Category Archives: racism

I am a racist!

 

Recently I was in the hospital in my hometown, thinking I might have Covid-19. While I was waiting for test results in the emergency room I wanted to use the washroom, but I was told by the nurse I would have to use a commode. I really did not know what a commode was. I kept thinking of a bedpan. That did not seem too attractive to me. I whined. The nurse was firm. I decided to try to wait it out, hoping at the time I would be able to go home soon. So I told the nurse I would wait it out.

 

Jimmie overheard me. He was the guy who would have to clean the washroom each time it was used. No one’s favourite job. Jimmie did not know me; he just heard me schlemming and he graciously offered to let me use the washroom and clean it after I was done. He had no reason to do that. He was just being kind, to an overly fastidious old man. But he was really taking a serious risk. Washrooms used by Covid-19 patients are dangerous places. Oh by the way, did I mention that Jimmie was black?

Jimmie all I can say is, my bad. Later, as soon as I thought about what he had done for me, I felt guilty. As I should have felt guilty. I earned the guilt. The second day in the hospital I bucked up and used a commode and found it was not so bad at all. I had been a big baby. And yet Jimmie took a chance he need not have taken. Why did he do it?

We live in a system of systemic racism. Whites, like me, don’t think we are racists. We are good people aren’t we? After all there are not many insults worse than being called racists. We can’t admit that about ourselves. But we live in a system that routinely and automatically advantages whites while denying those same advantages to blacks, Hispanics, Asians, indigenous people, and other groups. Most of us whites never think about that. We don’t see the water in which we swim. We don’t want to see those advantages, but that does not make them any less real. There is ample evidence that whites enjoy those advantages while other racial groups are denied those advantages.

Frankly, when I think about Jimmie and how I unthinkingly exposed him to an entirely unnecessary risk I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I revealed myself as a person who would take advantage of a system of systemic racism for a minor advantage to me, and an unnecessary risk to Jimmie. That’s racism. And frankly it happens all the time and that does not make it right. I hope that I learned from the experience.

I was a racist; and most of us whites are too.

The Complicated Savagery of Society Revealed

 

The Covid-19 pandemic reveals a lot about us. It shows us the best and worst of ourselves.

According to New York Times columnist Charles Blow, “This crisis is exposing the savagery of American democracy.” The pandemic is showing us the ugly predatory side of American society and American capitalism. Blow described America this way:

“People — mostly white, sometimes armed, occasionally carrying Confederate flags or hoisting placards emblazoned with a Nazi slogan from the Holocaust — have been loudly protesting to push their state governments to reopen business and spaces before enough progress has been made to contain the coronavirus. This is yet another illustration of the race and class divide this pandemic has illuminated in this country.

For some, a reopened economy and recreational landscape will mean the option to run a business, return to work, go to the park or beach, or have a night on the town at a nice restaurant or swanky bar. But for many on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, it will only force them back into compulsory exposure to more people, often in occupations that make it hard to protect oneself and that pay little for the risk.”

Blow sees America as the scene of class warfare .He pointed particularly to Georgia. The first businesses to be allowed to open were businesses like tattoo parlors, and barbershops, nail shops, and hair salons. Are these essential services? Clearly not. Why are they allowed to open? Is it because they are staffed mainly by low-wage earners? Is it because most of those low wage earners are black? Is it because these workers are considered expendable?

Blow opines this way:

“These are the struggling workers who entertain and aestheticize people of means. These businesses were by no means essential, and they put these workers in danger. There is absolutely no way to practice social distancing while inking someone a tattoo. (Also, what are you so desperate to stamp on your body that you would risk it all during a pandemic?)

These workers are “allowed” to be the first to try-out and hence, perhaps, the first to die by the opening out. It makes sense to think the establishment would prefer low-earning blacks take the first chances, giving more important white workers the ability to decline if it turns out unsafe.”

Yet, to be fair, these black people are serving “people of means” as Blow suggests. Are they not taking the same chance as the poor workers? In fact what person of means would be interested in taking an unnecessary risk to add to his armour of tattoos?

As well, as Blow admits, among those taking the biggest risks are medical care workers including Doctors and nurses and other highly paid professionals. How can this be a class war? Yet to make things even more complicated there are others in hospitals who are low-wage earners and they are taking big risks. Finally, as  well it must also be admitted that many of these low paid workers want to go back to work. They need to work to pay their mortgages, rent, or groceries. You might say that they are being compelled to work, but what would the workers really say? I don’t know.

Charles Blow made some more important points in his recent New York Times article:

“It has been widely reported that the virus is having a disproportionate impact on black and brown people in America, both in terms of infections and death. But that is only one aspect of the disparities. In a country where race and ethnicity often intersect with wealth and class, there are a cascade of other impacts, particularly economic ones, to remain conscious of.

