard to imagine that there is space for any resident to have a ranch. Nonetheless, this odd town is where Sarah Palin was coached for her vice presidential debate. Its liberal values probably rubbed off on her, and affected her debate performance.

Sedona, while beautiful, held little appeal to me as a place to spend much time. We bought some touristy junk, ate some ice cream and felt we had seen enough. Of far more interest was humble Slide Rock State Park on AZ-89A where we spent a couple hours before returning to Flagstaff. The creek this time of year had a relatively low flow, and the temperatures may have been in the fifties, but it did not stop some crazy coeds from Northern Arizona University from jumping into the creek in their bikinis and sliding down its slippery sandstone rocks. The state park is small but charming and is framed by the surreally beautiful creek that bounds gently over its well weathered sandstone rocks. Small can be beautiful indeed.

Yesterday we took in some closer tourist attractions. Just a few miles from our hotel is Walnut Canyon National Monument. The canyon itself is relatively small, but a trail takes you into its bowels where you can discover cliff dwellings of the lost Sinagua tribe. For those who fear to tread up the two hundred some odd steps of the Island Trail, a shorter Rim Trail is easily accessible. While normally climbing steps is not a challenge, I found it to be challenging because the canyon is 6700 feet high. Consider yourself a hearty soul if you can make it from the base to the rim without an altitude break or two.

A sure hit near Flagstaff is Sunset Crater which can be found fifteen miles or so north of the city. The crater is part of the larger Sunset Crater National Monument. The volcano appears to be dormant, which is a good thing, given its proximity to Flagstaff, which did not exist when it last erupted in 1100. The visitor center can be skipped, but you should tarry a while at collapsed lava tube field a short hop past the visitors center. Nine hundred years later it is littered with large volcanic boulders from the eruption, which neither time, rain nor wind has eroded. Unlike Mount St. Helens, where life is rapidly reemerging, little has grown on the lava tube or along the sides of Sunset Crater, which are black with volcanic ash. Hiking to the top of the crater is not allowed, but across from the lava tube you are allowed to hike a half mile or so to the base of the crater, which looks very much like a giant sloping asphalt parking lot, but missing cars and lines.

As impressive as Sunset Crater is as a tourist destination, I think it pales in comparison with the Wupatki National Monument just to its north. Fortunately, the same road that takes you into Sunset Crater National Monument continues into the Wupatki National Monument. As you pass out of Sunset Crater, you are offered stunning vistas of The Painted Desert to its north. The highlight of the Wupatki National Monument is its visitors center, or more specifically the spectacular Pueblo Indian ruins behind it. The area provides a feeling of desolation that is hard to find in the continental United States. It would be an ideal place for stargazing, so far from city lights. It is hard to understand how the Pueblos managed to survive in such a dry location but presumably, there were small springs from a nearby aquifer that allowed their small communities to thrive. One only has to spend a few hours here to understand why Native Americans feel such a reverence for nature. They must have felt a sense of awe at the glorious scenery that enveloped them every day.

In the evening, we drove up to the Lowell Observatory, which sits on a small mountain overlooking Flagstaff. The observatory is now rather dated, as it does not possess any radio telescopes. For the casual stargazer though it is a compelling as well as a historical destination. (A mausoleum containing the remains of Percival Lowell sits next to the observatory with the twenty-four inch telescope.) Both day and night tours are available. We opted for the night tour. A few minor telescopes were set up allowing us views of the full moon as well as Jupiter and four of its moons. The smaller observatory at the top of the hill was trained on a double star in the constellation Cygnus. We had to wait in the dark in a long line on a cold and blustery night to see these stars, but it was worth the wait. It was a cold but pleasant way to spend a few hours marveling at our amazing universe.

Today a group of us drove up to the south rim of The Grand Canyon. A spectacular blue sky showed us the canyon at its near best. We had visited it back in 2001 but only briefly. Today’s visit with a number of the people I will be working with this week was equally brief, but was long enough for a number of us to venture a half-mile or so down Bright Angel Trail. We found a ram and some mountain goats precariously surviving on the rim of the canyon. We also watched numerous mule trains pass us by on the trail. A group of ravens entertained us from a tree on the canyon rim. I would still love to hike this trail. My sense of vertigo was not as bad as I thought it would be on the trail. I would need a few practice hikes though before trying to tackle the 27-mile hike from the rim to the Colorado River, and then its much more arduous ascent.

Northern Arizona remains a beguiling tourist destination. The Grand Canyon is its crown jewel, but traveling to Northern Arizona and only seeing The Grand Canyon is to get but a taste of the area’s natural richness. A proper vacation in Northern Arizona demands a week or more.

As for Flagstaff, while I have travelled through it a few times, I have yet to explore it beyond a few of its restaurants. I hope that by the end of the week I will have seen enough of it to give it a proper assessment.