In a Pew Research Center survey conducted last month, 52 percent of low-income workers said they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a pay cut as a result of the pandemic. But, when you look at this through a racial lens, another striking reality emerges: 61 percent of Hispanic people agree with the statement, compared to 44 percent of African-Americans and just 38 percent of white people.

And, as Pew pointed out, “lower-income adults are less prepared to withstand a financial shock than those with higher incomes.”

Is it an exaggeration to characterize this as class war? If it is it is a a very complicated one. The fact is that whites, like me, often fail to see the privileges we enjoy at the expense of blacks, browns, or indigenous. That is what systemic racism is all about. Whites are blind to the benefits and detriments the system doles out. As whites we just think that is natural. We don’t see the water in which we swim. That is what racism is all about, and the first step those of us who consider we are not racists have to take, is to acknowledge the advantage exists and acknowledge the injustice of that advantage. There is no good reason that we enjoy that advantage.

Blow also referred to a recent McKinsey and Company report last month that found: “39% of jobs held by black workers, seven million jobs in all, are vulnerable as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, compared with 34% for white workers.” On what basis can we whites successfully argue that this is fair? I wish I had similar statistics for Canada for likely we are not immune to this. That report also showed that 40% of the revenues of black-owned businesses are in the five most vulnerable sectors — including leisure, hospitality and retail — compared with 25% of the revenues of all U.S. businesses.

Of course a systemically racist system like the one we live in, does not stop delivering advantages and disadvantages during the pandemic. Those will inevitably endure well beyond that time. As Blow opines:

“Even when the country starts to recover, the race and class disparities will most likely still be present and working against minorities in low-wage jobs. As the Center for American Progress wrote last month, ‘Evidence demonstrates that while workers of color are often the first to be fired during economic downturns, they are often the last to be rehired during recoveries.’

This pandemic is likely to not only expose inequalities, but also exacerbate them. America has never been comfortable discussing the inequalities that America created, let alone addressing them. America loves a feel-good, forget-the-past-let’s-start-from-here mantra.’

But, this virus is exploiting these man-made inequalities and making them impossible to ignore. It is demonstrating the incalculable callousness of wealth and privilege that would willingly thrust the less well off into the most danger for a few creature comforts.

This crisis is exposing the class savagery of American democracy and the economic carnage that it has always countenanced.”

Yet if this is class war it is a complicated one. What else is new? Things are always complicated.

Is it time to panic?

WalMart with empty shelves

This country is on full-fledged panic mode. Stores have run out of toilet paper! None of the shelves. Now this is getting serious. A financial crisis and a health crisis. What does this mean?

I have no idea what this means. The stock market is plunging (or is it recovering?)  Either way, there is very little less rational than the stock market. Reason has nothing to do with it. I don’t know how serious either crisis is. The financial crisis seems to have been brought on by the coronavirus crisis. I don’t know how serious it is.

But there is one reason I think that panic is a serious option.  Now I know some of my faithful readers will criticize me for bringing Trump into the discussion. Some people seem to think I blame him for everything. I don’t think that is true, but I acknowledge their concern. That won’t stop me from commenting on him. And I know he may not be to blame, but I doubt that he has helped either.

The real problem is two-fold.  Like it or not, Donald Trump is the leader of the free world (though I don’t acknowledge him as my leader and I think I am part of the free world.) The real problem is that he is a person who does not think evidence and data are relevant to his job as President. I started to worry when I heard Trump say, “I have a hunch the problem is not as serious as the Disease Control Center says it is.”  Earlier he said, echoing the right wing pundits from whom he does take advice, I think it is a hoax.”

I am not really concerned about Trump. His Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said “he’s a fucking moron.”  Sorry for my bad language, but the quote is not real without the bad word. I think Tillerson was right. I know some friends of mine think he is smart. After all he got elected as President of the United States. I think Trump is cunning. He knows what is good for Donald Trump. He has a keen sense of that.  He is able to disregard the interests of everyone else other than himself. This allows him to avoid distractions and concentrate on his goal–i.e. what is good for himself.

But ultimately I think Tillerson is absolutely right. What really scares me is that about 55 million voted for him and most of them still like what they see. They like him. Now, from my perspective, the United States is led by a man who is obviously unfit for the job.

Even more important however is that Trump is uninterested in data or facts. And he won’t listen to experts. This is what Trump said on CBS 60 minutes the week the latest IPCC report was issued, when asked if he still thinks that climate change is a hoax? “Look I think something is happening, something is changing and it will change back again. I am not denying climate change but it could very well go back.” He added that his uncle  was a professor of science. Trump never talked about climate change with his uncle, but Trump assured us, “I have an instinct for science.” Trump wants us to base vitally important decisions not on science but an instinct for science. It doesn’t matter that Trump knows nothing about science he expects us to trust him. And guess what? Millions of Americans do exactly that. They are not accustomed to basing important decisions on facts and reasoning on those facts. They base decisions on things like hunches, faith, trust, and instinct instead. And they vote for leaders who do exactly the same thing. Would you want a cancer surgeon who based his decisions on science, data, evidence, and careful reasoning on that data or a surgeon who based his decisions on instinct or faith? During a serious health or financial crisis would you want the country to be led by a President who respects science or one who has a instinct for science? Take your pick. But his scares me.

I am about ready to panic.

 

No Turbans: Racism in Canada

As we meander through western Canada we see many interesting things. Some of them are in biffies. In a road-side rest area in Alberta near Ross Creek I saw a hand painted sign on a towel dispenser. It was a rough outline of Alberta with two words written inside–“No turbans.” That is my photograph of it. (I felt weird carrying a camera into a buffie)  It revealed an ugly side to Canada, far removed from the liberal tolerant people we like to think we are. Sadly, racism and hate seem to be on a sharp upswing in the countries of the west and Canada is not immune.

Canadians are often smug when they compare themselves to Americans. Canadians assumethey are better. Sadly, the evidence is not always so clearly in favor of Canada.

I think the most telling case was the case of Brian Sinclair in Winnipeg. He was a 45-year old indigenous man who died from an entirely treatable infection after being ignored for 34 hours in a city ER. It was a clear case of staff in the hospital obviously thinking (what a poor choice of words!) that Sinclair was just another drunken Indian waiting for help.

Then there was the case of the wife of a Winnipeg lawyer and city councilman Gord Steeves. His wife was discovered making a racist rant online. At the time he was the front runner in the race to be mayor of Winnipeg. This is what she posted: “I’m really tired of getting harassed by the drunken native guys downtown”, she wrote on Facebook.  Then she went on, “We all donate enough money to keep their sorry asses on welfare, so shut the f–k up and don’t ask me for another handout!” The former city councillor and long-serving, centrist politician didn’t bother apologizing. What was the point?

This is what Terry Glavin wrote in the Ottawa Citizen: “By almost every measurable indicator, the Aboriginal population in Canada is treated worse and lives with more hardship than the African-American population. All these facts tell us one thing: Canada has a race problem, too.”

Here are some shocking statistics and comparisons from Terry Glavin made a few years ago which are still pertinent:

“The median income of African-American men is about $31,000. Among white American men it’s $42,000. In Canada, the median annual income for Aboriginal people living off-reserve is $22,500 (among those living on Indian reserves it’s $14,000); the average annual income for Canadian wage workers in general is about $48,000.

The unemployment rate among working-age Aboriginal people in Canada is 13 per cent – more than twice the general jobless rate among working-age Canadians. This is every bit as wide a gap as between African-American men and white American men.

Comparing welfare rates makes Canada look far worse. Slightly more than 10 per cent of African-Americans are on welfare, but in Canada, roughly a third of Aboriginal people are on welfare or some other form of income assistance.

Canada looks worse again when we look inside the prisons. African-Americans make up only about 12 per cent of the U.S. population, but 40 per cent of the U.S. prison population is African-American. A mere four per cent of Canadians are Aboriginal, but more than 23 per cent of the inmate population in federal institutions are Aboriginal people – an incarceration r         ate 10 times higher than among non-Aboriginal people.

Things are going downhill, too. Over the past decade, the Aboriginal population in federal prisons has grown by more than 50 per cent. In Western Canada, two-thirds of the inmates in federal and provincial institutions are Aboriginal people.

About 28 per cent of African-Americans are stuck with something less than a high school education – half again higher than the rate among white people. In Canada, about 29 per cent of Aboriginal people have less than a high-school education, compared to 12 per cent of non-Aboriginal people.

While a third of African-American children entering high school will drop out – twice the rate of white kids – current drop-out rates indicate that more than half of Canada’s Aboriginal kids probably won’t finish high school. That’s a drop-out rate roughly six times higher than among non-Aboriginal kids.

On reserves, 74 per cent of schools are so dilapidated they lack such basic amenities as drinking water. More than half the schools function without a library, a gymnasium, a science laboratory, or a kitchen. Of Canada’s nearly 1.5 million Aboriginal people, about half are under 15 years of age.

“How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King proclaimed all those years ago.

African-Americans might be forgiven for every once in a while losing patience with how long it’s taking that arc to fully bend towards them. For Canada’s young Aboriginal people, it’s not clear that the arc of the moral universe is even bending in their direction at all.”

Obviously we still have a l long way to go.

The Ungrateful Refugee

 

 

 

I listened to an interesting interview with Dina Nayeri the author of the book The Ungrateful Refugee. I have not read her book.  I hope to. She is a refugee from Iran who came to the United States at the age of 10 with her mother and a sister. Her father stayed behind and her mother supported the two girls on her own as  he rarely sent money to help.

She asked an important question: Just because she is a refugee who became a naturalized American citizen does that mean she has to give up the right to criticize her country? Other Americans are allowed to do that? Why not her?

Recently Donald Trump criticized 4 American Congress women of colour all of whom are  American citizens. In fact 3 of them were born in the US.  After he made comments suggesting that they go back to where they came from, he said what he really meant was that if they did not like it here they should go back. “If you re not happy here you can leave,” he said.  I suspect that many people agree with that. But are they right?

As Nayeri said, by such actions, Trump, and those who agree with him, are trying to separate immigrants from US born citizens. Lets call them native citizens. He is really saying these citizens who criticize their adopted country are second-class citizens. No one denies that native citizens have the right to criticize their country. Free speech is fundamental to being an American (or Canadian) citizen. Why not citizens who were born elsewhere?

We have to remember as well that the old refrain, “Go back to where you came,” is a common racist trope used since time immemorial as a way to tamp  down the immigrants, or refugees, or anyone who is “other,” or anyone who is unlike us. Particularly this has been used against people of a different color. It is a racist trope. Do we really want to endorse such?

When Nayeri escaped Iran with her mother and sister they fled first of all to Dubai, then to Italy, from where they became asylum seekers in the United States. Eventually they were allowed to get asylum in the United States and in time became American citizens. She was grateful for the help she got.

However, Nayeri was signaled as a very young child that she was different. She was an outsider. She did not belong there. Other kids called her mean names.

She reacted by trying to be the perfect immigrant. She had to be “the best refugee possible.”  She felt she had to over achieve in order to belong. As Nayeri said in an article in the Guardian, “We were never comfortable. We kept squirming inside our own skin, trying to find a way to be ourselves while satisfying all the people who wanted us to transform instantly into them.”

She responded to these pressures  by getting tough. She became a “kick ass” martial arts athlete.  It was hard. She had to put up with a lot. As she said, “I loved winning at a male sport. I was still angry about so many things – hijab, the Islamic Republic, the fat old church men who made high-school football players feel like gods while they shamed women who dared to want too much. I survived on egg whites and water-packed tuna doused in vinegar and mustard, salted baked potatoes and watery fruit.” In time she got straight A’s in school and became a national Tae Kwon Do competitor all in an effort to get accepted into Harvard University. She did not quite make it. But she got into another Ivy League school—Princeton. Not a bad second choice.

In my opinion any citizen should be free to criticize her country. After all that is the only way countries get better. They are never perfect. Even if we love them and love the way things are now, we should be able to criticize them and hope to improve them. No country is perfect. Every country should welcome criticism. Every country should welcome refugees and that means giving them the right to speak up.

Toni Morrison on Hate

 

 

I have still not got over Toni Morrison’s  novel–Love. It is that disturbing. The novel is actually much more about its opposite. Hate. It is about a specific kind of love—love that is transformed into hate. How can that happen?

Morrison has a fine understanding of hate. She described how the Cosey girls fought over the coffin of Bill Cosey, the patriarch of the family , until one of the women, L (does that stand for love?) restored order. But the hate lived on. Hate is darn hard to destroy. Morrison described the haters this way: “their faces as different as honey from soot, looked identical. Hate does that. Burns everything but itself, so whatever your grievance is, your face looks just like your enemy’s.”

The novel is deeply imbedded into a racist society infused with white male dominance, even though there are very few white characters in the novel and none of them is a major character. The natural product of such a society is that the dominated black males turn to dominate those  “beneath” them. And of course that is only other non-whites.

The man at the centre of the novel is Bill Cosey a 52-year old black man who rapes an 11-year old black girl with the consent of her family. The girl is so young and ignorant that she “grinned happily as she was led down the hall to darkness, liquor smell and old man business.” And as so often happens, the young victim ends up hating herself after the abuse. “I must have been the one who dreamed up this world, she thought. No nice person could have.”

Heed and Christine–11 and 12 year old friends—end up competing for a 52-year old man, entirely unworthy of either of them, and the two become transformed into enemies in the process. They learn to hate.  “The eyes of each are enslaved by the other’s. Opening pangs of guilt, rage, fatigue, despair are replaced by a hatred so pure, so solemn, it feels beautiful, almost holy.” Can you imagine a hate that is “almost holy”? Even the holy is turned perverse in a world ruled by hate and dominance. The dominance of whites over blacks turns the blacks into dominating other blacks.  That is the world that is a product of hate and in such a world even the holy turns evil.

Heed and Christine had a hard time maintaining their hatred for each other. Hate does not come easily and it is difficult to maintain. As Morrison said, “Like friendship, hatred needed more than physical intimacy; it wanted creativity and hard work to sustain itself.” They had “bruising fights with hands, feet, teeth and soaring objects…once–perhaps twice–a year, they punched, grabbed hair, wrestled, bit, slapped, never drawing blood, never apologizing, never premeditating, yet drawn annually to pant through an episode that was as much rite as fight. Finally they stopped, moved into acid silence, and invented other ways to underscore bitterness.”

Both of them ultimately realized that neither one could leave. They were married to each other in a dark perverse marriage. They both had “an unspoken realization that the fights did nothing other than allow them to hold each other.” That is what undying hatred is all about. It bonds the two in unholy matrimony. “There in a little girl’s bedroom an obstinate skeleton stirs, clacks, refreshes itself.”

 

Toni Morrison’s “Love”

 

I came to appreciate Toni Morrison late in life. That is a pity. But at least I did it. I finished her book, Love, just a couple of days before she died.

Love  is one of the best novels I have ever read. Of course, I think I have now said that about every one of Toni Morrison’s novels that I have read. She was a brilliant writer. When I started to write this review I said, “she is the finest living novelist.”  The only writer I could think of to compare her to was  Marilynne Robinson. Both of them were astonishing writers.

Loveis a difficult read. I was half way through the novel when I realized I had to start over from the beginning. I was missing too much. I had not caught on to enough. I hate to start over, but sometimes I just have to do that.

Though difficult, the novel, like any great novel, rewards the effort to understand it. That does not mean the reader has captured it. Far from it. It cannot be captured. But the reader can be captured by it.  the novel is about 2 “love” stories.  But they are hardly ordinary love stories.

The novel is a story about women and how they relate to a powerful man. The novel is told through or from the point of view of those amazing women and centres around a horrid incident at its core. Ultimately it is about the violence and its consequences inflicted on one of the women–but really all of them–by that strong man at the centre of the novel. It is a violence that is as unredeemed as it is chilling.

The man at the centre of the novel is Bill Cosey—“the Big Man who with no one to stop him, could get away with it and anything else he wanted.” He is a 52-year old man who can molest an 11-year old child with impunity and then marry her to make it ‘all right’.  her 12 year old friend saw this as a  “real betrayal,” by her “friend who grinned happily as she was led down the hall to darkness, liquor smell and old man business.” She was only 11 and did not know better so she “grinned happily.”  After all the adults who loved her would not abandon her to such a ravishing would they? Yes they would. As so often happens the young victim ends up hating herself after the abuse. She concludes, “I must have been the one who dreamed up this world, she thought. No nice person could have.”

Heed the Night, as she is called, has learned that this world into which she has been thrust by her family with the connivance of his family, is a terrifying world where evil catches fire and is doused with sugar creating a sickening black “caramelizing evil.” It is a world haunted by perverse love. It is impossible for her to escape, so Heed became “grown-up nasty.” How else could this have turned out?  Christine, Heeds friend, who is 12 years old, and is one of those women who betrayed Heed  and ends up with a mother-in-law who is her friend but younger than she is. Of course as Christine says, “most people married young back then (the sooner a girl was taken over by a man, the better.” In the end we learn a bitter black truth in which “the problem for those left alive is what to do about revenge–how to escape the sweetness of its rot. So you can see why families make the best enemies. They have the time and convenience to honey-butter the wickedness they prefer.” That sweet caramelized evil.

Heed and Christine–11 and 12 year old friends–competing for a 52-year old man are transformed into enemies. They learn to hate. Only hate is natural in this most unnatural world. “The eyes of each are enslaved by the other’s. Opening pangs of guilt, rage, fatigue, despair are replaced by a hatred so pure, so solemn, it feels beautiful, almost holy.” Even the holy is turned perverse in a world so infused with dominance. The dominance of whites over blacks turns the blacks into dominating other blacks.  The topsy-turvy world is a product of hate where even the holy turns evil. “There, in a little girl’s bedroom, an obstinate skeleton stirs, clacks, refreshes itself.”

There is another “love story,” if the first can be called a love story. This is a passionate love story. Young lovers this time. Such love should be pure and innocent. It is the story of Junior and Romen. When Roman sees Junior, “she seemed to him as beautiful as it is possible for a human to be.” It starts out innocent, but nothing in the novel is innocent for long.  In such a world how could it be different? All the principal characters in the novel are African-American. Of course, all are victims of white dominance and oppression that transforms their lives in the most ugly way imaginable. Mainly that oppression is entirely overt, but it is real. It curdles all love into caramelized evil where love is transformed into hate. Perverse love is the bastard child of oppression.  As Women says, Junior “plays hard, that’s all. I mean she likes being hurt…She didn’t just like it. She preferred it.” And Romen in response, was “cold, unsmiling, watching himself inflict pain and suffer pain above scream level where a fresh kind of joy lay.” No wonder that when in the abandoned hotel she undresses for him she keeps on her socks, then ties one around his neck and into the other inserts her foot and “the foot she slipped into the sock looked to him like a hoof.” His innocent passionate lover becomes the devil incarnate–caramelized black evil again. After all,  “A dream is just a nightmare with lipstick.” And he becomes her “Sugarboy.”

In the novel family is as twisted and s curdled as love. Junior is assaulted by her uncles (“the howling uncles”) who are “idle teenagers whose brains had been insulted by the bleakness of their lives, alternated between brutality and coma.” They are the products of a racist society.  The uncles threatened to turn Junior over to another old man–Vosh. This woke her up. The threat was real. As she thought, “the possibility that it could happen, that she could be handed over to the old man in the valley who liked to walk around with his private parts in his hands and singing hymns of praise, jolted her up from the floor, out of reaching hands and through the door.” For Junior prison is a reprieve from the maniacal madness of family. Prison is better than life with her family!

The world of love is no paradise. “People with no imagination feed it with sex–the clown of love. They don’t know the real kinds, the better kinds, where losses are cut and everybody benefits. It takes a certain intelligence to love like that–softly, without props.”

One of Morrison’s novels is called Paradise. This is certainly no paradise. But it is real. It is the product of a profoundly racist society where those at the top dominate with impunity and those at the bottom  accept the dominance while “grinning,” because they don’t even know anything better.

The US coughs and Canada catches cold

 

Some ask why I talk so much about the United States. “What about Canada?” The fact is that the United States is a very important country. It is not just in economics that the claim “The United States coughs and Canada catches a cold,” is true. It is also, sadly, often true in social matters too. So I will continue to comment on what happens there, but never forgetting that usually Canada is in the same position, though as a junior partner.

Recently, on the August long weekend, 2 mass killings occurred in the United States. One in Dayton Ohio and the other in El Paso Texas. After the killings, Donald Trump uttered some fine words, clearly saying that racism and hatred were unacceptable. His words could not be faulted as in other cases, but were his words adequate for the moment? Democratic rival Cory Booker called them “bullshit soup.”

As Alexander Burns pointed out in the New York Times, “President Trump faced intense new criticism and scrutiny for the plain echoes of his rhetoric in the El Paso gunman’s anti-immigrant manifesto.” According to Burns, “Democratic challengers blamed him explicitly for giving succor to extremists.” The leading Democratic contender at the time, Joe Biden, said Trump was guilty of trying “to encourage and embolden white supremacy.” Another contender, Elizabeth Warren, captured the situation well when she said that Trump had repeatedly been “amplifying these deadly ideologies.

What is clear is that Trump is no innocent bystander here. In recent weeks he has been loudly speaking out at rallies about 4 American Congresswomen of colour that they should go back to the rat infested countries from which they came. This was so even though 3 of them were born in the United States. I am not sure what a trope is or a dog whistle, but it is clear that such statement have made over and over again by blatant racists in the past.  Then at rallies he basked in the glow of hearing his audience loudly chant “Send them back; send them back.” In such circumstances “amplifying these deadly ideologies” is hardly an exaggeration. That is exactly what he has been doing.

In contrast to that, President Obama has been the voice of empathy and dignity. This is what he said, as quoted in the New York Times,  former President Obama wrote, “We should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments, leaders who demonize those who don’t look like us, or suggest that other people, including immigrants, threaten our way of life, or refer to other people as subhuman, or imply that America belongs to just one certain type of people.” That is exactly what we should do–reject them.

The fact is that Donald Trump is not really the issue. The real issue, I submit, is that the United States, with Canada following right behind, is a country deeply infused with violence. It takes very little to light that fuse. Almost any crackpot can do it. I believe this is the legacy of a racial bias that runs so deep and came so early to that country and to Canada that it  led to genocide against the original inhabitants of this hemisphere and the subsequent enslavement of African people numbering in the millions in the US and less in Canada. Then we added male supremacy and visions of human superiority over all of nature to that already toxic stew is. It is hardly surprising that we are in a lethal mess. It is probably inevitable.

Is America a generous Country?

Is the US as generous as it thinks it is?

 

By now it is an old saw, but a country must be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable people, not by how it treats its real estate tycoons. The powerful always do just fine looking out for themselves.

Marilynne Robinson one of America’s best and most thoughtful novelists one said she always thought America was generous country. Is it? Now she has her doubts. So do I.

Recently there have been deeply disquieting reports of the treatment of young children in American detention facilities at the US border. Few people are more vulnerable than they are. These were asylum seekers, not immigrants. That is an important distinction that many people fail to make.

The reports are about mistreatment of these young children arising out of reports of deficient clothing and hygiene, and inadequate food for them while their parents make claims for refugee status.

One child claimed she had not been able to shower for 3 weeks. Another had no toothpaste or tooth brush. Are these trivial?

American and international law requires that asylum seekers be housed in “safe and sanitary conditions.” That seems fairly simple and fair.

A recent videotape of a judicial proceeding in the US 9th District Court in which the Judge was asking a very uncomfortable government lawyer,” If you don’t have a tooth brush, if you don’t have soap, if you don’t have a blanket, its not safe or sanitary. Wouldn’t every one agree with that?” The government lawyer could only stammer futilely in reply. She looked completely bamboozled. After that video went viral, the US Detention Commissioner resigned in embarrassment.

Christiane Amanpour interviewed Warren Binford a private lawyer and a Professor of Law at Willamette University in the US,  on the issue. Binford had recently visited the facility where this occurred in Clint Texas near El Paso where we were driving a few months ago. Officials had removed 250 children from the facility because of the bad publicity. Later they moved most of them back.

To put the issue in perspective for us, Professor Binford pointed out “most of these children have family in the US. 86% of the children in such facilities in the US had parents or other family members or sponsors in the US. These children don’t even need to be in government care. For those 14% of children we need to have standards set for what “safe and sanitary” means. For the other 86% they need to be returned to their families, so that their families can care for them and make sure that they are fed, clean, and treated with the appropriate level of loving kindness that all children deserve.” Echoing the judge, wouldn’t we all agree with that?

Surely this is clearly true for detained children in the richest country in the world. Countries like Uganda and Turkey that have far more refugees than the US does can do it and they are much poorer countries. Why can’t the US do it? Or is it not as generous as it thinks it is?

Lawyers like Binford were given access to such facilities as a result of an earlier lawsuit brought in the 1980s. For the last 20 years teams of experts have been visiting such facilities and reporting back to the court about what they saw. They have also been directly from the children as well. The team went public (whistle blowers again) after visiting a facility only intended for 104 adults in facilities that, according to Professor Binford, are “notoriously squalid and inappropriate for children at all and they handed us a roster of children who were on site that day and there were over 350 children in this border control station. We were horrified!  We immediately scanned the list and learned that over 100 of these children were young children, infants,, toddlers, preschoolers, and school age children.”

InWillamette Weekshe was quoted as saying “They are worse than actual prison conditions…It is inhumane. It’s nothing that I ever imagined seeing in the United States of America.” According to the Willamette Week, “They found a 10-year-old tasked by guards with taking care of a 2-year-old, children sleeping on cold concrete floors with inadequate bedding, inadequately treated flu and lice outbreaks, and children who hadn’t bathed in weeks, despite the fact the government had been warned weeks before of a scheduled visit.”

Binford also reported that they saw children “begging for food” because they were hungry. Her group identified a “child mother” who was there with her infant children. Many of the children were dirty and had matted hair and were crying. “They had not been given any fruit, or vegetables, or milk for the entire time they had been there. They were given instant soup, instant oatmeal, frozen burritos, and it was the same food every day, day after day. They described sleeping on cold floors, which was why they said they were so tired. They were sleeping on cement blocks. Some were sleeping on mats provided but the mats were too few so they were describing 6 children sleeping on a mat in order to protect as many children in the cells as possible from the cold floor.”

Even though Officials refused to give the team of inspectors a tour of the facility,  later they found out children were being kept in a warehouse without windows. There  they discovered 15 children quarantined for an influenza outbreak, but no one was actually caring for them. They also found children subject to a lice outbreak who were given 2 combs to share among them, something that should never be done. When one of those combs disappeared, the children were punished by officials taking away their bedding! One entire cell of children was forced to sleep without bedding as punishment.

According to Professor Binford, “There were just horrific circumstances everywhere we looked.” Things like that make conditions in Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist look good in comparison.

I ask: is America a generous country? I know large numbers of refugee claimants have been showing up at the American border and they are having a difficult time. Why then don’t they allow the children to stay with their families and sponsors? Why pay significant sums to keep them in clearly inadequate government facilities? It makes no sense at all, unless there is something much deeper and sicker at stake here—like racism!

 

Cultural Relativism

 

If you want to understand Indigenous People you should know something about anthropology. Sadly, I know little about anthropology. Of course, as faithful readers of my blog know, absence of knowledge has never stopped me from offering my opinions. Today is no exception.

I have said that to understand the relationship of the invaders of the western hemisphere to the Indigenous people cannot be understood without realizing the arrogance and superiority they felt to indigenous people.

Franz Boas, sometimes called the father of modern Anthropology was perhaps the first anthropologist to poke holes into the false sense of superiority of the west. He was interested in how beliefs and convictions coalesced into something he referred to as culture. He thought this was a valid organizing principle. So does Wade Davis another eminent anthropologist. Boas, appreciated, as very few of his fellows did, that cultures of the west had a lot to learn from indigenous cultures.  As Davis said of Boas, “Far ahead of his time, he sensed that every distinct social community, every cluster of people distinguished by language or adaptive inclination, was a unique facet of the human legacy and its promise.”

Each culture provided an opportunity that every one who contacted it would be well advised to pay attention to it and learn from it. Ideological blinkers are never helpful. Boas is seen by many as the originator of modern cultural anthropology and for good reason.  He looked at cultures without bias and without suffocating feelings of superiority. Boas wanted to learn from people he met. He was not there to teach them. He was not there to save them, he wanted to benefit from their stored ancient wisdom. That attitude was extremely unusual in its time. Boas worked among many people including the Inuit of Baffin Island, the indigenous people of the west coast of North America and in every case made sure that his students kept an open mind. Boas ensured that his students communicated with the indigenous people they met in the language of those people. He asked them to participate as much as possible in the lives of those people they studied.  As Davis said of Boas,

“Every effort should be made, he argued, to understand the perspective of the other, to learn the way they perceive the world, and if at all possible, the very nature of their thoughts. This demanded, by definition, a willingness to step back from the constraints of one’s own prejudices and preconceptions. This notion of cultural relativism was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein’s theory of relativity in the discipline of physics. Everything Boas proposed ran against the orthodoxy. It was a shattering of the European mind, and ever since, anthropologists have periodically been accused of embracing an extreme relativism.”

That does not mean we have to abdicate from making judgments. That does not mean we can’t cherish the good from our society too. Lets cherry pick the best from each world. Lets just not be blind to the good fruit from our kin. When we make judgments, lets make sure that they are informed, based on reasoning not wishful thinking, or worse, no-thinking, and free from bias. In other words we should always try to be ideal observers.  We owe that not only to them, but to ourselves.

One day Boas in the cold winter of 1883 was caught in a dreadful snowstorm in northern North America. It was the mother of all blizzards. Temperatures dipped to minus 46º C. That would even impress people from the prairies of Canada like me. Boas and his group understandably became disoriented in the storm. For 26 hours in the freezing cold there was nothing he could do to help his men. He left himself and his entire crew to the care and custody of the local Inuk companion and their dogs. Eventually the Inuk guide led them to safety and the men survived, though half dead when they arrived. They were nearly frozen to death and nearly starved. The next day Boas wrote this in his diary,

“I often ask myself what advantages our good society possesses over that of ‘savages’ and find, the more I see of their customs, that we have no right to look down on them…We have no right to blame them for their forms and superstitions which may seem ridiculous to us. We highly educated people are much worse, relatively speaking.”

Boas opened the eyes of anthropologists, but many more. Many people came to realize we have a lot to learn from others. Our hubris must be put on the shelf.

Boas  explored the idea that random beliefs could coalesce into what he called “culture.” Boas was among the first to promote the idea of culture as an organizing principle of anthropology.

Boas became the leader of modern cultural anthropology. He studied with an open and unprejudiced manner how human social perceptions are formed and how members of distinct societies become conditioned to see and interpret the world. I would say Boas was the father of modern cultural anthropology and also the father of the sociology of knowledge.

Boas insisted that his students learn and conduct their research in the language of the place and even participate in the lives of the people that they studied. These were revolutionary ideas at the time.  Davis said of him, “Every effort should be made, he argued, to learn the way they perceive the world, and if at all possible, the very nature of their thoughts.”

Of course this required his students to set aside their preconceptions and actually look at, and listen to, the people they were studying. Prejudice had no place in their science. One had to look skeptically at one’s own cultural preconceptions in order to avoid being enslaved by them.

This led Boas to his revolutionary idea of cultural relativism. According to Davis, “This notion of cultural relativism was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein’s theory of relativity in the discipline of physics. Everything Boas proposed ran against orthodoxy. It was a shattering of the European mind, and ever since, anthropologists have periodically been accused of embracing an extreme relativism.”

This does not mean that all cultures are equal. It does mean that all cultures merit respect. It does mean that all cultures have something to teach us. It does mean that cultural arrogance is misplaced. As Davis said,  “In truth, no serious anthropologist advocates the elimination of judgment. Anthropology merely calls for tis suspension, so that the judgments were are all ethically obliged to make as human beings may be informed ones.”

Boas wanted to see the world through the eyes of his subjects. He wanted to walk in their moccasins. He practiced radical empathy, not arrogance. That is the attitude we need to understand Indigenous issues. Not arrogance. Not a sense of superiority. Empathy is much more helpful.